Football Focus: Portland Timbers tactically transform under Caleb Porter in 2013

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PORTLAND, Ore. — In one of the most stunning turnarounds in Major League Soccer history, the Portland Timbers are tied atop the Supporters’ Shield standings one year after finishing third from bottom. First-year head coach Caleb Porter began instilling a unique philosophy, by MLS standards, at the start of the season, and the ascent since has been exponential.

The Timbers defeated Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday, perhaps turning the tables on a relationship in which the Sounders have been widely seen as the “big brother” to the Timbers, who work in a smaller town, with a smaller budget and without the backing of an NFL conglomerate.

While the Sounders exhibit a smash-and-grab style both on and off the field, playing a direct style and making big-name signings such as Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, Portland has relied on its coach’s tactical acumen and team-building ability to get to the top.

“A real soccer game, at a high level, is going to be a little bit more of a chess match, a little bit more of a probably slower tempo,” Porter said on the Soccer Made in Portland podcast in March. “I want control in a game. Control allows us to increase our chances of winning. Shape allows us to have control. Possession allows us to have control. Pressure allows us to have control because we’re deciding what’s happening in the game.”

Never shy about speaking to the press (his post-game talks regularly take well over 10 minutes), Porter has outlined his philosophy as a desire to dominate games through possession and pressure.

Attacking with numbers

Portland’s basic shape is best described as a 4-3-3. Players are encouraged to interchange and work within the framework of the system to express their creativity, depending on their technical ability and soccer IQ.
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For example, Darlington Nagbe has more freedom than any other player because he plays best when he roams free. The others around him remain aware of his movement and fill in spaces as necessary. On Sunday, although Nagbe started as the left winger, he swapped positions with Kalif Alhassan in the middle very often.

The three biggest keys to the Timbers’ attack are:

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(Chalkboard courtesy of MLS Matchcenter)

A1: The double pivot between Will Johnson and Diego Chará. They form the base of every attacking movement and defensive sequence, encouraged to get forward often and win balls high up the field. Porter has said that both players’ natural tendency is to press into the attack, and this system allows them to step into higher spaces.

For two months earlier this season, the two could not start the same match due to multiple injury concerns. Between July 7 and Sept. 7, Portland had its worst stretch of the season, winning just twice, while losing five games and tying two.

In their first game back together, the Timbers defeated Toronto FC, 4-0, and the two central players combined for 90 percent passing accuracy, including three key passes that led directly to shots, and one goal from Johnson. Since then, they have once again started every game as the double pivot points, and Portland is 4-0-2.

A2: Overloading the central channel. This is where Porter’s technical and tactical coaching ability comes out in the final product, as his players are comfortable playing in tight spaces and know when to move the ball out of the middle.

The most dangerous space on the field to attack is the area on top of the opponent’s penalty area, as the vast majority of goals created through the run of play find this space at some point during the build-up.

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In this instance from Sunday’s game, Nagbe once again pulls inside and switches spots with Alhassan. Johnson and Chará push up, Maximiliano Urruti drops back as more of a false nine than a traditional target striker, and José Valencia also tucks in.

The move draws all five Sounders midfield players back, opening spaces for the Timbers to get wide and behind the back line.

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(Chalkboard courtesy of MLS Matchcenter)

Nagbe’s movement causes trouble for opponents because he is so good on the ball and always aware of his surroundings. He knows when to overload, when to create space, when to pass and when to shoot. His finishing ability from distance has netted him nine goals in 2013, a franchise single-season record, as well as some of the best goals in MLS since he’s been in the league.

His overdrive work rate helps, too. Against Seattle, he completed all but four of his passes and made 12 loose-ball recoveries and two interceptions. His activity centered mainly on his left-sided starting position, but he covered ground all over the field.

Combined with Diego Valeri’s passing ability (although the Argentine Designated Player has been injured recently), Portland has the keys to unlock the central channel of any defense.

A3: Getting the outside backs involved. In the play above, Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington step into the attacking half and offer opportunities for width (as do Valencia and Alhassan). With so many players inside the width of the 18-yard box, the ball will eventually have to go wide to move out of pressure.

When that happens, Jewsbury and Harrington can either get to the end line and find service into the box, or they can combine with wide players to exploit isolation opportunities. For example, if Urruti turns and plays the ball into space for Jewsbury to run onto, the defender can play with Valencia to get past the lone Seattle defender on that side.

Those three points lead to a style that is especially difficult to defend when Portland goes up a goal, and one that is useful in coming from behind if the opponent scores first. The Timbers are 10-0-6 when scoring first, but they have also come back to take two wins and five ties in 12 games when conceding first.

