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What did we learn about USMNT during Nations League?

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The inaugural Nations League group stage is complete, and the U.S. men’s national team managed to finish top of Group A (on the final day of play) and secure its place in the semifinals next June.

[ MORE: USMNT cruises past Cuba to reach Nations League semis ]

So, what did we learn from the final four (semi-competitive) games of 2019?

No matter the competition, the chance creation isn’t there

Inevitably, eventually, the USMNT ends up attacking its opponents in one of two ways: with long, direct balls up to the forward line, or exclusively through wide attackers and constant crosses into the box. In beating Canada and Cuba by a combined score of 8-1 during this international window, Gregg Berhalter’s team relied almost exclusively on these “tactics.” Predictably, it’s also the default setting when facing tougher competition, such as Mexico and Uruguay earlier in 2019.

Neither of those plans are bad plans, per se, only neither of those plans are what the federation has pursued as its stated goal for the last decade: possession-based soccer featuring ample chance creation from midfield.

Five coaches have taken charge of the USMNT this decade, all with varying levels of promising the above stylistic improvements. Upon completing the USMNT’s final game of the decade, it’s fair to say that all five failed.

The worst part of all is that the presence of Christian Pulisic hardly cures anything. Sure, he’s the craftiest attacking player the U.S. has ever produced, but even a primary playmaker like Pulisic requires a stable midfield behind him to filter the ball upfield and give him a stage on which to perform. Weston McKennie was stellar against Canada on Friday, but he’s proven that, at just 21 years old, he can’t be counted on to that degree game in and game out.

The good news: they’re both 21 years old and have north of 50 caps between them. One day — and it could come soon — everything should click for each of them, at which point we could see them move to operate at a totally different level.


The full backs are suddenly a bright spot

Perhaps it’s a tad hasty to claim the full backs are trending positively, but the current crop of right backs sure looks deeper and more talented than ever before. Sergiño Dest chose to play for the USMNT and is now cap-tied, Reggie Cannon is coming along nicely, and DeAndre Yedlin has proven himself, at the very least, a non-problem plenty of times.

That’s three more reliable full backs than the USMNT has had since Steve Cherundolo retired in 2012. Unfortunately, they all play on the same side of the field.

Tim Ream and Daniel Lovitz, who started at left back  don’t inspire the most confidence or excitement at left back, but perhaps a defense-first option is the way to go given the attacking instincts of all three players on the opposite side.

If Berhalter has truly settled on John Brooks and one of Aaron Long or Matt Mizaga as his starting center backs, then the USMNT heads into 2020 with a relatively stable, non-fluid situation along the backline since… maybe the 2010 World Cup.

Small victories, but victories nonetheless.

Klopp: Liverpool “worked their socks off” in late win

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Jurgen Klopp is loving life after Liverpool gutted out another three points in a thrilling if shaky 2-1 win over Wolves at the Molineux on Thursday.

Klopp gave full marks to Nuno Espirito Santo‘s Wolves, who pushed Liverpool to the brink.

The Reds got a series of fine interventions from Alisson Becker after Wolves equalized through Raul Jimenez in the second half.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

That allowed Liverpool’s Brazilian center forward to deliver the match-winning goal.

Klopp didn’t love the performance, but he enjoyed the resolve.

“The genius moment of Bobby Firmino can help us,” Klopp said. “We won the game, incredibly difficult but who cares?”

“We didn’t panic but it was not like we we completely in the mood I wanted us to be in when we went 1-0 up. You saw then a couple of balls we played into their feet it makes no sense. It’s completely normal. It’s the most difficult thing in football. You start with a complex plan but the development of the game has influence on each individual on the pitch. One sees a chance, sees the space, are not exactly in the same mindset.

“So much to improve for us but knowing if we defend really well like we did in the third system we played tonight. Defending in a 4-4-2, offensively in a 4-3-3. Sadio off doesn’t help. Finishing the game in a 4-5-1. … Everybody worked their socks off. I’m so proud of the boys. It’s incredible.”

Cue more questions about Liverpool’s inevitable first Premier League title and a possible unbeaten season.

“It’s over when it’s over, not before. So why should we really think about it? Let’s carry on. It’s difficult enough. We have to find solutions for the different games then we will see.”

Liverpool visits Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup on Saturday, then heads to West Ham United on Wednesday before hosting Saints on Feb. 1. The congested schedule won’t ease up unless the Reds get knocked out of some competitions, and you wouldn’t want to bet on that right now.

Tranmere upends Watford in FA Cup; Hosts Man Utd on Sunday

Tranmere upsets Watford in FA Cup
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Paul Mullin scored in extra time to lift League One side Tranmere Rovers over a much-weakened Watford in a FA Cup replay at Prenton Park on Thursday.

Tranmere runs out a 2-1 winner and gets a lucrative home date against struggling Manchester United on Sunday.

The pitch condition still wasn’t great nine days after heavy rains caused a postponement of the tie.

Watford didn’t have many familiar faces on the pitch due to the match being its third match in six days. Jose Holebas, Andre Gray, and Christian Kabasele did start the contest.

