2015 Gold Cup: Three things we learned from the USA’s 2-1 victory over Honduras

8 Comments

FRISCO, Texas — The U.S. men’s national team labored — a lot at times — to a 2-1 victory over Honduras in both sides’ 2015 Gold Cup opener on Tuesday night at Toyota Stadium.

From 2-0 up with 25 minutes to play, to hanging on by the skin of their teeth under a constant siege of Honduran scorings chances during the final 10 minutes, Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is off and running as they look to defend their Gold Cup title.

A tournament like the Gold Cup is like a low-burning stove-top coil. With six games to play in order to lift the Cup, peaking in the first game is not unlikely and unattainable, it’s actually highly unadvisable. Games 1, 2 and 3 don’t need a full-on boil. It calls for a steady simmer before heating up in the final — where the USMNT will presumably face Mexico, at which point the pot not only boils, but the lid bursts off and critically maims anyone within six zip codes.

[ MORE: Previewing USA’s Group A | Group B | Group C | The stars of CONCACAF ]

Three things we learned about the USMNT and Honduras during Tuesday night’s 2-1 result:

1. John Brooks-and-Ventura Alvarado is not the USMNT’s best center back pairing — or even close

source:
Matt Besler & Omar Gonzalez, USMNT

Where, oh where, to start with this one. How about here: Why, Jurgen? Why? At no point during his brief USMNT career, really, has Alvarado looked like doing more than furiously treading to keep his head above water. Even in recent victories over the Netherlands and Germany, in which Brooks and Alvarado started together, it’s been dicey in the best of times and an absolute dumpster fire in the worst.

Omar Gonzalez, a right-sided center back with World Cup experience, was on the bench for 90 minutes tonight, while Alvarado struggled yet again with simple tasks, like putting his head to the ball, tracking runners at both the near and far posts, and communicating runners to Brooks. Major League Soccer center backs like Gonzalez, Matt Hedges and Steve Birnbaum could at least match Alvarado’s performances to date.

As for Brooks, Tuesday wasn’t terrible for the 22-year-old (yes, 22), but with Matt Besler, another World Cup veteran, not even on the roster, one can’t help but wonder just how much Klinsmann is willing to risk either going out in the group stage or making their own path through the knockout rounds significantly less favorable, all in the name of playing a couple of young center backs with essentially no CONCACAF experience.

[ MORE: With the rest of CONCACAF making strides, it’s time for the USMNT to do so, too ]

2. Gyasi Zardes as part of a midfield diamond just doesn’t work — that’s not his fault

Gyasi Zardes’ ascension from collegiate athlete at Cal State Bakersfield, to MLS breakout star, and now a regular starter for the USMNT in the span of three years is really, really amazing, and something only possible in the American game. The problem is this: the majority — if not all — of Zardes’ production over that time has come as one of two center forwards in a 4-4-2.

Where Zardes hasn’t impressed — or even played much at all — is as a shuttling midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. On Tuesday, Zardes struggled — again — in that role, and did so for one big reason: in that area of the field, defensively, he’s a total disaster, and though it’s not for a lack of trying — positional awareness and whatnot — too many of the US’s turnovers in midfield were immediately redirected into the left channel between Brooks and Fabian Johnson, which is exactly the space Zardes is supposed to protect.

Mix Diskerud can serviceably perform that role, as can Alejandro Bedoya (my personal choice) and Graham Zusi. It’d be a pretty big surprise — and a mistake — if Zardes is back in that spot Friday night against Haiti.

[ MORE: Reflecting on Michael Bradley from 1-99, as he hits 100 USMNT caps vs. Honduras ]

3. Andy Najar became a man in Belgium — look out, world

source:
Andy Najar, Anderlecht & Honduras

Andy Najar has spent the last two and a half years since leaving D.C. United of MLS playing for Belgian side Anderlecht. In that time, the 22-year-old has not only filled out physically and honed his craft while winning a pair of Belgian league and Belgian cup titles, but he’s developed a killer instinct, as well, and that makes him one of the scariest players in the region.

On Tuesday night — particularly during the first half — Najar was an absolute nightmare up and down the right side of the USMNT defense. Timothy (he has to earn the right to be called “Timmy” again) Chandler not only couldn’t deal with him, but every time Najar received the ball and turned to run at the US goal, a sense of impending doom crept over every last American fan inside Toyota Stadium.

