Three things from the U.S. U-23’s 1-1 draw with Colombia in Olympic playoff 1st leg

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After an hour or so of allowing my heartbeat to return to a normal rhythm given the relentless Colombian attack and its threats to crush my Olympic dreams or at least the chance to watch the U.S. men play soccer in the Olympics, I’m ready to speak.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Here’s three things we learned from the 1-1 draw in Barranquilla on Friday.

CENTER BACK(S?) ON POINT

Three years ago, Tim Parker (above) was playing in the NPSL. Two years ago, he was a St. John’s team that went 4-10-4. Last year, he was breaking into the lineup for the Vancouver Whitecaps, also on loan to their USL side.

Tonight, he was the best player on the United States men’s U-23 national team, keeping the flame burning for a nation’s men’s Olympic hopes.

Parker combined with Matt Miazga (Chelsea) to form a solid backbone for Andi Herzog’s unit, and he was a step above his center back mate. Given the relentless pressure provided by the Colombians, it’s a minor miracle they didn’t find a second goal. But they didn’t… and Parker was the main reason why.

ADJUST MUCH?

Herzog’s plan for the first half-hour, keeping a very narrow midfield in a bit of a 4-3-1-2, frustrated and flustered Colombia. It arguably kept them off-balance enough to allow Mario Rodriguez to set up Luis Gil for the opening goal.

The second half, though, had the U.S. looking disjointed whenever they found possession. Granted Herzog was forced into an early sub when goalkeeper Ethan Horvath was hurt, but his two remaining subs were used to take out Gil and Rodriguez.

United States' coach Andi Herzog instructs players during a U-23 first leg soccer match qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics against Colombia at the Roberto Melendez Stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia, Friday, March 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Kellyn Acosta and Jordan Morris were gasping for air, and Acosta was toasted on the right flank time and again. Some are writing that off as Acosta playing out of position — he’s a DCM for FC Dallas — but regardless he needed to be moved. He could’ve slid into center for Gil if the midfielder needed to come off that bad, but it was clear it wasn’t his night against a dangerous wide attack.

We saw this in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying, too. Herzog show some terrific game-planning and seems to be a heck of a coach, but his adjustments have been disappointing.

AIR JORDAN

As in gasping for air. Jordan Morris might be the great hope of the United States, but we’ve seen he’s far from a finished product. His outside of the right foot bender off the crossbar was gorgeous to watch, but that’s a left-footed shot he passed up to take it. And we’re not talking about a “He thinks two steps ahead of the goalkeeper” right-footer, but a “He went out of his way to use his right” right-footer. Disappointing.

Then again, Morris was gassed and playing in terrible heat (the pregame index was a “real feel” of 102). He’s also on the heels of his busiest and most unrelenting game sequence of his career (full college season, trial with Werder Bremen, Sounders preseason, starting role for Seattle). He can be forgiven, but we’d love to see him breakthrough for club and country ASAP, thanks.

United States' team pose for a group photo prior to the U-23 first leg soccer match qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics against Colombia at the Roberto Melendez Stadium in Barranquilla, Colombia, Friday, March 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Who can Premier League clubs draw in Europa League?

Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
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Group winners Arsenal and Manchester United will avoid a loaded batch of seeded teams, while runners-up Wolves can draw a bevy of powerful teams in the Europa League Round of 32.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo can find himself drawn against former club Porto, but also could have to match wits with Ajax’s Erik ten Hag, Inter Milan’s Antonio Conte, or Red Bull Salzburg’s Jesse Marsch.

[ MORE: Man Utd pounds AZ ]

Speaking of Marsch, the Salzburg boss could go from meeting Liverpool to squaring off with Steven Gerrard and Rangers.

Gerrard could also, of course, go up against hated playing days’ rival Manchester United.

Seeded teams
Ajax
Arsenal
Basel
Benfica
Braga
Celtic
Espanyol
Gent
Inter Milan
Istanbul Basaksehir
LASK
Malmo
Manchester United
Porto
Red Bull Salzburg
Sevilla

Unseeded teams
APOEL Nicosia
AZ Alkmaar
Bayer Leverkusen
Club Brugge
Copenhagen
CFR Cluj
Eintracht Frankfurt
Ludogorets Razgrad
Olympiacos
Rangers
Roma
Wolfsburg
Wolves
Shakhtar Donetsk
Sporting Lisbon

Who can Premier League teams draw in the Round of 32?

Arsenal: APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Manchester United: APOEL Nicosia, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Wolves: Ajax, Basel, Benfica, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, Inter Milan, Istanbul Basaksehir, LASK, Malmo, Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.

Ljungberg hails ‘amazing’ teen Saka after game-changing performance

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Arsenal phenom Bukayo Saka‘s big day spurred the Gunners to a top seed in the Europa League knockout rounds.

Arsenal went behind on two deflected goals in the second half’s first 25 minutes, but Saka answered with a goal and an assist in three minutes to take a point from Belgium in a 2-2 draw at Standard Liege.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Standard Liege 2-2 Arsenal ]

Saka was at the heart of it of all good things Arsenal, the 18-year-old handed plenty of responsibility. despite his tender age.

“He was amazing,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg. “He was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and full-back. He’s a tremendous talent.”

Saka had four key passes to go with his goal and assist, winning six of eight duels while producing two tackles and an interception.

Ljungberg said Arsenal hasn’t sent its young players on loan enough, though that hardly applies to Saka given he was 17 until September.

The injured Gunners used Konstantinos Mavropanos, Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, and Reiss Nelson in the Starting XI, and brought Gabriel Martinelli off the bench.

“I feel sorry for our young players,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t been on loan, they’ve not had that exposure to men’s football. Some of them made mistakes but they’ll learn from those mistakes and won’t do them again.”

Smith-Rowe was loaned to RB Leipzig last season and Nelson starred on loan at Hoffenheim. Mavropanos played first team football for Greek Super League side PAS Giannina in his late teens.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Arsenal uses thrilling comeback to win Europa League group

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Nothing Arsenal-related is allowed to be easy, it seems.

The Gunners used a goal and an assist from Bukayo Saka to come back from a two-goal deficit and draw Standard Liege 2-2 in Belgium on Thursday, winning its Europa League group when Vitoria came back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt on a wild afternoon of soccer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Arsenal trailed on second half goals from Samuel Bastien and Selim Amallah, but rallied behind Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to score a second-straight win for interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

Saka sent in a laser cross in the 78th minute and Lacazette did quite well to power it under the bar.

He’s loving this competition, having made a serious entrance earlier in the tournament versus Eintracht Frankfurt. The 18-year-old now has two goals and five assists across all competitions this season.

The Gunners needed just three more minutes to tie the score on a day they outshot the hosts 15-11.

Saka showed his nose for goal to tie the score five minutes later with a dribble to the top of the 18 and a sly finish to the keeper’s left.

This was all happening around the same time Vitoria scored twice in three minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Eintracht Frankfurt.

Standard Liege goes from the knockout rounds to nothing in a blink, while Eintracht goes from winning the group to second.

The field for the Europa League is looking fierce, with Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg joining the competition via transfer from the UEFA Champions League.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.