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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.

PL Sunday preview: Man Utd and Arsenal chase top five; Chelsea host Liverpool

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures is filled up to the brim of top-six sides in action, as Manchester United and Arsenal look to climb into the top five in the table, while Chelsea looks to send a strong message as they host leaders Liverpool.

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West Ham vs. Manchester United — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Aside from leaders Liverpool, there is no other team in the league experiencing such a positive run as West Ham. The Hammers are unbeaten in their last four bouts – wining twice and drawing twice – as they head into Sunday’s showdown against Manchester United. Equal with five other sides with eight points, Manuel Pellegrini is conscious that it’s the ideal time to make a statement and climb into the top six.

“We have a very strong team in front of us, it will be a strong test against United. It is the only way we can get into the top six, demonstrating you are able to do it,” Pellegrini said heading into Sunday.

As for the Red Devils, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side – who share the podium with West Ham – are looking to extend their current winning form to three games. Ahead of the game, however, the talk surrounding United isn’t Sunday’s game, but Paul Pogba‘s rumored move to Real Madrid this summer. What a better way to get everyone’s mind of theoretical situations and injury worries than with a win.

INJURIES: West Ham — OUT: Michail Antonio (hamstring), Arthur Masuaku (suspended) | Manchester United —OUT: Anthony Martial (thigh), Paul Pogba (back), Luke Shaw (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (knee)

Crystal Palace vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 9 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Not many expected it: Wolves winless throughout the first five games of the season. That, however, is the reality for a team that finished seventh last season. By now, Wolverhampton Wanderers have had plenty of time to pick up on the alarm bells, it’s time for them to respond.

Manager Nuno Espírito Santo, for instance, knows that it’s time for his side to get back into shape before it’s too late.

“This is important,” he said. “We face the reality and the reality says we not performing well so we have to analyse it and find solutions in the team to improve. We must react immediately. We have to take decisions and find solutions for the team because we have to come out of this situation and improve our performance so we can bounce back.”

Crystal Palace, on the other hand, are dealing with adversity of their own after falling to Tottenham Hotspur, 4-0, last week. Playing at Selhurst Park this time around should be a positive, but Palace has only managed to score a goal in three matches in front of their home crowd this season.

INJURIES: Crystal Palace — OUT: None | Wolverhampton Wanderers — OUT: None

Arsenal vs. Aston Villa — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Arsenal have had several things going for them this season: scoring at home, positive first Europa League performance, a healthy and productive Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, among others. One thing they’ve been missing, though, is an effective Nicolas Pepe, especially after shelling record-money for the 24-year-old Ivorian.

“He needs more adaptation,” Emery said in his pre-match press conference. “He is playing good but progressively we know there is going to be more performance in him to help us and I want to do now quickly the last step in the adaptation for us, for example, against Aston Villa.”

With Alexandre Lacazette still out with an ankle injury, Pepe, again, will have the opportunity to showcase his true worth to a packed Emirates Stadium. Arsenal, too, can use his skill to get that much closer to three, vital points.

“When will Aston Villa finally break out of their shell?” is the million-dollar question for the visitors. At times, the newly promoted side has shown the flair that made it so powerful in the Championship last season, only to leave spectators on the edge of their seats, waiting for that final blow. In North London on Sunday, Dean Smith and Co. have the chance to do so with several players back in the mix, but that’s not to say the task will be a walk in the park.

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Alexandre Lacazette (ankle) | Aston Villa — OUT: James Chester (thigh), Jonathan Kodjia (cheek)

Chelsea vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Liverpool, like Chelsea, suffered opening losses in European play midweek; however, there is a different, more positive impetus fueling Jurgen Klopp‘s side. The defending Champions League winners’ immaculate record speaks volume to their current situation, one that’s biggest setback has been the aforementioned loss to Napoli and the injury to goalkeeper Allison, while regaining influential player Nabi Keita in trainings.

It begs to ask: with Manchester City already behind and several top-six sides struggling, how will Liverpool not runaway with the league title this season? That type of talk, however, is exactly what Klopp doesn’t want to hear. The season is green – very, ver green – and this season, for one reason or another, is nothing like last year’s.

“Nothing is won already,” Klopp said. “We have seen teams make big steps. There is nobody you think will go down with no points. Watford and Wolves have been at the bottom, struggling, but will end up going back up. The league is much different (to last season). So many things can happen. Five games is nothing, not even created a basis…”

Klopp’s counterpart on Sunday, Frank Lampard, as a result of his own environment, is managing a different dialogue ahead of the clash, like the possibility of fielding Mason Mount, who came off midweek against Valencia in Champions League play.

On the bright side, Chelsea are unbeaten in their last four league bouts, and have a game against Liverpool under their belts this season already – a penalty-shootout loss in the UEFA Super Cup – that should have seasoned them ahead of this season’s part two of the rivalry.

“Times have changed slightly, but it doesn’t change that feeling,” Lampard said on the Chelsea-Liverpool rivalry. “I think the fans feel it, the players feel it, it does involve a lot of passion whenever it’s played. If your levels aren’t there it’s a game that can get away from you quickly so my first thing to say to the players is to make sure they feel this game, recognise what it is, because it always does have an edge.”

