Three things we learned from USA 3-1 Canada

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KANSAS CITY, KAN. — The United States U-23 national team’s 2015 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship opener, a 3-1 victory over Canada, was everything head coach Andi Herzong could have hoped for result-wise, but plenty of improvement is still necessary as the week-and-a-half-long tournament progresses.

Three things we learned from the U.S. U-23s’ hard-fought, closer-than-the-scoreboard-says victory over Canada…

[ FULL RECAP: USA 3-1 Canada

1. Unbalanced midfield makes for a good counter-attacking team, little else

Earlier on Thursday, I tossed out the idea that a midfield featuring both Wil Trapp and Emerson Hyndman might struggle in early days, given they’re quite similar players who operate in largely the same areas of the field. For at least 50 of their 72 shared minutes on the field Thursday night, that idea proved quite prophetic.

On paper, they’re by far the most talented deep-lying midfielders in the entire youth national team player pool. On the field, though, they struggled in two key areas: 1) maintaining proper spacing when building out of the back; 2) finding and maintaining shape (a midfield diamond) after issue no. 1 reared its ugly head.

On another night, Canada makes more of their numerous counter-attacking chances that began inside the U.S.’s half of the field, and everyone’s freaking out about how much duress the backline was under all night. Without question, an unavoidable factor in the struggles of Trapp and Hyndman was the team’s complete lack of width in midfield (fellow center mids Gedion Zelalem and Fatai Alashe were often shuttled out wide), which conveniently brings up to point no. 2…

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2. Lack of natural width makes flanks the area to exploit

When I say “natural width,” I mean both in attack and defensively. Matt Polster, who’s either a defensive midfielder or center back, and Dillon Serna, who’s very much an attacking midfielder, were shoehorned into the right and left back positions respectively. Given that neither player regularly ever plays full back, it should come as no surprise that Canada created most of their chances through quick ball movement out the wings and getting behind the two makeshift defenders.

To compound the awkwardness of Polster and Serna at full back was the aforementioned lack of wide midfielders offering 1) an outlet in possession; 2) defensive cover and an ability to hold their opposite number in check.

It didn’t bite the not-so-baby Yanks on Thursday, because Canada couldn’t turn decent chances into goals, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the tournament progresses. The likes of Mexico, Costa Rica or Honduras could certainly exploit the U.S.’s narrow shape with only slightly improved finishing.

[ MORE: Get to know the current USMNT U-23 squad ]

3. Canada acquitted themselves well, look likely to get out of the group

Did I mention Canada couldn’t finish their chances? Because, well, they couldn’t. Keeping in tune with the senior U.S. team, Herzog’s side was out-possessed (much of that can be attributed to game states — a 1-0 lead after 34 seconds) and matched shot-for-shot (14-13 in favor of the U.S.).

Benito Floro, head coach of Canada’s senior side and the U-23 squad, was rightly pleased with his team’s performance — particularly in midfield — after the game. The way Canada set a high line of confrontation, pressed and swarmed the U.S. midfield should not only give American fans cause for concern, but hope to our friends to the north. If the Canucks bring the same kind of energy and commitment against Panama and Cuba, they’ll find themselves advancing from the group and playing for an Olympic berth next week.

Bonus point: Jordan Morris is the real deal. Speed, size, strength, composure — the 20-year-old Stanford University can do it all.

Premier League Preview: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Two struggling London sides meet Monday when West Ham United hosts Arsenal (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The sides might’ve expected they’d be within close proximity at this point on the fixture list, but two wildly disappointing seasons means the three points between the Gunners and Irons comes with the former in 11th and the latter 16th.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s been nine matches since Arsenal beat someone, 11 since it happened in the Premier League. West Ham hasn’t been much better, winning once in its last 10.

Freddie Ljungberg has yet to win as Arsenal interim boss, while West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini could see his current stint in London end without more results like the Nov. 30 win at Chelsea.

Monday versus Arsenal would qualify.


Injuries/suspensions

West Ham United: OUT —  Jack Wilshere, Lukasz Fabianski, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid. QUESTIONABLE — Michail Antonio.

Arsenal: OUT — Dani Ceballos. QUESTIONABLE — Rob Holding.


Probable lineups

West Ham United: Martin; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Balbuena, Fredericks; Rice, Noble, Yarmolenko, Anderson, Snodgrass, Haller.

Arsenal: Leno; Kolasinac, Sokratis, Luiz, Bellerin, Xhaka, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s Antonio sees an opportunity: “The only three teams that are really performing are Liverpool, Leicester and Man City. Everyone else is getting beaten, and it means we’ve had a missed opportunity so far this season. We started the season off brightly, the best start we’ve had for four years, but then we’ve had a slump. Everyone’s having a slump and this is our slump. Now it’s time for us to start turning up. We’ve been in this situation before and we know how to dig in and pull ourselves up again.”

Arsenal’s Ljungberg on setting targets: “I don’t think we should stop talking about the top four, but for us it’s about concentrating on what we’re doing here now and not look up, down, sideways. We just need to work on our own game and our own confidence.”


Prediction

Really, you wouldn’t want to predict anything from these sides right now besides goals. We’ll give an edge in desperation to the hosts and a 2-2 draw.

La Liga: Sevilla held at Osasuna, Getafe maintains UCL fight

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Sevilla was held to a 1-1 draw at 10-man Osasuna on Sunday, giving both Real Madrid and Barcelona space at the top of the La Liga table.

Munir El Haddadi put the visitors 1-0 up just 11 minutes in, but Ezequiel Avila struck just before halftime to share the points. Sevilla was held to just two total shots through the opening 45 minutes, and despite Osasuna defender Oier Olazabal being shown a second yellow card with 29 minutes to go, Sevilla still managed just 11 total efforts through the 90 minutes, with four on target.

Getafe continued its battle for a top four spot as they won 1-0 on the road at Eibar. Angel Rodriguez bagged his eighth goal of the season to secure the win, cropping up in the 67th minute to finally put Getafe through. They had been turning the screw for some time, forcing Marko Dmitrovic into a pair of big saves just before the opener which came from an absurdly tight angle after Angel had rounded the goalkeeper. The win leaves them fourth, level with Real Sociedad on 27 points.

They were allowed to close the gap after Real Sociedad was held scoreless in a 0-0 draw at 14th placed Real Valladolid. The visitors put just two of their 14 shots on net, and dropped to fifth thanks to Getafe holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Athletic Club also fell back in the race for a top four spot, dropping a 3-2 decision on the road at Real Betis. Joaquin scored a first-half hat-trick, with all three goals coming in the opening 20 minutes to give him five in his last three games. Inaki Williams brought Athletic Bilbao one back before halftime from the spot, and Yuri Berchiche made things interesting with a minute to go, but that was all they could muster as the visitors fell to sixth on 26 points, above Atletico Madrid on goal differential with the two yet to play head-to-head.

Celta Vigo made it interesting as Iago Aspas scored a man-down goal, but Leganes held on for a 3-2 win over the 10-man visitors. Oscar Rodriguez had a first-half brace to help the hosts to a 3-0 lead, but Nestor Araujo and Aspas helped Celta Vigo make things interesting. Still, a 71st minute second yellow card for halftime substitute Gabriel Fernandez hampered the visitors in their efforts for a comeback, leaving Celta Vigo in the relegation zone, a point back of safety, with Leganes is four points behind them in 19th.

Gerrard reacts to Rangers’ Old Firm heartbreak in final

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Steven Gerrard lined his Rangers side up for success, but fate was cruel to the Liverpool legend.

Rangers lost the League Cup Final to their Old Firm rivals on Sunday despite out-shooting the Bhoys by a 16-5 margin, winning a penalty, and playing almost a half-hour up a man.

[ RECAP: Rangers 0-1 Celtic ]

“To a man we were very good … by much the better side,” Gerrard said. “But unfortunately that’s not what gets you a trophy.”

But Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster stopped Alfredo Morelos’ penalty, three minutes after goal scorer Christopher Jullien was offside on the lone goal of the game.

Scotland doesn’t yet use VAR, and Gerrard doesn’t love VAR but he likes it more than he likes Scottish officials.

“There were three Celtic players standing in offside positions but unfortunately we play in a country where there is no VAR,” he said, via the BBC. “I’d be a liar if I said I was 100% in favour of it, but the one thing I do know is that officials up here need support.”

Now he has the task of getting his men to rebound ahead of its biggest non-derby in ages, as Rangers need at least a draw against Young Boys at home on Thursday to advance to the Europa League knockout rounds

“It’s a bit raw right now… It’s up to me to pick the players up. One thing I will say is I’ll stay with these players on the evidence of today because they gave me absolutely everything. We might have to suffer a bit short-term. I need to pick them up a bit physically and mentally for Thursday which is huge but our day will come on the evidence of today.”

Gerrard has done a very good job with Rangers, who are two points back of Celtic in a two-horse race for the Scottish top flight title. Celtic has won eight-straight titles to improve their total to 50, four less than the Rangers.

Serie A: AC Milan on winning streak, Fiorentina woes deepen

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AC Milan secured its first winning streak since mid-September as Krzysztof Piatek and Theo Hernandez led the way to a 3-2 road win over Bologna.

Piatek was the first on the scoresheet, opening the scoring from the spot after the Polish striker was bundled over on the break by Mattia Bani. He utilized a heavy stutter in his run-up, but wrong-footed Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski for the conversion. Hernandez was next up, latching onto a perfect through-ball from Suso that sprung the former at the far post.

Bologna pulled one back before halftime on a Hernandez own-goal, but Giacomo Bonaventura restored the two-goal lead just seconds after the restart. Nicola Sansone’s late penalty made no difference in the result and Milan sits 10th in the league table, level on points with Torino.

Fiorentina slumped to its fourth straight loss as they fell at Torino 2-1. The visitors were soundly beaten on goals by Simone Zaza and Cristian Ansaldi, only able to grab a consolation strike from Martin Caceres in stoppage time. They put just four of their 17 shots on net and had very few true chances until Caceres’s late goal. With the loss, Fiorentina drops to 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Vincenze Montella’s job is on the line, having just returned to the club in April for a second stint in charge after the departure of Stefano Pioli.

Cagliari failed to pull away from Roma with a 2-2 draw on the road at 14th placed Sassuolo. A comeback was required after falling down 2-0 before halftime. João Pedro brought the visitors one back just six minutes after the break, and Daniele Ragatzu rescued the point as he snuck one in at the near post a minute into added time. They also survived what could have been the game-winning goal as Domenico Berardi clattered the crossbar from the penalty stop on a chance that would have put the home side 3-1. Instead, Cagliari moves level with Roma on 29 points, clinging to the fourth Champions League spot on goal differential.

Genoa survived the final 13 minutes with just nine men, securing a 2-2 draw with Lecce that keeps them in the hunt for Serie A safety. Goran Pandev and Domenico Criscito had put Genoa 2-0 up before halftime, but they had coughed up the lead by the 70th minute. Still, things could have been worse as Kevin Agudelo was sent off with 20 minutes to go after conceding a penalty, while Pandev was given his marching orders in the 77th minute. The goals in this game were spectacular, with Pandev’s opener coming from nearly 40 yards out as he chipped Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel who was off his line, while Filippo Falco scored a fine curler to mark Lecce’s first on the hour mark.

Brescia topped SPAL 1-0 to leave the latter at the bottom of the Serie A table, with the lone goal coming via Mario Balotelli in the 54th minute as he collected a bobbling ball on the break and fired it in at the far post. The win was critical, moving 19th-placed Brescia to 10 points on the year, two from safety.

Parma defeated Sampdoria 1-0 on a 21st minute goal from Juraj Kucka that left Claudio Ranieri‘s squad just a point off the relegation zone.