USMNT: Three things to watch for — USA vs. Serbia

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With Bruce Arena set to make his (re-)debut as U.S. national team manager on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, versus Serbia), three things to keep an eye on as the USMNT gears up for the resumption of World Cup qualifying in March…

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The shape (and members) of the midfield

Arena is generally quite flexible when it comes to formations and tactics, which is to say he typically alters his system to get as many of his best players on the field as he can at one time, within reason. When you look at the roster for these games, the most intriguing unit on the field is undoubtedly central midfielders, within the realm of wondering, “what’s Bruce going to do with the lineup?”

Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber are maestro passers which the USMNT has desperately needed in its bid to become a possession-based, front-foot attacking side. They were, of course, left ou tin the cold by the former manager for far too long, and that (among other things) was eventually a large part of his undoing. Now, they’re both in the team, and both deserving of a place in the starting lineup — with any luck at all, we might even see them play together. These days, Kljestan is the purer no. 10 of the two, while Feilhaber has proven himself for three seasons running as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS — their roles seemingly reversed from early days of their careers.

While the temptation will always be there to play Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones together in the center of the park, we’ve 1) already seen that movie, and 2) know how that story ends. Bradley is unquestionably the more disciplined of the two, when instructed to sit in front of the backline, and his long-range passing dwarfs that of Jones, thus the most complete passing midfield in USMNT history could be realized over the next week, in games that count for nothing, which is precisely the time for such experiments.

[ MORE: Arena not panicking (yet) about USMNT’s place in WCQ ]


So, uh, who’s gonna play left back?

It’s a question that’s been asked for, well, basically an entire decade. Seven years ago, Carlos Bocanegra, a center back by nature, was holding down the left side of defense; Jonathan Bornstein got nearly 40 run-outs at the spot; DaMarcus Beasley was reborn a left back for the 2010 World Cup; the Brek Shea experiment fizzled out quickly; Greg Garza was (very) briefly the left back of the future; and more recently, Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler and Edgar Castillo marauded up and down sideline with varying degrees of success.

Too long, didn’t read: the USMNT hasn’t had a steady left back since Arena’s last tenure. A quick glance at the current roster reveals that it’s, well, still lots of the same names. Garza is back from a long-term hip injury, and having made a loan move to MLS expansion side Atlanta United this winter, is likely months from reaching anything resembling his best. Until then, it’s likely Johnson who’ll be played out of position to fill the void (Beasley his likeliest deputy), which is less of a problem now that Christian Pulisic has exploded onto the scene and made the left wing spot his own. Still, Johnson is 29 years old and will be 36 before the 2022 World Cup, so this is likely his final go-round. The door is open for anyone — literally, anyone — to step into the position and claim it as their own. Simply unearthing a capable left back for his successor could go down as Arena’s greatest achievement to date, and he’s already the man who took the Yanks to the 2002 World Cup semifinals quarterfinals (you will not be forgotten, Torsten Frings).

[ MORE: Altidore to join 100-caps club, but can he name the 16 others? ]


Who’s the no. 3 goalkeeper, once and for all?

Tim Howard and Brad Guzan seem set to tussle for the no. 1 and 2 goalkeepers’ jobs until they’re both bald rolling in wheelchairs, thus the age-old question rages on: who’s the deputy’s deputy?

Bill Hamid is the best of the bunch (don’t listen to anyone who tells you differently), but he left camp with a(nother) knee injury, and most are beginning to wonder whether or not he’ll ever be healthy enough to nail down a regular place in the USMNT, pre- or post-Howard/Guzan. That leaves Nick Rimando, David Bingham and Luis Robles, whom I rank in that order, from top to bottom. Sure, Rimando is 37 years old, and he’s lost a bit of the agility and quickness that allowed him to thrive as a 5-foot-10 athletic wonder in net, but he’s been managed closely by the staff at Real Salt Lake in an effort to slow the deterioration, and he’s the only one of the three listed above with more than two caps (he’s got 21).

Real Madrid come from behind to win in Club World Cup semis

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Real Madrid made things on Wednesday a bit more complicated than they would have preferred, but the two-time defending European champions are through to the final of the Club World Cup for the second straight year.

