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What is next for USMNT after baffling transition of 2018?

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GENK, Belgium – On a freezing evening in a Belgian town close to the border with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the performance of the U.S. men’s national team summed up that they are, quite literally, at a crossroads.

Playing against Italy in Genk to finish off their 2018 schedule was a beautifully apt, if not cruel, metaphor.

[ MORE: Pulisic on being captain, Dortmund ]

The U.S. conceded in the 94th and final minute to lose 1-0 to Italy, and the neutral venue for this game reinforced the gear the USMNT are currently stuck in.

Due to many factors, most notably the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle but also a U.S. Soccer presidential election, the Americans have been stuck in a strange place the past year with no permanent head coach and no clear plan.

There isn’t much optimism around this program right now and many fans have become disengaged after a year of rebuilding turned into a year of extreme experimentation. Even the players on the youngest side in USMNT history seems bemused as to why veterans aren’t being called in and why they’ve not been told what the plan is and who the coach will be moving forward.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ]

Lacking direction after a year spent dishing out caps to 50-plus players (which included 23 debutants) as they went 3-5-4 since their World Cup qualifying debacle, this is not the fault of interim head coach Dave Sarachan.

The U.S. lost to England, Italy, Colombia, Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, they drew against Portugal, Peru, Bosnia and France, and beat Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. This young team was stretched to its limit and the hope is that these tough experiences, in games they were they were largely dominated, will hold them in good stead in the years to come.

Sarachan — who confirmed on Tuesday that the injury time defeat to Italy was his final game in charge of the USMNT — has done all he can with the brief of playing as many youngsters as possible. He put out the youngest lineup in the modern era against Italy.

After 13 months (yes one, three) in charge on a temporary basis, what progress has been made since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup last October, if any?

“It was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it is evident there is going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarchan said. “I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program and I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of the program, I feel as though we have moved it forward. It may not look like that to everybody on the outside but to look back on the games we played, the players we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth. I am certain it is going to pay dividends down the line. For me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they are going to have a great starting point. That makes me feel good and the program feel good.”

In other words, the transition period is over and whether or not these kids have developed and learned in these games, it is no longer Sarachan’s problem.

There’s no more experimenting. This is where it all begins.

As U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (elected in February) and new USMNT GM Earnie Stewart (appointed in the summer to start on Aug. 1) stood on in the press conference room in Genk and watched Sarachan deliver his final comments as USMNT head coach, the attention has switched to them. They’re on the clock. Today marks four years until the next Workd Cup begins.

They have to not only appoint a new head coach but usher in a new identity to this program which is focused on one thing: making the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That journey, with or without most of these kids, begins now.


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Michael Dovellos, a lifelong USMNT fan, travelled to Europe from Chicago along with his parents to watch the final two games of 2018. Like many fans, he is extremely optimistic about what this young team can achieve in the coming years but there’s no doubting they need extra direction.

“It would have been great to go into 2019 now, finishing these last two games playing against England at Wembley and Italy here in Genk with a brand new coach,” Dovellos explained. “Take these guys, tweak the system, play these two games against great oppositions and make them your team. It is frustrating not to have that happen. We’ve waited all year, there’s no coach. We waited until after the World Cup, there’s no coach. Here we are now, at the end of 2018, and we don’t have a coach yet.”

Coach or no coach, this last week has been a humbling experience for anyone connected with the USMNT.

Getting spanked 3-0 at Wembley by England’s C team in a game which the Three Lions treated more as a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was the low point of Sarachan’s reign. The U.S. were so far off the pace it was scary. Playing all of your youngsters at the same time will lead to that but was getting this experience for them all together, without much veteran leadership, healthy for their development?

“When we had it before there were one or two guys,” Eric Wood, a U.S. fan from Colorado explained. “But now there are 5-8 guys. We truly believe in the next crop of guys we have coming through. They are playing international football and are playing with top clubs in the top flights in Europe.”

Against Italy — a team also packed with young talent with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Marco Verratti sprinkled in – they had 26.6 percent of the ball and only a string of fine saves from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath kept them in the game.

Will Trapp, who has captained this young U.S. side for much of the past 12 months, was honest after the defeat to Italy.

“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine. Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes,” Trapp said. “The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”


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It is clear that just being able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup will need a huge amount of improvement from this group of players.

