If Jozy Altidore’s not on, the U.S. has options

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As people look for ways the United States can improve before Tuesday, Jozy Altidore’s name is bound to come up. Like fellow attackers Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez, Altidore didn’t see much of the ball on Friday, but whereas Dempsey and Gomez still found ways to impact the game, Altidore was irrelevant and eventually pulled off.

The outing only highlights questions surrounding Altidore’s role under Klinsmann. In his three U.S. matches preceding Jamaica, Altidore had found himself coming off the bench, with Gomez getting the starting spot in front of Dempsey and Landon Donovan. If Donovan were healthy for Friday’s game, Altidore would have been relegated to a similar role.

For some, Altidore seems like a clear first choice, his strong start to the Dutch season a testament to his talent. Coming off a 15-goal debut campaign for AZ in the Eredivisie, Altidore’s scored four times in as many matches this season. That output combined with his regular role in Bob Bradley’s starting XI leads many to assume that, when healthy, Altidore will be part of Klinsmann’s first choice team. That’s clearly not the case.

On Friday, we saw why. For whatever reason, Altidore is just not firing on cylinders in Klinsmann’s system. With the U.S. committed to a style of play that prefers building through short passing and off-the-ball movement, the national team is playing away from Altidore’s strengths. Even as an emergency outlet when all else fails, the U.S. seems unwilling to target Jozy on anything but restarts. Even then, Dempsey is often the man going up for a shorter ball, trying to flick on for the forwards. The result is a game like Friday’s, where Altidore is kept quiet.

That kind of performance seems to be at odds with somebody who is so influential at club level. The Eredivisie, however, is a very distinct competition. Most players moving out of the league and up the European ladder see their goal totals drop drastically. If you’re a player going to the Netherlands from a big league (as Altidore did when he moved from Spain), you’re going to get a boost, a surge fueled by a style of play that’s more open, less intense that many other leagues. Where Altidore struggled to score in Spain, England, and Turkey, the Netherlands appears to be a good fit, one that doesn’t seem to translate onto what Klinsmann is trying to do.

Whether caused by the league, how Altidore’s progressed as a player, or a mesh between coach and striker that’s still under development, what we saw on Friday was discouraging. The ball didn’t find Altidore, and he didn’t have a way to get himself involved. If Klinsmann’s looking for ways to build on Kingston, he might opt for a player who can contribute when not directly involved.

Within the current team, there are five options, assuming Klinsmann wants to stay with some version of a three-attacker setup:

Terrence Boyd – This would be the like-for-like option. If Klinsmann feels his set up was right, the execution was off, and he only wants to make a few tweaks, Boyd-for-Altidore is the most likely change. Boyd doesn’t have Altidore’s experience and he’s yet to score in six senior-level appearances, but he can make a positive contribution without being the attack’s focal point.

Brek Shea – If Klinsmann wants to change the shape and go back to more of a 4-3-3, Shea could come in and start on the left, leaving Gomez alone up top. The Dallas attacker, who would be matched up against Lovel Palmer, would provide a wide option the U.S. lacked in Kingston. If Klinsmann thinks Friday’s issues transcend performance and require a formation tweak, Shea’s the most likely option.

Graham ZusiThough the numbers are inconclusive, there’s a feeling the U.S. lacked some potency in midfield. When you go 89 minutes without scoring, it’s hard to argue the point. Until the U.S. brought on Boyd and Shea and started sending everything through Dempsey, the team lacked drive through middle. Bringing in Zusi would help that problem, giving the States a second player who can transition the team into attack, somebody who can play wide as well as help through the middle. If Klinsmann came out of Jamaica thinking the team really missed what Landon Donovan provides, Zusi’s the logical choice.

Jose Torres – This one would be a bit weird as a swap for Altidore, but if Klinsmann wants to exert greater control on the game, Torres might be his man. As Steve pointed out, Torres rarely seems to get the U.S. closer to scoring goals, but he is capable of making sure they keep the ball. The logic here would be to get somebody on the pitch who can work with Kyle Beckerman, allow Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones to get forward, and give the U.S. a chance to set up (rather than jump into) attack.

Joe Corona – The Xolos midfielder has only made two appearances with the senior team, so it’s difficult to envision how Klinsmann would use him, particularly when thrown in with the rest of the first choice XI. He does, however, add another attacker who’s good on the ball and can promote a quicker passing game. If Klinsmann (for whatever reason) decides to put Dempsey into a more advanced, attacking role, Corona’s one of the few options that can fill that space.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

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The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’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 – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE