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Three keys for USMNT vs. Panama

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For the U.S. national team the scenario is very clear.

If they win their final two games of CONCACAF qualifying then they will be heading to the 2018 World Cup. But we all know it’s never that easy.

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

The biggest test for Bruce Arena’s side is facing Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Friday. Panama has nothing to lose. They sit in the third and final automatic spot in World Cup qualifying heading into the final two games in the Hexagonal and their final game is at home to Costa Rica who have all but qualified for the World Cup.

[ MORE: World Cup scenarios for USA ]

For the Panamanians a win against the U.S. would seal their first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals and even a point wouldn’t be bad but they’d then have to beat Costa Rica at home in their final qualifier. This game on Friday is their World Cup final and there is very little pressure on them with the home fans expecting the U.S. to win comfortably against a team ranked 60th in the world.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three keys for the USMNT as they look to jump ahead of Panama with a win and potentially go into their final Hex game at Trinidad & Tobago needing just a draw to qualify for the World Cup.


CENTER BACK PAIRINGS

Don’t be surprised if Arena mixes things up, once again, at center back. With Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler steady away at Honduras (despite one slip up between Graham Zusi at right back and Gonzalez at center back for the goal) they could well start against Panama.

Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron are no doubt the better individual defenders but it seems like Arena has decided against them as a pairing after the defeat to Costa Rica when the partnership struggled. At center back and in central midfield, having a strong understanding of the player alongside you is key and due to injuries and a lack of form this center back pairings have taken a huge hit in recent months for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has kept just two clean sheets in their eight games in the Hex so far

Cameron and John Brooks should be the USMNT’s first-choice center backs but with Brooks out, Arena may decide to go with Gonzalez and Besler, or maybe even throw Ream back in. Simply put: Arena’s decision on who to play at center back will be crucial, especially with veteran forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada eager for World Cup qualification to cap their long, and glittering, Panama careers. Gabriel Torres shold cause the U.S. defense plenty of problems too.


HELPING OUT BRADLEY

Sorting out the midfield around Michael Bradley is crucial too. FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta has been preferred alongside him in recent games, and they’ve proved a solid partnership, but for an encounter like this you’d think a little more experience would be key in front of Bradley and perhaps more attacking options will prevail. I still love watching video of the midfield display Bradley and Cameron put on together against Panama in a big World Cup qualifying win in Seattle back in 2013 in the Hex, but does playing two holding midfielders make sense in a game the U.S. simply has to win? Not really.

But still, with Panama likely to hit the U.S. on the counter you have to worry about Bradley being outnumbered on the break when the U.S. turns the ball over.

There’s a real sense that Christian Pulisic will once again operate centrally in midfield and maybe this is the type of game Darlington Nagbe would flourish in as he can keep the ball and allow the U.S. to press higher up the pitch. Pace out wide crushed Honduras in a World Cup qualifying win at home earlier in the Hex and you can expect Arena to follow a similar path for this game. Bradley may well end up as the lone holding midfielder but that role suits him well. That said, he will need a dynamic group in front of him to not only help support the likes of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood but also allow him to make any surging runs past them (ahem, the goal at the Azteca) into the final third.


EXPERIENCE IS KEY

With Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Cameron, Besler, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Altidore and Bradley all veterans at this point, it would be intriguing to see Arena start with the vast majority of them from the start.

That group has delivered in tense situations over the past two World Cup cycles to get out of the Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup and then reach the semifinals of the Copa America Centernario. The big question is: does Arena go for experience or youth? I’d say a smattering of both and that could be a mistake.

In situations like this I say the more experience the better. Panama have five players with over 100 international caps and most will play a pivotal role on Friday. The U.S. also have five players with over 100 caps but only three may seem like guaranteed starters in Howard, Bradley and Altidore.

Dempsey, Bedoya, Cameron and Beasley should all seriously be considered due to their past of getting the U.S. over the line when they’ve needed it most. Although the exciting young talents of Paul Arriola, Nagbe and Acosta are clearly capable of performing at this level, having the nous to overcome a Panama side who will roll out every trick in the book to try and qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals is something they lack.

Landon Donovan unveiled by Club Leon

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Landon Donovan was unveiled to Club Leon fans at Estadio Leon on Monday night.

The former USMNT star and longtime LA Galaxy forward came out of retirement for the second time to sign with the Liga MX side this past weekend. Leon finished 7th in the Apertura table, losing to Tigres in the first round of the playoffs. They currently have a perfect six points through the first two Clausura matches, sitting second in the table with a +3 goal differential.

