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Arena’s gameplan sets USMNT up for point in Mexico

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After 90 minutes of hair-on-fire soccer at Estadio Azteca, the U.S. national team has just its third competitive point at Mexico’s national stadium. The lessons from Sunday’s clash in Mexico City are infinite, but for now, let’s look at three key elements of Bruce Arena’s gameplan, and give the USMNT boss some deserved (and vindicating) praise.

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It’s good to have a plan

Arena went on to say they were “positioned to get three points today,” and he couldn’t be more right (Mexican coaches and players should be saying the same thing, but the game was that close). The last time the Yanks visited Azteca in World Cup qualifying, that wasn’t so much the case.

Let’s go ahead and list, in detail, all the ways Arena set his team up for this specific game, against this specific opponent:

1. Three center backs — It was effectively five across the back for much of the night, and it created a numerical balance that rarely allowed the USMNT to be overloaded in its defensive third. Working on something in training, and refining it in a friendly, before calling upon it in a meaningful game is covered on the first day of Management 101. Not everyone attends the first day of class, though, and that’s understandable.

2. Midfield partnership — It’s impossible to say what Arena would have done if Jermaine Jones had been healthy. The temptation certainly would have been there to roster him and call on the “old head who’s been here before” for a game like this. What’s not difficult to say is this: “Plain and simple, Kellyn Acosta makes Michael Bradley better.” Bradley’s only able to aggressively step up and win the ball high in midfield, as he did just before scoring his goal, if he knows Acosta’s behind him and disciplined enough to fill the space vacated if Bradley is unsuccessful. Let’s have a quick look at Acosta’s positioning when Bradley makes his move…

Not to oversimplify everything asked of a central midfielder, especially in a midfield-two, but Acosta, at the age of 21, already shows the kind of discipline that has never been a particular strength of Jones. (Sidenote: that’s totally fine, and in no way a knock on Jones. It’s only ever actually been a problem because he was shoehorned into a horribly ill-fitting role his entire USMNT career.)

3. Personnel to fit the counter-attacking approach — Under the previous coach, the USMNT set out to defend deep and hit teams (especially better sides) on the counter with frustrating regularity (considering the possession-based, attacking soccer that was promised in August 2011). Sometimes they were successful, but mostly it just frustrated (USMNT fans, not opponents).

And, why was it so? Let’s consider the personnel which has gobbled up the majority of starts in the final third over the last half-decade: Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are each fine players in a system that plays to their strengths, but attacking open space is just about the last thing the two of them do well.

By swapping Altidore for Bobby Wood, and Dempsey for Paul Arriola, Arena put a bit of pace on the field — players who are comfortable (and effective) running at defenders in the field. For the 79 minutes Wood was on the field, Mexican defenders were aware of him running in behind weighed heavily, and kept them honest. Against a forward like Altidore, they’re able to creep further and further forward, shrink the field and recycle possession in the middle third again and again.

Arena even played a pair of central midfielders who thrive at playing long balls to runners in space. In theory, and an environment slightly different than Azteca, Bradley and Acosta feed those quick wingers and let them stretch their legs to devastating effect with a forward who can keep up, make smart runs inside the box and finish his chances.

For the first time in a long time, the building blocks appear to be in place, and genuine progression from one game to the next is clear as day. I’m encouraged and hopeful in a way that I’d long since forgotten.

Watch Live: Man United, Man City, Liverpool in action at 10am ET

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Six Premier League games are coming your way at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United all in action.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ] 

Let’s see if the big boys can rotate their squads expertly after UEFA Champions League action a few days ago.

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You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for all four games at 10 a.m. ET is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


10 a.m. ET: Liverpool vs. Southampton – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Cardiff City vs. Manchester City – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Bournemouth – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Newcastle United – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Huddersfield Town – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Manchester United vs. Wolves – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]

Fulham fight back to draw with Watford

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  • Gray put Watford ahead after 87 seconds
  • Mitrovic equalized in second half
  • Serbian striker has scored 17 league goals in 2018
  • Fulham have worst defensive record in PL, conceding 13 

A game of two halves saw Fulham and Watford draw 1-1 at Craven Cottage on Saturday in the Premier League.

Andre Gray fired Watford into an early lead but Aleksandar Mitrovic equalized in the second half and almost won it late on but he headed against the crossbar.

With the point Fulham move on to five for the season, while Watford have 13 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ] 

Watford had the perfect start to the game as Gray slotted home with less than 90 seconds on the clock following busy work from Will Hughes.

