U.S. Men’s National Team defense remains unsettled after Mexico draw

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One of the biggest question marks surrounding the U.S. Men’s National Team heading into this summer’s World Cup in Brazil concerns the team’s backline. Last night’s 2-2 draw with Mexico did little to shed light on this growing worry.

Jurgen Klinsmann came into last night’s match with a MLS stable of six defenders to choose from: Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson, Tony Beltran, Michael Parkhurst and DeAndre Yedlin.

This meant more than a few key faces were missing, namely, Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron and Hoffenheim’s Fabian Johnson, who remained with their clubs in Europe, Seattle’s Brad Evans, who is recovering from a calf injury sustained during a game against Toronto FC on March 15, and Puebla’s DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco, who were not released by their club because the friendly did not fall on a FIFA international match date.

Klinsmann, therefore, opted to start a center-back partnership of Besler and Gonzalez, with Parkhurst on the left and Beltran on the right.

Gonzalez began the game strong, looking much like the player who impressed in the 0-0 draw with Mexico in 2013 and the 2-0 win over El Tri on September 10th. His second half, however, was a complete horror show as he lost track of Rafa Marquez on Mexico’s opener in the 49th minute and got caught ball-watching on Alan Pulido’s 68th minute equalizer.

Marquez’ goal highlighted Gonzalez’ inability to use the body he’s been blessed with. Despite his 6’5″, 205 lbs. frame, Gonzalez remains reluctant to bust through the opposition with Marquez easily evading him by running a pick around Kyle Beckerman and Juan Valenzuela. It was a simple move by a crafty veteran that Gonzalez should have had the strength to either blow straight through or the agility and wherewithal to skip around. Instead, he was left flat-footed, miles away from Marquez.

On Pulido’s strike, Gonzalez either fell asleep or gave up. Either way, he looked totally perplexed at how Pulido had gotten around him and silly with his hand held high in the air, begging for offside.

Besler, on the other hand, continues to impress despite his relative inexperience at the national team level. The smooth passing Sporting KC center-back is blessed with brilliant timing and, unlike his partner last night, is rapt with attention the entire time he’s on the pitch. In the first half Besler denied Pulido a clever chance and throughout the game showed the poise of a man ready to lead in Brazil.

The problem was that Besler’s night was cut short by Klinsmann’s decision to swap him out for Clarence Goodson. Like Besler, Goodson has a quiet confidence to him, no doubt the result of a 31-year-old with a diverse soccer CV. Goodson’s consistency is his best trait and while nothing about his performance last night will raise red flags, his similar style to Besler, minus perhaps an ounce of the tenaciousness, makes him feel like the third center-back option in Brazil.

The most likely partner for Besler come this summer is Cameron, who, despite playing right-back for his club, has the versatility (and the desire) to play in the center of the defense. Cameron’s speed, grit and experience make him feel like the right compliment to Belser but if this duo is to lead the Stars & Stripes in Brazil, they’ll need to begin fusing a proper partnership, and quick.

Parkhurst, starting at left-back, is another player who didn’t hurt his chances for Brazil. The Columbus Crew captain went 90 strong and generally held down his side of the field, which wasn’t easy considering the pouring forward of Mexico as the game matured. Yet given the presence of players like Johnson and Beasley, who remain the most likely left-backs to start in Brazil, Parkhurst is still a player on the bubble.

Beltran had some decent moments but was largely an inconsistent figure. His defending was average and Mexico looked to exploit him down the right side of the field. Yedlin was impressive when he came on for Beltran in the 71st minute, putting together a few trademark scampers up the pitch although his inexperience remains a worry. One for the future, no doubt, but as far as selection for this summer goes, Yedlin is another who will need a big spring to punch his ticket to Brazil.

As the USMNT enters its final prep phase for World Cup 2014, the time has come for Klinsmann to settle on a back four that can gel. Besler and Cameron feel like a solid combination, although Goodson could also do the job if Cameron is used as a right-back with Johnson on the left. If Cameron stays in the middle, Johnson on the left and Evans on the right could work, or, Beasley could go left with Johnson right.

