Seattle Sounders’ new system allows star attackers to shine

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SEATTLE — After failing to record a point in his first 590 minutes as a Seattle Sounders player, Clint Dempsey tallied a goal and an assist in the last two games. His newfound production can be attributed largely to a change in the team’s formation.

Head coach Sigi Schmid moved away from his usual 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders and two wingers in a 1-1 tie with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, in the team’s last regular-season game. He stuck with it on Wednesday, and Seattle beat the Colorado Rapids, 2-0, in the Western Conference play-in game.

Dempsey started at the point of the diamond, with Osvaldo Alonso in the holding role and Adam Moffat and Brad Evans on either side. Evans scored the first goal of the game, in the 28th minute, following a build-up in which Dempsey played a heavy role. Eddie Johnson’s stoppage-time strike came directly off Dempsey’s foot.

“I thought we played well in [the formation], especially when it was Evans and Ozzie and Moffat,” Schmid said after the game. “I thought their cohesion was pretty good and allowed Clint the freedom to go.”

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But with minimal time to train and implement the new lineup, not all players have had a chance to familiarize themselves with the system. Marc Burch replaced injured fullback DeAndre Yedlin at halftime, when Evans slid to right back. Burch played a little more erratically than Evans in the midfield, at times stretching too far.

“Burch really hadn’t trained in that position,” Schmid said. “He’s more either a wide guy or fullback, so he played a little bit wider, and that threw us off a little bit, but it wasn’t his fault. He just hasn’t had that time in there, but I think we’ll be OK.”

However, Dempsey said he felt comfortable.

“Just whatever’s going to help this team keep the ball a little bit more, help us create chances more and depending on if it helps us be more dangerous in attack: that’s all that matters,” he said. “Whatever position they put me in that I’m able to influence the game in a positive way is a position I like. So far, these last two games, I’ve gotten a goal and an assist, and it’s good to be contributing.”

He and Johnson provided the thrust for a relentless Sounders attack that peppered the Rapids’ net with 14 attempts on goal and four shots on target. Dempsey played two passes that resulted directly in a shot, while Johnson made five key passes.

Finding a rhythm in training has allowed the longtime friends to be in-sync during recent games as well. Johnson missed three of the last four regular-season games with an injury and international duty, while Dempsey did not play in the three preceding matches.

Now, Johnson said, they are starting to look dangerous.

“We do a lot of exercises where myself, Clint and [forward Lamar] Neagle play against three guys in the back,” Johnson said. “The coaches always [say] in training: find solutions between the three of us. I feel like the last two games, we’ve been able to find each other and combine with each other. The more games, the better we’re going to get.”

That can only bode well for Seattle moving forward. Schmid may have finally found a system that allows his big-name players to perform at their best at the same time. Obafemi Martins’ return from a groin injury will only make the team stronger.

“We’ll develop our game plan and be ready,” Schmid said. “As we develop more understanding of where we’re going to be, then that just allows [Dempsey] to get balls in more dangerous positions.”

The Sounders host their biggest rival, the Portland Timbers, on Saturday in the conference semifinals. A tough Timbers midfield should test Seattle’s resilience in its new formation, as well as give Dempsey and Johnson more problems to solve.

How will USMNT line up versus Costa Rica?

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Saturday brings a first look at the United States men’s national team in 2020, though Gregg Berhalter’s bunch won’t look anything like its best self.

The Yanks have an almost exclusively MLS roster for the match, with Hobro’s Christian Cappas, Wolfsburg II’s Uly Llanez and unattached 17-year-old Bryang Kayo in the fold.

Many of Berhalter’s best MLS stars won’t be in Carson either for the 3:55 p.m. ET Saturday kickoff. Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley are the biggest names.

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Ronald Gonzalez’s Ticos will be similarly hampered, although more of Costa Rica’s A-side play in MLS and domestically.

We’ll leave the breakdown of the visitors for a later date, but who will rep the U.S. in Saturday’s Starting XI?

The travel roster includes keepers Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, and Matt Turner, as well as defenders Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Reggie Cannon, Julian Araujo, Chase Gasper, Justen Glad, Mark McKenzie, and Sam Vines. Listed midfielders Sebastian Lletget, Jackson Yueill, Brenden Aaronson, Cappis, Kayo, and Brandon Servania are joined by forwards Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Ferreira, and Ulysses Llanez.

Goalkeeper is anyone’s guess, but Johnson’s got the most run of the three during the Berhalter era. The younger Turner or more accomplished Hamid may step in there.

