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Five questions for USMNT ahead of World Cup qualifiers

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The USMNT’s next two World Cup qualifiers will be pivotal in deciding whether or not they’ll qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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With plenty of injuries restricting Bruce Arena, the upcoming games against Honduras on Friday and Panama next Tuesday are massive for the U.S. national team.

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Here’s a closer look at some lingering questions heading into the next seven days.


Who will play at full back?

With DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson out injured, the USMNT is without their top two full backs for these games. That’s a big, big problem. Arena may have to put some square pegs in round holes when it comes to playing Geoff Cameron at right back or even Matt Besler or Tim Ream at left back, while DaMarcus Beasley can also slot in at full back if needed but Jorge Villafana will likely start on the left. Simply put: the U.S. defense is weaker without Johnson and Yedlin at full back. They’ll be missing two of the four defenders from the unit which looked so strong at the Copa America Centenario last summer and the Cameron-Brooks partnership may be broken up in central defense. Far from ideal.

Can Pulisic deliver?

There’s been plenty of talk from Arena about Pulisic being ready to start and contribute regularly for the USMNT.

“He has the potential to be a great player and I think he’s going to be a big part of our team, he’s not going to be a role player. He’s going to be an important part,” Arena told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd earlier this month.

Pulisic, just 18 years old, is having a fine first full season for Borussia Dortmund (four goals and seven assists and a new contract is pretty decent…) and he may be used centrally for the U.S. in the next two games. He has the ability to control the tempo of games but often he’s played out wide for Dortmund and the USMNT. It would be a big call for Arena to hand the keys to the U.S. offense to Pulisic but he clearly has the talent to handle that pressure. Now, can he deliver on the international stage? The USMNT has a new star and they need him to deliver sooner than many would have expected.

Will Arena go for experience in central midfield?

With Jermaine Jones suspended for the Honduras game, there’s a big hole alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield to fill. Arena may well go for experience in this kind of situation. Sacha Kjestan and Dax McCarty are the obvious choices with Sebastian Lletget and Darlington Nagbe perhaps too inexperienced for these must-win games. Alejandro Bedoya could slot in alongside Bradley and he’d offer plenty of industry but his best position is out on the right and tucking inside to help build attacks. If I had to choose I’d go with Kljestan. His poise on the ball and his form for the New York Red Bulls over the last 12 months prove that he deserves the chance to step up and dovetail with Bradley in midfield.

Is USMNT capable of setting the tempo?

Having Kljestan start in midfield would be a big part of this as it’s likely that the U.S., especially against Honduras, will set the tempo of these games. Both Honduras and Panama will likely sit back and then look to hit the USMNT on the counter and without recognized full backs that could be very dangerous for the U.S.

This is all about game management. Arena’s men know that at times down in Panama they will be up against it and there will be severe pressure on their goal the longer the game remains scoreless. That said, they will be expected to create chances and they can’t just sit back, defend and hope to score goals from set pieces like they did at times in the Copa America last summer and for most of the 2014 World Cup.

Can Altidore carry the team?

Jozy Altidore will need to carry the U.S. to victory in these games. With Clint Dempsey still battling back to full fitness following his four months out, plus Pulisic still a teenager, the fact that Bobby Wood is out and Jordan Morris is extremely doubtful puts a lot of pressure on Altidore’s shoulders.

It may not have been the case during his time in the Premier League, but for Toronto and the U.S. national team he has been the go-to man in key moments. Altidore usually delivers and he has 37 goals in 100 appearances for the Stars and Stripes. If the USMNT can get Dempsey and Pulisic on the ball, then Altidore will get service in the final third. He always adds power and presence up top but not having Wood alongside him may mean he’s isolated for large spells of these games. The U.S. needs to stop that happening to not only get the best out of Altidore but also give themselves the best chance of grabbing the two wins they desperately need to get back on track in the Hex.

Watch Live: Swansea host Manchester United

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Swansea City welcome Manchester United to the Liberty Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with Jose Mourinho’s side aiming to stay top of the Premier League table.

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Yes, it’s early days, but the Red Devils were imperious in their thumping 4-0 win against West Ham United to open their season. Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic dominated and Mourinho’s men are now a powerful, well-oiled machine.

As for Swansea, they struggled at Southampton but came away with a draw, however the main storyline surrounding the South Wales side this week has been losing Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton for over $60 million. Paul Clement will have to act fast to spend that cash wisely, but there is no doubt the Swans will miss their Icelandic playmaker.

In team news Swansea bring in Kyle Bartley and Roque Mesa as they line up in a 3-5-2 formation with Jordan Ayew and Tammy Abraham up top.

Man United are, unsurprisingly, unchanged.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski; Fernandez, Bartley, Mawson; Naughton, Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Olsson; Ayew, Abraham. Subs: Nordfeldt, Rangel, van der Hoorn, Fulton, Narsingh, Routledge, McBurnie.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Blind; Matic, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rashford; Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Smalling, Fellaini, Herrera, Lingard, Martial

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.