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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.”

La Liga: Bale scores as Real Madrid get by tiny Huesca

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MADRID (AP) Gareth Bale scored early in the first half and Real Madrid held on for a harder-than-expected 1-0 win at last-placed Huesca on Sunday to move closer to the top of the Spanish league.

Bale found the net in the eighth minute and Madrid withstood pressure from the league newcomer to move to fourth in the standings after 15 matches, behind Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and leader Barcelona.

Barcelona and Atletico Madrid won their games on Saturday, while Sevilla was held by Valencia to a draw.

The match in Huesca happened only a few hours before fierce Argentine rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors played in Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. The second leg of the final was moved to the Spanish capital after the match in Argentina was marred by fan violence.

Madrid struggled against a Huesca team that hasn’t won in 16 straight matches. Huesca has only won once in the league this season – in the first round at Eibar.

Huesca is making its first-division debut and had never played against Real Madrid.

Santiago Solari’s team needed a solid performance by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to hold on to the win, the team’s fourth consecutive victory in all competitions after a humiliating 3-0 defeat at Eibar in the league.

“We couldn’t do much in the second half,” Courtois said. “We know we have to improve, but it’s difficult to play these types of matches.”

Courtois and other Madrid players said strong winds in the second half made it harder for the team to control the game.

Marco Asensio and Isco, who had led the team to a 6-1 rout of third-division club Melilla in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, entered Sunday’s match in the second half but made no significant contribution.

Bale scored with a neat volley from inside the area, side-footing a cross by Alvaro Odriozola.

The Wales forward, jeered by some fans in the team’s league win against Valencia last weekend, hadn’t scored in 10 league matches.

Real Madrid was ninth in the standings after losing 5-1 at Barcelona in a match that led to the firing of coach Julen Lopetegui.

Benitez crushes refs for Yedlin red after loss to Wolves

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DeAndre Yedlin‘s controversial red card near the hour mark of Newcastle’s eventual home loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers proved deadly, and left Magpies boss Rafa Benitez fuming.

Benitez was so mad, he let the officials hear it on the field, and then after the match didn’t hold back, calling for VAR to be instituted immediately.

[ RECAP: Late Doherty strike wins it for Wolves ]

“We need the VAR, now. I think we need the VAR,” Benitez told Sky Sports. “You can guarantee to me that the player in the corner of the box can score in the top corner every time? It cannot be a red card [on Yedlin]. We have lost three points today and we deserve to win.”

Yedlin was sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity, but the controversial decision was made by referee Mike Dean despite the presence of a pair of Newcastle defenders in the area and charging, with Jamaal Lascelles the closest. “The ball was far away and he [Lascelles] was close, close enough at least to see that it was not a clear chance.”

Benitez was also furious about an incident where Ayoze Perez took an elbow from Willy Boly in the penalty area with 10 minutes to go. “It’s so obvious. You see the red card [on Yedlin] and you see the elbow in the face of Ayoze. We need the VAR, right now.”

“I think the team was doing well in the game, but it is very difficult in these situations,” Benitez said. “I don’t need to talk too much because you talk well about the referees, and their decisions that are wrong. Just watch the images, that’s it. It is so clear.”

VAR has recently been confirmed for use in the Premier League starting next season. The league voted this summer on instituting the technology for this season, but instead voted to postpone the system’s installment.

Watch Live: Boca Juniors and River Plate in Copa Libertadores final

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The match is finally here.

After many twists and turns that saw the final’s second leg postponed and scheduled two weeks later thousands of miles away, Boca Juniors and River Plate will meet with 90 minutes to decide the Copa Libertadores winner. The game kicks at 2:30 p.m. ET from the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Spain.

WATCH COPA LIBERTADORES FINAL LIVE, ONLINE

With the fan violence aside, the focus can return to the match on the field. The aggregate is 2-2 after the first leg hosted by Boca Juniors, with the visitors fighting back from a goal deficit twice. The level aggregate score gives this match the feel of a one-off final rather than a second leg, punctuated even more by the delay between start and finish.