[ MORE: Newcastle sale closer after improved bid of $400 million ]

Zinedine Zidane’s men came from behind to beat United Arab Emirates side Al Jazira (winners of the U.A.E. Pro League, the tournament’s host country), courtesy of second-half goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, 2-1 at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Al Jazira held a 1-0 halftime lead, thanks to Romarinho’s opening goal in the 41st minute. The advantage lasted just a dozen minutes, though, as Ronaldo used Madrid’s first genuine chance of the game to bring Los Blancos back onto level terms in the 53rd minute. Luka Modric slipped the Portuguese superstar through, and the recently crowned Ballon d’Or winner finished with ease to make it 1-1.

[ MORE: West Ham targeting Wilshere in January transfer window ]

The winner didn’t come for quite some time after that, as Madrid were made to wait — and work — for their place in Saturday’s final, where they’ll face Brazilian side and Copa Libertadores winners Gremio. Bale had only just come off the bench seconds earlier, when Lucas Vazquez cut the ball back for Bale to hit it hard and low past the goalkeeper.

The Welshman nearly made it 3-1 with four minutes to go in regular time, but his scissor from the edge of the box was saved to deny Madrid a stunning insurance goal very late on.

Madrid are aiming to become the first side to win back-to-back Club World Cup titles after beating Kashima Antlers, 4-2 after extra-time, in the 2016 final.

Watch Live: Man City, Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs in action

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Seven Premier League games are coming your way from 2:45 p.m. ET on Wednesday, and you can watch them all live online.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Manchester City head to Swansea looking to extend their winning streak to a record-breaking 15-straight in a season, while Manchester United host Bournemouth and Tottenham welcome Brighton to Wembley. There’s a big London derby between West Ham and Arsenal, while Liverpool host West Brom, in-form Leicester head to Southampton and struggling Newcastle clash with Everton.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for the seven games on Wednesday is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


Wednesday’s Premier League schedule

2:45 p.m. ET: Swansea City vs. Manchester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
2:45 p.m. ET: Newcastle United vs. Everton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
2:45 p.m. ET: Southampton vs. Leicester City – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM

3 p.m. ET: Liverpool vs. West Bromwich Albion – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Bournemouth – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Brighton & Hove Albion – NBC Sports Gold  [STREAM]
3 p.m. ET: West Ham United vs. Arsenal – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]

Copa Sudamericana finals, leg 2: Flamengo vs. Independiente

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SAO PAULO (AP) Independiente, relegated for the first time in its history in 2013, can complete a remarkable turnaround by winning the Copa Sudamericana at the Maracana Stadium on Wednesday.

The Argentine team will go into the second leg of the final holding a 2-1 lead over Brazilian club Flamengo from the first leg.

Independiente, which has won multiple titles in South American tournaments, will be counting on 18-year-old midfielder Ezequiel Barco, one of the best players in this year’s competition.

Flamengo is also seeking to restore some pride in Rio de Janeiro. The big-spending Brazilian club, playing in its first Copa Sudamericana final, finished its domestic championship in a disappointing sixth place.

The Rio team will be without Peru striker Paolo Guerrero, who is serving a one-year doping ban.

Instead, veteran midfielder Diego will be the key player as Flamengo looks to claim its first regional title since winning the now-defunct Copa Mercosur in 1999.

After Independiente won the first leg, the club posted on its social media channels a picture of its players celebrating at the Maracana in 1995 when the two teams played for the Supercopa.

If the Argentines lose 1-0 on Wednesday, there will be a penalty shootout to decide the winner.

Last year, Brazilian club Chapecoense was awarded the title before the final after 19 players, plus club directors and several members of staff, died in an air crash.

The Copa Sudamericana is the continent’s second most prestigious tournament after the Copa Libertadores.

Germany’s players have big-money incentive to win World Cup

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BERLIN (AP) Germany’s players will each receive $410,000 bonus if the team defends its World Cup title next year in Russia.

The German soccer federation says it has agreed to a performance-related bonus system for the team, as it did for the successful 2014 World Cup campaign and the last two European Championships.

Bonuses will only be paid upon reaching the quarterfinals, when each player would receive $90,000. That will increase to $150,000 for reaching the semifinals, $175,000 for third place and $235,000 for reaching the final.

Only Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) have won back-to-back World Cup titles.