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Big takeaways, winners, losers from USMNT friendlies

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For the first time in a long time, I did not have any writing responsibilities during a United States men’s national team camp. That gave me the opportunity to ask a friend to meet me out at the local soccer pub here in Buffalo and just kinda take in the match without obsessing over the player rating of each player to don a U.S. kit.

[ MORE: Recap | Player ratings ]

What that allowed was a more free appraisal of how I felt about the USMNT, and frankly it was a bit surprising to see what registered in this maniacal mind.

What’s the future for the January guys who earned time in this camp?

The answer to the heading, if we’re honest, is a mixed bag.

I’ve been the first to question whether Gyasi Zardes would be called into U.S. camp with a good look at starting atop the formation for any other coach than Berhalter, who relied on him with Columbus, but the industrious if touch-trouble forward was very good for large parts of both March friendlies and played a role in both goals.

Aaron Long continues to impress at center back, to the point where it would not have been surprising if he earned another start in front of Matt Miazga.

It was less happy for Corey Baird, who at 23 still has some time to season but has not shown the requisite finishing touch to meet his fantastic engine. Nick Lima and Christian Ramirez did not feature while Jonathan Lewis only got a token call. Daniel Lovitz was good in his cameo.

We’re not in the wilderness, but a Golden Generation isn’t guaranteed

There are so many reasons to be excited as a USMNT supporter, especially if you can ignore the fact that Mexico is somehow the first and second best team in CONCACAF. Christian Pulisic is a generational player, and the side has two other 20-year-old central midfielders who are key components to their Bundesliga clubs in Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie.

Beyond that is a strong center back in John Brooks, as well as some serious competitors to start next to him in Chelsea property Matt Miazga and the Red Bulls’ Aaron Long.

With apologies to Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin, new Man City backstop Zack Steffen, and exciting teen talents Josh Sargent and Tim Weah, it dips off a bit after that in terms of guarantees (And Weah and Sargent still have a bit to go to reach the level of even Jozy Altidore). Djordje Mihailovic, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Jaylin Lindsey, and Ulysses Lainez are exciting prospects, but little more than that now.

If we’re being honest, QPR’s Geoff Cameron is probably still the best partner for Brooks. And whether you hate or love Michael Bradley — more on him in a minute — you cannot say that any player has done anything to claim his place in the midfield (Hey USSF, remember Jonathan Gonzalez? Great work!).

Assuming he sticks with Adams as a right back, these is almost unquestionably the most hopeful team for 2022 given Berhalter’s formation preference. And there is A LOT of hope in hopeful given the inclusion of Weah and Sargent.

Steffen

Adams — Brooks — Long??? — Lovitz???

Bradley

McKennie — Pulisic

Weah — Altidore — Sargent

Michael freaking Bradley

This is the sixth season since Michael Bradley returned from Europe to make some big dollars in Major League Soccer, and it’s mostly been rather triumphant for Toronto FC’s captain.

The exceptions are big ones: Toronto FC failed to build on its treble-winning 2017 in MLS, spectacularly failing to make the playoffs and using Bradley as a center back for a quarter of the season, and the USMNT failing to get a draw out of Trinidad and Tobago and breaking its long streak of going to the World Cup (which is a pretty cool soccer tournament, team).

Bradley’s been quite good for TFC early this season, and Gregg Berhalter has him looking back at his best in a USMNT shirt. While Tuesday’s performance against Chile wasn’t perfect, the veteran showed a terrific range of passing including a downright ethereal bomb that Corey Baird couldn’t handle in the first half. And he did it against a midfield that included Europe-based stars Arturo Vidal and Charles Aranguiz.

