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What did we learn about USMNT this international break?

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The U.S. men’s national team is still in a heavy state of flux as they wrapped up their September friendlies with a win against bitter rivals Mexico in Nashville on Tuesday.

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But what lessons have we learned about the state of the USMNT as things stand? Which players impressed for interim head coach Dave Sarachan? And what lies ahead for the USA’s caretaker boss?

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Let’s dive in and look at the key takeaways for the U.S. national team over the past 10-12 days.


1. Permanent coach is needed, right now
Dave Sarachan has done an admirable job considering the circumstances but now is the right time for U.S. Soccer to push hard for a new permanent coach, with the federation already saying they want to appoint a new head coach by December 2018. Sarachan has been in charge on an interim basis for almost a year and over the past 12 months the U.S. has called up 66 different players excluding the 15 players who were part of the disaster in Cuova against Trinidad & Tobago, many of whom will never play for the U.S. again. If the U.S. would’ve appointed a new head coach in March 2018 (waiting after the results of the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election, of course) what could they have achieved over the past six months? Plenty. The USMNT has been stood still for too long. They waited for the 2018 World Cup to come and go to see if any decent managerial candidates arose from the dust of the tournament. None did. And here we are.

The leading candidates for USSF President Carlos Cordeiro and new USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart (he started his new job on August 1) to appoint are rumored to be Gregg Berhalter, Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes, Gerardo Martino and Sarachan. The latter has led the U.S. to three wins, two defeats and three draws in his eight games in charge but Bruce Arena’s long-time assistant has been seen as a stop-gap and he will likely remain involved with the U.S. in some capacity after his steady leadership in a turbulent time for the federation on and off the pitch. Berhalter seems to be the overwhelming favorite given his brother, Jay, is instrumental in the upper echelons of the U.S. Soccer Federation and he played with Stewart for the U.S. The way he has created an identity and clear plan with the Columbus Crew, an MLS franchise about to move to Austin, Texas which has been in turmoil for many months, has been astounding. A deal for Berhalter to take charge as soon as the 2018 MLS season is over needs to be made, right now, especially with his former club the LA Galaxy now needing a new manager. We should suspect, and hope, that the USSF has dragged its heels so long to appoint a new coach because they’re waiting for Berhalter to finish things in the correct manner in Columbus. If that isn’t the case, then letting the program drift along with no clear identity or plan is something which could set them back several years and risk not making the 2022 World Cup too. Losing 6-8 months of development time isn’t ideal and it seems like that is what will happen unless Sarachan is appointed on a permanent basis.


2. Formation and identity all over the place
This will become solidified when a new permanent head coach is found, but Sarachan’s comments after the Mexico game were a little concerning.

“We nitpick on the technical side, but you saw a team tonight that played aggressively, competed hard and won most of their duels,” Sarachan side. “I think that’s been a constant over the time I’ve had the group and over the past two games against Brazil and Mexico.”

Winning battles and fighting hard are all well and good, but what is the plan? Sarachan’s decision to go with a flat back four once again versus Mexico, then play Kellyn Acosta out of position out wide when it looked much more favorable to play a diamond in midfield, was a little baffling. A three-man central defense worked so well away against France this summer and it allows the U.S. to get the best out of their flying wing backs (DeAndre Yedlin and Antonee Robinson) as well as giving them a little extra security defensively with Miazga, Carter-Vickers and either Parker or Brooks as center backs. Yet, there has been no clear, consistent message from Sarachan. The starting lineup having an average age of 23 years and five days is impressive, but with the message and formation switching most games, it’s hard to see real chemistry building among these youngsters. There’s no doubt the USMNT looked much better when forced to revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation after McKennie went off injured and that was something Sarachan didn’t have any control over.

The best teams at club and international level have a clear identity. Due to 12 months in flux the USMNT doesn’t have that. Are they a 4-2-3-1 team or a 3-4-3 side? What are the key principles that are important to new GM Earnie Stewart moving forward? At the moment watching the USMNT play is like watching a toddler arrive at Disney for the first time. Plenty of youthful enthusiasm but no clear direction.


3. McKennie, Adams the future
There’s no doubt that Christian Pulisic will be the undisputed star for the USMNT for the next decade or so, but Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams will be more than capable of helping him along the way. Adams, still just 19, scored his first international goal in the win against Mexico and he played in both games, showcasing his energy and ability to play the simple pass at the right time. He and McKennie, just 20 years old, should get the opportunity to start together in central midfield in their preferred deeper positions. McKennie limped off with an injury against Mexico but the Schalke star has a big role to play in the coming years, with he and Adams looking ready to overtake Wil Trapp for those central midfield positions.

A solid, energetic base in midfield plus the ability to connect passes and keep hold of the ball intelligently is something both excel in and as we saw with Adams, he also has the ability to make those key runs forward to open up space and get on the end of things. With McKennie, Adams, Acosta, Trapp, Danny Williams, Lynden Gooch and several others ready to roll, the U.S. midfield is looking pretty good.


4. Striker situation concerning
They aren’t looking great up top though. Gyasi Zardes was chucked up front against Mexico and although he struggled for service he did look to stretch El Tri’s defense and there’s no doubt he is a bigger threat centrally than out wide. Tim Weah was a threat from out wide and looked most dangerous when cutting in from the flank. They key takeaway? We need to see a partnership, two players up top together feeding off each other a la Altidore and Dempsey during the heyday of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign. Seeing Weah and Zardes up top together, and Weah with Wood, needs to be a priority during the next international break. That said, Wood’s struggles continue at club level (just two goals in his past 24 appearances in the Bundesliga) and his hold-up play has never been the best. What other options do the USMNT have in attack? Josh Sargent will certainly be an option in the coming years as he continues to develop at Werder Bremen, but aside from that, Andrija Novakovich has shown promise but didn’t feature in either friendly in September. Maybe a few veterans could help out in the striking department…


5. A few veterans could return and improve things
Okay, this is a sore subject. I get it. But now seems like a pretty good time to start reintegrating some of the USMNT veterans and Sarachan has intimated that will be the case this fall. With the MLS season coming to an end and plenty of U.S. players winding down for 2018, the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore at Toronto FC (they need plenty of wins, and help, in their final seven games of the season to reach the MLS Cup playoffs) may be eyeing a return to the USMNT fold. After the debacle of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup last October, plenty of veteran players have been cast aside and many presumed they would never return. But in Bradley and Altidore — the former is the USA’s long-time skipper with 140 caps and the latter ranks third all-time in goals with 41 — they have players who can deliver experience in key areas and help develop the prodigious young talents. Could McKennie and Adams learn plenty about controlling the tempo of the game from Bradley by playing alongside him? Of course they can. Can Altidore teach Weah about hold-up play and how to lead the line? Yep. Elsewhere the likes of Tim Ream would suit a three man central defense perfectly but there aren’t too many veterans who would want to return to this setup or suit the role of gradually passing the torch to these youngsters. It’s all about picking a few vets to return for the games against Colombia and Peru on home soil next month, then seeing how that mix of youth and experience plays out. Despite the 2018 World Cup being done and dusted, the ghosts of Couva haven’t been fully exonerated.

Arsenal’s Mkhitaryan to miss Europa League final

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Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be available to play in the UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea.

The final on May 29 is being held in Baku, Azerbaijan and that country has no diplomatic relations with the country of Mkhitaryan’s birth, Armenia. Hence, Arsenal cannot guarantee the safety of their playmaker who is also the captain of the Armenian national team.

Despite the ambassador assuring Mkhitaryan will be safe, the Gunners have decided he will not be able to travel with the squad over those safety concerns.

“We are very disappointed to announce that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be travelling with the squad for our Uefa Europa League final against Chelsea,” the north London club said in a statement.

Due their conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, tensions are high between Azerbaijan and Armenia and Mkhitaryan did not travel for Arsenal’s Europa League game against Qarabag in Azerbaijan earlier this season.

He will now not be available for the final despite being a key part of Arsenal’s run to the Europa League final, which they must win to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season. UEFA had previously said they would help with the situation, but this is the latest problem in holding the final in Baku as only 5,000 fans of both Chelsea and Arsenal are expected in the 67,000 capacity stadium due to their being no direct flights and other issues getting to Azerbaijan.

Arsenal released the following statement on the situation regarding Mkhitaryan.

We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party. We have written to Uefa expressing our deep concerns about this situation. Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective.

We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career. Micki will continue to be part of our preparations until we depart for Baku at the weekend.

Mkhitaryan responded by saying “it hurts a lot” to miss the final, but added that “we had to take the tough decision for me not to travel with the squad.”

Bologna draws 3-3 at Lazio to secure Serie A safety

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ROME (AP) Bologna secured Serie A football for another season after drawing at Lazio 3-3 in a thriller on Monday.

Bologna moved four points clear of the relegation zone with one match remaining.

Lazio was still celebrating winning the Italian Cup midweek and Joaquin Correa fired the capital side in front in the 13th minute.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

However, two goals in the space of a minute from Andrea Poli and Mattia Destro saw Bologna take the lead early in the second half.

Bastos curled in a stunning effort to level for Lazio in the 59th but Riccardo Orsolini restored Bologna’s lead shortly after.

Substitute Sergej Milinkovic-Savic secured a draw for Lazio with a sensational free kick 10 minutes from time.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Choosing a USMNT XI for the Gold Cup

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Noting that most positions on the international stage are up for grabs based on form, there are special opportunities on the wing, right back, and center back when it comes to the USMNT at the Gold Cup this summer.

That’s because of two related things, one fact and one close to it:

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  1. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are missing from the lineup due to injury. Brooks is easily the Yanks’ No. 1 center back, and Yedlin is a right back when Tyler Adams is unavailable and good enough that Gregg Berhalter tries to shoehorn him in at right wing when Adams is manning that spot.
  2. Mexico’s the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament with more in-form club players in Europe than the U.S., including would-be Premier League Best XI forward Raul Jimenez of Wolves. And who’s going to have to deal with Raul? You guessed it, the big American center backs.

Presuming Berhalter is still wed to Adams as the part-fullback, part distributing midfielder role, that has our lineup for important Gold Cup matches with few sure things.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — XXXXX — XXXXX — XXXXX

McKennie — Bradley

XXXXX — Pulisic — XXXXX

Altidore

Now you may not like that I’ve assumed Bradley and Altidore’s places here, but there’s little doubt both are still quite capable against CONCACAF competition and also have the experience in this exact competition and against Mexico. Surely both are motivated for a bit of redemption as well.

Friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela will give Berhalter a chance to try out players like Tyler Boyd, Marlon Fossey, and Miles Robinson should they impress amongst a 40-player field (although the Jamaica match on June 5 in Washington, D.C. is a day before the final rosters are due for the Gold Cup).

Now what we are trying to solve here is who is the best bet to help the Yanks win the dang thing.

Defenders: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream are the favorites to start at the two center back spots and left back, but Daniel Lovitz will try to push Ream after a rough season at Fulham. Both Walker Zimmerman and Omar Gonzalez are in good form, and you can bet Berhalter will give Cameron Carter-Vickers a chance to earn some time. A flat back four role gives Antonee Robinson hope in place of Ream, and if Adams moves into the midfield, Nick Lima did alright in his right back role in January.

Midfielders/Wingers: The spots around Pulisic should be filled by those who can keep the width of the field but also serve somewhat as enforcers for the No. 10. Sebastian Lletget gives them a good shot on one side, and Paul Arriola provides a similar spot. While Joe Gyau, Josh Sargent, Duane Holmes, and Djordje Mihailovic can hope to challenge, the MLS vets with experience outside the country are good bets to get the gigs.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — Miazga — Long — Ream

McKennie — Bradley

Arriola — Pulisic — Lletget

Altidore

Does that get the job done against Mexico? Probably not, but it’ll give Tata Martino’s men a hassle.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

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Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.