Study points ahead of tonight’s U.S. World Cup qualifier

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TAMPA, Fla. – Anything other than a resounding win tonight against tiny Antigua and Barbuda would be fodder for fan angst – but a win by any margin will do in the technical sense as Jurgen Klinsmann gets his first taste of World Cup qualifying as U.S. manager.

Clint Dempsey is not yet at full speed. Landon Donovan hasn’t been at full rev most of this year, a fine night against Scotland as the exception. Michael Bradley has been cleaning up, ensconcing himself as perhaps the most important U.S. man this side of Tim Howard.

We’ll see it all come together at 7 p.m. on ESPN. What else to consider:

  • Style points do not count; there are no voters around to impress

So says U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra (pictured). Yes, the United States will be expected to win by multiple goals. And if the Americans sneak away with a 1-0 or 2-0 win, flags of concerns will rise across U.S. fandom and the chattering class. But no matter, says Bocanegra, who figures the need for plentiful goals serves only the bottom line.

“We need to hopefully go out there and get some early goals on them and take some pressure off ourselves,” he said. “So we need to be impressive right from the first whistle. Doesn’t matter how we win, or what the score is, we just need to come away with a win.”

  • The left back situation

We’ve gone over that one, here (about the situation) and here (about the options). My best starting XI guess: We’ll see Geoff Cameron tonight for injured starter Fabian Johnson and injured backup Edgar Castillo.

FYI: I’m hearing that Johnson has a better chance of playing Tuesday than Castillo.

  • The Klinsmann factor

Two things to know here: First, the U.S. boss isn’t just new to coaching in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, he’s new to World Cup qualifying, period. Remember, Germany didn’t go through the qualifying paces with Klinsmann in charge for World Cup 2006; as hosts, they were awarded the berth. So there’s that.

Does it matter? Surely not, because Klinsmann was clearly front-and-center in those Germans bids to grab World Cup spots as a player.

The other thing to discuss his tactical style, about his desire for United States that plays higher up the field, applies more pressure and generally is more of a regional bully that can impose itself. It’s a style suited for games like tonight’s.

Teams under previous manager Bob Bradley were all about organization and possession, not necessarily about taking the fight to the enemy. It was a style suited to manufacture upsets against higher-quality nations, or to carefully manage matches against equals. But his teams, lacking that extra gear of forward drive, sometimes struggled to break down weaker teams.

Klinsmann’s way should be better at it. We’ll know more in a few hours.

We will, that is, unless …

  • The wet weather factor

Bocanegra said the United States has an edge on a wet field, where the ball moves quicker. He’s surely correct.

But there’s a point where “wet and slick” becomes “water-logged and bogged down.” That benefits the lesser side, the visitors in this case. Rain here in Tampa. Yep. On and off through the day. With more perhaps en route.

By the way, the field at Raymond James, where about 20,000 seats had been sold as of yesterday, is 116 yards by 74 yards. Whereas the fields were tighter for last week’s friendlies in Florida and Maryland, U.S. Soccer officials made sure this one was properly wide.

  • Who starts at striker?

Best guess, Herculez Gomez. Or perhaps Terrence Boyd.

Coming into this camp I (and everyone else) assumed it would be Jozy Altidore, coming off that breakout season in Holland. But listening to everything Klinsmann is saying here, I don’t see that now.  He keeps talking up Gomez and Boyd and the razor-wire edge and effort they bring every day to training. (And there has been lots and lots of training, two sessions on most days since the team arrive more than two weeks ago.)

Altidore? Klinsmann says those three weeks off hurt the 23-year-old Alkmaar man desperately.

I’ll have just a little more on this one later this afternoon.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — England, Colombia back in action

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Day 11 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Sunday, with England back in action and in need of three points — and a resounding win — to keep pace with Belgium in Group G.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Following Belgium’s 5-2 thrashing of Tunisia — the same side that England beat in stoppage time earlier in the week — on Saturday, the Red Devils have positioned themselves perfectly to win the group with a draw against the Three Lions on Thursday. England need a five-goal victory at 6-1 or higher to the finish top of the group following a draw on the final day.

Then, it’s a pair of Group H fixtures, kicked off with Japan (1st) versus Senegal (2nd) — both of whom won their first game — followed by Poland (3rd) versus Colombia (4th).