Berhalter’s plan for his deep-lying center midfielder fits Bradley to a T, and allows both Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie to take care of the “be everywhere” role that Jurgen Klinsmann expected from the No. 4 (and perhaps we should go back to credit MB90 for not lighting the coach on fire a bit more often). Wil Trapp is a solid 5.5 years younger than Bradley, but not everyone has the same level of class as the TFC man. Berhalter will be wise to consider that old Bradley in 2022 might be a step up from a second-tier holding midfielder in Qatar (or just try someone who isn’t Trapp. That could also be a thing).

It’s easy to forget that Bradley is an all-time American soccer legend given what happened in Couva; The 31-year-old has 144 caps and he’s got a solid shot to become the States’ all-time leader by the time he hangs up his boots. Bradley is 20 caps back of Cobi Jones and 13 shy of Landon Donovan’s second place spot. In the words of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, we should “forget where we differ, and get big picture.”

In other words, find me the player champing at the bit to take the place of a former Serie A starter who then led the best team in MLS history? He’s not there right now.

What’s the Best XI of players Berhalter has yet to call into camp?

Every manager has guys he serially overlooks, or at least is accused of overlooking, and critics of Jurgen Klinsmann were quick to shout the names Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan from the rooftops on occasion.

No one’s clamoring for those two this go ’round, and that’s more a generational thing than anything else, but there are still some guys who’ve been on the outside looking in (and not at U-23 or U-20 camp).

Here’s a halfway-promising (or experienced) XI to consider:

Brad Guzan

Shaq Moore — Palmer-Brown — Carter-Vickers — Kyle Duncan

Russell Canouse

Darlington Nagbe  — Memo Rodriguez

Lynden Gooch — Andrija Novakovich — Kenny Saief

Alex Morgan out for season with knee injury

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We knew Alex Morgan was hurt. You could see it, I could see it, we all could see it. Yet she insisted all throughout the 2019 Women’s World Cup, “I’m ok.”

Now we confirmation that she wasn’t ok.

Morgan announced she will miss the rest of the 2019 NWSL season for the Orlando Pride with a knee injury, confirming she’s been dealing with the problem since the World Cup. “I’m disappointed I won’t be able to compete with the Pride for the remainder of 2019 due to a knee injury I’ve been managing since the World Cup,” Morgan wrote on Instagram, “and that I can’t be there to help my teammates and my club have more success.”

The Pride are bottom of the NWSL table, with just four wins in 21 matches this season. Morgan has played in just six of those, four before the World Cup and two after, without scoring or assisting a single goal. Orlando won just one of the six games Morgan appeared in, the most recent one on August 21 against second-placed Chicago. Meanwhile, they were shut out in four of the six games she appeared in, with Morgan registering just one lone shot among the six appearances.

“I have already started physical therapy in LA and am eager to get back on the field doing what I love,” Morgan said without offering any other details on her injury.

The 30-year-old USWNT star scored five goals in their opening match of the 2019 Women’s World Cup against Thailand, assisting three more as the U.S. won 13-0. However, she was a consistent target for physical play in the ensuing match against Sweden and was seemingly injured in the 33rd minute, leading Jill Ellis to withdraw the striker at halftime. Morgan did not appear herself over the rest of the tournament, scoring just one more goal the rest of the way and at times looking unusually off the pace. Opposing teams copied Sweden’s strategy, targeting Morgan throughout the tournament with repeated kicks, fouls, and physical play.

“his year has had the highest of highs but along with that comes challenges and sometimes even falling short of my goals I set for myself in 2019,” Morgan wrote in her announcement.

UCL preview: Messi back for Barcelona v. Dortmund, Liverpool visits Napoli

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The Champions League group stage is back. So is Lionel Messi.

Tuesday kicks off the 2019/20 Champions League in earnest, with a litany of powerhouse matchups dotting the landscape. Most notably, Barcelona’s five-time Ballon d’Or winner is in the squad for the trip to the Rhur valley to take on Borussia Dortmund, potentially set for his first appearance of the season after missing Barcelona’s first four matches of the season with a calf injury.

