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MLS Snapshot: 3 goals, 3 points for Nikolic, rebounding Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less): Nemanja Nikolic is back, and his revival couldn’t have come at a better time for the Chicago Fire, who reclaimed third place in the Eastern Conference on the back of Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union, which came courtesy of a Nikolic hat trick. After the Hungarian put Chicago up three minutes into the game, Johan Kappelhof (own goal) and Alejandro Bedoya put Philadelphia into the lead almost as quickly. Nikolic got one back from the penalty spot in the 64th minute before completing the comeback with a perfectly placed finish from outside the box 12 minutes from full-time. Having been in the Supporters’ Shield race three months into the season, the summer saw Chicago fall out of the top-four before their recent rebound (four wins from their last seven games).

[ MORE: MLS at Week 33 — all about playoff places, positioning ]

Three Four moments that mattered

3′ — Nikolic gets in behind, pokes it past Blake for 1-0 — Here’s something we’ve not seen nearly enough from Chicago of late: Nikolic getting on the end of a long ball into the channel. He finishes this in his sleep every night.

13′ — Bedoya lifts it over Lampson to put Philly 2-1 up — Haris Medunjanin floats the ball back post for Bedoya, who arrives just before Matt Lampson can get there.

64′ — Nikolic converts from the spot, pulls Chicago level — Now three goals ahead of Diego Valeri and David Villa, Nikolic had probably already locked up the 2017 Golden Boot. To be absolutely certain, though…

78′ — Nikolic completes his hat trick, seals all three points — Insurance on the Boot.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Nemanja Nikolic

Goalscorers: Nikolic (3′, 64′ – PK, 78′), Kappelhof (9′ – OG), Bedoya (13′)

Player ratings: Pulisic, Altidore star as USMNT routs Panama

AP Photo/John Raoux
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Almost as badly as they needed a result and the accompanying three points, the U.S. national team needed to put forth a performance that once again inspired confidence — not only for USMNT fans, but for themselves as well.

Simply put, Bruce Arena’s bunch responded in a manner that left absolutely nothing to chance. Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore will (rightly) garner all the headlines, but they were far from the only standouts on Friday night…

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

GK — Tim Howard: 6 — Asked to make only two saves on the night, but he did so with relative (to the 2014 game against Belgium, at least), and staked his claim to the no. 1 shirt after being selected ahead of Brad Guzan once again. It might just be a godsend the Colorado Rapids won’t sniff the MLS playoffs this year, as he’ll be 39 before next summer’s tournament kicks off.

RB — DeAndre Yedlin: 7 — So that’s what it’s like to have a right back who’s meant to be playing right back. I’ve defended Graham Zusi, Right Back, on a number of occasions (and I’ll continue to do so), but there’s no two ways about it: Yedlin, at age 24, is the right back of the present and the future. In a game that got a little too stretched for most Americans’ liking, his recovery speed snuffed out would-be chances before they could be taken on a number of occasions.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 5 — I think Gonzalez could be good — I really do — in the right system which features a midfield that sits deep and clogs the space in front of him and beside him. Unfortunately for Omar, a midfield diamond where only one of the four actually plays centrally isn’t that. As an opposing attacker, face him up one-on-one, and enjoy.

CB — Matt Besler: 6 — Didn’t struggle as badly as Gonzalez, mostly because he’s more accustomed to playing in open space, but playing alongside Gonzalez really highlights his most problematic deficiency: a minor lack of pace and athleticism. A healthy Geoff Cameron should complement Besler very well, should the two partner one another between Tuesday and next summer.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5.5 — What’s to say about the left back position right now? Villafaña will continue to play there because no better option exists. If the midfield can remain solid in possession as they were in this one, limiting the direct counters thrown at him, he can pretty regularly avoid being a net-negative.

[ RECAP: USMNT routs Panama to boost World Cup dreams in a big way ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 6 — He was asked to do a lot in this one — run the entire middle third of the field as the only truly central midfielder — which he struggled to juggle at times in the first half, but that’s an impossible ask. He doesn’t need to be a 9/10 performer every night for the USMNT succeed. In fact, they need him to play a smaller part more frequently, and allow every one else to carry their own weight. He can still be Superman when it’s asked of him, but it’s not necessary all the time.

CM — Paul Arriola: 7 — Every team needs a Paul Arriola. The defensive cover he provided down the right side allowed Yedlin ample freedom to venture forward and stretch the field. His relentless pressing and winning of 50-50 balls makes for an uneasy evening for any opposition midfielder, and most importantly, takes that responsibility off Bradley’s plate, allowing him to sit deeper, read the game and dictate tempo.

CM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — *checks boxscore* *checks boxscore again* Yup, Nagbe did indeed play on Friday. Nominally deployed as a shuttler in a diamond(-ish) midfield, it’s not the worst thing in the world to go unnoticed. He remains tidy with his passing and forever an outlet when Bradley is harried. You can make the case he’s “too talented” for such a role, but at this point in time, this is his role and he’s done it masterfully.

CM — Christian Pulisic: 9 — 10/10 ratings are reserved for hat tricks (or three goals and assists combined, at the very least), so the wonderboy checks in with a 9/10 for the parts he played in the first (scoring) and second (assisting) goals, plus the attention (and fouls) he now commands are truly game-changing for everyone else in the attacking third.

[ VIDEOS: Pulisic makes it 1-0 after 8′Pulisic to Altidore for no. 2 ]

FW — Bobby Wood: 7 — Wood’s partnership with Altidore has required some kinks be worked out over the course of the last year, but Friday’s game showed what so many thought possible for the duo: Altidore drops into midfield to 1) pulling center backs out of shape; 2) be the playmaker that he is, and Wood capitalizes on that space by running the channels until his lungs explode. Every goal that Wood scores is oh so deserved.

FW — Jozy Altidore: 9 — Also, no 10/10 when one of the three is a penalty. So sorry, Sir Josmer. I’m not really sure what more needs to be said. When healthy, and in the form of his life as he is right now, Altidore is an impossible nightmare.

SUB — Dax McCarty: 6.5 — Arena brought him on just before the hour mark to 1) save Pulisic’s life; 2) plant someone alongside Bradley at the base of midfield. McCarty accomplished a ton in his 33 minutes on the field, winning the ball back eight times, connecting just about every one of his passes, and threading an inch-perfect through ball to Arriola late in the game.

SUB — Clint Dempsey: 5.5 — The thought of Dempsey as a late-game super-sub next summer should provide all USMNT fans with a wealth of hope and excitement. Provided he remains accepting of the role, he will change one or two games in unbelievably meaningful ways.

SUB — Alejandro Bedoya: 5.5 — Only got 10 minutes, but continues to make his case as a lock-down central midfielder who offers more than most think when he surges forward.

MLS: ATL leave it late in PHI; NE’s playoff hopes die in DC

Atlanta United / Twitter: @ATLUTD
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Philadelphia Union 2-2 Atlanta United

The game in 100 words (or less): Atlanta United’s defense, the expansion side’s achilles heel all season long, lapsed for no more than five minutes against the Philadelphia Union, and Tata Martino’s side struggled to a 2-2 draw which might ultimately cost them dearly in the playoffs race. With a chance to distance themselves from the Montreal Impact for sixth in the Eastern Conference, and set themselves up beautifully as the home-heavy portion of their schedule approaches, those five minutes cost Atlanta a pair of points against a 10-man Union side (Josh Yaro, 52nd minute) which held just 31 percent of possession on their home field. Roland Alberg and Alejandro Bedoya scored the Union’s goals, pulling Jim Curtin’s side to within three points of sixth place, while Atlanta remain a point back of Montreal (now level on games played, with 10 to go). Yamil Asad and Tyrone Mears blazed the comeback path for Atlanta.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s MLS roundup — TFC dominant; wild Texas derby ]

Three moments that mattered

18′ — Alberg gets behind, slots it past Guzan for 1-0 — Someone along the Atlanta backline lost track of… well, just about every attacker in the box. The lofted through ball fell to the chest of Alberg, and the Dutchman showed great composure at close range to collect and finish the chance.