It would be surprising to see any other center backs besides Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long given what we know of Berhalter and his respect for regulars. Reggie Cannon should start at right back and it’s between Chase Gasper and Sam Vines for the left. We’ll choose Vines out of intrigue.

Jackson Yueill, Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, and Gyasi Zardes are safe bets to start, and this would seem a spot to give Jonathan Lewis more than subs’ run. That leaves one spot, and we’re pegging Brandon Servania to be the one chosen of four midfielders aged 17-20.

There’s also the matter of whether FC Dallas striker Jesus Ferreira will be internationally cleared to play Saturday. We sure hope he will be!

How do you think Berhalter will line them up?


How Berhalter may go

Johnson

Cannon — Zimmerman — Long — Vines

Yueill — Servania

Arriola — Lletget — Lewis

Zardes


What we’d like to see

Turner

Cannon — Zimmerman — McKenzie — Vines

Yueill — Cappis — Servania

Arriola — Ferreira — Lewis

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Report: Sheffield United in ‘advanced talks’ for $22M Norway star

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Sheffield United is ready to add one of the game’s brightest young talents to its blossoming Premier League side.

Norway midfielder Sander Berge is the name, and he’s been linked with Liverpool amongst others over the past few months.

Berge turns 22 next month and already has 20 caps for Norway in addition to 113 senior appearances for Genk in Belgium and 43 more for Valerenga in his home country.

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The defensive midfielder has chipped in six goals and four assists. He won the Belgian Super League with Genk last year and has a career-best four goals so this season.

It shows what success brings to a club, as Sky Sports reports that Berge turned down a move to Bramall Lane in the summer.

The fee is said to be $22 million, which isn’t small but completely reasonable given his stature for club and country.

This may move may join the Lys Mousset purchase as one of the Blades’ smartest bits of business, especially as Chris Wilder‘s men look for success on multiple fronts. Their success as a newly-promoted side is one of the great stories of the European season, and a place in Europe would be a fantastic achievement.

From The Yorkshire Post:

“It is going well, no doubt about it,” Wilder said. “On the Premier League front and in the Cup. You probably would not think it, but the win at Millwall has given me an enormous amount of pleasure in confirming, not even seeing, what my team is about. Players have come in with the likes of the skipper (Billy Sharp) and other players who are really driving it forward and want to produce individual performances and the atmosphere is good.”

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.

Espanyol identify 12 fans who racially insulted player

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BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish club Espanyol says it has identified 12 fans who racially insulted an Athletic Bilbao player in the Spanish league last weekend.

Espanyol said on Monday in a statement that nine of the fans were club members and would face punishment that could include suspension or a full-time ban.

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It said a report of its analysis of the video images of Saturday’s game at RCDE Stadium were sent to authorities.

The club reiterated its “categorical condemnation of any displays of violence and racism.”

The fans made monkey noises directed at Athletic forward Inaki Williams, who is black. Television images showed Williams confronting the section of Espanyol fans who taunted him after he was substituted late in the game in Barcelona.

The Spanish league said it will seek a partial stadium closure for Espanyol and will raise the incident with the Spanish soccer federation’s competition committee, which handles disciplinary issues.

Transfer rumors: West Ham want $44M midfielder, Barca eyes Rodrigo

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West Ham United is being linked with a big transfer splash, and it’s not even a striker.

Uruguayan midfielder Nahitan Nandez is the man in question, and West Ham is reportedly tempting Cagliari with a $44 million offer this January.

Nandez, 23, arrived from Boca Juniors for less than half that fee this summer, and has chipped in a goal with three assists for Tommaso Giulini’s sixth-place Serie A side.

He’s got 31 caps for his national team, and is averaging 1.5 tackles per match with Cagliari. Nandez is also averaging a key pass and 1.1 successful dribbles per league outing.

Football-Italia says that Cagliari will try to tie Nandez to a new deal with a $44 million release clause if the move to West Ham is unsuccessful.

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Meanwhile Barcelona’s pursuit of a Luis Suarez replacement isn’t limited to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, according to Marca.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu admits that Valencia striker Rodrigo Moreno is interesting his coaches.

“We don’t talk about players from other teams. But [Rodrigo’s] name is on the table of the coaches, and a replacement will arrive. I do not know whether it will be from Barcelona B or from outside. I like many players.”

The Spaniard has eight goals in 21 caps, and turns 29 in March. Rodrigo has four goals and 10 assists in 23 matches across all competitions this season.

Valencia beat Barcelona this weekend to send the Blaugranas three points back of La Liga leaders Real Madrid.