For the game’s first 45 minutes, Najar was the best player on the field by a mile, and if the rest of his Gold Cup performances from here on out mimic that of Tuesday night, he’ll quickly rocket up not only the list of the best players in CONCACAF, but also the transfer lists of any number of major European clubs.

Champions League, Europa League: How to watch, odds, start time, predictions

Champions League odds
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The UEFA Champions League and Europa League action has resumed and I’m going to reveal my predictions for this next round as well as the latest odds for Europe’s top two continental tournaments.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

With Manchester City still in the Champions League and Manchester United and Wolves among the favorites to win the Europa League, there is a lot on the line for Premier League clubs in the coming weeks.

Just because the Premier League season is over, that doesn’t mean the action is over. Far from it. Both Manchester clubs are the bookmakers favorites to seal their respective European glory.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

In the next few days the Europa League and Champions League quarterfinals will take place as the mini tournaments begin.

Man City beat Real Madrid 4-2 on aggregate, while Chelsea lost Bayern 7-1 on aggregate as they crashed out of the Champions League. Man United and Wolves are both in the quarterfinals and favored to go far.

Lisbon, Portugal will host the Champions League games from the quarterfinal stage onwards, while the Europa League games will be hosted around Germany.

Below is a look at my predictions, the odds for the games this week and how to watch and follow all of the fixtures in the USA.


How to watch, stream Champions League and Europa League

Dates: August 5-23
Location: Quarterfinals onwards in Lisbon/Germany
How to watch: CBS Sports
Live updates: UCL here at NBCSports.com & Europa League here at NBCSports.com


JPW’s Champions League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)
Wednesday, August 12: Atalanta 2-3 PSG
Thursday, August 13: RB Leipzig 1-2 Atletico Madrid
Friday, August 14: Barcelona 1-3 Bayern Munich
Saturday, August 15: Manchester City 3-1 Lyon


JPW’s Europa League predictions

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
Monday, August 10: Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Monday, August 10: Manchester United 3-1 Copenhagen
Tuesday, August 11: Wolves 1-2 Sevilla
Tuesday, August 11: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-2 Basel


Champions League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 12-15)

(+210) Atalanta v. PSG (+117). Tie: +275
(+225) RB Leipzig v. Atletico Madrid (+135). Tie: +220
(+235) Barcelona v. Bayern Munich (+115). Tie: +255
(-305) Manchester City v. Lyon (+750). Tie: +450

Outright winner
Manchester City (+220)
Bayern Munich (+325)
Paris Saint-Germain (+500)
Atletico Madrid (+800)
Barcelona (+800)
Atalanta (+1000)
RB Leipzig (+1700)
Lyon (+3500)


Europa League betting odds

Quarterfinals (August 10-11)
(+112) Inter Milan v. Bayer Leverkusen (+240). Tie: +250
(-385) Manchester United v. Copenhagen (+1000). Tie: +480
(+235) Wolves v. Sevilla (+120). Tie: +230
(-106) Shakhtar Donetsk v. Basel (+290). Tie: +255

Outright winner
Manchester United (+180)
Inter Milan (+325)
Sevilla (+500)
Bayer Leverkusen (+650)
Wolves (+700)
Shakhtar Donetsk (+1100)
Basel (+2500)
Copenhagen (+6000)

Barcelona reach 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal

Barcelona - Napoli
Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Barcelona – Napoli saw Lionel Messi and Co., book the eighth and final place in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, by way of a 3-1 victory on the night (4-2 on aggregate) on Saturday.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

It was, as it so often tends to be, Messi who shone brightest and stole the spotlight en route to Barca’s 13th straight Champions League quarterfinal appearance.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

Barca entered Saturday with the slimmest of advantages, knowing that a scoreless draw would see them through to the quarterfinals after grabbing a vital away goal in the first goal. Lyon knew that no matter what, they needed to score at least once or they would be out. That threat was reinforced, and strengthened, when Clement Lenglet headed the Blaugrana ahead in the 10th minute.

Messi slipped, Messi got back up, Messi slipped again, Messi got back up again, Messi rifled the ball inside the far post to score a(nother) fantastic solo goal and make it 2-0 (3-1) in the 23rd minute. It was only slightly more complicated than that for him (WATCH HERE). Messi put the ball in the back of the net again just a few minutes later, but the goal was taken off the board by way of a somewhat suspect handball decision upon video review.