[ PST writers predict the CL group stage ]

Those two teams are both roaring back from disappointing league losses, and come into this match in good attacking form. Barcelona fell to Athletic Bilbao on the opening weekend of the La Liga season, but is unbeaten in their last three with 12 goals in those three games. Dortmund, meanwhile, fell to Union Berlin at the end of August but crushed third-tier Ergenie Cottbus in cup action before blowing out fellow Champions League participants Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 this past weekend. 19-year-old Jadon Sancho provided two assists in that most recent game and will get his first crack at the La Liga giants.

Defending champions Liverpool are on the road at Napoli, with the Italians having integrated Hirving “Chucky” Lozano into the squad. The Mexican international got his first start against Sampdoria over the weekend in a 2-0 win, playing 65 minutes. The Reds fell in this same fixture last season en route to the title, losing 1-0 at San Paolo Stadium in one of their worst performances of the season. This time around they are top of the Premier League through five matches – all wins – but will be without Divock Origi, Alisson, and Naby Keita through injury while Andy Robertson is a game-time decision.

[ Villa, West Ham meet in scoreless draw ]

Chelsea hosts Spanish side Valencia in an absolutely wide-open and loaded Group H that features four quality sides, meaning every game will be a significant challenge. The Blues’ defense has been quite poor so far this season, and will again be without Antonio Rudiger thanks to a groin problem picked up after just making his return over the weekend from knee surgery. Chelsea has never lost to Valencia in six European meetings, their joint-most games without losing against any European opponent.

On the other end of that brutal Group H, new-look Ajax hosts French side Lille. The visitors finished second in Ligue 1 last season and have three wins in their first five this campaign, proceeding without Nicolas Pepe after his sale to Arsenal this summer. Ajax has also lost highly valued young talent, with Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt having left for greener pastures, although they have thus maintained an unbeaten record this season, earning a berth in the group stage while proceeding through two qualifying stages.

Benfica hosts RB Leipzig in another brutal group, Group G that also features Zenit St. Petersburg and Lyon who match up in France. Leipzig leads the Bundesliga with an unbeaten first four matches, including a draw against defending champions Bayern Munich. Striker Timo Werner has a fabulous five goal haul through RB Leipzig’s first four league matches including a hat-trick against Borussia Monchengladbach. Benfica has also started its league campaign well with four wins in five, a solid sign after the loss of young star Joao Felix to Atletico Madrid.


Tuesday Champions League matches:

Inter v. Slavia Prague (12:55pm ET)
Lyon v. Zenit St. Petersburg

Ajax v. Lille (3:00pm ET)
Benfica v. RB Leipzig
Borussia Dortmund v. Barcelona
Chelsea v. Valencia
FC Salzburg v. Racing Genk
Napoli v. Liverpool

Pellegrini chastises Masuaku for red card against Villa

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Manuel Pellegrini said he was “very happy for the performance of the team” despite the 0-0 draw with Aston Villa that saw West Ham record just one single shot on target.

Still, he noted that he was less than pleased with the sending off of Arthur Masuaku, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the West Ham manager said the referee can be easily goaded into soft decisions against the away side by raucous fans. “It’s a typical sending off when you play away,” Pellegrini said in his post-match television interview. “With the pressure of the fans in every foul, of our players that had a yellow card – in this case Arthur Masuaku, Mark Noble, and another player in the first half, I don’t think this was a yellow card, but playing away it is very easy for the referee to send him off.”

Later, he noted that a discussion at halftime with Masuaku about his earlier booking was unsuccessful. “They [the home fans] try to do it with the pressure of the fans,” Pellegrini said in the post-match press conference. “They tried to do it with Mark Noble in the first-half, they try to get a second yellow. We [Masuaku] talked about it at half-time. We told him he must be careful.”