“Every game, we’re going for three points,” Porter said after Sunday’s win. “Even though we’ve had draws, we’ve not gone into any game — home or away — trying for anything other than getting three points.”

The overriding principle throughout Portland’s attacking philosophy is having possession of the ball. From back to front, Porter stresses the importance of having the ball and keeping it on the floor, moving it to create unbalance in opponents’ shape. If a team has the ball, it can throw numbers forward.

“Everybody wants to have the ball,” Porter said in March. “Everybody wants to attack. If you ask anybody, even the center backs, they would rather have the ball and attack than defend all game.”

Winning possession high up the field

The other half of Porter’s philosophy, aside from possession, is defensive pressure. After some early-season rust that saw Portland concede eight goals in its first four games, the Timbers have four shutouts in their last six matches.

Some of it is down to goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts’ shot-stopping ability — he has won MLS Save of the Week nine times — but most of it is the knowledge of when and how to defend.

“The harder you work when you lose the ball, the quicker you get the ball back,” Porter said. “There are two ways to defend: you defend the goal, or you defend the ball. We defend the ball.”
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When an opponent tries to build from the back, Portland’s defensive pressure can again be broken into three keys that are closely connected:

D1: Immediate chase and pressure. Without initial pressure on the ball from a first defender, the rest of the team’s work to get into position is rendered useless.

D2: Cutting the field in half to make play predictable. This falls onto the center forward. He has to be in position to cut off square passes through the middle of the field that would relieve the initial pressure.

D3: Funneling play into defensive numbers-up spaces or forcing a long, 50/50 ball. The first defender’s body shape on approach to pressure must discourage play into a teammate that would relieve pressure (usually wide because Portland’s numbers concentrate in the middle). The center forward, again, must cut off simple switches through the middle.

Finally, the central players have to bait opponents into playing the central pass. Instead of touch-tight marking, perhaps that means dropping off a couple steps and moving to pressure as the ball is in transit, then converging on the intended target so he has no outlet.

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In real time, this is how high-pressure defending looks. Urruti both applies initial pressure (D1) and cuts the field in half (D2) with his body shape on approach — the red space is off-limits to the passer on the ball. Valencia bends his run to discourage the wide pass, Johnson moves to get goal-side of the weak-side central midfielder, and Nagbe and Chará are in position to converge on the ball in transit (D3).

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(Chalkboards courtesy of MLS Matchcenter)

But at times, especially against the stronger teams in the league such as the Sounders, Portland cannot expect to win the ball high up the field every time. It did quite often, making 19 recoveries and six interceptions in the top half of the field, but Seattle put quite a bit of pressure on Ricketts’ goal throughout the game.

“We want to be a team in the front half. We want to be pressing and locking teams in, on the ball, but I’ve also prepared them to be in the back half as well. So basically, I’ve prepared them for Plan A and Plan B,” Porter said afterward. “I’ve tried to prepare these guys to be composed and mature when we’re playing with a lower block and not able to push the game. … I think that’s been a big reason why we’re grinding out results because earlier in the year, we were either up the field and pushing, playing well, or we’re just getting run through. So we’ve kind of downshifted just a little bit and balanced our team — just a little bit — so we’re a little bit more set up to win games. This time of year, it’s going to be tight games, most likely.”

The double pivot was again crucial in that aspect of the game on Sunday. In the defensive phase, it becomes a pair of traditional holding midfielders, shielding the back four. Johnson made 12 recoveries, while Chará had 10 and added six interceptions.

One aspect of Portland’s game that still needs work is defending set pieces, or “box defending,” as Porter calls it. Of the 33 goals the Timbers have conceded, 17 have been from dead balls: four penalty kicks, three direct free kicks, one long throw-in, three corner kicks and six free kicks served in.

The Sounders defeated Portland on an Eddie Johnson header from a Mauro Rosales free kick on Aug. 25, and Ricketts came up with another Save of the Week candidate Sunday before Dempsey hit the crossbar, both on set pieces. In the run-and-gun MLS style of play, that’s a weakness that could be exploited by opportunistic teams in the playoffs.

Buying in doesn’t cost a thing

One final aspect of Porter’s system that isn’t tactical, but it’s vital: buying in. Porter has gotten more out of every player on his roster than any coaches who have had those players before, with the possible exception of injured center back Mikael Silvestre.

In his press conference on Sunday, Porter spoke at length about how his players have bought into the philosophy of possession soccer, a sentiment that important players such as Johnson, Alhassan and Ricketts echoed afterward in the locker room. Their selflessness to the team cause has been the single biggest aspect of this team’s success.

