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UCL playoff preview: Ajax, Benfica, PSV looking for group stage spot

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The Champions League is nearly back to the apex of its competition, as the final playoff round gets set for its finale and the group stage looks for its final participants. There are only six spaces left among the group stage participants, and some big-name clubs will take the field for their matchup’s second leg.

Dutch giants Ajax are in a solid position, up 3-1 over Dynamo Kiev after the home leg and now hit the road to Ukraine hoping to wrap things up on Tuesday. They have been scoring at will of late, coming off a 5-0 demolition of Eredivisie minnows FC Emmen. They have scored 20 goals over their last eight matches across all competitions, with 35-year-old Klass-Jan Huntelaar owning six of those and former Southampton man Dusan Tadic owning five.

[ MORE: 7 young players who could earn England debut ]

Kiev, meanwhile, has been quite the opposite. Through five matches in Ukranian Premier League play, Kiev has scored just five goals, but has conceded just one, sitting third in the league table with 13 points, although they have a game in hand on those above them and remain the only unbeaten team remaining in league play.

Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and Swiss champs Young Boys are both level at 1-1 heading to the second leg in Zagreb. The home side will hope for a better start than in the first leg, when Young Boys grabbed the opener just two minutes into the match.

Also on Tuesday, Greek side AEK Athens takes a 2-1 lead back home over Hungarian club MOL Vidi.

On Wednesday, another Dutch club looks to seal up a lead, as PSV Eindhoven returns home with a 3-2 advantage over Belarusian club BATE Borisov in tow. They led 2-1 late in the first leg, and the game finished wildly as BATE equalized in the 88th minute before PSV retook the lead just a minute later. The three away goals are all massive, as is coming home with a lead of any kind. PSV has participated in the Champions League group stage in two of the last three seasons, reaching the knockout stage in 2015/16.

Portuguese giants Benfica sit in a precarious position, heading out on the road to visit Greek side PAOK with that matchup level at 1-1. Benfica held a lead on a goal just before halftime, but they conceded a scrappy away goal in the 76th minute on a set-piece.

Finally, Red Bull Salzburg hosts Red Star Belgrade after a 0-0 first leg in Serbia.

Jose Mourinho appointed new Tottenham manager

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Jose Mourinho has been appointed the new head coach of Tottenham Hotspur, set to take over less than 12 hours after Mauricio Pochettino was fired on Tuesday, the club confirmed in a statement early on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Pochettino paid the price for Levy’s mistakes ]

Mourinho was the first name linked to the newly vacant managerial post at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and chairman Daniel Levy wasted no time whatsoever. Given his expedient appointment, Mourinho is likely to take Wednesday’s training session and be in the dugout when Tottenham visit West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

The former Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid (among others) manager has signed a three-and-a-half-year contract which will run through the 2022-23 season. Levy described Mourinho as “one of the most successful managers in football.”

“In Jose we have one of the most successful managers in football. He has a wealth of experience, can inspire teams and is a great tactician. He has won honors at every club he has coached. We believe he will bring energy and belief to the dressing room.”

Mourinho, on his appointment: “I am excited to be joining a club with such a great heritage and such passionate supporters. The quality in both the squad and the academy excites me. Working with these players is what has attracted me.

What did we learn about USMNT during Nations League?

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The inaugural Nations League group stage is complete, and the U.S. men’s national team managed to finish top of Group A (on the final day of play) and secure its place in the semifinals next June.

[ MORE: USMNT cruises past Cuba to reach Nations League semis ]

So, what did we learn from the final four (semi-competitive) games of 2019?

No matter the competition, the chance creation isn’t there

Inevitably, eventually, the USMNT ends up attacking its opponents in one of two ways: with long, direct balls up to the forward line, or exclusively through wide attackers and constant crosses into the box. In beating Canada and Cuba by a combined score of 8-1 during this international window, Gregg Berhalter’s team relied almost exclusively on these “tactics.” Predictably, it’s also the default setting when facing tougher competition, such as Mexico and Uruguay earlier in 2019.

Neither of those plans are bad plans, per se, only neither of those plans are what the federation has pursued as its stated goal for the last decade: possession-based soccer featuring ample chance creation from midfield.

Five coaches have taken charge of the USMNT this decade, all with varying levels of promising the above stylistic improvements. Upon completing the USMNT’s final game of the decade, it’s fair to say that all five failed.

The worst part of all is that the presence of Christian Pulisic hardly cures anything. Sure, he’s the craftiest attacking player the U.S. has ever produced, but even a primary playmaker like Pulisic requires a stable midfield behind him to filter the ball upfield and give him a stage on which to perform. Weston McKennie was stellar against Canada on Friday, but he’s proven that, at just 21 years old, he can’t be counted on to that degree game in and game out.

The good news: they’re both 21 years old and have north of 50 caps between them. One day — and it could come soon — everything should click for each of them, at which point we could see them move to operate at a totally different level.


The full backs are suddenly a bright spot

Perhaps it’s a tad hasty to claim the full backs are trending positively, but the current crop of right backs sure looks deeper and more talented than ever before. Sergiño Dest chose to play for the USMNT and is now cap-tied, Reggie Cannon is coming along nicely, and DeAndre Yedlin has proven himself, at the very least, a non-problem plenty of times.

That’s three more reliable full backs than the USMNT has had since Steve Cherundolo retired in 2012. Unfortunately, they all play on the same side of the field.

Tim Ream and Daniel Lovitz, who started at left back  don’t inspire the most confidence or excitement at left back, but perhaps a defense-first option is the way to go given the attacking instincts of all three players on the opposite side.

If Berhalter has truly settled on John Brooks and one of Aaron Long or Matt Mizaga as his starting center backs, then the USMNT heads into 2020 with a relatively stable, non-fluid situation along the backline since… maybe the 2010 World Cup.

Small victories, but victories nonetheless.

USMNT cruises past Cuba to reach Nations League semis (video)

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The U.S. men’s national team ticked all the boxes — most notably, the one reading “win and advance” — in its 4-0 victory over Cuba to reach the semifinals of the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League as the winners of Group A.

[ MORE: Miami and Nashville stock rosters in expansion draft + trades galore ]

Jordan Morris continued his scintillating late-season surge, carrying over his red-hot form for MLS Cup winners Seattle Sounders, and scored his second and third goals of the current international break to put the game out of reach before halftime. Josh Sargent also scored twice, once in each half.

The goals started extremely early and showed little sign of letting up from there. Josh Sargent put the Yanks ahead in the 36th… second. A mass scramble ensued after Paul Arriola crossed the ball into the six-yard box and Sargent got the final touch to tally his fourth senior goal.

Morris got the USMNT’s second in the 26th minute, when he tucked home a simple one-on-one chance set up by Jackson Yueill’s diagonal ball into the box, with a bit of help from Weston McKennie’s head.

Morris got his second of the game 13 minutes later, once again the result of a penalty-area scramble and a bit of pinball in the box. Aaron Long took two chances to get the ball across the face of goal, and once he finally did it looped over the goalkeeper’s head and found Morris crashing the back post. The ball appeared goal-bound without a touch from Morris, but better safe than sorry.

Sargent finished the scoring and bagged his second of the game, and the fifth of his international career, off a clever backheel by Tyler Boyd in the 66th minute. McKennie crossed the ball from right to left, overhitting it just a bit, but Boyd was able to touch it before crossing the endline and find Sargent in all kinds of space atop the six-yard box. He took the chance with his left foot and left very little to doubt.

The result sent the USMNT miles ahead of Canada in the final group standings. Despite finish tied on nine points, the Americans finished with a +12 goal differential compared to their northern neighbors’ +6.

Miami and Nashville stock rosters in MLS expansion draft

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Major League Soccer expansion teams Nashville and Miami filled out their rosters for next season via the league’s expansion draft Tuesday.

[ REPORT: Spurs, Mourinho in discussions to replace Pochettino ]

The two teams selected five players each from a pool of 222 left unprotected by their current MLS teams.

Miami added defender Ben Sweat, a Florida native, from NYCFC with its first selection. Sweat, a first-round draft pick by the Columbus Crew in 2014, has played three seasons in New York. This past season he appeared in 18 games with 13 starts.

Miami also added Cincinnati defender Alvas Powell, LAFC midfielder Lee Nguyen, Columbus midfielder Luis Argudo and Seattle backup goalkeeper Bryan Meredith.

“We’re excited about what we were able to accomplish with this draft,” said Inter Miami Sporting Director Paul McDonough. “We feel we are gaining momentum ahead of the 2020 season.”

With its first pick, Nashville selected Minnesota striker Abu Danladi, who played in 24 games this past season with four starts and a pair of goals.

[ MORE: Pochettino paid the price for Levy’s mistakes ]

Nashville also selected Portland defender Zarek Valentin, New England defender Jalil Anibaba, Atlanta forward Brandon Vazquez and Sporting Kansas City defender Jimmy Medranda.

Nashville traded Valentin to the Houston Dynamo for goalkeeper Joe Willis. The expansion team also acquired goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas from Sporting Kansas City in exchange for allocation money and a 2020 International roster spot, and got allocation money from Cincinnati in exchange for Vazquez.

Nashville also acquired defender Daniel Lovitz from the Montreal Impact in exchange for allocation money and a 2020 international roster spot.

[ MORE: Where to next for Pochettino? ]

Miami traded allocation money for Cincinnati’s No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry and Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, a Nashville native, helped to announce Nashville’s picks at an expansion draft party. Earlier this week, Nashville announced it would host Atlanta United in the team’s first official match on Feb. 29.

Inter Miami’s first home match will be March 14 against the LA Galaxy at the new Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

The Galaxy also re-signed midfielder Sebastian Lletget.