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Premier League 2016-17 season preview: West Bromwich Albion

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The Baggies have forced themselves into the yearly top flight conversation, as they make their way towards their seventh consecutive season in England’s top flight, but could this be the year things go sour?

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Since promotion in 2008, West Brom have gone from perennial relegation candidates to mid-table contenders. However, yet still to take that next step towards a top-half finish, a poor finish to last campaign and a quiet transfer window has supporters worried headed into the 2016/17 season.

West Brom failed to record a single win in their final nine league games of the season headed into this summer, and the stretch run is often a relatively solid litmus test of what is to come.

[ MORE: Every PL season preview ]

The club has added Matt Phillips from QPR in the summer to replace the departed Stephane Sessegnon, but still have yet to find a reinforcement for Nigerian striker Victor Anichebe, and with Saido Berahino coming off a very poor season, the attacking ranks are quite thin. The club was ready to break its transfer record for Diafra Sakho, but the player had some fitness concerns and the deal was scrapped.

Chris Brunt, a Baggie since 2007, is coming off an ACL tear that left his chances of playing in Euro 2016 in tatters, and could be replaced by one of a host of different West Brom defenders in the squad.

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The Baggies will make a move up the table if…they grasp Pulis-ball to the fullest, play for their manager, and get a few attacking reinforcements. The squad as it stands is not relegation quality, but without another attacker and a focused Berahino, the strike unit is very underwhelming. If this team can figure out how to score goals to go along with the defensive work rate, the club will end up with more than a few impressive results.

More likely, however, they’ll be near the bottom again…Berahino still could be off. While the club usually leaves things to the end of the transfer window, the way things stand is somewhat worrisome. Nobody outside of Rondon hit double-digit goal tally last season across all competitions, and a right-back was their second-leading scorer. Goals are the key to success this season.


Best Possible XI

—– Myhill —–

— Dawson — McAuley — Evans — Chester —

—– Yacob —–

 —-Phillips —- Gardner —- Fletcher —- McLean —-

—— Rondon ——


Transfers In: Matt Phillips ($7m, Queens Park Rangers).

Transfers Out: Victor Anichebe (Free, Unattached), Anders Lindegaard (Free, Preston North End), Stephane Sessegnon (Free, Unattached).

Last Season: The Baggies did just enough last season to remain relatively obscure for most of the year. They hovered around the 12-15 position for almost the entire year, Tony Pulis‘s first full campaign with the club after saving them from relegation the last. Unfortunately, the nine-match winless run to end the year is most fresh on the supporters’ minds, and Pulis will need to put that to bed with a solid start to this new season to keep in the good graces of his bosses.

PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - JULY 30:  Saido Berahino of West Bromwich Albion in action during the pre-season friendly between Plymouth and West Bromwich Albion at Home Park on July 30, 2016 in Plymouth, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Star Player: Saido Berahino – Salomon Rondon was last year’s top goalscorer, but the brightest talent on the squad is the 21-year-old…or so we thought. After the club fought tooth and nail to keep him at the Hawthornes, fending off interest from plenty top-tier English clubs, Berahino rewarded them with a paltry four league goals last season, including just one after November. It was looking like he could be headed elsewhere should the club sign Sakho, but with that transfer off, they may not be able to afford selling Berahino, meaning they’ll need him to produce. He seemed disinterested for much of last season, and was a fringe player as a result. If he wants to return to the starting lineup, he’ll need to prove his intentions are pure, and the best way to do that is by putting the ball in the back of the net.

Coach’s Corner: Tony Pulis is known for his direct style of play, and it fits perfectly with the squad available to him at the Hawthornes. Pulis-ball will be back and bigger than ever this year, and they’ll need to deliver for their experienced boss if they have any hopes of staying in the league. Pulis is an expert in avoiding the drop, but not much else, having personally finished between 11th and 14th for eight consecutive seasons.

PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - JULY 30:  Tony Pulis, manager of West Bromwich Albion gestures during the pre-season friendly between Plymouth and West Bromwich Albion at Home Park on July 30, 2016 in Plymouth, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

PST Predicts: West Brom will find them outside the relegation zone, but only because there are even thinner squads out there. It’s going to be a struggle this year, with few attacking options outside the unsettled Berahino, but the squad has enough defensive experience and depth to make it through unscathed. Pulis just flat out doesn’t get relegated.

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova