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Fabian, Andres, Klinsmann and more: Top 3 things to watch as USMNT faces Mexico

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Is it Saturday yet? You know, the day in which the U.S. and Mexican U-23 sides can clinch Olympic berths.

Oh, and the two senior sides will determine which rival is going to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Yeah, it’s a big one. And we’ve got three big battles (and two bonus things to keep an eye on) as the Rose Bowl plays host to a critical CONCACAF Cup playoff.

  1. U.S. centerbacks vs. Mexico’s strikers: The fact that we don’t know who Jurgen Klinsmann will use as his pairing against Mexico tells you all you need to know about their plight. Ventura Alvarado has had more than growing pains while representing his country, but Klinsmann remains faithful to the Mexican-based back. Could a match-up with El Tri bring out the steady best in him? Matt Besler was a revelation at the 2014 World Cup but fell out of favor with Klinsmann. Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream are steady as it goes, but that seems too easy for the experimenting coach.

    Meanwhile, Mexico is without L.A. Galaxy star Giovani Dos Santos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the horses to run by the Yanks. Oribe Peralta doesn’t have a great record against the States but seems to have that “clutch” gene for big games. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will be aching to make his presence felt, too. Their third is a victory the U.S. must win given its big battle in the middle.

  2. Monster midfielders: It’s very difficult to look past El Tri’s midfield unit, with a pair of Porto regulars steadied by PSV’s brilliant Andres Guardado (below), who has six goals in 7 caps this year. Guardado is given more offensive opportunity with Mexico than his club, and he responds well. There may be no better player on the pitch than Guardado excepting, well…

    Whether Guardado or Michael Bradley comes out of this match a bigger presence likely determines who wins this one. That’s not to say a tricky bounce or controversial call won’t lay out the final score, but the U.S. captain will be at his box-to-box best. He’ll also be hoping to make his imprint as skipper after American failings at the Gold Cup and a disappointing World Cup (personally, though not for lack of distance covered).

    Alejandro Bedoya, Andr s Guardado

  3. Fabian forward? How will Klinsmann deploy Fabian Johnson, who is arguably the best player on the U.S. roster and the perfect role model for DeAndre Yedlin? Johnson is fine as wide back with the freedom to advance, but he simply shines as a quasi-wing for Borussia Monchengladbach.

    How does Klinsmann favor Johnson against Mexico in the what is arguably the biggest non-World Cup game of their international careers? That’ll make a huge dent in the game’s outcome, as Fabian deployed favorably and in-form is a question of which Mexico doesn’t have a good answer.

[ EDWARDS: The case for firing Klinsmann (with a U.S. loss Saturday) ]

BONUS 1: Brad Guzan is getting the keys to the 18, one of the clear mistakes in my book. Yes, Guzan is younger, but Tim Howard‘s big game resume is key, and how many people have ever — on even footing — claimed that Guzan is a better shot-stopper. I’ve no beef with Aston Villa’s keeper, but to say he’s better than a historical U.S. hero is tough to fathom.

BONUS 2: Domestic honks/Klinsmann haters like to point to his MLS omissions as Klinsmann’s Euro-snobbery of the highest order. Well, especially at striker, here’s their chance to dance. Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski and Gyasi Zardes are your four out-and-out attackers, with Aron Johannsson left home at Werder Bremen. John Brooks is hurt, while Bobby Wood and Alfredo Morales are hanging back in Germany, too.

This is an extreme over-simplification given that a minimum of 11 combined starters will hail from European clubs, but an interesting subplot is this equation:

Twelve MLS (plus two Liga MX) players on the U.S.
+ 12 Liga MX players on Mexico
______________________
= ???

 

Report: Salah, Robertson out for Liverpool trip to Crystal Palace

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Liverpool has some significant injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace, with the international break not serving to give its top players the required rest.

Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson both sat out key international games hoping to be healthy enough for Liverpool’s return to Premier League play, but that has not come to pass. Sky Sports has confirmed that both will miss the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Salah re-aggrivated his persistent ankle injury near the end of Liverpool’s big win over Manchester City just before the break, and while he reported for international duty with the Egypt squad, he did not appear in either of the country’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya or Comoros, both of which ended in draws. He has dealt with this ankle problem for over a month now, since it was injured against Leicester City in early October.

