Late Diskerud, Johannsson goals deliver 2-0 win for U.S. over Azerbaijan

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Seventy-one places separate the United States from European minnows Azerbaijan in FIFA’s rankings, but after 74 minutes in San Francisco, there was nothing between the two nations on the soccer field. With late goals from Mikkel Diskerud and Aron Johannsson, however, the World Cup-bound U.S. were able to take a 2-0 win from their 85th-ranked guests, giving the team a slow but positive start to its Brazil 2014 buildup.

The U.S. created two good chances in the first half, but after two crosses for impromptu starter Chris Wondolowski were headed at Azerbaijan goalkeeper Karman Agayev, the teams returned to the locker room scoreless. In the second half, off a restart by Brad Davis, a Michael Bradley shot was blocked in front of goal by Agayev, leaving an opportunistic Diskerud to give the U.S. its late relief. Six minutes later, a corner kick allowed Johannsson to provide the home side’s insurance.

The U.S. continues its send-off series on Sunday against Turkey in Harrison, N.J. On June 7, the U.S. will face Nigeria in its final match before leaving for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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Providing few surprises in his starting lineup, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann selected an initial XI that could also start June 16 against Ghana. Clint Dempsey, the team’s captain, was called on with Jozy Altidore up top, while a midfield built around Michael Bradley also featured Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, and Alejandro Bedoya. At the back, Geoff Cameron started in central defense beside Matt Besler, with fullbacks Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley completing the four in front of Tim Howard.

The day’s first surprise arrived shortly before kickoff when Dempsey was scratched from that starting XI. In his place, Wondolowski, playing in front of a largely home crowd, was chosen to partner Jozy Altidore up top, with tightness in the captain’s quadriceps forcing Dempsey from the starting lineup.

The first half’s best chances dropped for the man who was supposed to start on the bench, with Agayev called on twice to keep Wondolowski headers from giving the States an opening goal. In the fifth minute, a restart from the right by Zusi found an unmarked Wondolowski just outside the side-yard box, but the San Jose captain’s diving header went found Karman’s left knee after bouncing in front of goal. Just over 10 minutes later, Alejandro Bedoya beat his man on the right before finding Wondolowski eight yards out, with a strong hand from the Azerbaijan keeper putting the shot out for a corner.

With only one speculative chance testing Howard over the first 45 minutes, the teams reached halftime scoreless, prompting Klinsmann to make three of his six substitutions: Omar Gonzalez, believed to be fighting for a spot in the starting lineup, came in for Geoff Cameron; Timothy Chandler replaced DaMarcus Beasley at left back; while Zusi gave way for Davis.

Though a near-penalty in the 50th minute hinted Klinsmann’s changes might break through his team’s conservative opponent, the first half eventually began mirroring the first, just without the Wondolowski chances. Play moving from flank-to-flank failed to generate chances before the U.S. was dispossessed and briefly pushed back into their own half. After each inevitable Azerbaijan giveaway, the process would start anew.

By the 75th minute, the match looked destined to end in a draw, but converting on some penalty area chaos, the U.S. finally went in front. On a ball that dropped in the box after an Azerbaijani defender’s failed clearance, Michael Bradley forced Agayev to leave a saved shot in front of goal. There Diskerud, on the pitch for only four minutes, finishing into the right of goal to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.

Six minutes later, Azerbaijan’s weakness on set pieces was finally exploited. Off a Davis corner from the right of goal, Johannsson uncoiled onto a shot inside the near post, giving the U.S. its insurance.

The 2-0 final also gave the U.S. a result it would have expected, but going 74 minutes without a goal, the team played like a group taking the first, tentative steps of a much longer journey. Klinsmann will look for improvement on June 1.

Lineups

United States: Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson (DeAndre Yedlin 62′), Geoff Cameron (Omar Gonzalez 46′), Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley (Timothy Chandler 46′); Graham Zusi (Brad Davis 46′), Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (Mix Diskerud 71′); Chris Wondolowski (Aron Johannsson 62′), Jozy Altidore

Goals: Diskerud 75′, Johannsson 81′

Azerbaijan: Agayev, Abisov (Hüseynov 46′), Sukurov (Qırtımov 46′), Ramaldanov, Budak, Qarayev, Yunuszada, Abatsiyev (Medvedev 71′), Cavadov (Nazarov 60′), Aliyev, Dadasov (Fardjad-Azad 66′)

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

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Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

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Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

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West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.