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Three keys for USMNT vs. Panama

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For the U.S. national team the scenario is very clear.

If they win their final two games of CONCACAF qualifying then they will be heading to the 2018 World Cup. But we all know it’s never that easy.

[ MORE: Who should start for USA v Panama? ]

The biggest test for Bruce Arena’s side is facing Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Friday. Panama has nothing to lose. They sit in the third and final automatic spot in World Cup qualifying heading into the final two games in the Hexagonal and their final game is at home to Costa Rica who have all but qualified for the World Cup.

[ MORE: World Cup scenarios for USA ]

For the Panamanians a win against the U.S. would seal their first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals and even a point wouldn’t be bad but they’d then have to beat Costa Rica at home in their final qualifier. This game on Friday is their World Cup final and there is very little pressure on them with the home fans expecting the U.S. to win comfortably against a team ranked 60th in the world.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three keys for the USMNT as they look to jump ahead of Panama with a win and potentially go into their final Hex game at Trinidad & Tobago needing just a draw to qualify for the World Cup.


CENTER BACK PAIRINGS

Don’t be surprised if Arena mixes things up, once again, at center back. With Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler steady away at Honduras (despite one slip up between Graham Zusi at right back and Gonzalez at center back for the goal) they could well start against Panama.

Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron are no doubt the better individual defenders but it seems like Arena has decided against them as a pairing after the defeat to Costa Rica when the partnership struggled. At center back and in central midfield, having a strong understanding of the player alongside you is key and due to injuries and a lack of form this center back pairings have taken a huge hit in recent months for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has kept just two clean sheets in their eight games in the Hex so far

Cameron and John Brooks should be the USMNT’s first-choice center backs but with Brooks out, Arena may decide to go with Gonzalez and Besler, or maybe even throw Ream back in. Simply put: Arena’s decision on who to play at center back will be crucial, especially with veteran forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada eager for World Cup qualification to cap their long, and glittering, Panama careers. Gabriel Torres shold cause the U.S. defense plenty of problems too.


HELPING OUT BRADLEY

Sorting out the midfield around Michael Bradley is crucial too. FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta has been preferred alongside him in recent games, and they’ve proved a solid partnership, but for an encounter like this you’d think a little more experience would be key in front of Bradley and perhaps more attacking options will prevail. I still love watching video of the midfield display Bradley and Cameron put on together against Panama in a big World Cup qualifying win in Seattle back in 2013 in the Hex, but does playing two holding midfielders make sense in a game the U.S. simply has to win? Not really.

But still, with Panama likely to hit the U.S. on the counter you have to worry about Bradley being outnumbered on the break when the U.S. turns the ball over.

There’s a real sense that Christian Pulisic will once again operate centrally in midfield and maybe this is the type of game Darlington Nagbe would flourish in as he can keep the ball and allow the U.S. to press higher up the pitch. Pace out wide crushed Honduras in a World Cup qualifying win at home earlier in the Hex and you can expect Arena to follow a similar path for this game. Bradley may well end up as the lone holding midfielder but that role suits him well. That said, he will need a dynamic group in front of him to not only help support the likes of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood but also allow him to make any surging runs past them (ahem, the goal at the Azteca) into the final third.


EXPERIENCE IS KEY

With Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Cameron, Besler, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Altidore and Bradley all veterans at this point, it would be intriguing to see Arena start with the vast majority of them from the start.

That group has delivered in tense situations over the past two World Cup cycles to get out of the Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup and then reach the semifinals of the Copa America Centernario. The big question is: does Arena go for experience or youth? I’d say a smattering of both and that could be a mistake.

In situations like this I say the more experience the better. Panama have five players with over 100 international caps and most will play a pivotal role on Friday. The U.S. also have five players with over 100 caps but only three may seem like guaranteed starters in Howard, Bradley and Altidore.

Dempsey, Bedoya, Cameron and Beasley should all seriously be considered due to their past of getting the U.S. over the line when they’ve needed it most. Although the exciting young talents of Paul Arriola, Nagbe and Acosta are clearly capable of performing at this level, having the nous to overcome a Panama side who will roll out every trick in the book to try and qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals is something they lack.

De Gea limps off for Spain ahead of Man Utd-Liverpool tilt

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Here’s the good news for Manchester United supporters: David De Gea played incredibly well for Spain in its EURO qualifier on Tuesday as La Furia Roja clinched a place in EURO 2020.

The bad news? The performance was truncated, with De Gea limping off the pitch and replaced by Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga in the 60th minute.

[ MORE: EURO qualifying wrap ]

De Gea appeared to injure himself while attempting a goal kick of all things, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be wondering what fresh hell awaits him next.

Perhaps that’s simply the fact that Liverpool visits Old Trafford on Sunday in a match that Solskjaer previously said was perhaps ideal for his reeling Red Devils.

Solskjaer would turn to Sergio Romero should De Gea been unable to play at the weekend. Lee Grant is United’s third goalkeeper with Dean Henderson on loan to Sheffield United.

United was already going to need a lot of help to beat back the unbeaten Reds.

EURO qualifying wrap: Spain earns place in stoppage time

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Spain clinched a spot in EURO 2020 via a last-minute equalizer, but the rest of the picture only got murkier thanks to dramatics in Romania and Switzerland.)

[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]


Sweden 1-1 Spain

A Marcus Berg header had Sweden on the verge of a significant home win against nearly unbeatable David De Gea and Spain, but Valencia forward Rodrigo delivered a stoppage time goal to give Robert Moreno’s men a place in EURO 2020. But Sweden can breathe a little easier thanks to a stoppage time goal across the continent.

Bad news for Manchester United, though, as De Gea’s strong day ended early due to injury.

Romania 1-1 Norway

New York City FC’s Alexandru Mitrita added another beauty to his collection in scoring for the second successive qualifier, but it wouldn’t stand up thanks to former Crystal Palace striker Alexander Sorloth‘s stoppage time equalizer.

Switzerland 2-0 Republic of Ireland

Terrible from the Irish, who trailed after 16 minutes and then went down to 10 men when Seamus Coleman was shown a red card in the 76th minute. Former West Ham man Edimilson Fernandes put it to bed in stoppage time as the Swiss out-attempted Ireland 20-9.

The Irish are tied for the lead in the group with 12 points but that’s about where the good news ends. They do not have an automatic spot in the playoffs while Denmark does and has 12 points. Switzerland has 11 and has also played one fewer match.

Ireland will need to beat Denmark next month and hope for help on the out-of-town scoreboard when Switzerland meets Gibraltar and Georgia.

Finland 3-0 Armenia

Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki continued his fine year with a pair of goals after Fredrik Jensen staked the Finnish side to a lead in Turku. Group J second place side Finland has a five-point lead on chasing Armenia and BNH.

Elsewhere

Faroe Islands 1-0 Malta
Gibraltar 2-3 Georgia
Greece 2-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein 0-5 Italy
Israel 3-1 Latvia

Lloyd: Coming off bench at World Cup “rock bottom of my entire career”

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The upper echelon of the USWNT player pool, especially the veteran generation, just swims in a different competitive gene pool.

Comments from a recent podcast featuring Carli Lloyd are the latest evidence of this, as the USWNT legend calls not starting regularly at this summer’s World Cup “the worst time of my life.”

[ MORE: How should USMNT line up? ]

She says she was happy to be a part of it and happy for her teammates but doesn’t back down from the “worst” diagnosis. Yeah, you read that right.

“I’m not going to lie and sugarcoat it,” Lloyd said on Julie Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast. “It was absolutely the worst time of my life. It affected my relationship with my husband, with friends. It really was rock bottom of my entire career. But somehow, you see light at the end of the tunnel, and I can honestly say I’m having more fun now playing than I ever have in my career. I think I just learned a lot throughout it.”

To be fair, Lloyd hasn’t backed up anyone in almost a decade and has since won a Ballon d’Or. Not many elite athletes get used to being second (or fourth) fiddle, especially on a major stage like that.

The personalities on this team are as big as any produced by Ronaldo’s Brazil or Zidane’s France. Some may laugh at this, but it shows what a tremendous job Jill Ellis did in marshaling the team to two-straight World Cups, the first with Abby Wambach in a sub’s role and the second with Lloyd.

It also shows the marvelous competitive nature of Lloyd and the resilience of players who know they’d start for any number of teams in the world. Lloyd says in the podcast that she believed she was playing at near her best level despite being moved from midfielder to forward.

Obviously no player prefers a sub’s role to starting, but — wow — if it isn’t bewildering to hear Lloyd talk about her supporting role at age 37 being the worst time of her life. Different types.

Liverpool’s Alisson, Matip return to training

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Premier League leaders Liverpool have been handed a huge boost ahead of their massive clash at bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Remember: Liverpool are eight points clear atop the table and United sit in 12th, so Jurgen Klopp‘s men are keen to rub salt further into the wounds of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Red Devils.

Alisson and Joel Matip both returned to training at Melwood, with Alisson recovering from a calf injury which he suffered on the opening day of the season.

The Brazilian goalkeeper has been missing after limping out of the 4-1 win against Norwich City on Aug. 9, and his return to full fitness will bolster this already stingy Liverpool defense. Adrian has performed admirably, albeit with a few errors, in Alisson’s absence but it is now time for the superstar goalkeeper to return to action.

As for Matip, the towering center back suffered an injury against Sheffield United and missed Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League win against Red Bull Salzburg and their narrow Premier League victory against Leicester City.

Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren have both come in for Matip but neither have been solid enough and the former Schalke star will slot straight back in alongside Virgil Van Dijk and bring a steadying influence to the entire defensive line. Matip has been sensational this season, just as everyone expected Gomez to take his starting spot.

Another situation to keep an eye on is the fitness of Mohamed Salah, as he trained on his own at Melwood. Salah was caught with a rash challenge by Hamza Choudhury at the end of Liverpool’s win over Leicester and suffered an ankle injury.

Klopp was incandescent with rage about the foul on Salah and it appears the Egyptian winger is in a race against time to be fit for the clash against Man United, although he is reportedly looking good to play at Old Trafford on Sunday.

With the fitness of Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and others a constant struggle for United in recent weeks, Solskjaer hasn’t had much help in that department.

Having Alisson and Matip back is great news for Liverpool and Klopp.