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Five questions for USMNT ahead of World Cup qualifiers

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The USMNT’s next two World Cup qualifiers will be pivotal in deciding whether or not they’ll qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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With plenty of injuries restricting Bruce Arena, the upcoming games against Honduras on Friday and Panama next Tuesday are massive for the U.S. national team.

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Here’s a closer look at some lingering questions heading into the next seven days.


Who will play at full back?

With DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson out injured, the USMNT is without their top two full backs for these games. That’s a big, big problem. Arena may have to put some square pegs in round holes when it comes to playing Geoff Cameron at right back or even Matt Besler or Tim Ream at left back, while DaMarcus Beasley can also slot in at full back if needed but Jorge Villafana will likely start on the left. Simply put: the U.S. defense is weaker without Johnson and Yedlin at full back. They’ll be missing two of the four defenders from the unit which looked so strong at the Copa America Centenario last summer and the Cameron-Brooks partnership may be broken up in central defense. Far from ideal.

Can Pulisic deliver?

There’s been plenty of talk from Arena about Pulisic being ready to start and contribute regularly for the USMNT.

“He has the potential to be a great player and I think he’s going to be a big part of our team, he’s not going to be a role player. He’s going to be an important part,” Arena told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd earlier this month.

Pulisic, just 18 years old, is having a fine first full season for Borussia Dortmund (four goals and seven assists and a new contract is pretty decent…) and he may be used centrally for the U.S. in the next two games. He has the ability to control the tempo of games but often he’s played out wide for Dortmund and the USMNT. It would be a big call for Arena to hand the keys to the U.S. offense to Pulisic but he clearly has the talent to handle that pressure. Now, can he deliver on the international stage? The USMNT has a new star and they need him to deliver sooner than many would have expected.

Will Arena go for experience in central midfield?

With Jermaine Jones suspended for the Honduras game, there’s a big hole alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield to fill. Arena may well go for experience in this kind of situation. Sacha Kjestan and Dax McCarty are the obvious choices with Sebastian Lletget and Darlington Nagbe perhaps too inexperienced for these must-win games. Alejandro Bedoya could slot in alongside Bradley and he’d offer plenty of industry but his best position is out on the right and tucking inside to help build attacks. If I had to choose I’d go with Kljestan. His poise on the ball and his form for the New York Red Bulls over the last 12 months prove that he deserves the chance to step up and dovetail with Bradley in midfield.

Is USMNT capable of setting the tempo?

Having Kljestan start in midfield would be a big part of this as it’s likely that the U.S., especially against Honduras, will set the tempo of these games. Both Honduras and Panama will likely sit back and then look to hit the USMNT on the counter and without recognized full backs that could be very dangerous for the U.S.

This is all about game management. Arena’s men know that at times down in Panama they will be up against it and there will be severe pressure on their goal the longer the game remains scoreless. That said, they will be expected to create chances and they can’t just sit back, defend and hope to score goals from set pieces like they did at times in the Copa America last summer and for most of the 2014 World Cup.

Can Altidore carry the team?

Jozy Altidore will need to carry the U.S. to victory in these games. With Clint Dempsey still battling back to full fitness following his four months out, plus Pulisic still a teenager, the fact that Bobby Wood is out and Jordan Morris is extremely doubtful puts a lot of pressure on Altidore’s shoulders.

It may not have been the case during his time in the Premier League, but for Toronto and the U.S. national team he has been the go-to man in key moments. Altidore usually delivers and he has 37 goals in 100 appearances for the Stars and Stripes. If the USMNT can get Dempsey and Pulisic on the ball, then Altidore will get service in the final third. He always adds power and presence up top but not having Wood alongside him may mean he’s isolated for large spells of these games. The U.S. needs to stop that happening to not only get the best out of Altidore but also give themselves the best chance of grabbing the two wins they desperately need to get back on track in the Hex.

Report: Joao Felix unavailable against Liverpool

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Atletico Madrid is facing a defining moment of its 2019/20 season as Liverpool visits the Wanda Metripolitano on Tuesday in Champions League Round of 16 action. In such an important match, the Spanish side may be without one of its most creative attacker.

According to a report by Goal.com, Joao Felix will not be available as he has been struck down by tonsillitis, missing training on Monday. Felix has not played since picking up a muscle problem on January 26, and while he has mostly recovered from that injury, his unavailability for training means he is not able to fully prove fit to play, so between that and the illness itself, he has been ruled out.

The 20-year-old moved to Atletico Madrid this summer for a whopping $147 million, and while fans have had high hopes for the Portuguese youngster, he has flopped in his first season in Spain. Still, despite his struggles to carry the entire Atleti attack on his shoulders, Felix remains one of the club’s best attackers playing alongside true striker Alvaro Morata, and his presence will be missed in what is already an anemic attack.

Atleti is 13 points back of leaders Barcelona, sitting fourth in the La Liga table. The side is also out of the Copa del Rey, shocked in late January by third-tier side Cultural Leonesa. The Champions League is Diego Simeone’s last chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise struggle-filled season.

