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Three key storylines for the USMNT ahead of Honduras clash

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U.S. Men’s National Team supporters are still trying to get over the mess that they witnessed on Friday night at Red Bull Arena, but there isn’t much more time to sulk.

[ MORE: Qualifying scenarios remaining for the USMNT ]

Three matches remain in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and the USMNT is in a heated battle for a place in Russia next summer with both Honduras and Panama.

With Mexico already qualified and Costa Rica on the brink of reaching World Cup 2018, that leaves one automatic qualifying position up for grabs, while a potential playoff with a nation representing Asia could also be an option for Bruce Arena and Co.

[ MORE: Breaking down the USMNT’s back-and-forth Hexagonal run ]

Let’s take a glance at the most intriguing storylines heading into the USMNT’s WCQ against Honduras.

Defensive shape, center back pairing?

There were a handful of tactical mistakes made by Arena during Friday’s 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, but the glaring lineup error that stuck with everybody was to pair Tim Ream with Geoff Cameron at the central defense.

This isn’t to say that Ream or Cameron aren’t quality players, however, it was quite noticeable that the communication and tactical awareness necessary to pull off the defensive partnership wasn’t present in New Jersey.

Cameron is a lock to start for the U.S. in any important match moving forward given his Premier League experience and overall solid play on big stages for the Stars and Stripes, but the question of which player starts alongside him on the back line is one that must be pondered.

Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Matt Hedges are the three other options Arena has at his disposal for Tuesday’s match at the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, which will be the USMNT boss’ biggest match to date since beginning his second term with the Yanks.

Besler is the logical option given his World Cup experience and the fact that he is a left-sided player due to the fact that he is left-footed. The Sporting KC man boasts 44 caps with the U.S. and his club teammate Graham Zusi will also be starting along the back line, which could certainly help with any potential communication errors.

Who starts at striker?

Jozy Altidore and his 108 appearances for the USMNT will be severely missed in Honduras, but the Toronto FC striker will miss out on the match due to yellow-card accumulation.

That leaves Arena with another massive lineup decision on his plate heading into the crucial match in Central America. While the former LA Galaxy manager’s other options on the bench do have decent experience, his pick of the litter doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.

Let me explain.

Clint Dempsey is by far the most-viable option for Arena, but this also isn’t three/four years ago. The Seattle Sounders forward is 34 years old and his ability to be playing a full match in Honduras is strongly in question.

It’s more likely that you’ll see him in an extended role during the second half on Tuesday, especially if things aren’t going the Americans’ way.

Bobby Wood should be guaranteed another start up front barring something unforeseen, so that leaves Jordan Morris and Chris Wondolowski, unless Arena opts for Wood as the lone striker.

Isolating Wood like that in the attack could really help or hurt the U.S. attack, though. By starting Wood as the team’s forward it could potentially give Arena the freedom to bring on a player like Paul Arriola from the start and move Christian Pulisic in from the wing to a more central position alongside Darlington Nagbe.

However, Arena will probably stick with two up front — and if that’s the case, it should be Jordan Morris.

Morris may be the young gun on the pecking order for U.S. forwards, but he offers the most in this situation. His speed and on-the-ball skills give the USMNT attack the opportunity to stretch the field and play off of Wood — who is equally as quick in open-field situations.

Even with so much on the line, Morris has shown in big games before that he is capable of stepping up. Tuesday could be his next chance to do so.

How does the U.S. handle adversity?

Arena has lost just once since taking over his USMNT post for a second time, and Tuesday’s match will surely be the 65-year-old’s biggest test in Round 2 as manager.

Last week, I wrote about the U.S.’ chances of reaching Russia — which for the record, I believe they still will.

That doesn’t change the fact though that a loss or even draw against Honduras changes things drastically for the Yanks.

Here’s a look at how the table could look by the end of Tuesday if everything goes wrong for the U.S.

  1. Mexico — 18 points
  2. Costa Rica — 15 points
  3. Honduras — 11 points
  4. Panama — 10 points
  5. USMNT — 8 points
  6. Trinidad & Tobago — 3 points

In this scenario, the U.S. could theoretically fall to fifth place with a loss to Honduras, while Panama could also leap the Stars and Stripes with a home win over Trinidad. It’s impossible to say all of these situations will occur, but it’s not that far-fetched.

Trinidad has been the door mat of the Hexagonal, so Panama could surely take care of business at home. Meanwhile, Honduras is a very difficult place to play, and San Pedro Sula could surely stump the Americans for a draw or possibly worse.

Prince William’s dilemma: Royal Wedding clashes with FA Cup final

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The date for the Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle has been set and there’s a bit of a dilemma for Prince William: it’s on the same day as the 2017-18 FA Cup final on May 19, 2018.

Why does that matter?

William has been the president of the English Football Association for the last 10 years and he, along with other members of the Royal Family, usually attend the showpiece final at Wembley and hand out the trophy to the winning team.

Not this time.

With the date confirmed on Friday for the Royal Wedding takes place at Windsor Castle on May 19, specific times have yet been announced for the ceremony. Could that mean a late dash from the wedding to hand out the trophy at Wembley for Prince William? If his beloved Aston Villa make the final, maybe it’s not out of the question…

In a statement to the BBC, the FA had the following to say about the “fixture clash” in May:

“Everyone at The FA is delighted for HRH Prince Harry and Megan Markle with the announcement of their wedding at Windsor Castle next year. Saturday May 19 promises to be a wonderful day with a special royal occasion followed by English football’s showpiece event, the Emirates FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium. With millions coming together to watch both events at home and around the world, it will be a day to celebrate.”

The life of a royal isn’t all fun and games…

Guardiola eyes January deals after winning Manager of Month

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Scary news: Manchester City are looking to improve in the January transfer window.

Pep Guardiola confirmed on Friday that Premier League leaders Man City will look to buy a new central defender in January.

City, currently on a record-breaking 15-game winning run and sitting 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, have Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and John Stones as their center backs, but both Stones and Kompany have been out injured recently.

Speaking to the media ahead of City’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), Guardiola revealed he is keen to add defensive reinforcements.

“We speak about (January signings) with the club and Txiki Begiristain (the club’s director of football),” Guardiola said. “We have just three guys in central defense. We don’t want to sign someone for a few months. We want to sign them for years and we have to make sure it’s the right guy.”

Who could come in?

Virgil Van Dijk and Jonny Evans were both linked with moves to Man City in the summer and it is an area of the pitch City clearly want to add in. Southampton have said that van Dijk will not be leaving this season but if a massive offer arrives in January then it may be tough for the struggling Saints to turn it down this time after VVD wanted to push through a move to Liverpool in the summer.

As for Evans, he is playing week in, week out at West Brom but his future remains far from clear with Arsenal and Man City both looking to add the former Manchester United center back in the summer.

Aside from transfer talk, Guardiola was also named the Premier League Manager of the Month for November earlier on Friday, with the Spaniard winning the award for the third-straight month.

Only Antonio Conte had achieved that feat in PL history before but City’s boss isn’t getting ahead of himself as many have already handed his team the 2017-18 Premier League title.

“Tomorrow is an important game. Spurs are so tough. Last season and this season. Nothing is going to change – we are not going to win the Premier League tomorrow, we are not going to lose it either,” Guardiola said. “It’s important to play better, that is the most important thing. The record will always stay there until one day it is broken. I am happy not with the results but the way we play. Statistics are good but I have the feeling we can be much, much better.”

Gulp. City being better than they already are? That is a scary thought…

Mourinho: Eric Bailly out; United may look to buy in January

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Jose Mourinho has revealed that Eric Bailly requires ankle surgery and will be out for up to three months for Manchester United.

The Ivorian center back has been missing since early November after suffering the injury on international duty.

Bailly, 23, hasn’t recovered as quickly as United would have liked and his injury is more serious than originally thought.

“He [Bailly] goes to surgery, the decision is made,” Mourinho told MUTV. “I don’t say (he’s out) for the rest of the season but it’s for the next two or three months.”

