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Is USMNT’s biggest World Cup obstacle between its ears?

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Picture this, and forgive yourself if it’s a bit too easy: The United States men’s national team seizes control of its World Cup destiny with a decisive home win Friday against Panama, then needs very little from Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.

That second match sees the Yanks off to a slow start at Ato Boldon Stadium, a defensive fluke sending them down early en route to a wild and entertaining ending, failing to find more than an equalizer once they snap out of their funk and get to playing their game.

[ MORE: Three keys vs. Panama ]

If you were to ask me my No. 1 concern for this week’s monumental World Cup qualifiers, the ones that stand between the Americans and their hopes for a eighth-straight World Cup appearance, that’s it: Entitlement.

I’m not sure when the mentality of the USMNT went from upstart grinders to presumed favorites, but it may have happened some time in the intense scrutiny of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. We have to wonder if, under any other coach, advancing from a group with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana would’ve been viewed as anything other than an unqualified success.

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Klinsmann earned himself the opportunity to be rightly fired when his inconsistent teams looked either ill-prepared tactically or poorly-chosen toward the end of his tenure. The Mexico loss at home was disappointing, and the team looked like it hadn’t grasped what happened when it rolled into Costa Rica and got its guts kicked in by Los Ticos a few days later.

The choice of Bruce Arena as next man up was questionable in terms of ambition and scope, but would almost certainly settle the team. And it did. Though the performances were largely less than impressive, the Yanks didn’t lose for the better part of a pregnancy.

[ MORE: Who should start for USA v Panama? ]

But there were labor pains along the way, performances that raised eyebrows. For every tactically strong 1-1 draw in Mexico, there was the Gold Cup group-stage opening draw with Panama. For every 6-0 waxing of Honduras, there’s a self-satisfied 3-2 sleepwalker versus Martinique. And you could argue it birthed September’s home loss to Costa Rica and draw at Honduras.

Sure there are natural ebbs and flows to every team, but you need look no further than the top teams on the Hex table to see there are two gulfs of difference. In Mexico, there’s a top-to-bottom depth the Americans do not have, but in Costa Rica the troubles are, well, more troubling.

You cannot look at the Costa Rican squad and have much question that the best players are being called up, nor that they aren’t over-performing. Los Ticos did this at the last World Cup, and are doing it again despite changing coaches.

[ MORE: World Cup scenarios for USA ]

With incredible respect to Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Oviedo, and Marco Urena, they aren’t touching the Yanks’ corps. And that’s what makes it all the more problematic. The U.S. won the Gold Cup with a B Team, but maybe would’ve been better suited to keep more main men in the fold to grow in cohesion ahead of September.

At the risk of turning this into a gripe fest, which would be wrong when I genuinely believe the Yanks should run riot on Friday and then bear down in T&T for another win, it stings to stand not too far from a cliff that would cost Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, and Kellyn Acosta their first World Cups, and DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks their second.

Brooks and Fabian Johnson (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The average age of this week’s squad is 28. It’s good enough to get two wins, especially with clear-cut, no-doubt starters like Geoff Cameron, Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood. Michael Bradley and Tim Howard likely fit that bill, too. So does Fabian Johnson, but that’s another story since he’s not up to snuff according to Arena.

The legendary coach penned an open letter to fans on Tuesday, and in it he hit on some of the talking points which have started to ring quite tiresome. CONCACAF is really hard. That other guy lost the first two games. We almost didn’t qualify before. So on, and so on.

[ MORE: Some roster gripes for Mr. Arena ]

Well, it’s 2017, and it shouldn’t matter if the other teams are a bit better because of Major League Soccer. So are your guys. The resources of U.S. Soccer, the laughably forgiving nature of CONCACAF qualifying, and the talent available dictate that the USMNT should walk to every single World Cup if it’s doing its job in an average fashion.

The U.S. is 2-3-3 in the Hex, snaring about 38 percent of available points. If it advanced with a win and draw or two wins, it will have headed to Russia with either 43 or 50 percent of possible points. Only a handful of nations are on pace to get to the World Cup with around half a points haul.

Even getting past the doubts that Arena is going to see past his tried and hopefully true philosophies and line up a team that doesn’t seem aimed at trolling his critics by becoming, as a friend put it, so anti-Klinsmann that it’s strikingly similar to Klinsmann, the Americans have the talent to pull this off and head to Russia.

Yet for the first time in a long time, it’s not skill, or tactics, or technique that I’m worried about when it comes to what could fell the USMNT; It’s mentality. And at this point, I’d rather have the crew of guys who thought they’d have to win despite their coach than the ones who feel comfortable with their boss.

The Yanks’ A Team hasn’t played well throughout consecutive matches in some time, probably going beyond Arena’s tenure and deep into Klinsmann’s (group stage of Copa America? The 2015 friendly wins in Germany and Holland?).

This week becoming a chance to try out young kids in serious competition was out of the window with September’s results, if not the opening losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Underperforming on Friday and Tuesday could close down Arena’s chances of meaningful experimentation in November friendlies because of an unnecessary international playoff (or worse).

Maybe it’s as simple as flipping a switch. Maybe I’m overemphasizing minor mental flaws that will be systematically overrun by the magnitude of this week. I hope either of those are correct, but for the first time in ages my anxiety goes beyond skill set. And that’s nerve-wracking stuff.

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.

UEFA Champions League Weds. preview: Chelsea, Man Utd look to break out

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Only one of 16 teams was held off the score sheet on Tuesday. Could the same level of entertainment reach the UEFA Champions League a day later?

Two more Premier League teams take the pitch on Wednesday, with Manchester United facing its stiffest test of the group stage and Chelsea with a tricky visit from AS Roma.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

Manchester United has a significant challenge in Benfica, and may need a man familiar with the Estadio da Luz to help them out. Center back Eric Bailly remains out for United, which could bring Victor Lindelof into the fold to help stop Haris Seferovic, Gabriel Barbosa, Raul Jimenez, and especially Jonas.

Coming off a sleepy weekend draw versus Liverpool in an underwhelming derby, United will take on a desperate Benfica team which is traditionally strong but lost at home to CSKA Moscow and was crushed in Switzerland by Basel.

(AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Speaking of the need to rebound, Chelsea’s loss to Crystal Palace still has many scratching their heads. Fortunately, Roma is also in a mini-funk after a weekend loss to Napoli that ended a five-match winning streak.

There’s a reunion for Antonio Rudiger inside Stamford Bridge with Roma in town. I Lupi has been pretty one-dimensional in terms of offense, with ex-Man City man and reigning Serie A capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko. He’s scored eight times in nine matches for Roma this season.

Full Wednesday UCL schedule
All kickoffs at 2:45 p.m. ET except where indicated

Qarabag vs. Atletico Madrid — Noon ET
Anderlecht vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica vs. Manchester United
Juventus vs. Sporting Lisbon
Barcelona vs. Olympiacos
Chelsea vs. Roma
Bayern Munich vs. Celtic
CSKA Moscow vs. Basel

U-17 World Cup wrap: England advances to meet USA

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The United States now knows it’ll have to take down England’s best to get to the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup in India.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

England, don’t laugh, won in penalty kicks after a scoreless match with Japan, advancing to meet the Baby Yanks.


England 0-0 (5-3, PKs) Japan

There wasn’t a single miss amongst the England shooters, as Rhian Brewster (Liverpool), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Phil Foden (Man City), Nya Kirby (Crystal Palace), and Curtis Anderson (Man City) converted from the spot to set up a date against the U.S.

Mali 5-1 Iraq

Lassana Ndiaye scored twice to join France’s Amine Gouiri atop the goal scoring list for the tournament as Mali advances to face the winner of Ghana vs. Niger.

France 1-2 Spain

Barcelona prospects Juan Miranda and Abel Ruiz get the better of France to set up a date with high-flying Iran.

 

Iran 2-1 Mexico

Iran conceded for just the second time in the tournament, but not before Mohammad Sharifi and Allahyar Sayyad (both of Iranian club Saifa) made it 2-0 by the 11th minute.

UEFA Champions League wrap: Tables turned on wild day

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One clean sheet in eight Tuesday matches certainly helped the entertainment value of the UEFA Champions League, and the group ramifications follow suit.

Borussia Dortmund whiffed on a chance to take advantage of Real Madrid’s home draw versus Spurs, while Sevilla was waxed in Russia, and Besiktas continues to strut in UCL play.

Real Madrid 1-1 Tottenham HotspurRECAP, VIDEO

Raphael Varane’s plans to mark Harry Kane were subverted by the French defender’s unwitting legs, but Serge Aurier chopped down Toni Kroos in the 42nd minute for a yellow card and penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo sent beyond the reach of Spurs backstop Hugo Lloris.

It was Lloris’ outstanding day, along with a couple timely Keylor Navas saves, that kept the score line 1-1 after 90 minutes. The backstops will likely match wits again come Nov. 1 at Wembley Stadium.

Manchester City 2-1 NapoliRECAP

Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored in the ninth and 13th minutes as City has been an unwelcoming host for the Neapolitan side. Ederson stopped a Dries Mertens penalty, adding insult to Napoli’s twin concessions, but Napoli would get a second penalty kick and pulled back a goal courtesy of Amadou Diawara.

Monaco 1-2 Besiktas

Reported Newcastle United and Crystal Palace target Cenk Tosun scored a pair of goals as group-leading Besiktas came back to beat Monaco after Radamel Falcao made it 1-0 to the hosts.

Feyenoord 1-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

Similar story in the Netherlands, where Ex-Watford man Steven Berghuis gave the Eredivisie hosts a lead only to see a Bernard brace lead Shakhtar at De Kuip.

Spartak Moscow 5-1 Sevilla

Liverpool’s score line was a bit surprising, but this one raised eyebrows even given Sevilla’s long road (or flight path) to Russia. Quincy Promes scored twice to make Sevilla consider its Europa roots (though plenty of time remains in the group stage).

Spartak’s Luiz Adriano scores past Sevilla’s Sergio Rico (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Maribor 0-7 LiverpoolRECAP

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are sent their finishing demons off a cliff. It was 3-0 after 20 minutes, 4-0 at half, and when all was said and done there were braces for Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to go with single markers from Philippe Coutinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

APOEL Nicosia 1-1 Borussia Dortmund

A significant step backward for BVB, who would’ve done well to take advantage of Real and Spurs drawing at the Bernabeu. The Germans even trailed for five second-half minutes before Sokratis Papastathopoulos provided the equalizing goal.

RB Leipzig 3-2 Porto

Five first half goals felt like the start of something special, but the upstart Germans held on through a scoreless second half to claim their first UCL win.