Robertson, meanwhile, has played every minute of the Premier League season to date, but withdrew from international duty with Scotland thanks to an ankle problem of his own. That leaves a gaping hole at left-back for Jurgen Klopp to fill, with backup full-back Nathaniel Clyne also out long-term thanks to an ACL tear. Candidates could include James Milner or even Xherdan Shaqiri, while he could also potentially move one of the center-backs in Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren out wide. Joel Matip is not expected back until the end of the month.

Liverpool kicks off against Crystal Palace at 10:00 a.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

Jose Mourinho speaks: ‘I couldn’t be happier’ at Spurs

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Jose Mourinho, speaking to Tottenham Hotspur’s official club channel Spurs TV, gave his first interview as Tottenham manager and speaking for the first time on camera after taking the job earlier Wednesday morning.

The Portuguese boss, who shockingly took over for Mauricio Pochettino, said he “couldn’t be happier” to take charge of the club currently floundering in 14th place in the Premier League table.

“I couldn’t be happier, and if I was not as happy as I am, I wouldn’t be here,” Mourinho said, referring to Spurs emphatically as “my club.”

“In relation to the Premier League, I think we know where we are, and we know that we don’t belong there,” Mourinho said, promising improvement. “We should just play match after match, the next match we want to win, and that’s the same about the next and the next and the next until the last. [At the] end of [the] season, we will see where we are, but I know that we are going to be in a different position than we are now.”

“These are not words of the moment, these are not words of me being the Tottenham head coach,” Mourinho said. “These are words I’ve told and I’ve repeated in the last four or five years, even as an opponent: to play Tottenham at White Hart Lane was always hard but beautiful. It is a place I used to go with passion but also it was also with respect.”

“I really like this squad, and looking to the young players, there is not one manager in the world that doesn’t like to play young players and to help young players develop. There is not one. The problem is sometimes you get into clubs where the work that is below you is not good enough to produce these players, so I look to our history and you see that the academy’s always giving talents that the first team needs.”

Referring to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new ground which Spurs have played in since April, Mourinho did not mince words. “When you say ‘beautiful stadium’ you are too humble. You have to say ‘the best stadium in the world.’ I think that is the reality.”

Mourinho continued to gush, talking about the amenities he has available to work with between matches. “The training ground is second to none. It probably can only be compared with some American football training grounds, you cannot compare with European football at any level, and I’ve been at the majority of the best places.”

He finished by saying, “I look forward for the challenge, for the responsibility to bring happiness to everyone that loves the club.”

Report: AC Milan begins talks for Zlatan return

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According to a report by Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano, AC Milan has begun preliminary talks with Zlatan Ibrahimovic via his longtime agent Mino Raiola.

Ibrahimovic played the last two seasons for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, and lit the U.S. league on fire with 53 goals in 58 games. The Swedish international was his usual lightning rod self throughout his MLS tenure, claiming on multiple occasions that he was the best player to ever play in Major League Soccer.

Romano says that nothing is immediately imminent and that Zlatan will take his time deciding on his future, saying he could know in the “next weeks” where he will head.

While Zlatan did not release his intentions upon leaving the Galaxy, a return to Serie A has been heavily rumored for weeks. He played for AC Milan from 2010-2012, and prior to that spent three seasons with Inter Milan from 2006-2009 as well as two seasons with Juventus from 2004-2006. He won six Serie A titles between the three clubs, including the 2010/11 Scudetto with AC Milan.

There have also been significant reports linking Ibrahimovic to Serie A side Bologna where Zlatan is friends with manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. The Serbian boss has battled leukemia this season but has decided to coach through it, and Zlatan reportedly wishes to show his support by signing up to play for the squad.

Rating the USMNT’s complete 2019 season

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2019 was supposed to be the year that the USMNT put the disaster in Trinidad & Tobago officially behind them. Instead, they flopped and floundered their way to more questions than answers in a year of change and doubt.

The first game of the year was also the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, and while there were plenty of positive signs early on, it began to fall apart midway through the summer, and by the end of yesterday’s comprehensive win over troubled Cuba, there is plenty of unknown moving forward.

Berhalter began his tenure with friendly wins over Panama and Costa Rica, outscoring those opponents 5-0 and seeing the emergence of fringe players like Djordje Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, and Christian Ramirez who had broken out under interim boss Dave Sarachen but were also afforded some time with the main man in charge. It quickly became clear, however, that those players were not the ones to take the U.S. forward as the regulars returned for the win over Ecuador.

Flaws began to slowly emerge in the Ecuador win and the ensuing Chile draw in March, and as Berhalter dug in for the long spring international layoff, he prepared the plan for the Gold Cup summer. Whatever the plan, it did not emerge as expected. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned for the summer slog, but they were powerless to stop the train from slowly screeching to a halt. The group stage went well against inferior opponents – including a 6-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago to secure some minor revenge for two years prior – but a 1-0 win over lowly Curacao in the quarterfinals saw bubbles being to rise.

The US managed to get by Jamaica in the semis thanks to Christian Pulisic‘s textbook heroics, but the finals were a different story. A 1-0 loss to Mexico that saw the U.S. thoroughly dominated was the first real coin to drop, followed by a thorough 3-0 butt-whooping by Mexico’s B-side two months later in a friendly on home soil.

It all fell apart from there. They drew 1-1 with Uruguay’s backups a few days later, and then after skating by defection-laden Cuba, the worst result of the slate saw the U.S. stunned in Canada in Nations League play. The result not only proved a humbling reminder of the team’s work to do, but also put their Nations League standing in real jeopardy far earlier than any fan deemed acceptable.

The U.S. rescued its position and secured passage to the next round of the competition, but real problems remain. Berhalter’s coaching and tactical acumen have been questioned on multiple fronts, with many wondering whether his possessional style of play is too ambitious for a country still searching for top talent.

Still, the most pressing issue seems to be the suddenly paper-thin talent pool that currently troubles the nation. Injuries to players like John Brooks, Michael Bradley, and even Pulisic have left the United States forced to deploy players far below World Cup quality in their stead. Formerly promising critical young players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie have seemingly regressed, but with little behind them in terms of depth, Berhalter is forced to toil on hoping they recapture their form of not long ago.

Amid a toilsome year, the capture of Sergino Dest and the true emergence of Jordan Morris are individual success stories that deserve merit. Dest heavily considered his eligibility for the Netherlands but was ultimately swayed by Berhalter’s vision. Morris has returned from a serious knee injury by reinventing himself as an inverted winger, and his style switch has been an unmitigated triumph, transforming from a questionable developmental project to a near-lock in the squad.

In addition, Christian Pulisic’s rise to international stardom must also be considered. Unlike the development of Yedlin and McKennie which have been suddenly put in peril, Pulisic has continued to excel at the club level, moving to Chelsea and bursting onto the Premier League scene after a brief period of uncertainty. He continues to carry the U.S. side as well when given a chance, but as the Gold Cup disappointment shows, he clearly can’t do it on his own.

Still, in a year with few competitive matches against teams of the quality the United States aspires to equal, Berhalter failed the test. The overall body of work was simply not acceptable. He has the full support of U.S. Soccer for now – at least publicly – but there is much to be done as the U.S. moves further into the World Cup cycle and towards a potential return to the big dance. Berhalter must continue to establish his identity, but more importantly he must develop a talent pool that both excels at developing its most important players and finds those who can contribute in positions of its greatest need.

While the small success stories deserve to factor in, the simple fact is Berhalter does not deserve a passing grade, as questions of where the United States fit into the larger world picture suddenly loom large.

OVERALL GRADE: D+

Full 2019 USMNT results

Jan 28 – W 3-0 vs. Panama (friendly)
Feb 2 – W 2-0 vs. Costa Rica (friendly)
Mar 22 – W 1-0 vs. Ecuador (friendly)
Mar 27 – D 1-1 vs. Chile (friendly)
June 6 – L 1-0 vs. Jamaica (friendly)
June 9 – L 3-0 vs. Venezuela (friendly)
June 19 – W 4-0 vs. Guyana (Gold Cup)
June 23 – W 6-0 vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Gold Cup)
July 1 – W 1-0 vs. Curacao (Gold Cup QF)
July 4 – W 3-1 vs. Jamaica (Gold Cup SF)
July 8 – L 1-0 vs. Mexico (Gold Cup Finals)
Sept 7 – L 3-0 vs. Mexico (friendly)
Sept 11 – D 1-1 vs. Uruguay (friendly)
Oct 12 – W 7-0 vs. Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)
Oct 16 – L 2-0 @ Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 16 – W 4-1 vs. Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 19 – W 4-0 @ Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)