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Arena’s gameplan sets USMNT up for point in Mexico

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After 90 minutes of hair-on-fire soccer at Estadio Azteca, the U.S. national team has just its third competitive point at Mexico’s national stadium. The lessons from Sunday’s clash in Mexico City are infinite, but for now, let’s look at three key elements of Bruce Arena’s gameplan, and give the USMNT boss some deserved (and vindicating) praise.

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It’s good to have a plan

Arena went on to say they were “positioned to get three points today,” and he couldn’t be more right (Mexican coaches and players should be saying the same thing, but the game was that close). The last time the Yanks visited Azteca in World Cup qualifying, that wasn’t so much the case.

Let’s go ahead and list, in detail, all the ways Arena set his team up for this specific game, against this specific opponent:

1. Three center backs — It was effectively five across the back for much of the night, and it created a numerical balance that rarely allowed the USMNT to be overloaded in its defensive third. Working on something in training, and refining it in a friendly, before calling upon it in a meaningful game is covered on the first day of Management 101. Not everyone attends the first day of class, though, and that’s understandable.

2. Midfield partnership — It’s impossible to say what Arena would have done if Jermaine Jones had been healthy. The temptation certainly would have been there to roster him and call on the “old head who’s been here before” for a game like this. What’s not difficult to say is this: “Plain and simple, Kellyn Acosta makes Michael Bradley better.” Bradley’s only able to aggressively step up and win the ball high in midfield, as he did just before scoring his goal, if he knows Acosta’s behind him and disciplined enough to fill the space vacated if Bradley is unsuccessful. Let’s have a quick look at Acosta’s positioning when Bradley makes his move…

Not to oversimplify everything asked of a central midfielder, especially in a midfield-two, but Acosta, at the age of 21, already shows the kind of discipline that has never been a particular strength of Jones. (Sidenote: that’s totally fine, and in no way a knock on Jones. It’s only ever actually been a problem because he was shoehorned into a horribly ill-fitting role his entire USMNT career.)

3. Personnel to fit the counter-attacking approach — Under the previous coach, the USMNT set out to defend deep and hit teams (especially better sides) on the counter with frustrating regularity (considering the possession-based, attacking soccer that was promised in August 2011). Sometimes they were successful, but mostly it just frustrated (USMNT fans, not opponents).

And, why was it so? Let’s consider the personnel which has gobbled up the majority of starts in the final third over the last half-decade: Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are each fine players in a system that plays to their strengths, but attacking open space is just about the last thing the two of them do well.

By swapping Altidore for Bobby Wood, and Dempsey for Paul Arriola, Arena put a bit of pace on the field — players who are comfortable (and effective) running at defenders in the field. For the 79 minutes Wood was on the field, Mexican defenders were aware of him running in behind weighed heavily, and kept them honest. Against a forward like Altidore, they’re able to creep further and further forward, shrink the field and recycle possession in the middle third again and again.

Arena even played a pair of central midfielders who thrive at playing long balls to runners in space. In theory, and an environment slightly different than Azteca, Bradley and Acosta feed those quick wingers and let them stretch their legs to devastating effect with a forward who can keep up, make smart runs inside the box and finish his chances.

For the first time in a long time, the building blocks appear to be in place, and genuine progression from one game to the next is clear as day. I’m encouraged and hopeful in a way that I’d long since forgotten.

Bravo fit again, but will he start Chile’s Confed Cup group finale?

Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
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MOSCOW (AP) Claudio Bravo is fit again and could start in goal against Australia at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said Saturday.

Bravo – who is Chile’s joint most-capped player with Alexis Sanchez – hasn’t played since April 27, when he injured his calf for Manchester City in a derby game with Manchester United.

“Claudio is fit, he’s managed to train the last couple of days just like his other teammates,” Pizzi said. “He’s ready and available to play.”

Pizzi brushed off concerns about a lack of match fitness, saying that “quite obviously we take into account that factor” but players like Bravo are “are of such good quality that it isn’t that important they haven’t played in the last couple of months.”

Stand-in Johnny Herrera played in Chile’s 2-0 group stage win over Cameroon and Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Germany.

Gary Medel was substituted with a minor injury while playing in defense for Chile against Germany. Teammate Francisco Silva said Saturday that Medel had complained of “a very small muscle contraction issue” but was now fit.

Pizzi said he will aim to tire out Australia with Chile’s trademark all-action style, even though his team struggled for energy in the latter stages against Germany.

“This energy drop we had in the second half didn’t damage us too much because the opposing team couldn’t maintain a high pace because of the demands we’d imposed on them,” Pizzi said of the Germany game.

“We’re going to try to get (the Australians) tired as well and use this to beat our opponent, and we hope this is going to translate into goals.”

USMNT’s Wood extends Hamburg contract through 2021

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HAMBURG, Germany (AP) American forward Bobby Wood extended his contract with Bundesliga side Hamburger SV on Saturday to 2021.

Wood, who joined Hamburg from second-tier Union Berlin, scored five goals and set up two more in 28 Bundesliga games. He had 17 goals in 31 second-division games for Union the season before.

“Not only his goals count for us, but his readiness to run and challenge,” Hamburg sporting director Jens Todt said. “Bobby is a key player for our offense and a real team player.”

Wood has eight goals in 32 appearances for the United States.

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): The only thing standing in the way of New York City FC avenging their infamous 7-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a lopsided demolition job of their own, on Saturday, was an otherworldly goalkeeping performance from Luis Robles. It was the Red Bulls shot-stopper, with his four saves on the afternoon (three of them coming in spectacular fashion), who kept Jesse Marsch’s side within touching distance for more than an hour. Jack Harrison was denied early on by Robles, but got the better of him not long later for the game’s opening goal. Heroics from Robles kept the score at 1-0 for another 32 minutes, before Ben Sweat’s (accidental?) header made it 2-0 in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, managed their first shot on target in the 80th minute. That’s three wins in a row for NYCFC, who go seven points clear of their Hudson River rivals and keep Toronto FC in sight at the top of the league table, five points ahead.

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Three moments that mattered

18′ — Robles goes full-stretch to deny Harrison — David Villa’s vision and Rodney Wallace‘s hold-play created the chance for Harrison, but Luis Robles’ acrobatics denied the 20-year-old Englishman in spectacular fashion.

33′ — Harrison not to be denied this time — Sweat delivered the ball to Harrison near the top of the box, and the second-year man did everything right with what’s a really, really difficult chance to take — facing away from goal, first-time, ball traveling across the goalkeeper, upper-90 to the far post.

65′ — Sweat loops a header past Robles for 2-0 — Sweat probably didn’t mean it, but the ball hit the back of the net, and that’s all that matters. Not a bad time to score your first MLS goal, either.

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Man of the match: Luis Robles

Goalscorers: Harrison (33′), Sweat (65′)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.