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Four keys for the USMNT vs. Costa Rica

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A win over Costa Rica in Friday’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifier moves the United States men’s national team into second place on the Hex table, a far cry from the basement positioning when Jurgen Klinsmann still led the side.

The USMNT has found its footing since Klinsmann was fired, with Bruce Arena overseeing home wins against Honduras and Panama and road draws with Mexico and Panama.

[ REPORT: Chelsea in for Rafinha ]

Now the Yanks have a chance to avenge one of the most egregious USMNT losses in recent memory, the 4-0 smashing at the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica last November.

How can they do that?

Mind the left

Take away Costa Rica’s 4-0 thrashing of the USMNT and Los Ticos are averaging a goal scored per game in qualifying and just a plus-1 goal differential. The lone loss came at Mexico, when El Tri jumped out to an 8th minute lead and carried a 2-0 advantage to the break.

Mexico used a 4-3-3 to take the match to visiting CRC, which used a 5-2-2-1. That’s a bit less packed in than the 5-4-1 that buried the Yanks in November, but gives you an idea of what to expect.

The stats say Costa Rica attacked the United States’ left side through Randall Azofeifa more often than not, going after Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, and Matt Besler. It’s the same tactic Los Ticos tried against Mexico, and were shutout.

Why? Suffice it to say Hector Moreno, Miguel Layun, and Hector Herrera are a trickier trio to handle than a teenager — even a sublime one — playing his first Hex road match, a left midfielder, and a decent MLS center back who had been in-and-out of the USMNT side since the 2014 World Cup.

What’s this mean for Friday? Likely a lot of pressure for DaMarcus Beasley or Jorge Villafana, with Johnson sitting at left mid and either Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream, or Besler up for a very stiff and focused test.

Suck up the space, don’t sleep on the counter

One thing that’s seemingly found the U.S. at sixes and sevens more and more often than not is counter attacking play. Kevin Parsemain blew by Matt Hedges in the buildup to one of Martinique’s Gold Cup goals, and Kellyn Acosta and Co. had a nightmare versus Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela in the Mexico equalizer at Azteca.

A lot of this should be settled by center back Geoff Cameron and defensive mid Bradley, but keep an eye on who Arena pairs with each player. And keep an eye on how much room the Yanks, especially presumed right back Graham Zusi, give Bryan Ruiz and the other Costa Ricans to attempt shots from distance. We don’t expect the Americans to give up goals with the run of play, even given Marco Urena’s instinctive runs and blazing speed, unless they allow the cannons to fire…

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Work on set piece defending, Mr. Arena

Even amongst those who didn’t want to see Bruce Arena take over as USMNT coach, there was little doubt the LA Galaxy man would stop the Yanks from their sad habit of hapless set piece defending.

He hasn’t… yet.

Je-Vaughn Watson for Jamaica in the Gold Cup Final (corner kick) wasn’t against the Yanks’ top unit and Asamoah Gyan’s free kick in a June friendly was borderline unstoppable and against second-choice backstop Brad Guzan.

But it was Fabian Johnson who was lost on Jose Manuel Velazquez’s corner kick goal for Venezuela. Gabriel Gomez bested Villafana and Tim Howard in the WCQ at Panama off a long throw-in.

That’s eight total goals conceded against Arena’s USMNT, four off set pieces, and that’s not counting several errors that didn’t come back to haunt the Yanks. Sort it out, Bruce.

Don’t overthink it

The United States should win the game. It’s a fact backed by essentially every visit from Costa Rica in a meaningful match for this generation of national team players.

2017 Gold Cup — USMNT 2-0
2016 Copa America — USMNT 4-0
2013 Gold Cup — USMNT 1-0
2014 World Cup qualifying  — USMNT 1-0
2010 World Cup qualifying — 2-2 draw

That’s not to say Costa Rica isn’t a good team, and Los Ticos won Group D over Uruguay, Italy, and England to become one of the darlings of the 2014 World Cup.

But if Arena, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley prepare the side for this match the way they likely should, one game at a time against an inferior visitor, it’s a straightforward win and a foothold in Russia.

