AP Photo/Ron Schwane

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.

Retailer removes T-shirt from sale over Hillsborough links

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LONDON (AP) A British retailer has withdrawn a T-shirt from sale in its stores and online following complaints that its design could be associated with the Hillsborough soccer disaster.

[ MORE: Liverpool, Man City drawn in UCL quarterfinals ]

Topman had on sale a red shirt with a large “96” on the back and the phrase “what goes around comes around” underneath. The word “Karma” is written on one of the sleeves.

Ninety-six people were crushed to death in the Hillsborough stadium disaster, which happened in Sheffield in April 1989 at an FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Topman said it “apologizes unreservedly for any offense caused by this T-shirt” and that the “garment has been removed from sale online and in stores.”

The retailer said the design was inspired by a Bob Marley track, with the number referring to the year of the re-release.

Cosmos, Miami FC petition USSF for 2018 U.S. Open Cup entry

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NASL’s decision to cancel the 2018 regular season has caused significant ramifications, with the latest forcing several clubs to be excluded from the U.S. Open Cup.

The New York Cosmos and Miami FC — both of whom participated in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup have not been named among the eligible teams for the 2018 edition following NASL’s cancellation of the league season.

Now, the two teams have petitioned to U.S. Soccer and its new president, Carlos Cordeiro, to rethink its decision and allow the clubs to play despite not belonging to a professional league.

Both clubs do boast reserve teams though — New York Cosmos B and Miami 2 — which is the lead argument from each organization as to why U.S. Soccer should grant the teams an exemption and a spot in the tournament.

Cosmos B and Miami FC 2 will both play in the NPSL once again in 2018, with both rosters largely comprised of senior team players.

As it stands, 94 teams have been placed in the 2018 Open Cup field, as announced by U.S. Soccer on Wednesday.

Both open letters from the respective clubs can be found below.

Brazil’s Luis could miss World Cup after leg fracture

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MADRID (AP) Brazilian left back Filipe Luis has a leg fracture that could stop him going to the World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Arsenal draws CSKA Moscow in Europa quarters ]

Atletico Madrid said Friday that Luis sustained the injury to his left leg in the second half of the Spanish team’s 5-1 rout of Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League round-of-16 match on Thursday.

The club did not say how long Luis will be sidelined. Similar injuries have required at least six weeks of recovery time and longer if surgery is required.

The 32-year-old Luis was called up by Brazil coach Tite for friendlies against Russia in Moscow on March 23 and against Germany in Berlin on March 27. Brazil’s first game at the World Cup is against Switzerland on June 17.

Luis was injured while trying to prevent Lokomotiv forward Eder taking a shot from inside the area in the 60th minute. He successfully cleared the ball but his leg was hit from behind.

Luis left the field on a stretcher and tests Friday in Madrid confirmed the fracture in his lower leg.

Atletico advanced 8-1 on aggregate after the victory in Russia.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Casemiro: Neymar “would get along very well with Cristiano” at Real

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The speculation (transfer) train keeps chugging along as domestic seasons near their conclusion, and one rumor continues to be fueled linking one of the world’s top players to Real Madrid.

[ MORE: FA Cup preview ]

Neymar’s time at Paris Saint-Germain has been short, less than a season to be precise, but the Brazil international could be moving on from the Parc des Princes sooner rather than later after his side crashed out of the UEFA Champions League recently against Real.

Nothing concrete has been determined about Neymar’s future, but Real Madrid continues to be linked with the South American star, and one current Real player feels Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo would get along “very well.”

“[Neymar] has always been spectacular, since he was 11 years old. He does crazy things,” Real midfielder Casemiro told El Partidazo .l”I don’t think there is any chance that he will come to Real, but you have to ask [Madrid president] Florentino Perez.

“He knows that the door is always open for him in Madrid, but he is happy in Paris. He always says that he is happy there, that he is comfortable in Paris. There are many Brazilians there too, it is very quiet there, but whether it’s possible you have to ask Florentino.

“With the quality that he has, I would sign him for sure. I hope he comes this season.

“He is a great player, one of the top three in the world. He can do whatever he wants off the pitch if he continues to do what he does on it.

“He would get along very well with Cristiano, very well.”

Real is currently in the midst of a historic run in the Champions League, having won the competition three times in the last four seasons.

Casemiro isn’t the only Real player eager to bring in a talent such as Neymar though.

Defender Dani Carvajal also recently told the media that he would be ecstatic to have a teammate like the Brazilian come into the fold at the Santiago Bernabeu.