Darlington Nagbe

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USMNT call-ups versus Portugal, revisited

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So now that we have a final list of MLS semifinalists, we can make one final prediction for Dave Sarachan’s USMNT roster versus Portugal before Tuesday’s expected announcement.

The interim boss will lead the U.S. into Leiria on Nov. 14, and members of quarterfinal losing New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, and New York City FC are in play for the roster.

[ MORE: Martino running for USSF presidency ]

Portugal has announced its squad here. We projected the U.S. 23-man roster last week, but will have a few changes following the MLS quarterfinals.

Our guess? Three new players into our projections, a mainstay from Portland and two uncapped Red Bull products.

Goalkeepers (3) : Bill Hamid, Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath

Changes: None.

Defenders (8): John Brooks, Matt MiazgaDeAndre YedlinCameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Besler, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster, Aaron Long.

Changes: RBNY’s Aaron Long has a bit of LB versatility to go with his CB skill set, and he’ll take the place of Geoff Cameron, who is suffering from a head injury.

Midfielders (8): Weston McKennie, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Lynden Gooch, Alejandro Bedoya, Tyler Adams, Darlington Nagbe, Jonathan Gonzalez.

Changes: Pulisic is reportedly out, and that’s fine because the Yanks would love to get a look at the Red Bulls’ Tyler Adams. Room will also be made for Darlington Nagbe and we’ll guess he takes Kelyn Rowe’s spot instead of Alejandro Bedoya. We’re also moving Jonathan Gonzalez of Monterrey ahead of Danny Williams, as Bedoya and Nagbe will have the experience/leadership angle covered.

Forwards (4): Bobby Wood, Josh Sargent, Aron Johannsson, CJ Sapong

Changes: We suppose Jonathan Lewis (NYCFC) or Haji Wright (Sandhausen) could fit here over Sapong, but we’ll stick with our gut instinct.

Player ratings: Pulisic, Altidore star as USMNT routs Panama

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Almost as badly as they needed a result and the accompanying three points, the U.S. national team needed to put forth a performance that once again inspired confidence — not only for USMNT fans, but for themselves as well.

Simply put, Bruce Arena’s bunch responded in a manner that left absolutely nothing to chance. Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore will (rightly) garner all the headlines, but they were far from the only standouts on Friday night…

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

GK — Tim Howard: 6 — Asked to make only two saves on the night, but he did so with relative (to the 2014 game against Belgium, at least), and staked his claim to the no. 1 shirt after being selected ahead of Brad Guzan once again. It might just be a godsend the Colorado Rapids won’t sniff the MLS playoffs this year, as he’ll be 39 before next summer’s tournament kicks off.

RB — DeAndre Yedlin: 7 — So that’s what it’s like to have a right back who’s meant to be playing right back. I’ve defended Graham Zusi, Right Back, on a number of occasions (and I’ll continue to do so), but there’s no two ways about it: Yedlin, at age 24, is the right back of the present and the future. In a game that got a little too stretched for most Americans’ liking, his recovery speed snuffed out would-be chances before they could be taken on a number of occasions.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 5 — I think Gonzalez could be good — I really do — in the right system which features a midfield that sits deep and clogs the space in front of him and beside him. Unfortunately for Omar, a midfield diamond where only one of the four actually plays centrally isn’t that. As an opposing attacker, face him up one-on-one, and enjoy.

CB — Matt Besler: 6 — Didn’t struggle as badly as Gonzalez, mostly because he’s more accustomed to playing in open space, but playing alongside Gonzalez really highlights his most problematic deficiency: a minor lack of pace and athleticism. A healthy Geoff Cameron should complement Besler very well, should the two partner one another between Tuesday and next summer.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5.5 — What’s to say about the left back position right now? Villafaña will continue to play there because no better option exists. If the midfield can remain solid in possession as they were in this one, limiting the direct counters thrown at him, he can pretty regularly avoid being a net-negative.