The delay also means Cristian Pavon is healthy and ready to go for Boca Juniors after leaving the first leg in tears after just 27 minutes. Carlos Tevez begins on the bench for Boca. River manager Marcello Gallardo is still suspended for the second leg as he was for the first, but this time he can at least be in attendance, unlike the first leg when he was not allowed in the stadium.

LINEUPS

River Plate: Armani, Montiel, Maidana, Pinola, Casco, Ponzio, Perez, Palacios, Fernandez, Martinez, Pratto.
Bench: Luz, Martinez Quarta, Mayada, Zuculini, Quintero, Alvarez, Mora.

Boca Juniors: Andrada, Buffarini, Magallan, Izquierdoz, Olaza, Nandez, Barrios, Perez, Pavon, Benedetto, Villa.
Bench: Rossi; Goltz, Jara, Gago, Tevez, Abila, Zarate.

Newcastle 1-2 Wolves: Doherty wins it late

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  • Perez cancelled out Jota before the break
  • Yedlin sent off in 57′ for last-man foul
  • Doherty heads home deep into stoppage time

Newcastle looked strong at home as they worked to move further from the relegation zone, but a critical second-half call proved deadly as DeAndre Yedlin was sent off with 33 minutes to go, and while Newcastle nearly held on in front of a strong Martin Dubravka, Matthew Doherty struck four minutes into stoppage time to seal the Wolves win. Diogo Jota was vicious all match, proving the difference in the attack.

Wolves picked up where they left off against Chelsea midweek, and it was the hero then who opened the scoring on Sunday. Jota was on the receiving end of a cross from Helder Costa, who delivered a perfect ball into the box that somehow sailed over the head of Jamaal Lascelles in no man’s land. Jota was there on the doorstep, and he chested down and touched past Martin Dubravka with ease for the opener.

That lead, however, was short-lived. Off a set-piece, Salomon Rondon hit the bar with his free-kick, and while fans all looked to the referee to see if the ball had crossed the line, Rondon sent the ball back in from the other side and Ayoze Perez cleaned things up with a fabulous header to level the match.

That sprung Newcastle to life, and Rondon forced a Rui Patricio save moments later. The Magpies were strong headed into the break, and came out of halftime in the ascendency as well. Newcastle was forced into a change at the break, as an injured Federico Fernandez came off, replaced by Javier Manquillo.

The game changed just before the hour mark when U.S. international Yedlin was sent off for a tackle on Jota. it was an incredibly controversial call, as Yedlin brought Jota down just outside the top-left corner of the box, and while referee Mike Dean judged it to be a last-man foul, Jota was cutting in front the left flank at an angle, and Newcastle had two defenders closing from the other side of the box.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Jota was lucky to stay on the pitch himself with 17 minutes to go as he stomped hard and brought down Perez at the top of the Newcastle box after a heavy touch got away. Replays showed Jota stepped sideways into an oncoming Perez to send him tumbling.

Wolves got its best chance since gaining a man advantage in the 76th minute as substitute Raul Jimenez smacked the bar with a vicious strike from near the same spot Rondon did the previous half. They forced a fabulous Dubravka save with 10 minutes to go as Wolves hit on the break and a Jota cutback went through a Morgan Gibbs-White dummy to the feet of Doherty who rifled a curling effort that the Newcastle shot-stopper lept to parry.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It appeared Newcastle had rode out the disadvantage, but Wolves struck with one final counter-attack. Jota marauded forward over the midway line and into the penalty area, and his initial shot was saved athletically by Dubravka, but the rebound fell right to Doherty at the far post who headed into the empty net on the doorstep.

The win moved Wolves into the top half of the table, sitting 10th with 22 points, level with Leicester City but behind on goal difference. Newcastle remains in 15th with 13 points on the season, just five points above the relegation zone.