United have plenty of options at center back with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo all around, but all three have been out with injuries during this season. That said, Bailly is by far United’s most consistent and reliable defender and having him out until February or March is a big blow for Mourinho.

As for the January transfer market, Mourinho may not go and buy a replacement for Bailly but he did hint at perhaps doing some business in the January even though he isn’t the biggest fan of the mid-season window.

“Not a big defender of the January market,” Mourinho said. “There are players and situations you have the chance to do and you shouldn’t lose them. I don’t like January market just to buy.”

United have been linked with a January move for Antoine Griezmann but Mourinho refused to comment on speculation linking the French international with a move to Old Trafford.

Griezmann looked set to move in the summer with United, Barcelona and PSG all interested in signing the striker, but with his manager at Atleti, Diego Simeone, saying that he will now be able to leave Atletico if the right offer comes in, surely United will be looking at bolstering their attack if the right deal can be done.

Buying in January, especially for a player of Griezmann’s caliber, usually comes at a premium but what if he has a great summer with France at the 2018 World Cup? His transfer value would surely rocket then.

With the Red Devils 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, they will need something special to claw back points in the second half off the campaign. Griezmann’s arrival would make everyone sit up and take notice, even if United don’t exactly need to boost their attacking talent.

Simply put: if a player of Griezmann’s caliber becomes available, as it appears is the case, you need to pull out all of the stops to try and sign him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan‘s future at United appears to be over, so maybe if they can move the Armenian playmaker on and free up some cash to bring in Griezmann (a good friend of Paul Pogba) then a deal can be done. With Atleti not qualifying for the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, it appears the Spanish club are willing to let Griezmann leave after he handled the summer of transfer speculation admirably and remained with the La Liga outfit during their transfer embargo and move to a new stadium.

Conte on “lucky” Man City; expects to “suffer” v. Southampton

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Antonio Conte appreciates Manchester City’s incredible recording breaking 15-game winning run but admits there is an element of luck helping out Pep Guardiola‘s men too.

[ MORE: Wenger on Ozil, Wilshere ]

Conte, who took Chelsea on a 13-game winning run last season before losing to Tottenham Hotspur on Jan. 4 when they could’ve equaled the previous record, is still hoping that his side can challenge for the title despite being 14 points behind Man City.

“They are a good team but to have 15 wins in a row, you must be also lucky because in many games they won in the last minutes. When you have this type of run, for sure, you must also be a bit lucky but they are deserving this,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho also pointed to the “luck” being in Man City’s favor and it something which is said quite a lot when a team goes on an incredible winning run. But are City really “lucky” to have grabbed late wins against the likes of Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham throughout the run? Or do they just have players who are mentally focused and can deliver in key moments? It’s probably a mixture of those factors.

Conte then went on to say that his team could still defend their PL title despite City’s record-breaking start to the season.

“We must find the right way to contend the title. Not only us but Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool,” Conte said. “Time is moving on and they [Man City] are continuing to win. In the last nine game we won 7 games, drew one and lost one. The distance, the gap still improved for Manchester City. It is possible to draw away to Liverpool and lose one but now we are 14 points behind.”

So, that’s not so much a title concession from Conte but him pointing out that it will be very tough for his team to claw any points back on City. Still, it’s a little different from his comments after their loss at West Ham last weekend when he seemed to all but concede their title chances.

“So you’re saying there’s a chance….”

Heading into Chelsea’s game against Southampton at Stamford Bridge on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Conte also said he expects his team to suffer against Saints.

“Tomorrow will be very difficult,” Conte said. “Southampton are a good team with a lot of good young players with a great future and will make us suffer. They are a good team.”

In terms of Chelsea team news ahead of the game Conte revealed that David Luiz is suffering from swelling in his knee and has no return date set, while Alvaro Morata could return to the lineup after being left out for the midweek win at Huddersfield.

The Italian coach also said he will sit down with others at Chelsea to discuss potential targets in the January transfer window soon, but that the final decision on new players coming in was not his.