[ RECAP: USMNT routs Panama to boost World Cup dreams in a big way ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 6 — He was asked to do a lot in this one — run the entire middle third of the field as the only truly central midfielder — which he struggled to juggle at times in the first half, but that’s an impossible ask. He doesn’t need to be a 9/10 performer every night for the USMNT succeed. In fact, they need him to play a smaller part more frequently, and allow every one else to carry their own weight. He can still be Superman when it’s asked of him, but it’s not necessary all the time.

CM — Paul Arriola: 7 — Every team needs a Paul Arriola. The defensive cover he provided down the right side allowed Yedlin ample freedom to venture forward and stretch the field. His relentless pressing and winning of 50-50 balls makes for an uneasy evening for any opposition midfielder, and most importantly, takes that responsibility off Bradley’s plate, allowing him to sit deeper, read the game and dictate tempo.

CM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — *checks boxscore* *checks boxscore again* Yup, Nagbe did indeed play on Friday. Nominally deployed as a shuttler in a diamond(-ish) midfield, it’s not the worst thing in the world to go unnoticed. He remains tidy with his passing and forever an outlet when Bradley is harried. You can make the case he’s “too talented” for such a role, but at this point in time, this is his role and he’s done it masterfully.

CM — Christian Pulisic: 9 — 10/10 ratings are reserved for hat tricks (or three goals and assists combined, at the very least), so the wonderboy checks in with a 9/10 for the parts he played in the first (scoring) and second (assisting) goals, plus the attention (and fouls) he now commands are truly game-changing for everyone else in the attacking third.

[ VIDEOS: Pulisic makes it 1-0 after 8′Pulisic to Altidore for no. 2 ]

FW — Bobby Wood: 7 — Wood’s partnership with Altidore has required some kinks be worked out over the course of the last year, but Friday’s game showed what so many thought possible for the duo: Altidore drops into midfield to 1) pulling center backs out of shape; 2) be the playmaker that he is, and Wood capitalizes on that space by running the channels until his lungs explode. Every goal that Wood scores is oh so deserved.

FW — Jozy Altidore: 9 — Also, no 10/10 when one of the three is a penalty. So sorry, Sir Josmer. I’m not really sure what more needs to be said. When healthy, and in the form of his life as he is right now, Altidore is an impossible nightmare.

SUB — Dax McCarty: 6.5 — Arena brought him on just before the hour mark to 1) save Pulisic’s life; 2) plant someone alongside Bradley at the base of midfield. McCarty accomplished a ton in his 33 minutes on the field, winning the ball back eight times, connecting just about every one of his passes, and threading an inch-perfect through ball to Arriola late in the game.

SUB — Clint Dempsey: 5.5 — The thought of Dempsey as a late-game super-sub next summer should provide all USMNT fans with a wealth of hope and excitement. Provided he remains accepting of the role, he will change one or two games in unbelievably meaningful ways.

SUB — Alejandro Bedoya: 5.5 — Only got 10 minutes, but continues to make his case as a lock-down central midfielder who offers more than most think when he surges forward.

Three things from the USMNT’s draw in Honduras

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It wasn’t a good night for the United States men’s national team, but the point it stole from San Pedro Sula puts it back on track to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

[ MORE: Match Recap | Player ratings ]

The Yanks will finish the international break outside the automatic qualifying places if Panama wins vs. Trinidad and Tobago later Tuesday.

Jims and Joes, not X’s and O’s

If there’s anything to glean from this miserable night at the San Pedro Sula, it’s that two coaches have failed to figure out how to get through to this batch of USMNT players.

Jurgen Klinsmann clearly had lost the team following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Bruce Arena was given credit for steadying the ship over a 14-match unbeaten run leading that included a Gold Cup title.

But even that tournament with a mostly B-team wasn’t convincing, and Arena — admittedly a U.S. Soccer legend — got the plot completely wrong twice in the last week with World Cup hopes on the line.

Looking past Friday’s mess in the midfield and porous defensive set-up, Tuesday’s performance was again about lineup choices. Arena pulled the plug on Geoff Cameron coming off a poor Friday, and also left Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson out of the lineup.

