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Three things from the USMNT’s draw with Venezuela

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The United States worked out the kinks against Venezuela ahead of two huge World Cup qualifiers.

Drawing 1-1 in Utah, the Americans started slow and won’t love their evening overall.

[ MORE: Player ratingsWatch Pulisic’s equalizer ]

Yet the Yanks saw dynamite performances from Tim Howard and Christian Pulisic, with Jorge Villafana also doing plenty of good.

Set pieces are a real concern

Bruce Arena’s appointment didn’t guarantee much, but it promised significant improvement on set pieces. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team did not fare well on corner kicks and free kicks, and Arena was supposed to fix what ailed the Yanks tactically.

Not yet.

The Yanks have not been much better, if at all, in dealing with set pieces, allowing another goal off a corner on Saturday and saved from a second by one of two fantastic saves by Tim “No. 1 Forever” Howard.

Either Fabian Johnson (likely), John Brooks (maybe), or both were victimized on the goal, moved out of position by the ping-pong of the ball amongst Venezuela heads (Win a 50-50, gents!).

And the second saw Clint Dempsey lose his mark for the first header, and Michael Bradley lost on the second as Howard bailed both veterans out.

Pulisic, Pulisic, Pulisic

At the risk of over exuberance, the Borussia Dortmund 18-year-old continues his path toward becoming a transcendent U.S. talent.

Pulisic scored five goals for BVB this season, and now has five as a national team member. Again, he’s 18.

This time, it was a composed move atop the 18.

“The ball just came back to me on top of the box. I just didn’t see the shot on my right foot, so I cut it back once and just put it right to the back post.”

There’s also something about the way Pulisic sees the ball in the center of the park, and the way he sets up for his longer passes, how they come off his foot.

There are some questions about his BVB future with Thomas Tuchel, a huge Pulisic proponent, out the door, but there aren’t any when it comes to his import within the USMNT structure.

Post-friendly calm

Listening to Pulisic and Tim Howard after the game, this friendly was part of the process. No, it didn’t look good. No, they didn’t come out well. But yes, they knew they were experimenting as well as the merits of that experimentation.

That last part is the biggest difference so far under Arena, and the half-year game plan to get used to playing at altitude has embedded itself in the players. We’ll see whether it’s successful on Thursday versus Trinidad and Tobago, and then Sunday at Mexico, but right now we like hearing the following:

Pulisic: “Obviously we had a slow start. We didn’t come out with the right intensity like we should have but as the game went on we found a groove. We’re getting used to the altitude. We’re looking a lot stronger and we feel much more confident.”

Howard: “Just a little bit of experimentation but Bruce Arena emphasized that every time you put that shirt on it means a lot.”

Serie A: AC Milan on winning streak, Fiorentina woes deepen

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AC Milan secured its first winning streak since mid-September as Krzysztof Piatek and Theo Hernandez led the way to a 3-2 road win over Bologna.

Piatek was the first on the scoresheet, opening the scoring from the spot after the Polish striker was bundled over on the break by Mattia Bani. He utilized a heavy stutter in his run-up, but wrong-footed Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski for the conversion. Hernandez was next up, latching onto a perfect through-ball from Suso that sprung the former at the far post.

Bologna pulled one back before halftime on a Hernandez own-goal, but Giacomo Bonaventura restored the two-goal lead just seconds after the restart. Nicola Sansone’s late penalty made no difference in the result and Milan sits 10th in the league table, level on points with Torino.

Fiorentina slumped to its fourth straight loss as they fell at Torino 2-1. The visitors were soundly beaten on goals by Simone Zaza and Cristian Ansaldi, only able to grab a consolation strike from Martin Caceres in stoppage time. They put just four of their 17 shots on net and had very few true chances until Caceres’s late goal. With the loss, Fiorentina drops to 13th in the table, just five points above the relegation zone. Vincenze Montella’s job is on the line, having just returned to the club in April for a second stint in charge after the departure of Stefano Pioli.

Cagliari failed to pull away from Roma with a 2-2 draw on the road at 14th placed Sassuolo. A comeback was required after falling down 2-0 before halftime. João Pedro brought the visitors one back just six minutes after the break, and Daniele Ragatzu rescued the point as he snuck one in at the near post a minute into added time. They also survived what could have been the game-winning goal as Domenico Berardi clattered the crossbar from the penalty stop on a chance that would have put the home side 3-1. Instead, Cagliari moves level with Roma on 29 points, clinging to the fourth Champions League spot on goal differential.

Genoa survived the final 13 minutes with just nine men, securing a 2-2 draw with Lecce that keeps them in the hunt for Serie A safety. Goran Pandev and Domenico Criscito had put Genoa 2-0 up before halftime, but they had coughed up the lead by the 70th minute. Still, things could have been worse as Kevin Agudelo was sent off with 20 minutes to go after conceding a penalty, while Pandev was given his marching orders in the 77th minute. The goals in this game were spectacular, with Pandev’s opener coming from nearly 40 yards out as he chipped Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel who was off his line, while Filippo Falco scored a fine curler to mark Lecce’s first on the hour mark.

Brescia topped SPAL 1-0 to leave the latter at the bottom of the Serie A table, with the lone goal coming via Mario Balotelli in the 54th minute as he collected a bobbling ball on the break and fired it in at the far post. The win was critical, moving 19th-placed Brescia to 10 points on the year, two from safety.

Parma defeated Sampdoria 1-0 on a 21st minute goal from Juraj Kucka that left Claudio Ranieri‘s squad just a point off the relegation zone.

Nuno expresses pride in Wolves achievements after Brighton draw

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Nuno Espirito Santo has expressed his pride in what Wolves has achieved so far this season after the 2-2 road draw at Brighton & Hove Albion.

The team reclaimed sixth place in the Premier League table with the point from the Amex, and while Nuno knows there were moments to improve on, he still believes the team is headed forward and looks back fondly on where they’ve come from.

[ RECAP: Wolves, Seagulls draw ]

“We are very proud of what we are achieving day by day but we want to keep on going,” Nuno said after the match. “We need to compete and prepare ourselves for the last game in the Europa League.”

He pointed to mistakes that led to Brighton goals, ones he believes a little tactical instruction should snuff out. “I am proud of how we stayed organized. We did not do well when he had to restart the game after the 1-1, we should not have played a horizontal pass that was intercepted.”

The head man was frustrated by one key thing, as his winger Adama Traore was fouled four times, all coming in the second half. “He’s a strong boy,” Nuno said. “Everybody can see that. No matter how strong you are, if you are being kicked it’s impossible.” He was seen having an animated conversation with the fourth official during the later stages of the game, with two of the four fouls drawn in the final 10 minutes as the visitors pushed for a winner.

The draw against Brighton was no anomaly – Wolves has achieved its impressive table position despite just five wins on the season. The key for them has been avoiding losses, with just two defeats on the year. They have drawn a shocking nine games, with the previous eight all either 0-0 or 1-1 before Sunday’s 2-2 finish. That leaves Wolves with an 11-game unbeaten streak, with the last loss coming in mid-September.

Nevertheless, Nuno knows the toughest part of the season is on the horizon. “The hardest part of the fixtures is going to start now. It will be tough for everybody.” Wolves has a match against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham next weekend before a festive season that sees the club play Norwich, Man City, Liverpool, and Watford between an eleven-day span.

Brendan Rodgers has Leicester City whirring

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Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Say it again with me. We’re doing this Good Will Hunting style, until you truly believe the words you are repeating.

Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Four years after winning the title against astronomical odds in one of the most historic seasons in sports history, Brendan Rodgers has cemented Leicester City as anything but a fluke. This club is for real.

[ MORE: Leicester City tops Aston Villa ]

After three mid-table finished that allowed the club to institute a sustainable model of player acquisition, talent development, and asset maximization, the Foxes are back near the top of the table and look a club that has the ability to secure itself as a leading force in the English top flight.

This summer, the club put the finishing touches on two critical components of the plan, two moments that may prove defining decisions in the club’s history. The first was selling Harry Maguire and replacing him with young Caglar Soyuncu, a move which not only netted the club a massive sum of money, but also cemented Leicester City as a talent development hub capable of producing talent, offloading for a huge profit, and not losing a step on the pitch.

The second was replacing Claude Puel with Brendan Rodgers. Puel, in charge of Leicester City for two years, was caught in between instituting his preferred possessional style of play and changing the culture of the squad, a hesitation which cost the Frenchman his job. Last season, Leicester City was seventh in the league in passes per game but fifth in accurate long-balls per game, a testament to his inability to decide the squad’s identity. This season, Leicester City is fourth in passes per game behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and fourth in total shots per game, all while sitting ninth in accurate long-balls (for what it’s worth, Liverpool is 1st in that category while Man City is third, largely down to their exorbitant possessional advantages). This team has completed the transformation Puel wanted but never achieved – they are a dominant Premier League side that wants to dominate its opponents.

Even deeper, the numbers agree. Jamie Vardy is scoring at otherworldly levels, especially for a player at 32 years old. His 16 goals lead the league by six, and even with his outrageous finishing ability (he has a +5.47 differential between actual goals scored and expected goals scored, nearly double anyone else – Harry Kane and Teemu Pukki are second at +2.92), he is still second in the league in total xG behind Marcus Rashford.

James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, and Wilfried Ndidi are all among the top 5 in WhoScored player rating this season, while Vardy sits seventh. Soyuncu ranks sixth by in the league by WhoScored among central defenders in his first full Premier League season at just 23 years old, while his center-back partner Jonny Evans is eighth in his 13th campaign in the English top flight. Pereira is a tackling machine who gets far less screen time than new Manchester United signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka, owner of a reputation for that exact skill which earned him a big-money move. Ndidi, meanwhile, continues to rise in prominence as he leads the Premier League in tackles and ranks third in interceptions.

Sure, Rodgers inherited a fantastic squad, but the list of players falls well short of screaming “second in the table” and the former Liverpool manager has metamorphosed them from budding talents to world-class players. He has mixed young talent with veteran experience flawlessly, making sure to keep title veterans Wes Morgan, Cristian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton involved despite their declining roles.

The club has also found itself the beneficiary of a few unique circumstances. Most notably, they have avoided significant injury to this point in the season. A large part of that has been Vardy’s international retirement which (at least, for the time being) has kept him fresher than most, whereas double duty has weighed down other top goalscorers in the league. Only Matthew James is currently sidelined for the Foxes who remain one of the healthiest teams in the league. They also don’t have European play to worry about, a proven ingredient for domestic success.

Still, Rodgers is the source of much of their continued improvement. The Foxes have conceded just nine total goals all year, the least of any English top flight side, and are the only team in the league not to have conceded from a set-piece this Premier League season, a testament to their rigid and well-drilled discipline. And they have scored gobs of late goals under the current boss – they scored 10 goals inside the final 15 minutes of his first eight games in charge of the club, and this season they lead the league with five goals inside the final five minutes (even with Manchester City). Against Aston Villa he managed to pair Vardy with Kelechi Iheanacho up front, a prospect that left Puel utterly baffled.

It’s a shame this team isn’t among those competing in Europe this campaign, as they could surely challenge the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, but they will almost certainly get the chance next season. They get a chance to play with the Premier League big boys soon during the holiday season, with back-to-back matches against Liverpool and Man City just after Christmas Day.