That didn’t pan out, as Masuaku was sent off for a second yellow card earned while fouling Ahmed Elmohamady who had just come onto the pitch moments earlier. The foul was deemed somewhat soft, but match commentator Martin Tyler pointed out – as Pellegrini seems to be indicating – that Masuaku’s mistake was giving the referee the opportunity to make the call for an otherwise needless foul.

Despite the one negative moment, Pellegrini was pleased with the team’s overall performance on the road.

“I prefer to talk about our team,” Pellegrini said when asked about the refereeing decisions. “I think we played a very good game. We had the personality to come here and try to win the game from the beginning, and the last action, the last play of the game we had a very clear chance to score. We played with 10 men exactly the same that we did with 11. We tried defending well, we tried to continue scoring a goal, so I am very happy for the performance of the team, for the personality of the team, and when you are playing away if you can’t win the game, don’t lose it.”

UEFA Champions League group stage predictions

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To have our crew predict it, the UEFA Champions League group stage should prove to be fairly straight-forward.

[ MORE: UCL score predictions, Wk 1 ]

Our three consulted staffers at Pro Soccer Talk have predicted 18 teams for the 16 spots in the group stage, including a healthy three seeded spots for Premier League sides.

GROUP A

Joe Prince-Wright: PSG, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Club Brugge
Nick Mendola: PSG, Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Club Brugge
Kyle Bonn: Real Madrid, PSG, Galatasaray, Club Brugge

Zinedine Zidane to bring the UCL magic touch back to Spain? One of our three think so, while JPW and Nick both figure Mbappe and Neymar will be too much for the group.

GROUP B

Joe Prince-Wright: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Olympiacos, Red Star
Nick Mendola: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Olympiacos, Red Star  
Kyle Bonn: Bayern Munich, Spurs, Red Star, Olympiacos

There’s a gulf in class between the top two and bottom two, but be careful with overlooking Olympiacos; The Greek club was very difficult to break down in qualifying.

GROUP C

Joe Prince-Wright: Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb
Nick Mendola: Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb
Kyle Bonn:  Man City, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb

The only team in the world averaging more shots per game than Manchester City this early season is Atalanta. Colombian attackers Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have combined for six of the side’s seven Serie A goals this season.

GROUP D

Joe Prince-Wright: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow
Nick Mendola: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Lokomotiv Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen
Kyle Bonn: Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Lokomotiv Moscow

While it’s certainly more complex than Joao Felix against the previous Portuguese generation’s Joao Felix, Atletico Madrid will hope its young wizard has the goods to break down Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juve.

GROUP E

Joe Prince-Wright: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk
Nick Mendola: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk
Kyle Bonn: Liverpool, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg, Genk

The order of this group isn’t as interesting as the performances, as American eyes will be watching how Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch manages to get on versus two of Europe’s best.

GROUP F

Joe Prince-Wright: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague
Nick Mendola: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Slavia Prague
Kyle Bonn: Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Slavia Prague

Is Inter Milan’s renaissance for real? Nick and JPW thinks so, while Kyle Bonn thinks Lucien Favre’s BVB will keep humming past the Serie A giants.

GROUP G

Joe Prince-Wright: Lyon, RB Leipzig, Benfica, Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Nick Mendola: RB Leipzig, Lyon, Zenit Saint-Petersburg, Benfica
Kyle Bonn: Lyon, RB Leipzig, Benfica, Zenit Saint-Petersburg

Anything could happen here, and only Nick believes Timo Werner and RBL can outlast Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembele, and Lyon to win a seeded place in the knockout rounds.

GROUP H

Joe Prince-Wright: Chelsea, Ajax, Lille, Valencia
Nick Mendola: Chelsea, Valencia, Lille, Ajax
Kyle Bonn: Chelsea, Lille, Ajax, Valencia

Massive names with equal-sized questions. In other years, this would look like a group of death, but Lille earned its place via now-sold Nicolas Pepe and Ajax sold a good part of a golden academy generation to Barcelona, Juventus, and others. Chelsea, oddly enough, may be counting its blessings.