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USMNT looks to build with Nations League visit to Canada

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The United States has faced much criticism since failing to miss out on the World Cup two years ago. If Gregg Berhalter is to silence the naysayers, he must use the Nations League as a building block for sustained success with a view towards 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Step 1 was completed Friday with a 7-0 demolition of lowly Cuba, and Step 2 comes Tuesday evening as the USMNT heads to Toronto to meet Canada at BMO Field, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

[ MORE: An in-depth look at Canada ]

The United States did the job at hand, soundly beating a far inferior opponent, allowing the squad to move forward quickly and emphatically. There is plenty more to prove, but the engine is revved and the gas pedal pressed. Still, Berhalter and company must remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and even the slightest slip in Nations League play will open the floodgates of criticism.

Seeing the bigger picture

The biggest thing for the USMNT to piece together in the Nations League is a sustained run of success that builds not just positive feelings but true momentum born by consistency. It will be fascinating to see the team chosen by Gregg Berhalter as he looks to put together consistent starting lineups that help build not just victories on the scoresheet but also chemistry between players who have a legitimate chance of seeing future lineups in more high leverage matches.

Against Cuba, positive performances can lend themselves to more opportunities down the line, but Berhalter must also be realistic about who has a chance to be contributors not just against the minnows of CONCACAF but also against teams the United States has aspirations of competing with. Against Cuba, Jordan Morris continued his revival as a winger, and he should be given more opportunities to build a relationship with Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic up front. Jackson Yueill is another player who can earn his way into long-term contention, but it remains true that Michael Bradley is still the team’s best option at holding midfielder and requires minutes with the other consistent starters (although it would be interesting to see if the two can play together coherently). Reggie Cannon played well at right-back but incumbent DeAndre Yedlin deserves the chance to prove he’s still the correct choice after returning from a long injury layoff.

A view towards the future must be in the back of Berhalter’s mind, not just looking to achieve results but also achieve results with the right players. Meshing the correct squad now will unquestionably pay dividends down the road as the United States hopes to turn around recent negative results against teams like Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Italy, and Colombia which fans aspire to be competitive against. With the start of World Cup qualification less than a calendar year away, the time is now to end the wild experimentation and begin dividing up the precious minutes between players who are considered legitimate possibilities for the potential 2022 squad.

18-year-old Alphonso Davies represents a youth movement with the Canadian national team that gives fans hope for the future (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Switching gears to Canada

Canada will no doubt present a tougher test than Cuba, but the United States will still be expected to emerge victorious, and anything less will represent yet another two steps back after one step forward.

The northern neighbors have high aspirations, hoping to challenge for World Cup qualification. Head coach John Herdman said in the run-up to Tuesday’s match that the United States may be a rival, but they’re also “standing in the way” of the ultimate goal, confident speech ahead of such a difficult test. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye took it a step further, saying his play with the Canadian national team over the next few years “is going to help shape the foundation of how Canada is going to be in the next 10 years.”

Canada has a crop of young talent with Kaye joined by 18-year-old Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies and 19-year-old Gent youth product Jonathan David.

Still, they have not defeated the United States in their last 17 tries, dating back to 1985. Their last match was a measly 1-0 victory over the same Cuba squad that was obliterated by the US, forced to play 35 minutes a man down after Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry was sent off. Canada still managed to hold a whopping 81% possession in that match, but worked just a single shot on target, which resulted in Davies’ 9th minute opener. They will need to be both more disciplined and more dangerous if they wish to pull off the upset in Toronto.

Projected lineup

— Steffan —

— Yedlin — Long — Ream — Lovitz —

— McKennie — Bradley — Roldan —

— Morris — Sargent — Pulisic —

Brad Guzan started the Cuba match in goal, but Zack Steffan is the true long-term option here and it would be natural to see him return to the lineup against the tougher opponent. Gregg Berhalter loves Aaron Long and his return could also be expected. As stated above, Bradley is a contentious selection among many fans but his presence calms the midfield, and he delivers a long ball forward like nobody else on the roster. The front three played exceptionally well against Cuba and it would be questionable to see anyone but those players start again with Jozy Altidore injured.

Prediction

The United States will no doubt face a tougher challenge, and the young attacking talent will test the in-flux back line. Yedlin at right-back will have the toughest test matching up with Davies defensively which could force him back more than Berhalter wants. It will be imperative for the midfield trio to establish control of the central areas and work forward from there. It can be expected that the United States will control the tempo, and if they stay calm, cool, and collected when Canada counters, they should come away with a nervy 2-1 victory.