Fans were allowed into the stadium for free, and they packed the lower stand on one end, waving USA flags and holding large “L” and “D” cutouts, and the fans faced a massive board on the field that read “I DON’T BELIEVE IN WALLS.” Chants of “U-S-A” rang out through the stadium before the unveiling.

ESPN reporter Tom Marshall pointed out that the last time the club had such a large event to welcome a player, it was in January of 2013 when the club brought Mexico captain Rafa Marquez in from the New York Red Bulls.

Donovan will don the number 20 for Club Leon.

Report: Rimando to return to RSL

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USMNT veteran and current MLS free agent Nick Rimando will reportedly return to Real Salt Lake for a 12th season with the club, according to a report by Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep.

The report states he received interest on the free agent market from both Los Angeles clubs, but the 38-year-old will return to the club he has made 350 appearances for.

Rimando came to Real Salt Lake from D.C. United in 2006, and has made at least 24 league appearances in every single season since. He has also made 22 playoff appearances for the club across eight playoff campaigns.

He last received a USMNT cap in January of 2017 in a friendly against Serbia, but was part of the 2018 World Cup qualification squad throughout 2017 backing up Tim Howard. Overall, Rimando has played 22 times for the US national team, with 14 goals conceded and nine clean sheets.

The report also states that Kyle Beckerman will return to Rio Tinto Stadium, with the veteran also testing the free agent waters but deciding to re-sign. The pair will be two of just four players left on the roster from the 2009 MLS Cup winning team.

Report: Aubameyang hands in transfer request at Dortmund

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According to German publication Bild, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has handed a transfer request to the Borussia Dortmund hierarchy.

Arsenal is the latest club linked with the Gabonese striker, with reports earlier this month of a deal to send Aubameyang to China. He has reportedly asked to leave Dortmund multiple times this January, and has been turned down thus far, and it’s causing problems. Aubameyang was suspended by the club for one match for missing a meeting last week, a match that ended in a goalless draw with Wolfsburg.

[ MORE: Man United, Chelsea battle for Alexis Sanchez ]

“We had a very heated discussion,” said Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc after the suspension was announced. “He hasn’t behaved like this for years, he’s always been very professional. What has happened is very tolerable, there will be some fines, too. It’s not necessary to talk about a transfer, but it’s clear that things can’t continue like this because some important things are in jeopardy, and that there is tension inside the squad.”

The price tag, according to recent reports, would be around $76 million, and he would be purchased with money from the likely outgoing transfer of Alexis Sanchez.

Arsenal transfer guru Sven Mislintat is reportedly driving the deal, having signed Aubameyang at Dortmund during his days as a scout from Westfalinstadion. However, there is buzz among the British media that Arsene Wenger is unimpressed by Aubameyang’s recent insubordination and has expressed his concerns.

Emre Can says new Liverpool contract still a possibility

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Liverpool midfielder Emre Can is out of contract this summer, but says he could still sign back on at Anfield despite heavy rumors of his departure.

Still just 24 years old, the German came over from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer of 2014 and has improved in each of his four years at Liverpool, flourishing under Jurgen Klopp as a strong passer and versatile player who can be used in midfield or defense. With that, he has reportedly turned down a number of new contract offers, and Juventus is reportedly in the lead to sign him to a free transfer.

[ MORE: Arsenal should follow Liverpool’s rebuilding example ]

Can is eligible to sign a pre-contract agreement with anyone from now until the end of the season, but he says that doesn’t mean he will leave.

“My agent is looking after everything but I am here until the summer,” Can said. “I haven’t signed anything with anyone. I am talking with everyone. Of course I am talking with Liverpool. Why not? I still have a contract here. It is an amazing club. What can I say? My agent does the rest. I just concentrate on the scene, on my performance and the football. I will give everything for this team.”

The loss of Philippe Coutinho this winter is an obvious blow to the Reds, but an argument could be made that the loss of Can would hurt just as much if not more, as stout defensive midfielders are hard to come by. However, the arrival of Naby Kieta this summer could ease the blow of the German’s potential departure. Should Can stay, partnering with Keita in midfield could prove masterful as Liverpool looks to continue building towards a title challenge. Currently, Can has paired with Giorgino Wijnaldum in Liverpool’s midfield in recent weeks, and the club is on a five-match win streak that has seen them shoot into third place in the Premier League table.