Nonethless, that was just about that after Luis Suarez converted from the penalty spot early in first-half stoppage time. Messi won the penalty by sneaking around Kalidou Koulibaly and winning the ball in the blink of an eye, forcing the Senegalese center back to foul him on the edge of the box lest Messi walk in on goal for a virtual tap-in.

Lorenzo Insigne converted a penalty kick of his own a couple minutes later before the interval, but the threat level never peaked higher than a 2-out-of-10 for Barca.

Barca will face Bayern Munichin a sensationally mouth-watering, single-leg quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

3 things learned: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea

Bayern Munich - Chelsea
Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bayern Munich – Chelsea, leg no. 2, looked eerily similar to leg no. 1, played back in late February, with the lone exception being the lack of fans inside the Allianz Arena for Thursday’s dead rubber.

[ MORE: Champions League predictions ]

The eight-time Bundesliga champions were simply too good — and too healthy, by comparison — for Frank Lampard and the Blues to put up a reasonable fight from 3-0 down after the first leg. It was an unceremonious end to Lampard’s first season in charge at Chelsea, but a foregone conclusion before they boarded the plane back in London.

[ LIVE: Champions League schedule ]

With their 4-1 victory on the night (7-1 on aggregate), Bayern will face Barcelona in a sensationally mouth-watering quarterfinal matchup next Friday.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the Allianz Arena, as the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed in Bayern Munich – Chelsea.


NO DRAMA NECESSARY, BAYERN TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS EARLY

Credit to Bayern for their ruthless efficiency and disinterest in letting the tie descend into drama and tension. Robert Lewandowski scored early (10th minute) and Ivan Perisic did the same in the 24th, bringing the aggregate score to 5-0 with 65 minutes left to play. With so many key players out injured, Chelsea had virtually zero chance of pulling off the impossible comeback prior to kickoff, and Hans-Dieter Flick’s side made sure to keep it that way from the opening whistle. Corentin Tolisso put the tie further out of reach late in the second half (76th), and Lewandowski duplicated his side’s three-goal advantage from the first leg not much later.


CHELSEA’S ISSUES STILL AT THE BACK

For all of the development of young players that Frank Lampard was able to realize this season — and for all of the big-money signings either already confirmed or heavily reported to be imminent this summer — Chelsea still have serious questions to answer with regard to their defense. The below highlight is but one small example in a season full of defensive blunders at missed assignments (you’ll find another one below in the next section). Cesar Azpilicueta remains solid, but he’ll turn 31 this month and probably only has another year or two left to function at the UCL level. Reece James and Fikayo Tomori still have some way to go in their development to be UCL-caliber players. The likes of Kurt Zouma, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen have all proven, time and again, they’re simply not at that level and probably never will be. All of that is to say, Chelsea need to execute a full-on rebuild of their defense this summer, or it might not matter how many goals they can score every game next season.


BAYERN’S END-OF-SEASON FORM IS TERRIFYING

Pop quiz: When was the last time Bayern simply didn’t win a game, let alone lost one? The answer: Feb. 9 (19 games ago). And their last defeat? Dec. 7 (28 games). They won all nine of their Bundesliga games following the season’s restart, plus another two in the DFB-Pokal and now the second leg against Chelsea in the UCL. Of course, things will suddenly become far more tricky when 1) the likes of Barcelona and Man City factor into the equation in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, and 2) each round is decided over a single leg rather than the traditional home-and-away format of the Champions League. And still, Bayern have the look of serious Champions League contenders, if not favorites, based on their scintillating form dating back to the start of the calendar year.

VIDEO: Messi shreds Napoli to score fantastic solo goal

Lionel Messi goal video
Photo by Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Lionel Messi has done, once again, as Lionel Messi is known to do: he has scored another fantastic Lionel Messi goal (video below) in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

[ MORE: Andrea Pirlo named Juventus manager | Sarri sacked ]

One, two, three, four, five defenders in his way? So what, says Messi.

One or two decent attempts to tackle the ball away — and perhaps even succeeding on at least one occasion? Again, so what?

He’ll have the ball back, continue on his merry way and tuck the ball just inside the far post, all while falling down, getting back up and falling down again. The goal put Barcelona 2-0 ahead on the night (3-1 on aggregate). Prior to this post being published, he scored again, but the goal was taken away for a perceived handball upon video review.

Surely we’ve discovered a superhuman soccer league we can send him to by now, just to level the playing field a bit more for the actual humans walking planet Earth.

Anyway, here’s the latest head-shaking, smirk-inducing Messi goal video you came to see.