“There have been so many guys that have just transformed as players,” Porter said. “The talent was always there. … They’re good guys, they’re talented, they have character, and you get them bought in, you get them together, you get them in the right roles, this is what can happen. … You look at the best teams in the world: teams that raise trophies are teams that have chemistry, teams that remain humble.”

In March, he tried to tamper expectations a little, while still clearly believing in what he was trying to build.

“We’re trying to change habits within guys that have never played consistently under pressure,” Porter told Soccer Made in Portland. “It’s a psychological thing, too. I mean, how many teams really play? Some say they do. So you’ve got guys that are used to, when they’re under pressure, hit the panic button and kick it. … I think the biggest challenge is, you get guys that just haven’t been encouraged to play enough, or haven’t been told how you play. That’s the toughest part. All of a sudden, you’re getting them at a certain age — and they want to learn, they really do — but if you’re 26 years old, and you’ve never done it, even if you want to learn, it’s hard to do it all of a sudden.”

As a college coach, Porter was used to reversing serious developmental flaws in the players he recruited. But at that level, coaches have closer control over their rosters. Rebuilding a professional team has to take contracts, ownership and a salary cap into consideration. Most of the Timbers’ important players were only role players last year, whether they played in Portland or elsewhere, and have stepped up into major areas of responsibility this season.

‘We play the way we play so we’re in a position to win’

From the players he brought in and the players who remained from last year’s disappointment of a season, Porter has built the most tactically sophisticated team in a doldrums of a league as far as soccer IQ goes. The Timbers have beaten direct teams with their active, evolving system of tactical problem solving, which allows them to win games in multiple ways.

“If there’s a fight, we’re up for a fight,” Porter said on Sunday. “There’s no problem with that. We can out-football teams, but also, we can outfight teams. This team’s not soft. … And yet, we still were able to mix in some good football, and you could still see — for periods — our way of playing, maybe not as much as I would like, but it’s hard to be disappointed to get that result.”

Portland’s ascent has been remarkable. Building a team to play an attractive, possession-based style takes time, but the club has shown patience from top to bottom since the start of the season. Comparing Porter’s quotes from just two months ago, when Seattle beat his team at CenturyLink Field, to quotes from Sunday shows the belief (and perhaps stubbornness) it takes to find success.

“We play the way we play so we’re in a position to win and, to some extent, to score the goal,” he said after the 1-0 loss on Aug. 25. “We’re right there. We were toe to toe with that team, and it was an even game. The difference was they found a goal in one moment.”

On Sunday: “When you believe that you can win games, you put yourself in position to win these games. … There’s no reason why we would be inferior [to Seattle]. There’s no reason why we should be the little brother. We should be a legitimate contender. We should be capable of beating the Sounders, and it not being a miracle. It’s very satisfying, a year later, that here we are … and I think it says everything about how far we’ve come as a club.”

Portland is at the top of the league, tied with the New York Red Bulls. The Timbers are one of the teams to beat in MLS, 12 months after being just a team that regularly got beat in MLS.

World Cup 2022 schedule – groups, calendar, match schedule, brackets, dates

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The World Cup 2022 schedule is locked in and there is so much to look forward to ahead of the tournament in Qatar in November to December.

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From the USMNT facing England the day after Thanksgiving to Mexico and Argentina squaring off in the group stages, Spain facing Germany, and Belgium vs Canada, there are plenty of intriguing games in the opening round.

[ MORE: USMNT react to draw

Then we have the Round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final to look forward to.

Below is the schedule in full, details on how to watch the games and everything else you need..

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World Cup 2022 schedule, start time, dates, how to watch live

When: November 20, 2022 to December 18, 2022
Group stage game kick off times: 5am, 8am, 11am, 2pm (all ET)
Location: Qatar
TV channel in English: Fox
TV channel in Spanish: Telemundo, Universo, Peacock


Group A schedule (all kick off times ET)

November, 20: Qatar vs Ecuador – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 12pm
November, 21: Senegal vs Netherlands – Al Thumama Stadium, Al Khor – 5am
November, 25: Qatar vs Senegal – Al Thumama Stadium, Al Khor – 8am
November, 25: Netherlands vs Ecuador – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 11am
November, 29: Netherlands vs Qatar – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 10am
November, 29: Ecuador vs Senegal –  Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am

Group B schedule

November, 21: England vs Iran – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 8am
November, 21: USA vs Wales- Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 2pm
November, 25: England vs USA – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm
November, 25: Wales vs Iran – Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 5am
November, 29: Wales vs England – Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 2pm
November, 29: Iran vs USA – Al Thumama Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm

Group C schedule

November, 22: Argentina vs Saudi Arabia – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 5am
November, 22: Mexico vs Poland – Stadium 974, Doha – 11am
November, 26: Argentina vs Mexico – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm
November, 26: Poland vs Saudi Arabia – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 8am
November, 30: Poland vs Argentina – Stadium 974, Doha – 2pm
November, 30: Saudi Arabia vs Mexico – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm

Group D schedule

November, 22: France vs Australia – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 2pm
November, 22: Denmark vs Tunisia – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 8am
November, 26: France vs Denmark – Stadium 974, Doha – 11am
November, 26: Tunisia vs Australia – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 5am
November, 30: Tunisia vs France –  Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am
November, 30: Australia vs Denmark – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 10am

Group E schedule

November, 23: Spain vs Costa Rica- Al Thumama Stadium, Al Khor – 11am
November, 23: Germany vs Japan – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 8am
November, 27: Spain vs Germany – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm
November, 27: Japan vs Costa Rica – Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 5am
December, 1: Japan vs Spain – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 2pm
December, 1: Costa Rica vs Germany – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm

Group F schedule

November, 23: Belgium vs Canada – Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 2pm
November, 23: Morocco vs Croatia – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 5am
November, 27: Belgium vs Morocco – Al Thumama Stadium, Al Khor – 8am
November, 27: Croatia vs Canada – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 11am
December, 1: Croatia vs Belgium – Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am
December, 1: Canada vs Morocco – Al Thumama Stadium, Al Khor – 10am

Group G schedule

November, 24: Brazil vs Serbia – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm
November, 24: Switzerland vs Cameroon – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 5am
November, 28: Brazil vs Switzerland – Stadium 974, Doha – 11am
November, 28: Cameroon vs Serbia – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 5am
December, 2: Cameroon vs Brazil – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm
December, 2: Serbia vs Switzerland – Stadium 974, Doha – 2pm

Group H schedule

November, 24: Portugal vs Ghana – Stadium 974, Doha – 11am
November, 24: Uruguay vs South Korea – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 8am
November, 28: Portugal vs Uruguay – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm
November, 28: South Korea vs Ghana – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 8am
December, 2: South Korea vs Portugal – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am
December, 2: Ghana vs Uruguay – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 10am


Round of 16 schedule

Match 49 – December, 3: Winner Group A vs Runners up Group B – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am

Match 50 – December, 3:  Winners Group C vs Runners up Group D – Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan – 2pm

Match 52 -December, 4: Winners Group D vs Runners up Group C – Al Thumama Stadium, Doha – 10am

Match 51 – December, 4: Winners Group B vs Runners up Group A – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm

Match 53 -December, 5: Winners Group E vs Runners up Group F – Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah – 10am

Match 54 – December, 5: Winners Group G vs Runners up Group H – Stadium 974, Doha – 2pm

Match 55 – December, 6: Winners Group F vs Runners up Group E – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am

Match 56 – December, 6: Winners Group H vs Runners up Group G – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm


Quarterfinal schedule

Match 58 – December, 9: Winners Match 53 vs Winners Match 54 – Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan – 10am

Match 57 – December, 9: Winners Match 49 vs Winners Match 50 – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 10am

Match 60 – December, 10: Winners Match 55 vs Winners Match 56 – Al Thumama Stadium, Doha – 10am

Match 59 – December, 10: Winners Match 51 vs Winners Match 52 – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm


Semifinal schedule

Match 61 – December, 13: Winners Match 57 vs Winners Match 58 – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 2pm

Match 62 – December, 14: Winners Match 59 vs Winners Match 60 – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor – 2pm


Third-place play-off

Match 63 – December, 17: Losers Match 61 vs Losers Match 62 – Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan – 2pm


Final

Match 64 – December, 18: Winners Match 61 vs Winners Match 62 – Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail – 10am

USMNT held by Saudi Arabia as malaise continues

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The USMNT drew 0-0 against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain, as Gregg Berhalter’s side finished their World Cup preparations with plenty of pressure building on them.

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Tyler Adams went closest to scoring for the USMNT but in truth it was a poor game in a near-empty stadium in southern Spain, as an injury-hit Saudi Arabia were dangerous on the break.

This is not the kind of performance, and result, Berhalter would have wanted after their disappointing defeat to Japan last week and it gives him plenty of questions to answer just 54 days out from the World Cup kicking off in Qatar.


What we learned from Saudi Arabia vs USMNT

Confidence is low in the USMNT camp: This was not much better than the defeat to Japan and the U.S. look totally devoid of confidence on the ball. In the final third they always seemed to pick the wrong option and there were still some very bad giveaways in defense as Long, Turner and Adams were all guilty. This is a team which was playing safe and looked like a group of players who didn’t want to pick up an injury in the final game before the World Cup. There was no cutting edge and you have to feel sorry for Ricardo Pepi up top, as there was no cohesion and no rhythm to this display.