We all knew there was a long road ahead for these USMNT youngsters to gain the experience needed to navigate the CONCACAF gauntlet in the coming years, but the past 12 months has taught us one thing: this process will take longer than we thought.

Christian Pulisic, the undisputed star of this team who also became the youngest USMNT captain in the modern era on Tuesday at 20 years and 63 days of age, knows they have a long way to go.

“They [Italy] came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”

U.S. supporter Eric Sarno echoed Pulisic’s views, as he took part in what almost became a group therapy session with other American fans ahead of the game against Italy as one even admitted they cried when the USMNT didn’t make the World Cup this summer.

They all pointed to the changes at the top of the USSF and how Cordeiro and Stewart now needed to deliver, with some fans questioning if Cordeiro’s appointment was much different than having Sunil Gulati still in charge.

“We are in CONCACAF. We have to qualify for the World Cup. There are no excuses,” Sarno said. “We have 300 million people, we have millions of soccer fields, tons of coaches, tons of facilities. It is not okay for us to be passed by Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. I like that the game is growing in our region but we absolutely have to qualify no matter what, every tournament out of CONCACAF. This year was about shock and sadness.”

Steve Crump, a U.S. fan who had travelled to Genk from Indiana, called on Stewart to hire his man and get things going again.

“I thought it was a huge improvement to have Earnie Stewart added to the mix, someone we all respected as a player. But there’s been nothing that has come from that,” Crump said. “I don’t understand that someone that we all respect, he sort of seemed like the guy who would turn things around, nothing has happened since he has been around.”

Many things have led to this delay in hiring a new coach, but pushing the program forward hinges on one thing: U.S. Soccer hiring the right head coach to take this young group to the next level.

Is that even possible without at least a few more experienced heads around?

“That would be up to the coach, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and to see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”

Gregg Berhalter is the USMNT’s heir apparent but you would excuse the current Columbus Crew coach if he has cold feet after these demoralizing, rather embarrassing friendly defeats.

A dank, cold, miserable night in Genk summed up the mood hanging over the USMNT. Nobody knows what has been gained from 2018, and nobody knows if the majority of these young players will be called in again.

“The only improvement that we’ve made is that we’ve gone younger,” Crump said. “But we are still in constant tryout mode. 25 players are different than the last 25 players every single time. Why can’t we just have a lineup and get on with it?”

Crump, who declared his anger to the group outside the stadium in Genk, has a fair point. The time for experimenting is over. The youngsters who have taken their chance over the past 13 months should remain but the best 23 players available should now be selected.

“Whoever the new coach is, they need to come in and start making things happening,” Dovellos said. “Make this team theirs, make the captain theirs, make them play for him and make them play for their country. Make them play well. At the end of the day, if a player doesn’t play well, they should then make way for another young guy to make a name for himself and make the team the best this country can have.”

Dishing out caps for the sake of it has to end, but how many of these players who have been handed opportunities should play regularly moving forward?

“All of U.S. Soccer has moved up a level. We keep the ball on the floor and we can move it, but there is still only one player that stands above. Pulisic is the one,” Crump explained. “Just like Donovan was, and then Dempsey was. Only one player at a time stands above. Why can’t we have three players that stand above in our attack, at the same time?”

Tim Weah, Josh Sargen and Pulisic will stake their claim further in the coming years, but right now Pulisic is the only genuine superstar playing regularly at a European powerhouse. He needs help, a lot of it, if this team is going to return to its heyday of dominating CONCACAF and challenging for the last eight of a World Cup.

Only time will tell if 2018 was a ‘lost year’ or one that handed young players vital experience to push on and become stars on the international stage.

Right now, the latter seems a stretch and the former more realistic.

“From last October there has just been turmoil, man,” Sarno said, scratching his head. “Not knowing who the coach is, who is going to be on the roster, the transition time. Turmoil. We are positive, we have a lot of support for our youngsters who are hopefully going to make Qatar. But it has been rocky to say the least.”

Top Premier League storylines: Matchweek 16

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Matchweek 16 is upon us.

[ MORE: Chelsea transfer ban reduced; can sign players in January ]

Here’s what we’ll be keeping an eye on when this weekend’s fixtures kick off Saturday morning…


Manchester derby, perhaps you’ve heard of it 

Manchester City might not take home their third straight PL title, given Liverpool’s 11-point lead after 15 games, but they can still maintain their superiority in Manchester. They’re well on their way to doing so in the table, now they can get (another0 one over the Red Devils on Saturday. At what point do they take over the title of “bigger club?” Asking for a friend…


The start of something big for Chelsea?

Marco Silva is gone with Everton siting 18th in the table. Chelsea’s transfer ban has been cut in half with the Blues sitting fourth. Could this week get any worse? for Everton? Could it get any better for Chelsea?


Desperation time for Arsenal

Unai Emery was fired, which was supposedly to magically fix all of the problems at Arsenal. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Well, we’re two games into the Freddie Ljungberg (interim) era, and the Gunners have just one point to show for their efforts, and they had to come back from a goal down (twice) against 19th-place Norwich City to get it. Every trip to West Ham is a tricky one for Arsenal, and that’s doubly true given their current form (winless in their last nine games – all competitions).


Does Liverpool’s lead grow? Shrink? Hold steady?

From now until the end of the season, it’s Liverpool’s title to lose. No matter how you look at it, it’s theirs to either win or lose. Therefore, every time out presents a chance to grow their lead, or the risk of seeing it shrink should the drop points and one of the chasing sides to take all three. The math behind it is a bit boring, but if they don’t drop more than 10 points the rest of the season, they’ll win the title. Of course, their margin for error is likely to grow with Leicester and City eventually failing to win. Simply put, Liverpool are sitting comfortably.


Good times roll for Newcastle?

Don’t look now, but Newcastle have won three of their last five games and reached mid-table. Steve Bruce‘s side currently sits 11th after wins over West Ham, Bournemouth and Sheffield United in recent weeks. Welcomeing relegation-threatened Southampton to St. James’ Park could very well spell another three points for the Magpies.

Serie A: Leaders Inter Milan open door for Juve by drawing Roma

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MILAN (AP) Italian league leader Inter Milan was held by Roma to 0-0 on Friday, giving second-placed Juventus a chance to return to the top.

[ MORE: Chelsea transfer ban reduced; can sign players in January ]

The home draw left Inter only two points ahead of Juventus, which can regain the lead when it visits third-placed Lazio on Saturday.The result also wasn’t good for Roma, which moved from fifth to fourth place in the standings but remained nine points off the lead after 15 matches.

Inter forward Lautaro Martinez had one of the game’s best chances when he got past a defender and entered the area in the 68th minute, but his shot was blocked at the last minute. He called for a handball by the defender but the referee let play continue.

[ MORE: Brendan Rodgers signs new contract at Leicester ]

Inter was coming off five straight wins in the league, with its last setback in all competitions last month against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. Its last league loss was against Juventus in October, nine matches ago.

Roma was seeking its third straight league win. It had won five of its last six matches since last month.

Inter visits Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Premier League Preview: Man City v. Man United

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  • Man City (3rd) trail Liverpool by 11 points
  • Man United (6th) eight points out of 4th
  • Last meeting: Man United 0-2 Man City

For the first time in recent memory, Manchester City and Manchester United each find themselves failing to meet expectations — by their own respective standards, at least — as they prepare to meet at the Etihad Stadium in the 179th Manchester derby on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Man City, the two-time defending Premier League champions, are looking increasingly unlikely to retain their crown for a third straight season but look a surefire bet to finish in the top-four, which is a place for which Man United would bite your hand off as they currently trail leaders Liverpool by more points (22) than they have points of their own (21).

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

The struggles for United have been all about consistency as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side hasn’t won back-to-back games all season. The Red Devils haven’t won two in a row in the PL since March. On the bright side, United turned in one of their complete performances of the season on Wednesday, spoiling Jose Mourinho’s return to Old Trafford and beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1. Marcus Rashford scored both goals and Solskjaer couldn’t rave enough about his 22-year-old forward after the game. From start to finish, United were the better team and looked in majority control, which isn’t something they’ve been able to say often in 2019.

As for City, they’ve simply been “not good enough” without ever actually being “bad” this season, given Liverpool’s scintillating form (14W-1D-0L thus far). Realistically, City likely need to pick up all 69 remaining points this season, and even then they might still come up short.

Injuries/suspensions

Man City: OUT – Sergio Aguero (thigh), Aymeric Laporte (knee), Leroy Sane (knee), Oleksandr Zinchenko (knee)

Man United: OUT – Anthony Martial (hamstring), Eric Bailly (knee), Marcos Rojo (undisclosed); QUESTIONABLE: Paul Pogba (ankle), Nemanja Matic (groin), Diogo Dalot (groin)


Projected lineups

Man City: Ederson — Walker, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Angeliño — Rodri, De Bruyne, Silva — Bernardo, Jesus, Sterling

Man United: De Gea — Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Young — Fred, McTominay, James, Mata, Lingard — Rashford


What they’re saying

Pep Guardiola, on the derby: “It’s Man United. I respect what they’ve done for English football, European, and world football. United have huge history and their quality is always there but we must try to beat them. We play against a good team, try to follow the performances we’ve put in and try to win the game. You know my opinion on the title race.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on his derby memories: “It took many years before I played a Manchester derby myself. Of course, Man City are a better team now than when I was playing. … Confidence is a strange thing in football; you can get performances and results like Wednesday night and it boosts it so much. And I know our boys will be up for it. 24 hours less recovery time [than City] shouldn’t matter, you go on adrenaline.”


Prediction

The win over Tottenham was impressive, no doubt about it, but City remain a challenge of an entirely different class, no matter what their points total says. If the title is well and truly gone for Guardiola’s side, then retaining superiority in Manchester will have to suffice. City 3-1 United.

Premier League Preview: Everton v. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea sit 4th, with 29 points
  • Everton sit 18th, with 11 points
  • Last meeting: Everton 2-0 Chelsea

Everton’s start to the 2019-20 Premier League season has been beyond woeful (4W-2D-9L in 15 games) for any club, let alone one that had dreams of breaking into the top-six this season, resulting in manager Marco Silva losing his job on Thursday. Now, fewer than 48 hours later, the Toffees have to pick themselves back up and face a top-four side for the third straight game when Chelsea visit Goodison Park on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Having lost three straight PL games, including defeats to second-place Leicester City and leaders Liverpool this week alone, the next few weeks will go a long way toward seeing Everton leave the relegation zone in the rearview mirror or sink deeper and deeper into the muck of a season-long relegation battle. A piece of potentially positive news for Everton ahead of Saturday’s game: they are currently three games unbeaten against Chelsea (1W-2D-0L).

[ STREAM: Every PL match live

As for the Blues, this could turn out to be a decisive week in their season. After losing to West Ham United last weekend, Frank Lampard‘s side bounced back with a win over Aston Villa on Wednesday. Then came the best news of all on Friday: Chelsea’s transfer ban has been cut in half and they will be able to sign players in January, meaning their young, thin squad can be bolstered as the look to solidify their Champions League place for next season.

With a floundering side like Everton next up on the fixtures list, the chance to move further clear of the Champions League chasing pack is perfectly ripe. Tammy Abraham (hip) returned for the game against Villa and scored the opening goal to take is season’s tally to 11 (second, behind Jamie Vardy). The 22-year-old has benefited more than anyone from what turned out to be Chelsea’s one-window transfer ban, doing more than enough to secure his place for the second half of the season, no matter what business they do in January.

Injuries/suspensions

Everton: OUT – Andre Gomes (ankle), Jean-Philippe Gbamin (thigh), Fabian Delph (hamstring), Cuco Martina (knee)

Chelsea: OUT – Ruben Loftus-Cheek (achilles), Antonio Rudiger (groin)


Projected lineups

Everton: Pickford — Sidibe, Keane, Mina, Digne — Schneiderlin, Davies, Sigurdsson — Iwobi, Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison

Chelsea: Kepa — James, Christensen, Zouma, Azpilicueta — Kante, Kovacic, Willian, Mount, Pulisic — Abraham


What they’re saying

Interim Everton boss Duncan Ferguson: “I’m a coach at the moment so I don’t think that is something I am considering at this time. It is my dream to be Everton manager but I am also realistic. Who wouldn’t want to be manager of Everton? There will be many top managers who want this job.”

Frank Lampard, on the new-manager bounce: “[Marco] Silva tried everything for the club and I’m sure that he will go on to manage well elsewhere. They might have an extra energy tomorrow as they rally.”


Prediction

Chelsea have far too much balance between defense and attack to hand Everton the glaring opportunities they will need to beat a genuine top-four side. That said, there’s far too much talent in that squad to continue to get beaten every time out, and perhaps seeing someone else take the blame will lift the burden off them and allow them to perform. Everton 2-2 Chelsea.