Below is Sunday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Sunday, June 24

Group G
England vs. Panama: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group H
Japan vs. Senegal: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Colombia: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

FIFA opens case against Xhaka, Shaqiri for celebrations

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FIFA’s disciplinary committee opened disciplinary proceedings against Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri for politically charged goal celebrations during their 2-1 World Cup win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

[ MORE: The meaning behind Xhaka, Shaqiri’s eagle celebration ]

FIFA also said Saturday it has opened disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian Football Association for crowd disturbance and the display of political and offensive messages by Serbian fans. FIFA also is reviewing statements that Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic made after the match.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated their goals by making a nationalist symbol of their ethnic Albanian heritage. Both of their families come from Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The Polish Football Association was fined $10,100 and given a warning by FIFA’s disciplinary committee for a banner that the governing body deemed political and offensive. The banner was displayed during Senegal’s 2-1 win over Poland on Tuesday in Moscow.

The committee also opened disciplinary proceedings against the federations of Argentina and Croatia for crowd disturbances during Croatia’s 3-0 win Thursday at Nizhny Novgorod.

Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion”

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At 1-0 down, they were headed for elimination in the group stage (with a game still to play); once level at 1-1, they faced yet a steep hill to climb on the final day of the group stage; after Toni Kroos scored his stunning 94th-minute winner, Joachim Low could finally exhale and imagine himself managing the German national team for another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup was, for most intents and purposes, a worrying performance for the defending world champions. Fortunately for Low and Co., the one place in which their comeback dramatic victory was a raging success is the only one that matters: the Group F table, where Die Mannschaft currently (somehow) sit second and control their own destiny — quotes from the BBC:

“This was a thriller, full of emotion, right up until the final whistle. Brandt hit the goal post just three minutes before the end too. We took out a defensive player and brought on an attacking player because we knew had to bring on everything we had to turn it round.

“We had a couple of great chances — Mario Gomez’s header being one of them. The last couple of minutes were full of drama but those matches exist in football. We’ve had these situations in other tournaments as well. For the viewers that’s part of the attractiveness of football.”

“Something I did appreciate today was that we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic after going a goal down. We kept a level head and said we needed to make quick passes and tire the Swedes out to open up spaces.

“We didn’t score a couple of good chances but we never lost hope we could win the match and I think the goal scored in stoppage time had a bit of luck involved but it did show the belief we had in ourselves.”

There’s still plenty of work to do for one of the most popular pre-tournament favorites — there’s a little matter of needing to beat, or at the very least, best Sweden’s result against Mexico — but that can wait until tomorrow, because Saturday unexpectedly became all about survival.

Germany snatches late win over Sweden to avoid elimination

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Germany dodged a fatal bullet on Saturday, coming back from a goal down to Sweden to steal a 2-1 victory at the 2018 World Cup and keep their world title defense alive… barely.

For all of 16 minutes — plus halftime — the Germans were in line to be eliminated with one Group F game still to play, but ultimately, Ola Toivonen‘s unlikely opener was canceled out by Marco Reus in very short order after the restart, and Toni Kroos broke Swedish hearts in the 94th.

Put another way, Joachim Loew survives to manage another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Sweden felt massively aggrieved to have not been awarded a penalty kick in the 17th minute, when Jerome Boateng took out the legs of Marcus Berg as he bore down on an out-rushing Manuel Neuer. The combination of leg-to-leg contact and a strong push in the back appeared an obvious error for the video-assistant referee to right a wrong, but the call never came.

The opening goal was the direct result of a careless giveaway by Kroos near the center circle, and needed just three touches and two passes to cut through the German defense and spring Toivonen behind Antonio Rudiger. The finish, a perfectly weighted dink — perhaps aided by the slightest of deflections by Rudiger — left Neuer with no chance (WATCH HERE).

Then, with the final touch of the first half, Berg glanced a header from a free kick that was destined to his the inside netting at the far post, but Neuer redefined the phrase “at full stretch” to keep the scoreline 1-1.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

That save proved invaluable for Joachim Loew’s side, as Marco Reus pulled the defending world champions level less than three minutes into the second half. Timo Werner dribbled to the endline and cut the ball back toward the penalty spot, and Reus got on the end of the deflected cross and struck it home with his knee. A semblance of order restored.

Bedlam ensued in the final 15 minutes, as Boateng was sent off for a second yellow card and Neuer lost his footing while scrambling across the face of goal to make a save, only narrowly preserving the 1-1 scoreline. Robin Olsen one-upped Neuer in the 88th minute, rising to his crossbar to punch Mario Gomez’s header just over.

In the fourth of five minutes of second-half stoppage time, Kroos became the hero. From a nearly impossible angle on the left side of the penalty area, Kroos rolled the ball forward to Reus on the restart, creating an ever so slightly wider angle from which to curl his shot toward the far post. It worked to perfection.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Germany (3 points) will finish group play against fourth-place South Korea (0 points) on Wednesday, while Sweden (3 points) will face Mexico (6 points), who had clinched their place in the knockout rounds until Germany’s late winner.