Musah, Robinson, Weah are badly missed: Berhalter referenced the starters he was missing before this game and it is clear the USMNT missed players who can keep the ball and provide quality from wide positions. Musah makes the USMNT tick in midfield and Weah and Robinson are so direct out wide that it allows midfielders to run into dangerous positions knowing they will be found. The USMNT had none of that in this game aside from Pulisic and McKennie combining and getting in a few times down the left in the first half. Pulisic in particularly went missing in the second half of this.

Saudi Arabia will be a tough nut to crack: Missing several key starters, this was a spirited display from Saudi Arabia. Herve Renard knows how to organize a team to be disciplined and dangerous on the counter and Saudi Arabia were exactly that. They’re in a very tough group with Argentina, Mexico and Poland, but they can cause a few shocks. The fact they have five more friendlies between now and the World Cup and all of their players are based domestically (with many coming from Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr) means they are very familiar playing together and are a robust unit.


Tactical focus

The USMNT looked to go long early and often and it worked to generate more chances than they did against Japan. McKennie surged in-behind the defenders, Pulisic cut in from the left and Long and Zimmerman both looked long whenever they could. Saudi Arabia were still a threat on the break and the spacing between the midfield trio and the defense remains a big issue for the USMNT as there were far too many gaps on the transition.


How to watch Saudi Arabia vs USMNT live, updates and start time

Date: Tuesday, September 27
Kick off time: 2pm ET
Where: Estadio Nuevo Condomina, Murcia, Spain
How to watch: FS1, UnimasTUDN


Saudi Arabia vs USMNT live analysis! – By Joe Prince-Wright

  • Send in your questions for our live Q&A (click on the video above) straight after Saudi Arabia vs USMNT
  • Gio Reyna leaves game in the 30th minute, replaced by Paul Arriola

18 minutes to go. Still 0-0. Not a lot going on.

SHOT! Much better from the USMNT as sub Scally had a cross cleared, then moments later fellow sub Ferreira smashes on goal but it is saved. The subs having a great impact. That is more like it.

Scally, McKenzie and Ferreira on for the USMNT. Yedlin (who was down for a long time getting treatment following a nasty tackle), Pepi and Long off.

The USMNT have yet to get going in this second half. Saudi Arabia looking more dangerous and whipped in a few crosses.

An update on Gio Reyna: he was taken off as a precaution (per Fox Sports’ Jenny Taft) and U.S. Soccer have since said he was ‘experiencing muscle tightness’ and that was why he was taken out.

Second half is underway and no subs from either side. It has been all Saudi Arabia so far.

HALF TIME: Saudi Arabia 0-0 USMNT – Not a great half from the U.S., again. A few more chances with McKennie and Adams going close and balls over the top causing problems. However, Saudi Arabia have had a few chances and are looking decent on the counter. To sum up the USMNT’s display in a word: sloppy.

The news filtering through about Gio Reyna doesn’t sound positive, as it has been confirmed by U.S. Soccer that the substitution was not planned. All signs point to some kind of injury. Fingers crossed it is nothing serious and the U.S. were just being very, very cautious given his recent injury history.

CLOSE! Saudi Arabia almost take the lead. Walker Zimmerman and Paul Arriola make crucial blocks after substitute Haitham Asiri got in down the right and Hattan Bahebri couldn’t sort out his feet at the key moment. Huge let off.

SUB: A worrying sign for the USMNT whenever Gio Reyna goes off early in a game and heads straight down the tunnel. Given his history record, this is concerning. Paul Arriola is on. 30 minutes gone.

USMNT fans won’t be delighted with what they’ve seen so far. Sure, it’s better than the display against Japan but it couldn’t get any worse, could it?

WIDE! Tyler Adams puts a shot just wide from 25 yards out. A decent effort after some sustained U.S. pressure.

Pulisic, wearing the captain’s armband, is looking real sharp. Some surging runs in from the left and he’s popping up everywhere.

Not too much going on at the moment as the USMNT struggle to get in the final third on a regular basis.

Lovely ball over the top and McKennie controls well but his shot is straight at the goalkeeper. Still, much better from the USMNT.

A few decent runs forward from the USMNT. As Pepi and McKennie both flagged for offside. Quick passing and moving from the U.S. as that is more like it.

KICK OFF: We are underway! Straight away Saudi Arabia have a shot from the edge of the box and Turner pushes it away. Sharp start from Saudi Arabia, who are missing several key players due to injury.

Anthems ring around the stadium in Murcia in front of a very small crowd which looks like being less than 1,000. Can the USMNT respond to that heavy defeat against Japan? We are about to find out.

Tick-tock! Kick off is almost here and this is the final chance for players to impress Gregg Berhalter ahead of the World Cup. Will it be another nervy, error-strewn display form the Stars and Stripes? Or will the likes of Pulisic, Adams and McKennie stand tall and really lead this young team to a much-needed win and, perhaps more importantly, a positive display?

As we approach kick off, the general reaction to team news focuses on Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman once again starting together at center back. This probably shows that Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie are way down the pecking order in that position and the injured duo of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards are well ahead of them. Also, watching Pulisic and Reyna on the wings could be fun, especially if they’re allowed to drift inside at will.

The team news is in from sunny southern Spain, as the beautiful Estadio Nuevo Condomina is the setting for the USMNT’s final game before the World Cup kicks off.

For the USMNT, Matt Turner starts in goal once again with Zimmerman and Long at center back. DeAndre Yedlin comes in at right back, with Sergino Dest switching over to left back. Ricardo Pepi comes in for Jesus Ferreira up top, Christian Pulisic replaces Brenden Aaronson out wide and Kellyn Acosta is in for Luca de la Torre in midfield.

Gregg Berhalter has gone a lot stronger with this starting lineup than we thought he might. Is that showing the pressure is on him to get a positive result? Perhaps.

Below is the Saudi Arabian starting lineup, as their entire roster is from their domestic league and for any USMNT fans underestimating them, Saudi Arabia finished above Japan in World Cup qualifying.


Saudi Arabia vs USMNT head-to-head record

This will be the seventh meeting between the Yanks and Green Falcons, but the first since 1999 against a national team representing political issues for the United States. Saudi Arabia won two of the first four but the Yanks claimed home soil wins in a 1995 friendly and the 1999 Confederations Cup. All of the on-field mentions above mean absolutely nothing for Tuesday but they are fun to note on a pre-match preview (Upside-down smile face emoji).


The lowdown on Saudi Arabia

This is a very Saudi Arabia experienced side, one that went 13W-4D-1L in World Cup qualifying and have experience in a lot of 1-0 contests including recent Spain-based friendly losses to Colombia and Venezuela. The team will also feel at home in Murcia, where it played those matches and where it had a scoreless tangle with Ecuador four days prior to this tilt. Ecuador outshot the Saudis 11-5 and had 60 percent of the ball but all that will get you an argument that you deserved better than a solitary point that comes from a real match. If you want to see your Yanks break down a sound team, Tuesday’s a good chance.


Key storylines

Let’s be very fair to Berhalter, who has a young team and has overseen some memorable and downright awesome triumphs in CONCACAF: There are injuries right now — Christian Pulisic was rested with a knock on Friday — and the coach does not have access to Timothy Weah, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Chris Richards.

But his judgment is being questioned with Fulham captain Tim Ream, Union Berlin center forward Jordan Pefok, and Benfica back John Brooks healthy and ready to contribute but sitting at home. Berhalter has questioned their fits in the system and also said something nebulous about the team not expressing its “personality” versus Japan and that sounds pretty bad when the system looks awful.


USMNT team news, injuries, lineup

This is easily the most interesting lineup in some time for the USMNT after Berhalter gave starting looks to some of his lynchpins and got a mixed bag of results, none of which were exceptional aside from goalkeeper Matt Turner (and even he was not at his best in possession on an admittedly poor pitch in Dusseldorf) and Brenden Aaronson if we’re being judicious in the name of optimism. But really, all of the front three were ghosts. Much of is down to the eight men behind them, though, and forgiving glances can be cast at Aaronson and Giovanni Reyna. Jesus Ferreira is not included after missing a chance that would and could be called a sitter if he didn’t have to jump to head it (We kid, but it’s dark humor).

Aaron Long was very poor and Walker Zimmerman uncharacteristically poor next to him, while youngster Sam Vines had a rough first half before Berhalter adjusted his usage from left back to left wing back with emphasis on the wing part. Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are often the heartbeat of this team but both looked a mix of cavalier and junior varsity. That won’t happen often, and very rarely will occur at the same time.

Here’s what to watch from Berhalter’s lineup choices, presuming he doesn’t change his formation.