Tranmere out-attempted Watford 20-11 and had nearly 60 percent of the ball.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Kaylen Hinds scored for Watford, his first goal coming in his first match since 2017/18 when the ex-Arsenal academy man was with… Greuther Furth II.

Tranmere took the lead after Manny Monthe swept a ball home after a half-clearance from the box (Can anything be a half-clearance? Self-reporting to the language police).

Manager Nigel Pearson playing a bevy of youth players. The first team will now get nine more days off before a Feb. 1 visit from Everton.

Of course, they would’ve featured Sunday versus Manchester United in the fourth round.

 

Watford leveled the score on a grimy goal in the 18, but Mullin delivered the goods in the 104th minute.

Liverpool overcomes Wolves challenge to win 14th-straight

Wolves v. Liverpool match recap and video highlights
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If this ends up being an unbeaten Premier League season for Liverpool, this one may be called “The Alisson Game.”

Liverpool’s star goalkeeper kept the Reds quest for legendary status alive long enoiugh for Roberto Firmino to supply the winner in a 2-1 defeat of Wolves at the Molineux on Thursday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Jordan Henderson might like the game’s title role, too, scoring a goal and assisting the 84th minute winner.

Raul Jimenez leveled the score after halftime for Wolves, who stay seventh with 34 points.

Liverpool increases its table lead to 16 points with a match-in-hand on the field.


Three things we learned

1. Alisson’s smart goalkeeping keeps dream alive: Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men have gone behind in eight matches this season, claiming a win in three of them. That would’ve been four if Alisson Becker wasn’t between the sticks for Liverpool. The Brazilian was calm at the back despite being put in several predicaments, his positioning exquisite with plenty of high claims and parries.

2. Henderson has himself a day: Liverpool’s favorite Mackem brings plenty of grit to the side, and his crunching Traore at least thrice in the first 21 minutes shows his tactical duty. But don’t let that take away from his nose for goal. Henderson made sure to back up his motivational “business as usual” post-match interview after beating Manchester United by thundering into the mix to head a Trent Alexander-Arnold corner home after just eight minutes at the Molineux. His alert assist after Salah was dispossessed was plenty pretty, too.

3. Traore puts Reds off balance: As stated above, Jurgen Klopp clearly had a plan for handling Traore when he was in the center of the park. The winger, however, was a much bigger ask for Andy Robertson out wide. Traore blazed down the left to deliver an assist after Robertson’s failed challenge on Jimenez, then won a free kick off Robertson minutes later (Alisson saved the danger).

Man of the Match: Traore. Perfect on contested dribbles and nearly so on 50-50 challenges. A proper menace.


Henderson opened the score when he rose at the near post to head Alexander-Arnold’s cross off Rui Patricio’s hand and into the side netting.

Two of the game’s more lethal finishers were stymied in tight in the 17th and 18th minutes, with Virgil Van Dijk defying Raul Jimenez and Wolves smothered a Mohamed Salah drive.

Sadio Mane limped off with an injury, allowing Takumi Minamino to make a Premier League debut, and Van Dijk was slowed by a 50-50 challenge with Adama Traore before halftime.

Salah drove by two Wolves in stioppage time, but is shot deflected into the air and was corraled by Patricio.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

The Egyptian picked up where he left off in the 47th, stripping Traore and forcing a save out of Patricio.

Salah raced back upfield moments later to block a Pedro Neto shot after Wolves led a promising charge.

Wolves made it 1-1 with a bit of lightning down the right, as Traore raced onto a through ball and crossed for Jimenez to head past Alisson Becker.

Traore then won a free kick and a yellow card for a poor sliding challenge on Traore, but Wolves couldn’t deliver a second goal in five minutes.

Liverpool answered, Firmino pumping a shot into the keeper despite a half-emptty net at the hour mark.

Alisson then made a fine save on a Traore drive in the 65th, blocking a Jimenez shot two minutes later.

That’s not to say the Reds weren’t busy, and Rui Patricio made a fine low save on Firmino in the 82nd minute.

Firmino got his goal in a flash, taking a pass frorm an alert Henderson and burying a shot past Patricio.

Diogo Jota blew a point blank chance to make it 2-2 in the second minute of stoppage after Traore and Jimenez set him atop the six.

Henderson puts Liverpool ahead at half, Mane limps off

Sadio Mane injury
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Sadio Mane walked off the Molineux pitch with an injury in the 33rd minute of Liverpool’s visit to Wolves on Thursday.

The Senegalese winger sat on the turf until the ball was played out by Wolves, then stood up and took a couple of steps before sitting down again.

[ STREAM LIVE: Wolves v. Liverpool ]

It certainly didn’t look like anything major, but Mane’s quick and decisive exit certainly won’t ease the concerns of Reds supporters.

Takumi Minamino took his place, making a Premier League debut with Liverpool leading 1-0 on a Jordan Henderson goal.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Henderson rose high to nod a Trent Alexander-Arnold free kick towards goal, and Wolves keeper Rui Patricio could get a hand on it to redirect it into the side netting.