23′ — Bedoya reacts quickest, makes it 2-0 — Alberg whipped the corner kick into the box, Jack Elliott headed it on at the near post, and Bedoya contorted his body to put his foot on the ball and double the lead.

26′ — Asad roofs it from a tough angle, and it’s 2-1 — It’s unclear whether or not Josef Martinez meant to head this ball an entire 90 degrees away from goal. In the end, it simply looks like a brilliant assist.

90+1′ — Mears heads home from distance — It’s an unlucky goal to give up, but one the whole of their 40-minute man advantage, Atlanta were deserving of their point.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Roland Alberg

Goalscorers: Alberg (18′), Bedoya (23′), Asad (26′), Mears (90+1′)


D.C. United 1-0 New England Revolution

The game in 100 words (or less): Already seven points out of the playoff places in the East, losing to last-place D.C. United, 1-0 on Saturday, was almost surely the final nail in the Revolution’s coffin for the 2017 season. After winning three of four from mid-July to early August, the Revs have now lost back-to-back games to New York City FC and United. Luciano Acosta scored the game’s only goal, pulling Ben Olsen’s side to within a single point of the Revs in their bid to leave the East’s cellar..

[ MORE: Wednesday’s MLS roundup — TFC dominant; wild Texas derby ]

Three One moments that mattered

71′ — Acosta pokes home from close range — Lloyd Sam floated the ball into the box, Kofi Opare headed back across the face of goal, and Acosta was the only player make the far-post run, which made it oh so easy to beat Cody Cropper.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Russell Canouse

Goalscorers: Acosta (71′)

Player ratings from USMNT’s 3-0 win over Nicaragua

AP Photo/Ron Schwane
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The U.S. national team is through to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Gold Cup as Group B winners following Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Nicaragua.

Who stood out for all the right — and wrong — reasons, as Bruce Arena prepares to make as many as six changes to the USMNT roster before the knockout rounds begin on Wednesday?

[ MORE: Bradley, Altidore to be added to USMNT’s roster for KO rounds ]

GK — Bill Hamid: 6 — Challenged just twice all night, Hamid made both saves asked of him, though he did spill a long-range effort late in the second half which nearly turned into a disastrous moment.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5 — Villafaña struggles with two facets of playing left back at the international level: 1) he’s not a great pretty poor attacker when he gets forward, and 2) he’s left for dead against pacy wingers. Neither of those bode well 11 months before the start of the World Cup.

CB — Matt Besler: 6 — It’s not often that a center back is completely uninvolved in everything that happens in the game, but that was the case for Besler in this one. It’s impossible to “hurt” your stock in such an event, but there’s no helping either.

CB — Matt Miazga: 7 — Again, the center backs were largely untested over the 90 minutes, but Miazga did score the late winner, albeit while completely unmarked, on a set piece.

RB — Graham Zusi: 5.5 — He’s not an international right back. What I mean by that is: he’s great at the position for Sporting Kansas City, because the entirety of the attacking and defensive systems are tailored to his strengths, and away from his weaknesses. That’s impossible to replicate during an international camp, and it’s actively hurting the USMNT.

[ MORE: USMNT miss two PKs, still finish top of Group B ]

CM — Dax McCarty: 6 — The majority of the game was played in the final third for the USMNT, and out on the wings for Nicaragua — both of which are to say, McCarty, like the center backs directly behind him, saw very little action.

CM — Alejandro Bedoya: 8 — Man of the Match, probably. Furthermore, I’ll own this: I was wrong. I thought Bedoya should be deployed as a winger and/or wide midfielder, but he’s so clearly a two-way central midfielder, and with a responsible, dominant partner like McCarty, a really good one.