  • If Matt Turner starts — and then stays healthy and relatively blunder-free at Arsenal — forget about anyone else starting the World Cup opener in Qatar. If it’s Ethan Horvath or presumed No. 3 Sean Johnson, well, anything’s possible.
  • We’ll see Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, but will it be Luca de la Torre completing the midfield trio? Will Kellyn Acosta or Johnny Cardoso arrive to move McKennie into a different role? Will Malik Tillman get his chance to start? Or will Giovanni Reyna be played in position (please?)?
  • Ricardo Pepi: The way Josh Sargent was plugged into the front three in the second half, it seems like FC Dallas star Ferreira and alum Pepi were meant to trade starts.
  • Christian Pulisic will start on the wing. How does he look, both in form and body language?
  • Sergino Dest and Sam Vines were the fullbacks versus Japan, with Reggie Cannon coming off the bench. Will it be Joe Scally and DeAndre Yedlin to start? Will Dest swap to left back? Antonee Robinson and Dest are the favorites to start in Qatar, but is the latter’s spot on the right now in question?
  • Much of U.S. Soccer, us included, considered this break to be a bunch of center backs bidding to play next to Walker Zimmerman in Qatar. Will it be Zimmerman plus one on Tuesday or something else?

UEFA Nations League: Schedule, how to watch, stream, TV, standings

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UEFA Nations League champions France will not go back-to-back, and Portugal is battling with Spain in its bid to return to the throne room, highlighting the odds that a new Nations League winner will be crowned at the end of third edition of the tournament.

[ LIVE: European Nations League hub — Scores, stats ]

England and Wales are no longer top-tier sides after their relegations to UEFA Nations League B. England didn’t win a single one of their six group games (0W-3D-3L) as Gareth Southgate’s side finished bottom of Group A3. Italy won at Hungary in their final game in Group 3 to reach the semifinal rounds, which won’t really make up for not making the World Cup but could give Roberto Mancini’s side some silverware.

France lost to Denmark and just remained in League A as Austria were relegated, with Croatia pipping the Danes to a place in the semifinal round by winning Group A1.

Group A4 is the opposite sort of fight, Belgium and the Netherlands have both played very well but the Dutch triumphed down the stretch (thanks to a 1-0 win as Virgil van Dijk scored the lone goal in Amsterdam) to advance to the semifinal round.

While all eyes went to Group A2 as Portugal hosted Spain on the final day and a win or a draw for Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. would’ve put him two wins from another trophy. Would Portugal join Croatia, Italy, and the Netherlands in the semis? That’s an unshiny nope for CR7 and Co., thanks to Alvaro Morata.


UEFA Nations League live: How to watch, stream links

When: June 1, 2022 – March 26, 2024
How to watch: Fox Sports Live, Fubo TV


UEFA Nations League A, Group 1

Croatia– 4-1-1, 13 pts [ADVANCED]
Denmark — 4-0-2, 12 pts
France — 1-2-3, 5 pts
Austria — 1-1-4, 4 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
France 2-0 Austria
Croatia 2-1 Denmark

Sunday
Denmark 2-0 France
Austria 1-3 Croatia

UEFA Nations League A, Group 2

Spain — 3-2-1, 11 pts [ADVANCED]
Portugal — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Switzerland — 3-0-3, 9 pts
Czech Republic — 1-1-4, 4 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Saturday
Czech Republic 0-4 Portugal
Spain 1-2 Switzerland

Tuesday
Portugal 0-1 Spain
Switzerland 2-1 Czech Republic

UEFA Nations League A, Group 3

Italy — 3-2-1, 11 pts [ADVANCED]
Hungary — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Germany — 1-4-1, 7 pts
England — 0-3-3, 3 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Friday
Italy 1-0 England
Germany 0-1 Hungary

Monday
England 3-3 Germany
Hungary 0-2 Italy

UEFA Nations League A, Group 4

Netherlands — 5-1-0, 16 pts [ADVANCED]
Belgium — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Poland — 2-1-3, 7 pts
Wales — 0-1-5, 1 pt [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
Poland 0-2 Netherlands
Belgium 2-1 Wales

Sunday
Netherlands 1-0 Belgium
Wales 0-1 Poland

Top 26 players in the USMNT player pool + World Cup roster projection

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Today’s the day we do it: We admit that it is no longer mentally sound to pretend the actual USMNT player pool rankings could match Gregg Berhalter’s preferences for the national team.

Whether you believe him when it comes to the importance of form, versatility, and performances in the shirt — as well as whether he adheres to those criteria, it’s virtually impossible to figure out what’s going on in his head.

Given two friendlies against fellow World Cup entrants to sort out his center backs and center forwards, let’s break down the minutes and starts handed out.

[ MORE: Saudi Arabia vs USMNT analysis, recap ]

At center back, Walker Zimmerman started both games as expected and went 180 minutes. Injuries to Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards cost Berhalter the chance to evaluate them during this camp, and the USMNT boss handed two starts to Aaron Long.

Long has neither been starter-level strong in his performances for the USMNT and hasn’t starred for Red Bulls, but he still chewed up 104 of a possible 180 minutes next to Zimmerman, doing things like this:

Mark McKenzie got all of the minutes in Long’s place, meaning Erik Palmer-Brown is either hurt or his club Troyes now hates the USMNT for bringing him out for the glory of training and warm-ups. To be fair, Berhalter only used one goalkeeper as well.

As for center forwards, they were starved this week. Berhalter handed a start to Jesus Ferreira against Japan and he had the best chance of the bunch, thudding a header over the goal on the States’ best scoring chance of either game. Josh Sargent got the second half of the game.

Ricardo Pepi only had 13 touches in a half-plus versus Saudi Arabia. Ferreira came in and got 10. Put that on the rest of the team, yes, but it only serves to accent Ferreira’s miss versus Japan while Jordan Pefok and Haji Wright just shrugged from their homes in Berlin and Antalya.

And so we’re in a place where what we see from players, whether in the USMNT shirt or from video and stats abroad, just doesn’t fit into the parameters set forth by the USMNT boss.

BUT… we’ve committed to weighing the top 25 players in the USMNT pool from time-to-time. We’ll do that now, but they are simply what we see. Below that we’ll make our best guess as to what Berhalter will do for his 26-man World Cup roster.


Top 26 players in the USMNT player pool right now

Before we go any further with this list, here’s a reminder of how we sort the talent with some ground rules:

  • The ranking is meant to illustrate who would be most likely to positively affect a USMNT match, regardless of manager or teammates, right now.
  • Health doesn’t matter to our rankings if a current injury isn’t one that could drastically alter the player’s skill set moving forward at the World Cup.
  • Age/potential/experience doesn’t matter either, at least not much; It’s how likely you are to contribute to the team if put on the field right now. Obviously, Paxton Aaronson is a better long-term prospect than Jordan Morris, but the Seattle Sounders forward is currently better prepared for the stage than the Philadelphia Union youngster.
  • Finally, if you’re breaking a tie between players… ask which you’d be more upset to hear was unavailable for a USMNT camp.
  1. Tyler Adams, Leeds United (2)
  2. Yunus Musah, Valencia (3)
  3. Christian Pulisic, Chelsea (4)
  4. Brenden Aaronson, Leeds United (5)
  5. Antonee Robinson, Fulham (7)
  6. Jordan Pefok, Union Berlin (6)
  7. Weston McKennie, Juventus (1)
  8. Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC (9)
  9. Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund (8)
  10. Timothy Weah, Lille (14)
  11. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Celtic (16)
  12. Chris Richards, Crystal Palace (11)
  13. Sergino Dest, AC Milan (10)
  14. Tim Ream, Fulham (17)
  15. John Brooks, Benfica (NR)
  16. Josh Sargent, Norwich City (12)
  17. Joe Scally, Borussia Monchengladbach (18)
  18. Matt Turner, Arsenal (21)
  19. Luca de la Torre, Celta Vigo (22)
  20. Jesus Ferreira, FC Dallas (13)
  21. DeAndre Yedlin, Inter Miami (NR)
  22. Djordje Mihailovic, CF Montreal (23)
  23. Haji Wright, Antalyaspor (19)
  24. Gianluca Busio, Venezia (NR)
  25. Kellyn Acosta, LAFC (25)
  26. Erik Palmer-Brown, Troyes (15)

Predicting Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT roster for World Cup*

*if tournament started today

Goalkeepers (3): Zack Steffen, Middlesbrough; Matt Turner, Arsenal; Sean Johnson, NYCFC. Last man out: Ethan Horvath, Luton Town

Defenders (8): Sergino Dest, AC Milan; Antonee Robinson, Fulham; DeAndre Yedlin, Inter Miami; Joe Scally, Borussia Monchengladbach; Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC; Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls; Cameron Carter-Vickers, Celtic; Chris Richards, Crystal Palace. Last man out: Tim Ream, Fulham

Midfielders (8): Tyler Adams, Leeds; Weston McKennie, Juventus; Luca de la Torre, Celta Vigo; Yunus Musah, Valencia; Kellyn Acosta, LAFC; Malik Tillman, Rangers; Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders; James Sands, Rangers.

Forwards (7): Christian Pulisic, Chelsea; Brenden Aaronson, Leeds; Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund; Timothy Weah, Lille; Paul Arriola, FC Dallas; Jesus Ferreira, FC Dallas; Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders.