George Friend

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Three things from the USMNT’s uninspiring draw

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Brad Guzan played a starring role on Saturday in Nashville, and is likely the reason the United States men’s national team was able to manufacture a draw with Panama.

B team or not, that’s not a good thing. And Guzan made no excuses for his disappointing XI and subs in a post-match interview on Fox Sports.

“We knew it was going to be hot. It’s no excuse. We didn’t move the ball quick enough. At times we were a bit naive. Panama’s a good team and they’re getting better. We knew we had to limit their chances. In the second half the game got away from us a little bit, and we lost our way at times.”

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

Naive and lost is not a way to win a Gold Cup, but fortunately the Yanks can get healthy for the knockout rounds with upcoming group stage matches against Martinique and Nicaragua, who play later Saturday.

This isn’t a well-oiled machine

Look: There’s no question the United States men’s national team, even a B Team, should beat Panama at home almost 10 times out of 10.

So don’t look to this as excuse-making when we note that Bruce Arena’s mish-mash of a back line and unfamiliar five-man midfield probably need some more time to gel.

Aside from Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez’s center back partnership — the former of which was very good while the latter just meh — the guys haven’t spent a lot of time together, nor have they played together in that formation.

Kellyn Acosta may be the perfect man to slot alongside Michael Bradley, but he wasn’t a good mix on Saturday with Dax McCarty. We point this out because that duo looked pretty darn good a week ago against Ghana, the sort of thing that can happen when chemistry is growing and one of those players turns 22 in a fortnight. If it doesn’t work, well, there are a lot of us who wouldn’t mind seeing Cristian Roldan get a look.

The midfield didn’t come out of the oven like it looked in Arena’s cookbook, and Dom Dwyer was often left wanting for service and touches on the ball.

Right back worries

Graham Zusi is not going to be Bruce Arena’s first option at right back should the Yanks progress to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If the coach wants to make a deep run in this tournament, he probably shouldn’t be come the quarterfinals.

A good midfielder with tenacity and leadership, Zusi is not quick enough to close down attackers at right back. With respect to Panama left wing Miguel Camargo, who looks like he has plenty in his tool bag, the U.S. cannot be continually victimized for speed at that position in any game of relative meaning.

Eric Lichaj has to wonder, as a man who’s done about everything for Nottingham Forest, why he can’t get a look at right back over a man who’s been playing the position for a brief period of time.

Guzan makes his case… to stay No. 2

With Zusi and Omar Gonzalez having some problems at the back, the United States needed several big saves from Brad Guzan and the Atlanta United backstop delivered plenty.

Whether or not Guzan was wondering what he has to do to get better from his back line is another story (With respect to Boro’s Calum Chambers and George Friend).

While few will be begging Arena to place Guzan ahead of Tim Howard, it’s good to be reminded that the Illinois ‘keep has star performances in his locker.

Middlesbrough 2-2 Man City: Jesus stuns bright Boro

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Middlesbrough, feeling hard done by a harsh refereeing decision, felt justice had been done when Calum Chambers bungled the ball into the back of the net with 13 minutes to go. What a result it would be in the relegation battle.

It was not to be. Gabriel Jesus, on his return from injury, scored a thumping header with five minutes remaining to peg back Boro for the second time, leaving the home side with a valuable point but a bitter taste in their mouths.

City had its first good effort on net after eight minutes as Sergio Aguero shifted to his left and looked for the top corner but the ball curled just over the bar.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The game had little on net as it progressed past the half-hour mark, until Middlesbrough had a few half-chances. Marten De Roon put one over the bar under heavy pressure inside the penalty area, and then Stewart Downing also missed the target moments later.

With the home side impressing throughout the first half, matching City step for step, they managed to find a way in front. A Kevin De Bruyne cross was cut out by George Friend and it sparked a vicious break. Downing’s cross from the left was too far behind Friend, but it fell to Alvaro Negredo who fell as he shot, but managed to get the left-footed effort off the left post and into the back of the net as the home fans erupted. Negredo’s goal against his former club was only the beginning of his fantastic performance.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

After the break, Pep Guardiola kept the starting lineup out there momentarily, but quickly made a double change just four minutes in as he yanked off Aleix Garcia and Gael Clichy in favor of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. They immediately made an impact as Sterling’s effort on net was only blocked last-ditch by Calum Chambers.

City began to attack with more vicious intent, and Sterling again had a shot blocked by Chambers’ face on 57 minutes. Their pressure bore fruit as Sane went down in the box under pressure from De Roon, and referee Kevin Friend pointed to the spot. The Middlesbrough players absolutely lost their minds, with both De Roon and Fabio earning yellow cards for dissent after the decision. At first glance of the replay there was a clear foul, but upon closer inspection it appeared Sane leaned heavily into the contact to draw the whistle.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Aguero blasted the penalty in to leave little doubt as the score leveled at 1-1, with the home fans and players still incensed. Middlesbrough looked for a way back into the lead by bringing on Adama Traore, who immediately drew a yellow on Nicolas Otamendi for a foul on a breakaway.

Middlesbrough would eventually get justice for the penalty, as they went back in front with 13 minutes remaining. A free-kick was only parried awkwardly by Willy Caballero, and somehow City failed to clear with the ball pinging all over the box. Negredo somehow kept it alive with a back-heel, and eventually his shot was turned in clumsily by Chambers who wheeled away in delight.

Again though, the lead would not hold. Fabio fouled Sane on the left flank, and Aguero delivered a cross into the box, and only Jesus judged it correctly, cracking the header past Brad Guzan. That leveled things at 2-2, ripping the collective hearts out of Riverside Stadium. City pushed for a winner down the stretch in tense final minutes, but could not find the right formula. Aguero had to come off late with what looked to be a slight knock, a slight concern for City at the end.

The point for Middlesbrough sees them climb within four of Swansea City, who also drew a Manchester club earlier on Sunday. They still remain six points adrift of safety with Hull City well above, leaving the draw feeling like a brutal loss. For City, they keep pace with Manchester United, but cannot build any lead above their single point.

Watch Live: Swansea vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups & Live Stream)

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It’s a good ol’ fashioned relegation battle as Swansea City hosts Middlesbrough at the Liberty Stadium live on NBCSN at 8:30 a.m. ET or live online at NBCSports.com.

After the initial pair of wins with new manager Paul Clement at the helm, Swansea has continued to struggle and is right back into the thick of the fight, level on points with Hull City but just out of the relegation zone on goal differential. The Swans have lost three of their last four, including a brutal one two weeks against Hull. They will be keen to avoid losing two in a row against relegation opposition, lest they see themselves drop into the zone. However, all their recent losses have come on the road, while at home they’ve won three straight.

[ WATCH LIVE: Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough live online at NBCSports.com ]

Swans are mostly fit with Kyle Naughton returning from a two-match absence with a hamstring problem and Martin Olsson back after a small ankle injury. However, Fernando Llorente picked up a last-minute calf injury, ruling him out of the match, with Jordan Ayew starting up front in his place. Leon Britton also misses out with a hamstring problem and Wayne Routledge is absent for “personal reasons.”

For Middlesbrough, they still have a few small problems to content with. There’s just one change from last week’s loss to Manchester United, but it will see them change formations as Grant Leadbitter comes to the bench in favor of Adama Traore. That changes things from the 4-3-3 they featured in last week’s loss to Manchester United to more of a 4-2-3-1 with just Alvaro Negredo by himself up top.

Boro is still without George Friend and Calum Chambers who are both returning to fitness, while Daniel Ayala returns from his hamstring injury to make the bench. They sit five points from safety, and a win today would go miles towards moving them out of the relegation zone, muddying the waters further. Should they lose, the teams at the bottom will have lost ground on their goal.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski; Naughton, Fernandez, Mawton, Olsson; Fer, Cork, Carroll; Narsingh, Ayew, Sigurdsson.
Bench: Nordfeldt, Kingsley, van der Hoorn, Montero, Ki, Borja, McBurne.

Middlesbrough: Valdes; Barragan, Bernardo, Gibson, Fabio; Clayton, de Roon; Traore, Ramirez, Downing; Negredo.
Bench: Guzan, Ayala, Forshaw, Guedioura, Leadbitter, Stuani, Gestede.

PL Sunday preview: Arsenal’s last stand; Swansea-Boro a relegation battle

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This is it for Arsenal: one last crack, with a clear path, at finishing in the Premier League’s top-four. As for Swansea City and Middlesbrough, fighting relegation is their reality…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

With nearly 100 percent certainty, one of Swansea and Middlesbrough will finish in the bottom-three and be relegated at season’s end, if not both. Ahead of Sunday’s six-pointer at the Liberty Stadium, Paul Clement‘s Swans sit 17th, clear of 18th-place Hull City on goal differential. Boro, meanwhile, are 19th, five points back of Swansea after firing manager Aitor Karanka two weeks ago.