With three matches to go, the Yanks would have 11 points. Trips to Honduras (next week) and Trinidad and Tobago remain, as well as an October visit from Panama. With Mexico hosting Panama on Friday and Honduras off to T&T, the table would look like this with three to play should the U.S. handle Costa Rica:

Mexico — Low: 14 points, High: 17 points
USMNT — 11 points
Costa Rica — 11 points
Panama — Low: 7 points, High: 10 points
Honduras — Low: 5 points, High: 8 points
T&T — Low: 3 points, High: 6 points

That means the likely 4th, 5th, and 6th place teams would remain on the U.S. docket. Book your tickets to Russia.

Burnley 1-0 Stoke City: Barnes’ late strike guides Clarets into top four

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Don’t look now, but the Clarets have climbed into the Premier League top four.

Burnley found a way Stoke City late on Tuesday, picking up a 1-0 win at the Turf Moor behind Ashley Barnes‘ late finish.

[ MORE: Gremio reaches Club World Cup final, awaits Real Madrid or Al Jazira ]

The Clarets, who have now secured 31 points over their first 17 matches this season, leapfrogged Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham with the victory. However, all three sides will be in action on Wednesday.

Steven Defour nearly put Burnley ahead on 69 minutes, when the front man tested Stoke keeper Jack Butland — who had to make a sprawling save to his right.

While Stoke mustered up several quality chances, it was Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s blast in the first half that nearly found the top left corner.

Next up for Burnley will be a date against Brighton on Saturday, while Stoke travels to Huddersfield the same day.

Club World Cup wrap: Gremio reaches final, Urawa takes fifth place

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One half of this year’s FIFA Club World Cup final was decided on Tuesday as Brazilian side Gremio topped Liga MX champions Pachuca.

Second-half substitute Everton proved to be the difference for the Brazilians, with the attacker scoring in extra time to lift Gremio.

[ MORE: LA FC selects Urena, four others in MLS Expansion Draft ]

Pachuca’s chances of completing a comeback were extinguished with 10 minutes remaining in extra time, as Víctor Guzman was sent off upon picking up his second yellow card of the semifinal.

Meanwhile, Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds captured fifth place in the tournament after narrowly topping Wydad Casablanca, 3-2.

Despite going behind early, Urawa responded almost immediately in the first half, before building its lead to 3-1 at the hour mark.

A late penalty kick from Reda Hajhouj gave Casablanca a glimmer of hope in the dying moments, however, the Moroccan-based club couldn’t find a way to equalize.

Gremio will await either La Liga giants Real Madrid or Al Jazira in the Club World Cup final, which will be played on Saturday. The loser of that match will take on Pachuca in the third-place game.

Below are the scores from Tuesday’s FIFA Club World Cup matches.

Gremio 1-0 Pachuca (after extra time)

Wydad Casablanca 2-3 Urawa Red Diamonds — Fifth-place match

LAFC selects Urena, 4 others in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC selected five players in the MLS Expansion Draft, including Costa Rican national team star Marco Urena.

Whether they’ll make their way to the City of Angels is another story.

The first pick from general manager John Thorrington was goalkeeper Tyler Miller from Seattle Sounders.

[ MORE: Benitez on NUFC struggles ]

Going next was Latif Blessing from Sporting KC, an electric attacker who netted thrice with an assist last season.

Next was Urena from San Jose and the Costa Rican national team, a huge addition, and then Columbus left back Jukka Raitala before closing up the draft with Raheem Edwards from Toronto FC.

LAFC has already announced the signings or acquisitions of Carlos Vela, Walker Zimmerman, Carlos Alvarez, Monday Etim, and Guillermo Vizcarra.

The club will also loan Omar Gaber from Basel and Rodrigo Pacheco from Lanus.

WATCH LIVE: Three Premier League matches

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Chelsea visits the John Smith’s Stadium to face Huddersfield Town in one of three Premier League fixtures this chilly Tuesday in December (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues are now 14 points back of Manchester City, and three points clear of fifth place.

Meanwhile there are a pair of matches on NBC Sports Gold: Burnley looks to keep pace with its Top Four ambitions when it hosts struggling Stoke City, while in-form Crystal Palace seeks a home win that would move it out of the drop zone. In its way? Dangerous, attack-minded Watford.

Burnley vs. Stoke City — 2:45 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Huddersfield Town vs. Chelsea — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]

Crystal Palace vs. Watford — 3 p.m. ET [ STREAM ]