Atleti is also without midfielder Hector Herrera who is also suffering from an illness, while Kieran Trippier continues to recover from a groin injury.

Lacazette thanks Arteta, Arsenal teammates for support

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Alexandre Lacazette‘s 95th minute goal to finish off a 4-0 victory over Newcastle may seem meaningless, but to him it meant the world.

The 28-year-old Frenchman snapped a 10-match goalless streak across all competitions when he found the back of the net for the first time since a Champions League match on December 12. In total, Lacazette had been on the field for nearly 470 minutes without scoring before his goal in the final seconds against Newcastle.

“It has been really hard and complicated,” Lacazette said of his goal drought. “Sometimes I had some games with no chances, sometimes I missed or the goalkeeper saved it. Of course for a striker it is always hard to not score, but it happens in football. Hopefully it is the last time for me.”

However, Lacazette says both new manager Mikel Arteta and his teammates were supportive during the time he struggled to find the back of the net.

“He [Arteta] talked with me to give me confidence. I am really, really happy because I waited for this moment for a long time.  I am touched as well because of the way all my team-mates reacted when I scored that goal.  It means a lot to me and a lot for the spirit we have in the team. This is good.”

Arteta kept faith in Lacazette for much of his goal drought, starting in seven straight Premier League matches between late December and early February, but he was dropped for the Newcastle game for Eddie Nketiah, only coming on for the final five minutes when he found his moment. Lacazette confirmed that Arteta spoke to him about the match decision, saying “he explained it well” before pausing to say he cannot go into more details about the conversation.

Arsenal is on a six-game unbeaten streak in league play and eight overall, without losing since a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at the Emirates on December 29.

Timothy Weah re-injured on return to field

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An absolutely brutal turn of events has befallen American international Timothy Weah as the 19-year-old was re-injured just minutes after returning from a six-month layoff.

Weah, who will turn 20 this weekend, suffered a nasty hamstring tear just two matches into the season and has been missing since August. He finally returned to the field on Sunday, coming on for the final 10 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Marseille. However, Weah confirmed on his Instagram account that he was re-injured during his return. Reports in France say he was injured while making a run into the Marseille attacking third, grabbing at his thigh. He completed the match without being subbed off.

After thanking Lille fans for their support during his previous injury, Weah wrote, “Unfortunately for me things didn’t go as planned and I’ve injured myself again…. Better days will come and I know that God is watching over me 🙌🏾❤️Small setback for a major comeback 🙌🏾❤️”

It is unclear how severe the injury is, or if it is separate from the one he just worked so hard to come back from. His club Lille followed up with an official announcement to confirm the injury, saying it is his right hamstring that was most recently troubled, not the same one he had just finished rehabbing. No official timetable was given for his return, and no information on the severity of the injury was released.

Weah got support from some big names in the comment section of his Instagram post. Fellow American Tyler Adams posted “Onwards and upwards 🙌🏽❤️” while Bayern Munich full-back and Canadian international Alphonso Davies wrote “Yessir 💪🏾” and Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham gave him praise hands emojis.

The injury, if serious, is another big blow to the U.S. men’s national team, who has already seen Paul Arriola go down with a serious knee injury and is sweating another possible problem for the oft-injured Adams. Weah has not earned a senior international cap since November of 2018, while he last played internationally last summer during the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

Report: Barcelona given permission to sign emergency striker

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According to a report by Spanish tabloid Mundo Deportivo, Barcelona has been given permission by La Liga authorities to sign an emergency striker outside the January transfer window.

With Ousmane Dembele ruled out for the season after a serious hamstring tear, the Catalan club has just three healthy forwards in Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and teenage sensation Ansu Fati. Luis Suarez was ruled long-term after knee surgery in mid-January.

The situation is not all that uncommon as far as La Liga is concerned, as the league often authorizes clubs to sign emergency players given injuries of longer than five months and low roster availability. There are certain restrictions that come with any potential signing, such as the player must be a forward. Any potential signing will only be eligible for league competition, and the player can only come from another La Liga side or be a free agent. The club has 15 days to complete a potential signing, while any club it raids would theb be given a window to sign its own replacement.

Barcelona somewhat made its own bed here, having sold both Carles Perez and Abel Ruiz at the end of the January transfer window.

Getafe striker Angel Rodriguez, Alaves target man Lucas Perez, Levante striker Roger Marti, and Leganes frontman Martin Braithwaite have all been mentioned as possibilities. Despite having scored 10 goals this campaign, Rodriguez seems to have lost his place in the Getafe starting lineup, without a start since January 4 with Jamie Mata and Deyverson occupying the spots on the teamsheet. Perez has had an odd season, with eight of his nine league goals coming in a nine-game stretch from late September to late November. Marti has 10 goals this season, but six of those have come in multi-goal games.

Any new signing would not be eligible for Champions League competition, as Barcelona matches up with Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16 this week.