CM — Joe Corona: 6 — Scored a goal, missed a penalty, killed the majority of attacking movements during which he touched the ball. Business as usual.

[ MORE: Panama win helps USMNT, Mexico into quarterfinals ]

LW — Kelyn Rowe: 8 — Best attacker during the group stage, hands down. Another strong showing, while played out of position, and a goal to show for his efforts.

CF — Dom Dwyer: 5 — Like Corona, Dwyer missed a penalty and served as the end of the road for a number of promising attacking sequences. His hold-up play isn’t strong enough to play as a target; his movement isn’t tricky, nor his finishing clinical, enough to be a poacher. It’s tough to see where/how he fits in going forward.

RW — Chris Pontius: 5 — Wings are the most wide open positions in the player pool, so it’s worth it to give anyone and everyone a look, especially during the group stage, but Pontius is neither explosive now a visionary. One or the other, please.

[ MORE: Costa Rica, Canada book quarterfinal places ]

Sub — Paul Arriola: 5 — Unable to find time on the ball, or space, to create. He’s a worker, to be certain, but offers very little in terms of chance creation. As established above, a common theme.

Sub — Jordan Morris: 5 — Let’s pick a position for Morris, and let him live there. Is he a forward? Is he an cutting-in winger? He took a knock on the hip not long after coming on, and look hindered the rest of the way. There’s a time and a place for a player with his speed, but a game where you’ve already got a 2-0 lead might not be it.

Sub — Juan Agudelo: 6 — The smallest sample size — just 16 minutes — but every time he hits the field, Agudelo gets on the ball and his first instinct is to run at defenders. It was his dribble through midfield which won the free kick that resulted in Miazga’s winner. Things happen when Agudelo is on the field. He should have started the first and the third games, with Dwyer taking the middle of the three.

Pair of penalty misses nearly costs USMNT top spot in group

AP Photo/Ron Schwane
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The U.S. national team knocked off Nicaragua in the two sides’ 2017 Gold Cup Group B finale on Saturday, and has advanced to the quarterfinal round, where they’ll take on a third-place finisher from either Group A or Group C on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Panama win helps USMNT, Mexico into quarterfinals ]

The result didn’t come without adversity, of the self-inflicted variety. Most notably, a pair of penalty misses looked destined to deny Bruce Arena’s side the three-goal victory they needed to leapfrog Panama and finish top of the group. Fortunately, an unlikely hero’s first USMNT would span the gap, but only just.

The breakthrough came after 37 minutes, as the Yanks capitalized on one of few counter-attacking opportunities in the opening 45 minutes. Alejandro Bedoya crossed the ball from the right wing, but it ultimately fell to Joe Corona 20 yards from goal. The Club Tijuana man moved past a pair of defenders, cut inside and fired a bouncing ball past Lorente, inches inside his right-hand post.

[ MORE: Bradley, Altidore to be added to USMNT’s roster for KO rounds ]

Dwyer did everything — from winning the penalty kick, to taking the attempt himself — but score from the spot in the 50th minute. Dwyer went down under slight contact from Marlon Lopez, and claimed the spot kick as his own. He went left, and Lorente was all over it, making the save in comfortable fashion.

Only six minutes would pass before the Yanks’ next golden opportunity, and Rowe wouldn’t waste this one. It was Bedoya, again, who notched the assist with a visionary through ball. Rowe arrived in full stride, corralled it with a delicate first touch and applied the narrow-angled finish for 2-0, and his first international goal.

[ MORE: Costa Rica, Canada book quarterfinal places ]

The penalty woes would continue five minutes later, when Corona would see his own effort from the spot saved by Lorente, in far easier fashion that Dwyer’s attempt which preceded his own.

Nicaragua’s Luis Copete was shown a second yellow card in the 85th minute, when he bowled over Juan Agudelo in the open field, and the USMNT made the most of the man advantage. Graham Zusi lofted the ensuing free kick to the top of the six-yard box, where Matt Miazga awaited, completely unmarked, for a simple downward header, and more importantly, the 3-0 victory.