How might the USMNT line up vs. Panama? 3-5-2? 4-4-2?

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The U.S. national team concludes its annual offseason training camp and friendlies series on Sunday as they host Panama (4 pm ET) at StubHub Center in Carson, California, which means it’s time to speculate how Jurgen Klinsmann might set up his team.

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First things first, we’ve got to settle on a formation. The 3-5-2 drew mixed reviews — rightly so — in last week’s 3-2 loss to Chile, and Klinsmann even went away from it after halftime, opting for the tried-and-true 4-4-2 instead. In my opinion, Klinsmann should have stuck with the 3-5-2 for the full 90 minutes and let the players work out the kinks themselves. If it’s a long-term possibility, stick with it. If it’s not, why are we doing it?

The USMNT has spent an entire month in training camp, working on, presumably, the new formation. To dump it after 45 minutes of varied results seemed a bit premature. Not you have no clue what you’re doing levels of prematurity, but at least what’s the point of trying it in the first place? For that reason, Klinsmann almost has to trot out the 3-5-2 again on Sunday, making the players’ last month of work worth something.

[ PREVIEW: USA needs much improved performance to close out January camp ]

So, who starts in a 3-5-2 on Sunday? I thought you’d never ask.

Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson Nick Rimando started the game against Chile and played all 90 minutes. My sense is that Klinsmann opts for Johnson — if not Rimando to start and Johnson in the second half — as he’s often split minutes evenly of 75-25 in two-friendly situations in the past.

Defenders: Matt Hedges, Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler Steve Birnbaum, who started the Chile game and played quite well, picked up a knee injury in training and will be unavailable for Sunday’s game. Thus, one starting spot opens up and it only makes sense that Hedges, one of the very best defenders in MLS in 2014, finally gets his shot to impress.

Hedges, much like Besler on the other side of Jones, is very comfortable playing with the ball at his feet, capable of defending in space — something he’ll have to do in a three-man backline — and physically dominant in the air.

[ MORE: Klinsmann not committed to 3-5-2 for Sunday — but why? ]

Midfielders: DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Bradley, Lee Nguyen, Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea Yedlin needs the competitive minutes as he’s nowhere near the Tottenham first team, and what’s the point of calling him in if he’s not going to get two games? Also, there’s no one else who can play the position, so he starts.

source: APFollowing a 2014 season where he put up 18 goals and five assists, Lee Nguyen has to get a real shot with the USMNT. He has to be allowed the chance to breathe, and shine. Playing him as the further-forward midfielder is exactly how to do that, and puts another attacker in a more advantageous position (more on that in a minute).

I don’t like Diskerud in a deeper role — even alongside a player like Bradley — but who else is Klinsmann going to turn to on the current roster?

Didn’t like Shea at left back/left wingback last game? Tough, because there’s no one else currently in camp capable of playing the position. He starts — forever, probably.

[ MORE: Klinsmann’s still got it: Effortless DOUBLE backheel ]

Forwards: Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey — Both started the Chile game, but Dempsey was dropped a bit deeper into the midfield — at least he was supposed to be — but Altidore ended up dropping in while Dempsey surged forward in attack. By actually pairing the two together — and getting rid of Bobby Wood, who left camp this week — the two are actually asked to stay connected and play off each other, something they’ve done to great successes in the past.

Dempsey plays as part of a two-man forward line in Seattle — he put up 15 goals and 10 assists last year in doing so — and offers the kind of off-the-ball movement you’re not likely to see out of a Gyasi Zardes — yet. Drop Dempsey into the midfield again, and the attack will be a disjointed mess with everything coming from the wing backs once again.

Subs off the bench: Miguel Ibarra, Wil Trapp, Luis Gil and Gyasi Zardes Trapp made his international debut in the Chile game, and while he’s undoubtedly a future USMNT starter, the speed of the game was a step too far for him at the moment. I’d love to see him start over Diskerud, because he’s the perfect midfield partner for Bradley, but he’s going to need time to adjust first.

Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Mourinho doesn’t have attacking options, but he does have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.

Solskjaer: Manchester United ‘looked mentally tired’ versus Burnley

Solskjaer reacts to Manchester United loss
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OIe Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t have the answers to what ails Manchester United without Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, and he can’t even fake it.

The United boss could only hang his side’s 2-0 loss to Burnley on sharpness, as the Red Devils out-attempted the visitors by a 24-5 margin.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

United also had 72 percent of the ball, but Burnley’s whole philosophy is cool with you having the ball if you don’t have the lead.

The Red Devils never looked quite ready to grab that, either, from the moment an early Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross sailed through the six absent receiver. From the BBC:

“The boys looked mentally tired towards the end, we didn’t find that creativity,” Solskjaer said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. When you are at Man United you are privileged because you are playing for the best club in the world.

“Sometimes you go through periods like that and it is a test I am sure they are going to come through.”

It’s all formulaic from the Norwegian manager. “The we’re United and it’s a special place” struck all the right chords when he first took the reins at Old Trafford, but the club hasn’t bought much quality since then and it’s ringing hollow as the depth fails to bail them out.

Spoiler alert: He did.

You can accept that Solskjaer is going nowhere and also accept that the whole thing is not going to improve any time soon. United should absolutely be in the Top Four given the failings of Chelsea, but cannot stop tripping over its own feet.

Man Utd shocked by advantageous Burnley

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Manchester United never showed up at Old Trafford, and Burnley reaped all the benefits.

Chris Wood and Jay Rodriguez scored as the Clarets stunned the Red Devils 2-0 on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

United fails to take advantage of Chelsea’s draw with Arsenal, and sits six points back of the Top Four.

Burnley climbs seven points clear of the drop zone, level with five teams on 30 points.


Three things we learned

1. Wood shines up top: It was a 10th goal to go with his first assist of the season for the New Zealand international, who used a half-yard of space from Harry Maguire to put Burnley in front. Burnley’s philosophy is to find their forwards at all cost, and when Wood is delivering that ethos looks genius.

2. United’s absent wings cost it dear (and jeer): Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were lively, but both Daniel James and Andreas Pereira did little to inspire hope of a goal for the home side. The Red Devils were the focus of crowd derision on the day, as they again wasted a chance to improve their Top Four credentials. Most teams will suffer without their top two attackers, but this is Manchester United. Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford missing or not, Wednesday was iugly stuff.

3. Jay Rodriguez’s new nickname is “Bangers Only”: Joking aside, it’s difficult to remember Rodriguez goals that don’t get you out of your seat. His insurance goal absolutely buried United, and gives him seven across all competitions. It also gives Sean Dyche plenty of competition in training, with Ashley Barnes on the periphery.

Man of the Match: Wood


United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka cut a promising 15th minute cross through the 18, but no teammate could get a foot to it.

Fred continued his lively play when he hit a low drive to Nick Pope in the 23rd, good endeavor without the required sharpness.

Daniel James forced Pope into a leaping save in the 32nd, and Martial couldn’t get his feet right when Nemanja Matic rolled him to the doorstep in the 34th.

Burnley took the lead out of absolute nothing, Wood taking advantage of Harry Maguire when Ben Mee flicked a long free kick to the Kiwi.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Rodriguez went bar down with a beauty in the 57th minute to make it 2-0, and real trouble arrived at Old Trafford.