INJURIES: Chelsea OUT: Antonio Rüdiger (groin), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James (both fitness) | Liverpool  OUT: Alisson (calf), Nathaniel Clyne (knee)

Serie A roundup: Inter win Derby della Madonnina, Juventus edge Verona (video)

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Inter Milan’s rampant run and Juventus’ win headline Saturday’s Serie A action.

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AC Milan 0-2 Inter Milan

The stats books following this season’s first Derby della Madonnina make two things very clear: at the moment, Inter are the best team in Milan and in Serie A.

With four consecutive victories to start the season, Antonio Conte and Co. lead Italy’s top-flight by two points.

 

After nearly being up two goals in the first half, Inter broke deadlock in the 49th minute. From a orchestrated set-piece play, marcelo Brozovic’s strike skimmed the heels of Rafael Leão, deflecting the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma, and into the back of the net. An offside call was reviewed through VAR, but the goal stood.

In the 78th minute, a short, lofted cross from Nicolò Barella found Romelu Lukaku, who headed the ball into the far post. The Belgian, who arrived from Manchester United during the summer, has scored three goals in four league games.

Dominating time with the ball didn’t do much for AC Milan, whose clearest chance came late in the second half when Theo Hernández’s strike inside the box hit the bar.

Yet to taste a draw or defeat, Inter marches on as they host Lazio next, while AC Milan travel to Turin to take on Torino.

Juventus 2-1 Hellas Verona

In a game that could have gone either way, Juventus, with its star-studded team and all, walked away with three points against 10-man Hellas Verona.

Aaron Ramsey, who made a shock switch to the Old Lady in July following an 11-year spell with Arsenal, scored his first Serie A goal. From distance, in the 31st minute, the 29-year-old’s shot deflected Verona’s Koray Gunter, beating Marco Silvestri and into the goal.
Ramsey’s goal, however, only leveled the score.
Following a missed penalty and second chance, Miguel Veloso scored what can be the goal of the week: a first-time, left-footed volley into the top corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Verona, who had a couple of clear chances in the second half, were unable to get past Buffon again.
With three points desperately needed to keep pace with Inter Milan, Cristiano Ronaldo came to the rescue. The Portuguese converted from the sport – his first of the season – following a solo run from Juan Cuadrado.

With positive momentum behind them, second-place Juventus travels to Brescia next, while Hellas Verona receive a lackluster Udinese side.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Cagilari 3-1 Genoa

Udinese 0-1 Brescia

VIDEO: Kei Kamara scores superb bicycle kick goal against Sporting KC

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Kei Kamara has scored plenty of goals at Children’s Mercy Park, but none like his bicycle kick goal on Saturday.

The 35-year-old, now in his 16th season, showcased his penchant for scoring right before halftime against his former team. The goal makes 12 for the Colorado Rapids’ forward this season, placing him within the top 10 of the league and two begin his 14-goal season last year.

Overall, Kamara is fifth in the all-time MLS scoring list with 124 goals, second among active players behind San Jose Earthquakes’ Chris Wondolowski.

Enjoy a superb goal from a superb goalscoerer.

La Liga roundup: Messi, Barcelona stunned by inspired Granada (video)

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Granada’s shocking 2-0 win over Barcelona and subsequent rise to the top of the table headlines Saturday’s La Liga action.

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Granada 2-0 Barcelona

Not even Lionel Messi, who made his season debut on Saturday, was able to save Barcelona against a red-hot Granada.

Granada, who are off to their best start in their 88 years of existence, had a perfect night in front of their supporters, convincingly getting past a Barcelona that dominated possession, but lacked the offensive ingenuity needed to score.

Barcelona’s defense wasn’t noteworthily robust, either.

Two minutes in, the newly promoted side scored through a headed goal from Ramon Azeez, following a defensive turnover from Junior Firpo.

Unable to record a shot on target in the first half and looking to wakeup a dormant attack, Barcelona brought on wonderkid Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi at halftime. Despite the duo connecting on several occasion and generating a shot on target, it wasn’t enough to get past Rui Silva.

In the 66th minute, following video review, substitute Alvaro Badillo converted from the spot, handing Granada their third win of the season.

Atop of La Liga, Granada set their sights on Real Valladolid, while Barcelona, who are off to their worst league start in 25 years, host Villarreal at Camp Nou.

Atletico Madrid  0-0 Celta Vigo

For a second consecutive week, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid dropped points, drawing with Celta Vigo 0-0 at Wanda Metropolitano.

Tied with league leaders Granada and Sevilla with 10 points, the alarm bells are far from going off in Madrid. However, as Saturday’s performance showed, los Colchoneros are having trouble finishing chances this season, despite fielding an attack with the likes of Joao Felix, Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata.

In five games, Atletico have managed to score only five goals, six fewer than leaders Granada. Against Celta, Atletico registered 20 shots, five on target, but were unable to crack a stellar Ruben Blanco, who registered five saves.

Leveled with Granada and Sevilla, Atletico Madrid look to get back into winning ways as they take on RCD Mallorca. Elsewhere, Celta Vigo, who have won win after five games, host Espanyol next.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Villarreal 2-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-0 Eibar