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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

Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

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Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.

Serie A: Napoli rout Inter, leaving UCL race wide open heading into final week

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The race for the third and four places in Serie A, and with it, a berth in the UEFA Champions League next season, remain open heading into the final week of the season, thanks to a stellar performance from Napoli.

Playing at home in the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli thrashed Inter Milan, 4-1, to keep Inter in fourth place in the table on 66 points. That’s just one point ahead of AC Milan in fifth place, which jumped up after a 2-0 win over Frosinone, and three points ahead of AS Roma, which succumbed to a scoreless draw with Sassuolo this weekend. Atalanta meanwhile came ten minutes from beating Juventus in Turin, and even with a point in a 1-1 draw, Atalanta is still only in third place by 66 points.

[READ: Bayern Munich still too good for the rest this season]

Piotr Zielinski made a statement with a 30-yard blast past Samir Handanovic in the 16th minute to put Napoli up 1-0 and then Dries Mertens and a pair of goals from Fabian Ruiz gave the Neapolitans a massive lead, while leaving Inter in a precarious position. Mauro Icardi scored late to give Inter a small reprieve, but the defeat was set and it leaves Inter essentially needing to win in the final week of the season to secure a place in the Champions League next year.

Elsewhere, Josip Ilicic scored his 12th league goal of the season as Atalanta took Juventus down to the wire in Juve’s final home match of the season. Juventus fans serenaded Andrea Barzagli, playing his final game for the Bianconeri, and even had a message of support for Daniele De Rossi.

Gianluigi Buffon was even in attendance.

Also in action in Serie A, Parma beat Fiorentina, 1-0 and Empoli defeated Torino, 4-1.

Report: Former Chelsea great Clarke set to be new Scotland manager

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The Scotland FA is set to appoint a former Chelsea star as its new men’s national team manager.

Former Chelsea midfielder, and West Bromwich Albion and Reading manager Steve Clarke is reportedly in talks with the Scotland FA to take over the national team. Clarke has a difficult job ahead, with Scotland already having lost, 3-0, at Kazakhstan in UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying.

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Although Scotland finished top of their group in Level C of the UEFA Nations League and earned promotion to League B, the team’s play was very up and down under Alex McLeish, back in the job after a one-year spell in 2017. McLeish eventually lost the federation’s support after the 3-0 defeat at Kazakhstan, ranked then 117th in the world, made Scotland look like Europe’s whipping boy. Though Scotland saved some face with a 2-0 win over San Marino, the damage was done.

Clarke, after disappointing tenures at West Bromwich and Reading in his first full managerial roles, has since found success in Scotland. He’s led Kilmarnock this season to third place in the table and a spot in the Europa League, an impressive feat considering the club’s budget is dwarfed by Celtic and Rangers. Aberdeen have impressed, while both Hibernian and Hearts of Midlothain have also recently spent big on new signings, yet Kilmarnock finished above them this season.

Clarke, who only played a half dozen times for Scotland during his playing career, will now have to galvanize the squad ahead of two crucial qualifications in June and quickly imprint his tactical ideas and plan in a short amount of time. During his time at Chelsea, Clarke won the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup Winners Cup between 1987 and 1998. He was also assistant coach under Jose Mourinho and played a key role in some of their most successful seasons.