Boro are without a win in their last 11 PL games (four draws, seven losses). Coincidentally, their most recent victory came against Swansea, 3-0 on Dec. 17.

INJURIES: Swansea — OUT: Nathan Dyer (achilles), Angel Rangel (foot) | Boro — OUT: Calum Chambers (foot); QUESTIONABLE: George Friend (calf), Daniel Ayala (hamstring)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Title race back on after Chelsea lose? ]

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

For as disastrous and dysfunctional as Arsenal’s 2016-17 season has been thus far, they’re far from out of contention for yet another top-four finish — but make no mistake: they won’t get there with a loss on Sunday. Heading into this weekend’s monumental clash with fourth-place Man City, Arsene Wenger‘s sixth-place Gunners sit seven points behind Pep Guardiola‘s side with a game in hand. A win at home on Sunday, coupled with three points from that game in hand, would see that gap shrink to a single point.

Arsenal lost their final two league games before the recent international break, a pair of 3-1 defeats to Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion, while City are unbeaten in their last seven league games (four wins in that span), though they enter Sunday’s clash at the Emirates Stadium riding two straight draws. Wenger’s future is as uncertain as it’s ever been, as he claims not even he knows what will happen this summer.

“I’ve always been very clear in my mind,” Wenger said. “I will remain like that. I think it’s a subject that at the moment is not sorted completely out. I have nothing more to add to that. … But anyway, do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same. The time I spent here does not influence my attitude at all.”

INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Petr Cech (calf), Santi Cazorla (achilles), Kieran Gibbs (knock) | Man City — OUT: Gabriel Jesus (ankle), Vincent Kompany (knock), Ilkay Gundogan (knee surgery); RETURNING: Kevin De Bruyne (groin)

An under-the-radar Premier League XI

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The Premier League’s international break invites reflection on both what we’ve seen so far and what’s to come.

For example, what if we left out the superstars?

For whatever reason, this one is recalling the state of mind of 2015-16, when we were digesting that Leicester City very much looked the part of Premier League champions.

[ MORE: Herrera on “intense” Zlatan ]

For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.

He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).

For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).

Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.

— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.

  • Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
  • Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
  • Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.

— The following players have risen well above most of their teammates but fall short of the league Top 50 on either site: Ben Gibson (Boro), Michael Keane and Ben Mee (Burnley), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Joe Allen (Stoke City), Jose Holebas and Troy Deeney (Watford), Gareth McAuley (West Brom).

— Watford, as a side, is seemingly the choose to a sort of MVP. On WhoScored, not a single player rises above 7, but there are a host in the very high sixes.

— In very different systems, John Stones (91.8) and Adam Forshaw (89.2) are thriving in pass percentage.

Oriol Romeu of Southampton and Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

— Southampton’s Oriel Romeu and Stoke’s Erik Pieters rank fourth and fifth respectively in tackles per game.

— In a team that has to intervene a ton, Hull City’s Curtis Davies the league with 3.8 interceptions per game.


Honorable mention

Goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Calum Chambers (Boro), Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Ake, Victor Wanyama (Spurs), Willian (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Harry Winks (Spurs), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Jack Wilshere (Bournemouth).

Forwards: Joshua King (Bournemouth), Fernando Llorente (Swansea City), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace)


Goalkeeper

Ben Foster (West Brom) — With the highest performance score in the position on WhoScored, Foster has claimed all 95 balls he’s went up for and has a league-best 76 saves.

Defenders

Nicolas Otamendi (Man City, 7.49, 29.18) — One of few defenders to rate high in interceptions despite being on a team that doesn’t concede loads of chances or possession.

George Friend (Middlesbrough) — Just out of the upper echelon on the advanced stats site, he is in rarefield air in traditional stats interceptions and tackles.

Steve Cook (Bournemouth, 7.16, 22.76) — Jumps out of the advanced stats on a Cherries team which has faced plenty of attacking pressure.

Antonio Valencia (Manchester United, 7.28, 27.45) — There’s a reason Jose Mourinho rewarded him with an extension not long into the manager’s tenure at Old Trafford.

Midfielders

Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.

Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.

Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.

 

Forwards

Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.

Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.