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State of the USMNT: A focus on Jurgen Klinsmann and his future

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After the first batch of the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers ended in two defeats for the U.S. national team, plus their final game of 2016 in the books, now seems like a good time to discuss where the USMNT is at.

[ MORE: Klinsmann takes full responsibility following Costa Rica blowout ]

In a two-part series, ProSoccerTalk’s writers will discuss the players and the coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, and assess the current state of the USMNT.

Here, we focus on coach Klinsmann.

After the 0-2 start to the Hex, is it time for Sunil Gulati to cut ties with Klinsmann?

Matt Reed: I personally believed it was time to give Klinsmann the boot after the Mexico playoff loss in 2015 but there’s been many instances where the German has held on by the skin of his teeth. Losing two important matches in the Hex and conceding six goals in the process is beyond disastrous though, and while I won’t be surprised if Gulati rides this out, I just don’t see any logic in keeping a manager that has lost his locker room.

Joe Prince-Wright: At this point it is a legitimate question but I won’t believe it until I see it. U.S. Soccer has given Klinsmann so much time to turn things around and build something sustainable but there’s been very little progress, if any, over his five years in charge. If they get rid of him, they have to have somebody lined up. Gulati has got a big decision to make but I think Klinsmann stays until next March at least. If he doesn’t get at least 4 points from the next two qualifiers, Klinsmann has to go.

Nick Mendola: I feel I’m probably among the last to pull the chute here, as Klinsmann as technical director has given me a lot more pause. If Gulati did it, I would not think twice or blame him. But the U.S. will qualify for Russia, I believe that, regardless of coach.

Kyle Bonn: Absolutely. That performance was brutal, and not just by the players on the field. Jermaine Jones had no business starting, especially after his abysmal performance against Mexico. Timmy Chandler may be playing well for his club, but so has DeAndre Yedlin, and he didn’t even get a chance. Somehow, Klinsmann didn’t make a sub until down 2-0 in the 70th minute. The players looked lost, uninspired, and without direction. As Brian Sciaretta put it on Twitter, it is a hard fact that every player with the USMNT right now is playing worse for the national team than he is for his club, and with such a collective sag in form, that’s on the coach.

Andy Edwards: If you didn’t think it was time to cut ties (or at least consider doing so) after 2014 and/or 2015, you’ve married yourself to the idea of Klinsmann being in charge through 2018. You probably put the blame on the players, or the system, or whatever excuse he provided that day/week/month/year, so now you have to live with him.

Eric Scatamacchia: Going into these two matches I thought Klinsmann had figured out the best tactics for this team, but he made some head-scratching decisions against Mexico and Costa Rica. The 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3) against Mexico was a huge mistake, as evidenced by Klinsmann’s decision to switch to a 4-4-2 in the first half. The selection of Timmy Chandler over DeAndre Yedlin at right back and the decision to play Matt Besler out of position at left back instead of playing Fabian Johnson on the backline were both curious choices. Firing Klinsmann would be a huge decision with potentially damaging ramifications as the U.S. fights for a World Cup spot, but I think it’s definitely time to take a close look at Klinsmann’s status.

Many names have been thrown about in the event that Klinsmann is sacked. Which manager deserves the next shot to coach the USMNT? 

Matt: I think it shows desperation that Bruce Arena’s name has been thrown into the ring, but honestly the U.S. is in a desperate position. I don’t think that Honduras and Panama (the USMNT’s next two opponents) are world beaters but they are more than capable of knicking points away from the U.S. In the long-term I’d like to see someone like Jesse Marsch, Caleb Porter or Greg Berhalter get an opportunity but for now someone with experience like Arena would likely be enough to get the USMNT back to the World Cup.

Joe: I’m really not sure. I like the idea of Bruce Arena coming in on an interim basis. He will guide the USA through a rough patch. After that… Peter Vermes or Sigi Schmid? Both are American and have vast MLS experience but there really are a lack of top notch candidates available. That’s probably why Klinsmann is still in a job.

Nick: I really hope it’s not Bruce Arena, as it was reported last night he was lined up as a fallback option. I don’t want to rehash old times.

Yet if the move was done now, I would want it to be someone with international experience (Sam Allardyce doesn’t count). I don’t want to see an inexperience coach sorting out what it’s like to deal with the calendar, etc. Miguel Herrera, Marcelo Bielsa, Vicente del Bosque.

Kyle: Bruce Arena is the most experienced and the most deserving. There has been pining for Dominic Kinnear as well, who would be a decent – if not uninspiring – choice. Jesse Marsch could be had, and I would support that decision, although he seems slightly green for such a dire situation and his teams have come up small in big games in the recent past.

Andy: Bruce Arena is the knee-jerk answer, because he’s been there before (taken a team further than Klinsmann or Bob Bradley at a World Cup), and could walk into the job and stabilize the camp in a day. He’d get the most out of a talent-rich player, and the players would play for him. Keep in mind: we’re not talking about hiring Klinsmann’s replacement (2018 and beyond) here, only the one who’d finish out this cycle and maximize every aspect of the program/team at the World Cup. It’s pretty clear they quit on Klinsmann Tuesday night, and there’s no coming back from that.

Eric: Oscar Pareja would be my choice. Pareja’s success with developing youth talent has been well documented during his time at FC Dallas and his talents would be a fit for what the U.S. needs. The U.S. has a number of young players showing a lot of promise and Pareja is the best candidate to unlock that potential.

Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were noticeably displeased with the 3-5-2 to start the Mexico match, but was Klinsmann’s bigger issue his tactics or player selection? 

Matt: I just think both players are nearing if not past their primes. It may not be a popular answer but Klinsmann needs to move in a different direction in the center of the park. The U.S. was completely overwhelmed in these past two matches, and that spells disaster every time when you can’t control the midfield. Healthy options like Sacha Kljestan and Danny Williams could potentially provide a spark come March but there’s a long gap between matches so things can certainly change.

Joe: Mixture of both. Look, the players are partly accountable too. Klinsmann can only do so much but chucking them into a 3-5-2 (he called it a 3-4-3 but whatever) before their biggest game of the Hex against Mexico is just the latest in a long line of tactical mishaps. Klinsmann has had many of his tactical decisions questioned over the years and although he can argue he can only do so much with the players he has, he’s not getting the best out of them and isn’t building an identity about this team.

Nick: If you asked this question 48 hours ago, I would’ve given you a different answer. After watching Jones and Bradley play another woof-worthy match on Tuesday, I wonder if any formation would’ve worked with them in the middle. That said, if I had to choose one, it would be player selection. Timmy Chandler and Matt Besler were tricky calls.

Kyle: It’s tactical. Klinsmann had no business producing such an experiment in such an important and meaningful game. The players had little time to develop the tactical direction, and it showed. Bradley said after that they received very little tactical instruction. The change in formation made an immediate impact. How could he get it so wrong?

Andy: The players just about pick themselves at this point, in my eyes. For the first time in a long time, there are players all over the field not only playing meaningful minutes for their club sides, but doing so at a high level. The lineup just about picked itself against Mexico, yet Klinsmann decided he was too clever for conventional logic, that he could outsmart everyone else, and we know how that played out. Juan Carlos Osorio went into that game with two separate game plans, prepared for the USMNT to play two different ways, and dictated the one that would work best two seconds after kickoff. Bradley and Jones had to plead with Klinsmann to change to something they’d played before after 25 minutes. Just think about that.

Eric: Bradley and Jones looked out of sorts in the 3-5-2, but even when the team switched to a 4-4-2, and played in the more familiar formation for more than a game and a half, Bradley and Jones still failed to make an impact. Both players have been huge parts of the USMNT for years, but these last two matches show it could be time to make some changes.

The central midfield continued to look overwhelmed on Tuesday night, particularly Jones. Was there any way to justify Klinsmann’s infatuation with playing the Rapids midfielder for over 70 minutes? 

Matt: For me, Jones should’ve been off the field at halftime. The USMNT was in a situation where they were only down one goal and a spark like Sacha Kljestan could have at least given the illusion that Klinsmann cared about getting a result. There’s no way that from what I saw from Jones in the first half that he was going to wow anybody after the break.

Joe: No. I think Jones is done. Look, he has quality but he’s just too erratic and it looks like the latest bout of injuries has hampered him massively.

Nick: Well, the match was over and Jones already picked up the yellow that would keep him out of March’s match versus Honduras. That’s all I got.

Kyle: Absolutely not. Sacha Kljestan should have started, and at the VERY least should have come on at halftime. What on Earth was Klinsmann seeing in Jones that could have possibly justified his inclusion in the team, let alone left on the field until the game was lost?

Andy: You try telling Jones he’s not playing, or he’s coming off the field before the final whistle. The problem isn’t so much that he played, or how long he played, but that he’s asked, at the age of 35, to play as part of a midfield-two. He will gladly run himself into the ground if you ask him to, because he knows no other way to play, but you’re clearly not utilizing him to his full ability.

Eric: Simply put, no. Jones hadn’t started a match since July 4 and it showed. To start him in two matches within five days was a poor decision from Klinsmann. His faith in Jones can be understood with the number of times Jones has come up big in important spots for the U.S., but he is not the player he once was and Klinsmann must recognize that. I would have loved to see Sasha Kljestan getting on the ball in the midfield and helping connect the midfield to the forwards.

Christian Pulisic continues to be one of the USMNT’s bright stars in the attack. Did Klinsmann completely concede the match after taking off the Borussia Dortmund man?

Matt: The match was already likely gone but to take off your best player at that point definitely showed a “throwing in the towel” mentality. That moment right there was really the tipping point for me on the night. Just infuriating.

Joe: It was a situation where he didn’t want Pulisic to suffer and be scarred by this experience. Every time he got on the ball I sat up and took notice. He was clearly the USA’s most potent attacking threat.

Nick: Simply put, yep. With Chandler, Jones, Besler, Gonzalez, Bradley all struggling, he took off an electric player who wasn’t being supplied the ball. What a brutal choice.

Kyle: What to do down 2-0 in a must-win game? Why, sub off your best player, of course! I’m not so sure it was Klinsmann conceding the match as much as it was him – in typical Klinsmann fashion – blaming someone totally undeserving of blame.

Andy: Indefensible. For 160 minutes against Mexico and Costa Rica, he was the best player on the field.

Eric: It was an odd decision from Klinsmann. The U.S. was down 2-0 at the time of the substitution and the game was not out of reach. Pulisic was by far the best midfielder for the U.S. against Costa Rica and his departure took away what little hope the team had of scoring.

The absence of Geoff Cameron was certainly a big blow to the U.S. backline. What were your thoughts on Klinsmann’s decisions at the back? Should DeAndre Yedlin have been included in the starting XI?

Matt: Obviously you couldn’t have the same backline from the Centenario because of Cameron’s injury but John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson were all confident when working together earlier this year. I thought Timmy Chandler did well at times but Yedlin has been so good at club level it really begs the question as to why he wasn’t out there. Also, why play Besler out of position when you have Johnson in the team? Klinsmann could have just as easily used someone else on the wing like Lynden Gooch, Julian Green and even Graham Zusi available and then slid Johnson into LB.

Joe: When I heard the news Cameron wouldn’t make it through injury, I feared the worst for the USA. John Brooks got plenty of the plaudits this summer for his Copa America displays but Cameron was alongside him, using his experience to guide him throughout he held things together. Cameron was a machine. Brooks had been so shaky before that and has been over the past two games without Cameron. Their partnership at center back is key for the USMNT. I would’ve liked to have seen Yedlin start at right back and a flat back four in both games was necessary. That said, I can kind of understand why Klinsmann went with three at the back against Mexico because we saw how easy Gonzalez and Brooks were exposed against Costa Rica. The USA’s strongest back four is clearly: Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Johnson.

Nick: Yedlin should’ve absolutely started, and I would’ve liked to see Fabian Johnson at left back. I don’t think Sacha Kljestan wins the game for the Yanks, but I would’ve liked to see him out there. Also, why not try Steve Birnbaum over Gonzalez for the second match?

Kyle: I can completely understand Chandler’s inclusion in the Mexico game, considering his recent club form. But after it became apparent that his form would not carry over to the national setup this time around, how could Jurgen justify sticking with Chandler? The loss of Cameron hurt, but it did not excuse the results. Brooks is a valuable piece to this national team, and Omar has also been playing well and has put in good performances in the past. Yet, they appeared completely disjointed and on their own. Clearly, the coach is unable to bring cohesion to the defensive line.

Andy: Whoever Klinsmann picked in defense, they would have been stranded on an island and emergency-defending all night long. There’s not many players in the world who can do that for 90 minutes straight, against any level of competition, and not end up looking like the USMNT did on Tuesday. A solid defensive performance is more than just the players on the backline.

Eric: I think Omar Gonzalez was the right decision at center back although he certainly didn’t have a great 2-game performance. Yedlin should have been the starter at right back. He hasn’t done anything to have his starting spot taken away and to give it to Chandler seemed unwarranted. Chandler may be having a great Bundesliga season, but he hadn’t played with the USMNT in months and his performances with country have not been up to his club standard. Yedlin is more familiar with the U.S. players and system and should have been the starting right back.

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.

Judge rules players not guilty in match-fixing case in Spain

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MADRID — The 36 players on trial in Spain’s most high-profile match-fixing case were cleared of wrongdoing on Monday.

A Spanish judge issued the “not guilty” verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the players and others on trial – including former Mexico coach Javier Aguirre.

More than 40 people were accused of match-fixing involving the Spanish league game between Levante and Zaragoza at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The judge convicted two former Zaragoza officials of fraud – then-president Agapito Iglesias and club director Javier Porquera. They were given a one-year, three-month prison sentence, although they were not likely to face jail time because sentences of less than two years for first-time offenders are often suspended in Spain.

Those accused were facing two years in prison and a six-year soccer ban.

Among the players on trial were Ander Herrera, now with Paris Saint-Germain; former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra; former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez; River Plate midfielder Leonardo Ponzio; Serbian defender Ivan Obradovic; Lazio forward Felipe Caicedo; Itailan defender Maurizio Lanzaro; and Uruguay striker Cristhian Stuani.

Aguirre was Zaragoza’s coach at the time. He was among those who appeared in court to testify.

The investigation began after Spanish league president Javier Tebas denounced the alleged match-fixing, saying a former player told him a result had been fixed.

Prosecutors said there was evidence 965,000 euros (nearly $1 million) was paid to Zaragoza’s squad and later transferred to Levante’s players to lose the match in the final round of the season. Zaragoza won 2-1 to avoid relegation. Deportivo La Coruna was demoted as a result.

Former Zaragoza officials said the money was paid to motivate players, not fix the result of the game.

Prosecutors said players on both teams were aware of the match-fixing and there was evidence the money was transferred to Levante players after analyzing tax reports and banking transactions at the time.

The judge said in his ruling “there were was no evidence the money was given to Levante players to lose the match.”

A lower court had shelved the case but it was reopened last year after an appeal by prosecutors in Valencia, where Levante is based and where the match was played.

Zaragoza returned to the second division in 2014. Levante is currently in Spain’s top league.