Either way, Besler, Cameron and Johnson remain the three key pieces to the Nats back four. Who that fourth player is and what permutation the USMNT will ultimately feature in Brazil remains in the trusted hands of Klinsmann.

 

La Liga: Bale scores as Real Madrid get by tiny Huesca

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MADRID (AP) Gareth Bale scored early in the first half and Real Madrid held on for a harder-than-expected 1-0 win at last-placed Huesca on Sunday to move closer to the top of the Spanish league.

Bale found the net in the eighth minute and Madrid withstood pressure from the league newcomer to move to fourth in the standings after 15 matches, behind Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and leader Barcelona.

Barcelona and Atletico Madrid won their games on Saturday, while Sevilla was held by Valencia to a draw.

The match in Huesca happened only a few hours before fierce Argentine rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors played in Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. The second leg of the final was moved to the Spanish capital after the match in Argentina was marred by fan violence.

Madrid struggled against a Huesca team that hasn’t won in 16 straight matches. Huesca has only won once in the league this season – in the first round at Eibar.

Huesca is making its first-division debut and had never played against Real Madrid.

Santiago Solari’s team needed a solid performance by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to hold on to the win, the team’s fourth consecutive victory in all competitions after a humiliating 3-0 defeat at Eibar in the league.

“We couldn’t do much in the second half,” Courtois said. “We know we have to improve, but it’s difficult to play these types of matches.”

Courtois and other Madrid players said strong winds in the second half made it harder for the team to control the game.

Marco Asensio and Isco, who had led the team to a 6-1 rout of third-division club Melilla in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, entered Sunday’s match in the second half but made no significant contribution.

Bale scored with a neat volley from inside the area, side-footing a cross by Alvaro Odriozola.

The Wales forward, jeered by some fans in the team’s league win against Valencia last weekend, hadn’t scored in 10 league matches.

Real Madrid was ninth in the standings after losing 5-1 at Barcelona in a match that led to the firing of coach Julen Lopetegui.

Benitez crushes refs for Yedlin red after loss to Wolves

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DeAndre Yedlin‘s controversial red card near the hour mark of Newcastle’s eventual home loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers proved deadly, and left Magpies boss Rafa Benitez fuming.

Benitez was so mad, he let the officials hear it on the field, and then after the match didn’t hold back, calling for VAR to be instituted immediately.

[ RECAP: Late Doherty strike wins it for Wolves ]

“We need the VAR, now. I think we need the VAR,” Benitez told Sky Sports. “You can guarantee to me that the player in the corner of the box can score in the top corner every time? It cannot be a red card [on Yedlin]. We have lost three points today and we deserve to win.”

Yedlin was sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity, but the controversial decision was made by referee Mike Dean despite the presence of a pair of Newcastle defenders in the area and charging, with Jamaal Lascelles the closest. “The ball was far away and he [Lascelles] was close, close enough at least to see that it was not a clear chance.”

Benitez was also furious about an incident where Ayoze Perez took an elbow from Willy Boly in the penalty area with 10 minutes to go. “It’s so obvious. You see the red card [on Yedlin] and you see the elbow in the face of Ayoze. We need the VAR, right now.”

“I think the team was doing well in the game, but it is very difficult in these situations,” Benitez said. “I don’t need to talk too much because you talk well about the referees, and their decisions that are wrong. Just watch the images, that’s it. It is so clear.”

VAR has recently been confirmed for use in the Premier League starting next season. The league voted this summer on instituting the technology for this season, but instead voted to postpone the system’s installment.

Watch Live: Boca Juniors and River Plate in Copa Libertadores final

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The match is finally here.

After many twists and turns that saw the final’s second leg postponed and scheduled two weeks later thousands of miles away, Boca Juniors and River Plate will meet with 90 minutes to decide the Copa Libertadores winner. The game kicks at 2:30 p.m. ET from the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Spain.

