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USA vs. Ghana preview: Gold Cup tune-up

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Saturday at 5:00 p.m. ET in East Hartford, CT the US Men’s National Team will get its final chance to mesh ahead of the 2017 Gold Cup as they take on Ghana in a pre-tournament friendly.

The United States features a young and inexperienced squad for at least the tournament’s group stage, devoid of many national team staples like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and even Christian Pulisic. Thus, this match against Ghana will be an important step for the team to not just experiment but play together as they look towards the competitive games.

Ghana and the US have an intense rivalry – if you can call it that with just five matches between them in recent history. Nevertheless, three of those five games have been of significant importance, and that has stoked the fire between the two nations.

Particularly painful for the current United States manager is the loss to Ghana in the 2006 World Cup that sealed Bruce Arena’s fate in his first stint as national team coach. Again, the US was eliminated by the African nation in the 2010 World Cup, an extra-time defeat in the knockout round, with Asamoah Gyan’s 93rd-minute winner breaking the US’s hearts.

In the 2014 World Cup, the US got revenge, beating Ghana 2-1 in the opening group stage match to help Jurgen Klinsmann escape the Group of death. It was the only victory for the United States in the competition. That defeat for Ghana saw the end of Kwesi Appiah‘s managerial tenure, but he’s back for a second go and will take charge on Saturday.

Now, after years of World Cup battles, Ghana may be able to help their CONCACAF opponents in their first-ever friendly matchup. With Arena hoping to work in a number of fringe players alongside youthful counterparts looking to break into a more prominent role, Ghana’s presence could be of long-term benefit to the US instead of a thorn in the side.

At Arena’s disposal are both well-known players looking to reignite their national team flame, and lesser-known fringe options hoping to boost their stock. The most significant of the former include Matt Miazga who can help make a push towards his high ceiling, and Juan Agudelo who is looking to play his first competitive minutes since 2011 in what to this point has been a career underperformance. Jordan Morris could use a bright tournament as well, having fallen down the striker pecking order thanks in large part to the emergence of Bobby Wood.

Highlighting those looking to become household names is Cristian Roldan, the promising young Seattle Sounders midfielder who could potentially pair with Kellyn Acosta for years to come. Alongside him is Dom Dwyer who has waited a lifetime for his chance on the national team, and now gets that with the tournament calling his name. Finally, defender Matt Hedges has another shot after a knee injury in January camp derailed his first shot at seeing USMNT time.

The Gold Cup will provide all these men and more with the opportunity to push for a spot on the first-team roster with the World Cup just around the corner, but first the tuneup against Ghana will be a litmus test for what is to come in the next month. Look for Anderlecht winger Frank Acheampong to lead the creative attack, most notably on the counter, and Gyan is still a leader for his nation up front.

Spurs’ Son happy South Korea “unscathed” in North Korea qualifier

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As expected, North Korea did not broadcast its World Cup second round qualifier against South Korea this week, making for an old school “wait and see” for fans back home in South Korea.

The match ended 0-0 in front of no fans in Pyongyang, with just police in the stands as Heung-Min Son and South Korea kept their group lead over the North Koreans on goal differential.

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Son, the Tottenham Hotspur star, says it was an odd experience. From The Korea Herald:

“The opponents were pretty physical, and we exchanged some terse words,” Son told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. “It might have been their strategy. They played it rough, and they took exception to our own physical play. …. Rather than focusing on the match, we started worrying about trying not to get hurt. It means a lot to have come out unscathed from a match like this.”

The few videos released by journalists show an eerie scene, and South Korea’s status as AFC powers probably played in North Korea’s lack of desire to broadcast a potential home loss. But you have to think that also lived in the home players heads a bit, too.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

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After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

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Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

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Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

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Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.