Claude Puel just couldn’t get it right. Vardy said earlier this season that Puel’s training sessions were “too slow” to the point where it was consequently “difficult for us to be fast and aggressive in matches.” That’s not a problem any longer. Brendan Rodgers has this team absolutely soaring at breakneck speeds towards a long-term place among the Premier League’s elite. The Foxes’ transformation from one-hit wonder to sustainable elite-level success should be a case study for other clubs looking to is still in progress, but has reached the final phase.

Eight games in a row they have won now, the most in team history. Brendan Rodgers called Sunday’s win “a historic day for the club,” but the picture is much bigger than that.

“Leicester City is a top Premier League club.” Say it again until you believe the words you are reciting. Know that they are true.

Manchester City is panicking

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Manchester City fell to Manchester United 2-1 in Saturday’s derby, and one thing was blatantly obvious above all others.

Pep Guardiola‘s side has begun to panic, and there may not be a way back from that headspace this season.

Down 2-0 to the Red Devils at home, Guardiola grabbed the big red metaphoric button, opened the plastic cover, and set off all the alarm bells at The Etihad. At the end of the 90 minutes, Manchester City delivered 47 crosses, completing just seven of them. They forced Manchester United to make 40 clearances in the penalty area, and the Red Devils were up to the task, only conceding on a corner that resulted in a bullet header by Nicolas Otamendi, who was afforded the chance at an attacking move thanks to the dead ball set-piece.

This isn’t a terribly new thing for Man City, but it has reached troubling levels. City – a squad with spectacular dribblers like Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling, plus world-class passers like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – leads the English top flight with 29 crosses per game, six more than any other team. Some of that is down to their gargantuan possessional advantage that lends itself to more deliveries of all kinds into the box, but that number is beyond reasonable explanation.

The trend has cropped up in big games over the past month or two, and it has not been helpful. Against Liverpool, Man City delivered 32 crosses, of which just five found its mark. In the Champions League disappointment against Shakhtar Donetsk, they delivered 29 crosses officially, but the strategy was far beyond that, forcing Shakhtar into 34 clearances. Against Wolves in the 2-0 defeat, they blasted 36 crosses into the area in a game that was scoreless until the final 10 minutes.  Panic.

A deeper dive is even more troubling. Even with all those crosses flying into the opposition box – again, attempting 26% per game more than any other Premier League side – they have just one player among the top 20 in accurate crosses. Kevin de Bruyne leads the Premier League with 45 total completed crosses this season, but even he has done so at just a 28% clip, which is nothing more than bang-on average. The rest of the list is completely devoid of any Man City players, forced to drop all the way to 40th in the league where Angelino, Olkesandr Zinchenko, and Ilkay Gundogan all sit with eight at a combined 29% success rate.

Clearly, strategy does not fit Man City’s strengths – the squad, as mentioned previously, is full of passers, dribblers, and general movers of the ball. They are not a crossing team. They are a spectacular passing team, with de Bruyne leading the league in key passes plus Sterling, Silva and Mahrez all in the Premier League top 20. Man City has six players in the top 10 in accurate final third passes. Yet here they are, blasting crosses into the box.

Pep Guardiola has talked repeatedly about how Manchester City is “still not ready” to win the Champions League, and yet it feels like instead the window may have closed. The team that won back-to-back Premier League titles in record-setting fashion may be in decline.

Injuries have no doubt had an effect. Leroy Sane’s knee injury has proven a much bigger absence than expected, while goal machine Sergio Aguero now finds himself on the sideline. As a result, Guardiola has leaned heavily on de Bruyne, a dangerous prospect given the Belgian’s own recent injury history.

Determining a fix is more complex than asking City to “go back to what they do best,” but any remedy certainly starts there. The problems are also not deep-rooted, as Manchester City still leads the league with 44 goals scored through 16 games, and a 45.89 xG proves that number is not a fluke. Still, the baffling tweak up front has left the team begging for goals when it needs them the most, unable to provide the killer instinct that flowed through the veins of the recent title teams.