WATCH COPA LIBERTADORES FINAL LIVE, ONLINE

With the fan violence aside, the focus can return to the match on the field. The aggregate is 2-2 after the first leg hosted by Boca Juniors, with the visitors fighting back from a goal deficit twice. The level aggregate score gives this match the feel of a one-off final rather than a second leg, punctuated even more by the delay between start and finish.

The delay also means Cristian Pavon is healthy and ready to go for Boca Juniors after leaving the first leg in tears after just 27 minutes. Carlos Tevez begins on the bench for Boca. River manager Marcello Gallardo is still suspended for the second leg as he was for the first, but this time he can at least be in attendance, unlike the first leg when he was not allowed in the stadium.

LINEUPS

River Plate: Armani, Montiel, Maidana, Pinola, Casco, Ponzio, Perez, Palacios, Fernandez, Martinez, Pratto.
Bench: Luz, Martinez Quarta, Mayada, Zuculini, Quintero, Alvarez, Mora.

Boca Juniors: Andrada, Buffarini, Magallan, Izquierdoz, Olaza, Nandez, Barrios, Perez, Pavon, Benedetto, Villa.
Bench: Rossi; Goltz, Jara, Gago, Tevez, Abila, Zarate.

Newcastle 1-2 Wolves: Doherty wins it late

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  • Perez cancelled out Jota before the break
  • Yedlin sent off in 57′ for last-man foul
  • Doherty heads home deep into stoppage time

Newcastle looked strong at home as they worked to move further from the relegation zone, but a critical second-half call proved deadly as DeAndre Yedlin was sent off with 33 minutes to go, and while Newcastle nearly held on in front of a strong Martin Dubravka, Matthew Doherty struck four minutes into stoppage time to seal the Wolves win. Diogo Jota was vicious all match, proving the difference in the attack.

Wolves picked up where they left off against Chelsea midweek, and it was the hero then who opened the scoring on Sunday. Jota was on the receiving end of a cross from Helder Costa, who delivered a perfect ball into the box that somehow sailed over the head of Jamaal Lascelles in no man’s land. Jota was there on the doorstep, and he chested down and touched past Martin Dubravka with ease for the opener.

That lead, however, was short-lived. Off a set-piece, Salomon Rondon hit the bar with his free-kick, and while fans all looked to the referee to see if the ball had crossed the line, Rondon sent the ball back in from the other side and Ayoze Perez cleaned things up with a fabulous header to level the match.

That sprung Newcastle to life, and Rondon forced a Rui Patricio save moments later. The Magpies were strong headed into the break, and came out of halftime in the ascendency as well. Newcastle was forced into a change at the break, as an injured Federico Fernandez came off, replaced by Javier Manquillo.

The game changed just before the hour mark when U.S. international Yedlin was sent off for a tackle on Jota. it was an incredibly controversial call, as Yedlin brought Jota down just outside the top-left corner of the box, and while referee Mike Dean judged it to be a last-man foul, Jota was cutting in front the left flank at an angle, and Newcastle had two defenders closing from the other side of the box.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Jota was lucky to stay on the pitch himself with 17 minutes to go as he stomped hard and brought down Perez at the top of the Newcastle box after a heavy touch got away. Replays showed Jota stepped sideways into an oncoming Perez to send him tumbling.

Wolves got its best chance since gaining a man advantage in the 76th minute as substitute Raul Jimenez smacked the bar with a vicious strike from near the same spot Rondon did the previous half. They forced a fabulous Dubravka save with 10 minutes to go as Wolves hit on the break and a Jota cutback went through a Morgan Gibbs-White dummy to the feet of Doherty who rifled a curling effort that the Newcastle shot-stopper lept to parry.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It appeared Newcastle had rode out the disadvantage, but Wolves struck with one final counter-attack. Jota marauded forward over the midway line and into the penalty area, and his initial shot was saved athletically by Dubravka, but the rebound fell right to Doherty at the far post who headed into the empty net on the doorstep.

The win moved Wolves into the top half of the table, sitting 10th with 22 points, level with Leicester City but behind on goal difference. Newcastle remains in 15th with 13 points on the season, just five points above the relegation zone.