PL Sunday preview: Wolves, Man United, Everton, Arsenal in action

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures promise to have a wide-range of action, as Wolves, Manchester United and Arsenal all take the field.

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Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Norwich City  — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Gold and NBCSports.com

Wolverhampton Wanderers are heading into Sunday’s match against bottom dwellers Norwich City with fresh, positive inertia.

On Thursday, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men thumped Espanyol 4-0 in the knockout stages of the Europa League, giving Wolves a much-needed boost of confidence. The club, who has yet to win in Premier League play since January 18, ended a two-game streak without generating a goal against the Spanish side.

Wolves are the clear favorites heading into Molineux Stadium on Sunday. But on the other side stands a well-rested and hungry Norwich, who before going to winter break, showcased class and discipline against Liverpool in their last league showing.

Daniel Farke‘s side are eight points out of the safe zone but time is running out. The sense of urgency is at an all-season high for the Canaries, believers of their under-appreciated strengths.

“They (Wolves) are playing in Europe, they have kept three clean sheets, they have individual quality and it is a huge task,” Farke said. “But I don’t see any easy fixtures at this stage. It is about us. We always have a chance if we are good at our topics.

“People can write us off and say we have no chance to close the gap. But I don’t agree. It is possible.”

INJURIES: Wolves — OUT: Ruben Vinagre (hamstring) | Norwich — OUT: Timm Klose (knee), Sam Byram (hamstring)

Manchester United vs. Watford — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

History and data say Watford, who have never won a league game at Old Trafford, stand no chance against Manchester United on Sunday.

But if one victory inspired a mostly-lethargic Hornets this season under Nigel Pearson it was the 2-0 win over United at Vicarage Road. The second-to-last side went on a six-match unbeaten streak following the said victory. It brought the club back to life, lifting them out of the bottom three.

Watford have since faltered and dropped back below the red line, but Pearson promises to stick to his philosophical guns.

“We approach every game in a very similar way and that is to try and be as positive as we can,” he said. “We’ll go out there and we’ll do what we can to win the game, we’ve not changed our approach, it’s just that results sometimes change how people perceive things.”

United will certainly look different, as Odion Ighalo is expected to make his home debut against his former club following his arrival in earlier this month.

United, who stand in the seventh spot with 38 points, have a clear window of opportunity to surpass fifth-place Tottenham with a victory. Prior to Sunday’s match, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer addressed questions regarding consistency.

“It is team selection – you’ve got to maybe rotate in Europe like we’ve done, then maybe go back to what we were at Chelsea this week,” Gunnar Solskjaer said. “I feel that Bruno [Fernandes] and Odion [Ighalo] coming in will get more goals in the team. That’s been lacking. The games we’ve lost – West Ham, Burnley, Palace, Bournemouth – we’ve had chances but we haven’t scored goals.”

Perhaps Ighalo could finally contribute towards a win at Old Trafford with Watford jerseys on the field.

INJURIES: Manchester United — Paul Pogba (ankle), Axel Tuanzebe (thigh), Marcus Rashford (back) | Watford — OUT: Daryl Janmaat (knee), Tom Cleverley (match fitness)

Arsenal vs. Everton — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Subplots reign supreme ahead of Everton’s visit to the Emirates.

Mesut Ozil, who missed the Gunners’ 1-0 Europa League victory, and Andres Gomes, 16 weeks after an ankle dislocation and fracture, are both expected to return to action. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti will meet for the first time after being linked to each other’s position before the start of the new year.

Perhaps the most significant one, however – at least to Everton – is that it’s been 24 years since the Toffees won at Arsenal. If they can pull it off this time around, the Liverpool-based side will be one step closer to the European dream.

“We have to be focused on Arsenal,” Ancelotti said. “Then there are very important games after. There’s [Manchester] United, Chelsea, Liverpool. After these four games, we can see what is going on for Europe.”

“This is a really important game against a strong team, away, but we have to have confidence to do our best and try to win. We’ve got 13 games to go and have got ourselves in a decent position,” he said. “It gives us the platform to have a decent season. I think we’ve done okay. We’ve had huge problems over six weeks and fair play to the squad for showing that resilience.”

Everton have picked up 17 points out the 24 possible under the Italian, while Arsenal have only experienced two wins under the Spaniard.

INJURIES: Arsenal — Cedric Soares (knee), Kieren Tierney (shoulder), Callum Chambers (knee), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (knee) | Everton — OUT: Jean-Phillipe Gbamin (thigh)

La Liga roundup: Messi puts four goals past Eibar in one-sided Barcelona victory

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Lionel Messi’s masterclass against Eibar highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Eibar 0-5 Barcelona 

It seemed as if nothing was going to wake up Barcelona from their nightmare, but then Lionel Messi went on to put on one if his traditional magic shows.

The Argentine pelted four goals on Eibar on Saturday, sending the Blaugrana to the top of La Liga following Real Madrid’s loss to Levante.

 

 

 

Just how bad was Barcelona’s nightmare, one may ask? So bad that Barcelona supporters waving white handkerchiefs during a part of the game, expressing their frustration towards club’s board and chanting for president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign.

As it’s been for the past decade or so, Messi was at the right place and at the right time to put the fires away.

Barca’s No. 10 broke the deadlock in the 14th minute, before completing his first-half hat-trick. He added a fourth in stoppage time, stretching his season goal count to 18 – the best in the league.

The goal-heavy performance ended Messi’s four-match goal drought – the longest for the Argentine since the 2013-14 season.

Messi’s masterclass proved to be quintessential potion to Barcelona’s illness. They needed it, especially with Napoli up next in the Champions League, which leaves the Catalans with no options then to win.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-0 Leganes

Real Sociedad 3-0 Valencia 

Levante 1-0 Real Madrid

Championship Focus: West Brom, Leeds improve promotion chances with wins

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By no means is the race for promotion within the Championship sealed and delivered, but West Brom and Leeds United continue to add to their lead on the rest of the pack.

Despite playing the final 13 minutes down a player after Romaine Sawyers saw a straight red card, the Baggies went on to earn a formidable 3-0 win over Bristol City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Sheffield United loanee Callum Robinson opened the scoring in the 32nd minute, while Hal Robsun-Kanu sealed his brace with 11 minutes left in regular time. With the victory, Wes Brom extends their league unbeaten streak to five matches, and their total point to 66.

At Elland Road, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United registered their first back-to-back wins since October, following a minimal-margin victory over Reading. Leeds holds a five-point cushion on third-place Fulham.

Meanwhile, with goals quick fire goals from Paul Gallagher and Alan Browne over a four-minute stretch against an aching Hull City, Preston moved into play-off contention.

Saturday’s results

Brentford 2-2 Blackburn
Bristol City 0-3 West Brom
Swansea City 3-1 Huddersfield
Wigan Athletic 1-0 Millwall
Barnsley 1-0 Middlesbrough
Birmingham 3-3 Sheffield Wednesday
Nottingham Forest 0-0 QPR
Preston 2-1 Hull City
Charlton 3-1 Luton Town
Stoke City 2-0 Cardiff City
Leeds United 1-0 Reading

Ronaldo matches record in 1,000th game as Juve beats Spal

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MILAN (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo shows no sign of slowing down as he marked his 1,000th official match by scoring a record-equaling goal to help Juventus win 2-1 at Spal in Serie A on Saturday.

Ronaldo scored for an 11th straight league game, matching the Serie A record set by Gabriel Batistuta in 1994 and equaled by Fabio Quagliarella last season.

Ronaldo also hit the crossbar with a free kick late on and had an early goal disallowed.

Aaron Ramsey doubled Juve’s lead in the second half before Andrea Petagna got Spal back into the match with a penalty.

Juventus visits Lyon in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday.

Serie A leader Juventus extended its advantage to four points above Lazio, which visits Genoa on Sunday. Third-place Inter Milan is also playing a relegation-threatened team on Sunday as it hosts Sampdoria.

Spal remained firmly bottom of the table, eight points from safety, after a fifth successive defeat.

Ronaldo thought he had given Juventus the lead in the fifth minute but it was ruled offside on video review.

However, the Portugal forward did get on the scoresheet six minutes from the break, rushing in at the far post to volley Juan Cuadrado‘s cross into the roof of the net.

It took Juventus until the hour mark to double its lead when Paulo Dybala sent in a delightful through ball for Ramsey, who lifted it above Spal goalkeeper Etrit Berisha.

Spal reduced the deficit nine minutes later after Juventus defender Daniele Rugani fouled midfielder Simone Missiroli. After a lengthy wait and the use of video review, a penalty was awarded and Petagna fired it into the bottom right corner.

AC Milan was playing at Fiorentina later. Bologna drew 1-1 at home to Udinese earlier.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports