Klinsmann’s picks: Sure seems like the coach got a lot right on Friday

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For a lineup that had so many uncertainties before kickoff in Commerce City, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sure seemed to get a lot of things right last night. From the patchwork backline, to the formation, to the midfield alignment to the forwards, everything seemed to work, as much as a roster missing so many of its regulars can work.

Let’s start at the back

Brad Guzan was fine for the most part, but that was the easy one. With Tim Howard out, the Aston Villa No. 1 was the obvious choice, and while some early second half forays away from his line drew some gasps from the American faithful, Guzan was otherwise reliable. He was sure-handed, confident. He was expected what everybody expected.

We knew Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron would start at the back. The question was where. Gonzalez was going to start in the middle, but electing to go with experience instead of injecting Tony Beltran, Klinsmann pushed Cameron to right back. It’s not a spot he’s used to with the national team, but he plays there with Stoke.

It was a safe choice, one that allowed Clarence Goodson to start a left-center half. It also allowed Klinsmann to get his most experienced defense on the field.

In truth, Cameron wasn’t that good. His distribution was poor and he did little to prevent Bryan Oviedo from being Costa Rica’s most dangerous player. Part of that was the weather, and part of Oviedo’s success was on Graham Zusi, but it was still a patchy performance from the Potter.

But there we no major errors. For a team protecting a 1-0 lead for most of the night, that was the biggest thing. Those Oviedo crosses could have proved painful (especially a first half ball that fell for Bryan Ruiz), but ultimately, Cameron’s growing experience outweighed his errors.

The revelation at defense was DeMarcus Beasley, who was having trouble getting called in at all before starting at left back. His night looked like it would end early when he went face-to-head with Omar Gonzalez, but the Puebla midfielder recovered to have one of the States’ better nights. Whether he holds up at Azteca is another matter entirely, but after for one night, DMB gave U.S. fans reason to think he’s got left back covered.

And he also revitalized his chances of getting to cap No. 100. In all likelihood, Beasley will reach appearance 99 Tuesday at Azteca.

source: APMidfield balance

With Danny Williams out, Klinsmann could have inserted Kyle Beckerman or Maurice Edu and maintain his tendency to select three players who normally play deep in midfield. But in a must win game at home, it was no surprise that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones (right) were asked to do the job by themselves.

The slight surprise may have been the depliyment. We think of Michael Bradley as the midfielder most capable of getting forward, and on Clint Dempsey’s goal, he showed how he can contiribute without ever touching the ball. But for most of the night, Bradley was the deeper of the two, sitting deep to act as a fulcrum.

Jones was allowed to do what he does best – roam, disrupt, use his strength and athleticism to be as annoying as possible. In attack, that gave the U.S. a player to act as an outlet just inside the final third. In the buildup, it allowed the U.S. to patiently kick it around while the Costa Ricans trudged through the snow.

Add in Clint Dempsey’s contributions dropping into the void above the pivot, and the midfield struck a perfect balance. That perception was aided by the early goal, Costa Rica’s five-man defense, the field conditions, home field advantage, and the U.S.’s inherent edge in midfield talent, but the result’s enough to bolster opinion that Klinsmann needs to stick with two, not three, defensively-inclined midfielders.

Attack did enough

Jozy Altidore had one of his better nights of the Klinsmann era. His holdup play was excellent, and Costa Rica seemed to lack the willingness or personnel to compete for the long balls coming out of the States’ end. With a strong work rate and improved off-the-ball movement, Altidore is starting to improve on the qualities that made him an iffy fit before.

Herculez Gomez got the call on the left ahead of Eddie Johnson, a decision that’s more difficult to judge. Gomez was fine, and his experience seemed valuable as he shunned the weather and got to work. On set pieces and with the ball at his feet, Gomez offers a bit more, and his work rate is always among the team’s best. But it’s not difficult to image Johnson being as effective, if in a different way.

source: Getty ImagesOn the other flank, Graham Zusi (right) was a non-factor in attack and a detriment tracking Oviedo, but it’s hard to fault Klinsmann for this selection. In what the coach had labeled a must win game, Zusi’s recent successes were always likely to earn Klinsmann’s nod. Gomez could have started on the right while Johnson played on the left, but on a day when possession was going to be important, you can see why Zusi got the call.

On Tuesday, however? It’s hard to feel that confident about that right side matching up against Andres Guardado and Jorge Torres Nilo, particularly when Mexico scored each of their Friday goals while attacking the defense’s right. Klinsmann may have no better defensive option than Cameron, but for that flank to work, Zusi will have to be better running back toward goal.

And then there’s Dempsey, who was never not going to start, but the main issues with “Deuce” as a No. 10 had been his ability to keep the play moving. For both club and country, there’s been a tendency so slow play down outside the final third rather than build momentum. Positionally, a supporting striker’s role allows Dempsey to do the kind of penalty area poaching that made the difference last night, but when that role requires a No. 10’s flare in a 4-2-3-1, Dempsey’s limitations are exposed.

In the snow of Colorado, those limitations were equalized. Everybody became a player who had trouble building momentum. It wasn’t even worth trying. Smart, well-hit passes that actually got to your teammates became more important, and in that environment, Dempsey’s strengths stood out. Putting him in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 proved a valuable focal point for a team that needed to hog the ball.

Credit the coach

Nobody was surprised by Friday’s selection, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t significant choices to make. And it looks like Klinsmann made all the right ones. The right side could have been better, but you could see the coach’s logic. And in the choice of formation, midfield selection, promotion of Beasley, and putting Dempsey (back) in a No. 10’s role, Klinsmann seemed to get it right.

Not a bad a frying pan performance for the scrutinized boss.

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

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Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

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.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

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.”