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USMNT takes down Costa Rica (video)

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Sebastian Lletget enjoyed a dream return to Avaya Stadium, scoring a goal and providing an assist to give the U.S. Men’s National Team a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in the second of two international friendly matches ahead of the MLS season.

Lletget scored the game winning goal on a header in the 80th minute and with two minutes from time, Paul Arriola closed out a terrific performance with a goal of his own, thanks to a great through ball from Lletget. It was the first time Lletget had been back in this stadium since suffering a devastating Lisfranc foot injury in March 2017 that kept him out for 11 months. He returned to the USMNT last fall and made a big impression off the bench for new coach Gregg Berhalter on Saturday afternoon.

[READ: USMNT to face Ecuador in March]

“We talked at halftime about how it was a very difficult game, and I think in the second half, the guys rose to the challenge,” Berhalter told Fox Sports after the match. “Much more aggressive (sic), much more life, much more bravery and overall, I think it was a good lesson that we have to go for it, and the guys did a great job.”

After a passive first half, in which the USMNT turned the ball over frequently and neither team really found their passing rhythm, the U.S. came flying out of the game to start the second stanza. Right winger Corey Baird and left back Nick Lima each had decent crosses into the middle in the first few minutes, before midfielder Christian Roldan had a terrific chance in the box that he turned wide.

During this time, holding midfielder Wil Trapp was consistently finding Arriola in space down the left wing, a position where Arriola excelled despite being a natural right-footed player. In the 54th minute, Lima rattled a shot off the post in his home stadium, and Roldan clattered the same bar with a strike in the 68th minute.

The U.S. was by far the more aggressive side but it seemed as though the game was heading for a draw until the 70th minute, when Jonathan Lewis was introduced. The young New York City FC winger swapped spots with Arriola and was a constant threat down the left side, eventually leading to the game-winning goal.

Trapp once again played a perfect long-ball into space for the speedy Lewis to run on to. Lewis then took on his defender and looped a cross towards the far post. Lletget rose highest and angled home a header past goalkeeper Estaban Alvarado to finally break the deadlock.

Lewis nearly set up the USMNT again with some nifty dribbling and speed down the left, but his cross was cleared away. Finally, in the 88th minute, Arriola put the cherry on top of the win with a calm flick over Alvarado off a Lletget through ball. Arriola crashed into Alvarado and the ground after his chip but he seemed fine and was ready to celebrate with his teammates as the ball rolled into the net.

Up next for the U.S. is a friendly match in Orlando, Fla on March 21 against Ecuador. For the first time, the next window will give Berhalter the opportunity to call in a full strength side, and it will be interesting to see how he teaches his ideas and style of play to the European and Liga MX-based players in a much shorter time span, as well as playing against opponents with full squads of their own.

After a long January USMNT camp and a pair of wins, it feels that there’s a bit of positive momentum again behind the national team. Yes, both wins were against teams without their best players available, but the USMNT players quickly adapted to Berhalter’s style of play, and the dynamism shown in the second half, “going for it” as Berhalter said, was missing from a lot of games during the later stages of World Cup qualifying in 2017, especially on the road.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland

Report: Alexis Sanchez out until 2020 with ankle injury

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Alexis Sanchez has targeted a return to form at Inter, but that may be shelved for some time as an ankle injury picked up on international duty could keep him out of action for months.

The Chilean federation confirmed that Sanchez suffered a “dislocation of the ligaments” in his left ankle in the 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina over the weekend, but did not specify a timeframe for his recovery. However, Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri tweeted that Sanchez will not return until the calendar flips to 2020.

The injury is poorly timed for Sanchez who just broke into the Inter squad after being loaned from Manchester United. He scored his first goal in a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in late September before being sent off and suspended a match. The 30-year-old was also quality in the Champions League defeat to Barcelona, assisting Inter’s only goal.

At worst, a three-month injury layoff would see Sanchez return in mid-January, meaning he would miss the rest of the Champions League group stage as well as a host of Serie A matches. A Milan derby in early February would likely be a significant possibility for a late return.