The chances kept coming for the Hornets, as Christian Kabasele somehow failed to convert a header from close range and then Gray was superbly denied by Marcus Bettinelli after Alfie Mawson‘s huge error.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

At the other end Mitrovic had a shout for a penalty kick waved away after he looked to be bundled over by Kabasele but Watford looked far more dangerous as Roberto Pereyera curled just wide of the far post in a first half the Hornets dominated.

Fosu-Mensah was lucky to be on the pitch after a high challenge on Troy Deeney as Fulham had a woeful first half.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

At half time Denis Odoi and Floyd Ayite came on for Fulham as Jokanovic switched things up, and at the start of the second half Andre Schurrle clipped in a great cross for Mitrovic but the Serbian striker nodded over.

Mitrovic went close soon after and was a real handful for Watford’s defense as the Hornets tried to protect their lead. They couldn’t.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Mitrovic punished Watford for all of their missed chances as he flicked home Luciano Vietto‘s cross at the near post to equalize as his fine 2018 continued.

Deeney squared late on when he should have had a shot on goal and Issac Success went close for Watford as they regained their composure.

However it was Mitrovic who forced Ben Foster into a fine late save and then from the resulting corner he hit the crossbar with a header, as Watford held on for a point.

USMNT legend Clint Dempsey honored by Fulham

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Fulhamerica is still going strong.

After announcing his retirement in August, U.S. men’s national team legend Clint Dempsey has been lauded for his contribution to the game.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Fulham Football Club were the latest to celebrate the Nacogdoches, Texas native, with Dempsey, 35, coming onto the pitch at half time of their Premier League clash with Watford on Saturday.

Dempsey played for the Cottagers from 2007-12 and scored 60 in 232 appearances in all competitions. He led Fulham to the final of the UEFA Europa League in 2009-10 where they lost to Atletico Madrid after extra time. Dempsey scored more Premier League goals than any other Fulham player and any other American in PL history.

His status as a Fulham legend remains, with their current American owner, Shahid Khan, cementing the American connection, plus Tim Ream and Luca De La Torre in the first team squad continue the strong U.S. link for the Cottagers.

The forward was appreciative of the welcome he received back in west London. Take a look at the scene as Dempsey was celebrated at the Cottage.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic to stay in MLS but leave LA Galaxy?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t a subtle human being. But has he dropped a subtle hint he will not be with the LA Galaxy beyond the 2018 season?

The veteran striker has flourished in his debut campaign in Major League Soccer with 18 goals, but with LA’s season petering out after Sigi Schmid left as coach and a playoff appearance increasingly unlikely, Zlatan appears to be thinking about moving on.

According to LA Times writer Kevin Baxter, Ibrahimovic said his future in MLS with the LA Galaxy “isn’t a sure thing” which suggests he’d like to stay in North America’s top-flight but head elsewhere.

That is likely because Zlatan is only signed on a contract until the end of the 2019 season and he’s only paid $1.5 million per year, due to the fact that LA could only pay him via Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) as they already had three Designated Players. Therefore, he’s testing out the waters to see if other MLS clubs are interested in his talents.

So, where else could Zlatan go?

The obvious choice would be Inter Miami but David Beckham’s new MLS franchise isn’t set to begin play until 2020 and by that time Zlatan would be 38 years old.

After his serious knee injury, Ibrahimovic’s fitness isn’t a concern and as we have seen with LA this season, he is more than capable of scoring close to 20 goals in a single MLS campaign. Some of his strikes this season have been majestic (see: his goal from 40-yards in the LA derby after coming off the bench and a flying side volley versus Toronto for his 500th career goal).

With clubs such as D.C. United making a splash to sign Wayne Rooney as a veteran striker this season, the impact these ageing superstars can have on and off the pitch in MLS are clear for all to see. Would Zlatan prefer a move to New York City FC? Maybe heading across Los Angeles to new boys LA FC? Perhaps a club like Minnesota United would want to bring in Zlatan with their new stadium opening later this year and a large Scandinavian population?

The only thing we do know is that Zlatan will be a man in demand if he decides to leave LA over this offseason.

But what is more than likely happening here is that Ibrahimovic wants a vastly improved contract to remain in LA beyond the end of his current deal which runs out in December 2019. The Galaxy would be misguided to do anything but offer Zlatan what he wants.