Arena didn’t have the option of Jozy Altidore, the CONCACAF killer whose foolish yellow card cost him a one-game suspension, and there was logic to starting Clint Dempsey next to Sounders teammate Jordan Morris. Dempsey also happens to be the best attacker in USMNT history, so there’s a possible pass to be given there.

But Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi were miserable on the right side of the defense, and Darlington Nagbe was bossed out of the game aside from one early and electrifying dribble.

Arena plugged in high-motor Paul Arriola and Cameron with not much cooking in the second half, and put eventual equalizer Bobby Wood into the fray with under 20 minutes to go. The subs fixed things, in a sense, but in a way there’s little credit for that: At least Cameron and Wood should have been given a starting role.

Here’s Morris on Wood, who understandably seemed a bit put-off after the match:

“He’s a great player. I love playing with Bobby. He fights, he works. He’s good in the box.”
Yep, like he was before the match. Full disclosure: at halftime I questioned the use of Morris over Wood, and the former ran his shorts off in the second frame. The equalizer doesn’t happen without both players.
All that said, and it needed to be said, it’s paramount we look past the manager and directly at these players. The performances for these last two qualifiers, and really five of the eight, have not been good enough for where the program believes it should be. Debate those expectations all you will, but it’s just not good enough.

Soft first half, especially in the middle

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The United States looked motivated to start the match, but the pace and hustle slipped away as the half wore on. The Yanks completed a total of 37 first half passes according to the CONCACAF site, and had just 40 percent of the ball.

The midfield was largely non-existent. Bradley completed eight of just 13 passes in the match, and Kellyn Acosta failed to complete a single pass (0-for-2). Darlington Nagbe was tidy with his passing (14-of-15), though we’ve covered his flaws elsewhere. Winning 50-50 balls was a daunting proposition against a Honduras side which very much deserved three points on the night.

Third is a must

For everyone assuming that a Top Four finish will be enough for the U.S. because of a fairly soft Asian confederation, those thoughts got a swift kick to the rear end following Australia’s failure to hammer Thailand on Tuesday.

That, coupled with sent the Socceroos into the third place game against Syria, one they’ll be expected to win, and Australia is the sort of team that can go heart-for-heart with a typical U.S. side and perhaps bring a more talented side to the party (one that could hardly be a longer trip for the away sides).

And given the political climate in both countries, Syria would be a trickier test than it appears on paper (or on the Internet). Get it done versus Panama at home, and breathe a sigh of relief that the country’s soccer status hasn’t been set back a decade.

Throw in one more thing: Major League Soccer’s regular season ends on October 22, meaning some players will be in the throes of a playoff race but only eight MLS teams will have been active in the previous 2.5 weeks.

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USMNT faces must-win trip to Honduras as World Cup qualification hangs in balance

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The United States’ loss to Costa Rica was a wake-up call, one that has raised yellow flags all around the U.S. soccer community, but not one that has doomed their 2018 World Cup hopes. Yet.

No, that loss has not deterred the hopes of the United States, but with Bruce Arena and the United States level on points with Honudras and just three games to go, this game in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday evening is now a must-win.

According to ESPN stat expert Paul Carr, the qualification chances for the United States still currently sit at 80%, but a loss to Honduras would plummet those chances to under 50/50, near 43%. Plain and simple, the US must win. Should they fail, not only would they be at best even with Honduras still, but Panama – currently just a point back – would likely be ahead, with a home date against Trinidad & Tobago on the docket.

[ MORE: UEFA qualification sees blowouts dot the map ]

They must get a result, and they must do it without their third all-time leading scorer Jozy Altidore, who is suspended for yellow card accumulation after his caution in the Costa Rica loss. Altidore left U.S. camp, returning to Toronto FC and leaving Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Chris Wondolowski the remaining strikers for Arena to pick from.

Arena must also address the numerous problems from the failure at Red Bull Arena, which include both tactical repairs and underperforming players. The most glaring issue was the spacing between center backs Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron, the latter of whom had a disastrous game, wandering aimlessly and giving the ball away profusely. Also an issue was the midfield, which was porous manned only by Michael Bradley and the offensively-minded Darlington Nagbe. Fabian Johnson was nearly invisible on the wing, moved up from his usual national team spot along the back line. Finally, Christian Pulisic was ineffective out wide, hacked repeatedly as many CONCACAF opponents have decided to do.

Meanwhile, Honduras is where they are thanks to a road victory over T&T last time out, with a quick 2-goal start and a solid finish. Midfielder Alexander Lopez was fantastic in central midfield, passing with a 95% accuracy including a trio of key passes and scoring a goal. They attacked with success down the right flank through Alfredo Mejia and Alberth Elis, the latter of whom also scored. Jorge Villafana will need to have a better game, after being substituted off after an hour with the U.S. struggling.

The heat and humidity in Honduras is also a factor in determining Arena’s lineup. On Monday, highs in San Pedro Sula reached 91 degrees with 82% humidity. The forecast for Tuesday is more of the same. Arena told reporters on Monday that domestic players could play a larger role since their fitness is at a heightened level being further into their season.

All these issues need to be navigated or corrected – and quickly – or else Arena’s job as stopgap manager will have fallen flat on its face.

Three things: USMNT fails in bid for revenge on Costa Rica

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Three things we learned from the U.S. national team’s 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Friday…

[ RECAP: USMNT fails in bid for revenge on Costa Rica ]

Arena’s tactics a handicap from the start

Bruce Arena’s decision to play a two-man midfield — Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe — was a tough hole for the USMNT to dig itself out of. For starters, I’ll say this: it’s obvious what Arena’s thinking was in going with the two-man midfield — with Costa Rica playing three across the back, it’ll be two-versus-two in the middle of the field, and a fourth attacker is needed to pull those three center backs out of their shape. In reality, Los Ticos pressed like crazy, and without a third body in the center, Bradley and Nagbe were often left without an emergency outlet.

As for the defensive side of things, it was an unmitigated disaster. I briefly explained why Nagbe doesn’t work in a two-man midfield as opposed to a trio, here, and while Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream each had nightmares at center back, the wide open space in midfield played an equally massive part in both goals — especially the second. With no one free to step to David Guzman, Nagbe’s Portland Timbers teammate had all day to carry the ball through midfield, or, as he opted to do, slip Marco Ureña through with a simple through ball.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USA 0-2 Costa Rica ]

Playing through, not to, Altidore is the way forward

My headstone will one day read, Jozy Altidore is a playmaker, not a target man, why can’t any of you get this? Again on Friday, it was Altidore who held the ball in between midfield and defense, played runners through on the wings, dribbled at (and beat) defenders one-on-one, and set up two of the USMNT’s three best chances when acting as the fulcrum of the attack.

Trust me, I’m aware that a 6-foot, 180-pound physical specimen like Altidore isn’t supposed to be a creative genius facilitator, but life doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to do. Here’s the realest problem resulting from that, though: he really needs a partner up top, as he had on Friday in the form of Bobby Wood. Remember that midfield thing we just discussed, though, about Bradley and Nagbe not really suiting the two-man midfield? To appease the former, you must also concede the latter. With one or two breaks — the no-call on what should have been a penalty in the first half, namely — the other way, the reward ultimately outweighs the risk in this game; with those breaks all seeming to go Costa Rica’s way, you end up on the wrong end of 2-0.

[ MORE: Late drama for Germany; Kane starts scoring on Sept. 1 ]

The never-ending search for a left back

Here’s an excerpt from my Three Things post, dated July 15, 2017:

This was Jorge Villafaña’s chance; it was to be his Gold Cup; it was supposed to be his coming-out party; it was his audition for next summer’s World Cup — the one where he needed to step up and say, “I am the left back,” thus solving the USMNT’s biggest, longest-running problem. After starting the first and the third games of the group, we’re no closer to having found a full-time starter. It would have been nice, but at this point, we all knew better.

All of the above still rings true a month and a half, and another uninspiring shift at left back, later. At this point, I’m resigned to the fact that DaMarcus Beasley will start at left back, a position which he only started playing prior to the last World Cup, next summer in Russia, at the tender age of 36.