2015 Gold Cup: Three things we learned from the USA’s 2-1 victory over Honduras

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FRISCO, Texas — The U.S. men’s national team labored — a lot at times — to a 2-1 victory over Honduras in both sides’ 2015 Gold Cup opener on Tuesday night at Toyota Stadium.

From 2-0 up with 25 minutes to play, to hanging on by the skin of their teeth under a constant siege of Honduran scorings chances during the final 10 minutes, Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is off and running as they look to defend their Gold Cup title.

A tournament like the Gold Cup is like a low-burning stove-top coil. With six games to play in order to lift the Cup, peaking in the first game is not unlikely and unattainable, it’s actually highly unadvisable. Games 1, 2 and 3 don’t need a full-on boil. It calls for a steady simmer before heating up in the final — where the USMNT will presumably face Mexico, at which point the pot not only boils, but the lid bursts off and critically maims anyone within six zip codes.

[ MORE: Previewing USA’s Group A | Group B | Group C | The stars of CONCACAF ]

Three things we learned about the USMNT and Honduras during Tuesday night’s 2-1 result:

1. John Brooks-and-Ventura Alvarado is not the USMNT’s best center back pairing — or even close

source:
Matt Besler & Omar Gonzalez, USMNT

Where, oh where, to start with this one. How about here: Why, Jurgen? Why? At no point during his brief USMNT career, really, has Alvarado looked like doing more than furiously treading to keep his head above water. Even in recent victories over the Netherlands and Germany, in which Brooks and Alvarado started together, it’s been dicey in the best of times and an absolute dumpster fire in the worst.

Omar Gonzalez, a right-sided center back with World Cup experience, was on the bench for 90 minutes tonight, while Alvarado struggled yet again with simple tasks, like putting his head to the ball, tracking runners at both the near and far posts, and communicating runners to Brooks. Major League Soccer center backs like Gonzalez, Matt Hedges and Steve Birnbaum could at least match Alvarado’s performances to date.

As for Brooks, Tuesday wasn’t terrible for the 22-year-old (yes, 22), but with Matt Besler, another World Cup veteran, not even on the roster, one can’t help but wonder just how much Klinsmann is willing to risk either going out in the group stage or making their own path through the knockout rounds significantly less favorable, all in the name of playing a couple of young center backs with essentially no CONCACAF experience.

[ MORE: With the rest of CONCACAF making strides, it’s time for the USMNT to do so, too ]

2. Gyasi Zardes as part of a midfield diamond just doesn’t work — that’s not his fault

Gyasi Zardes’ ascension from collegiate athlete at Cal State Bakersfield, to MLS breakout star, and now a regular starter for the USMNT in the span of three years is really, really amazing, and something only possible in the American game. The problem is this: the majority — if not all — of Zardes’ production over that time has come as one of two center forwards in a 4-4-2.

Where Zardes hasn’t impressed — or even played much at all — is as a shuttling midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. On Tuesday, Zardes struggled — again — in that role, and did so for one big reason: in that area of the field, defensively, he’s a total disaster, and though it’s not for a lack of trying — positional awareness and whatnot — too many of the US’s turnovers in midfield were immediately redirected into the left channel between Brooks and Fabian Johnson, which is exactly the space Zardes is supposed to protect.

Mix Diskerud can serviceably perform that role, as can Alejandro Bedoya (my personal choice) and Graham Zusi. It’d be a pretty big surprise — and a mistake — if Zardes is back in that spot Friday night against Haiti.

[ MORE: Reflecting on Michael Bradley from 1-99, as he hits 100 USMNT caps vs. Honduras ]

3. Andy Najar became a man in Belgium — look out, world

source:
Andy Najar, Anderlecht & Honduras

Andy Najar has spent the last two and a half years since leaving D.C. United of MLS playing for Belgian side Anderlecht. In that time, the 22-year-old has not only filled out physically and honed his craft while winning a pair of Belgian league and Belgian cup titles, but he’s developed a killer instinct, as well, and that makes him one of the scariest players in the region.

On Tuesday night — particularly during the first half — Najar was an absolute nightmare up and down the right side of the USMNT defense. Timothy (he has to earn the right to be called “Timmy” again) Chandler not only couldn’t deal with him, but every time Najar received the ball and turned to run at the US goal, a sense of impending doom crept over every last American fan inside Toyota Stadium.

For the game’s first 45 minutes, Najar was the best player on the field by a mile, and if the rest of his Gold Cup performances from here on out mimic that of Tuesday night, he’ll quickly rocket up not only the list of the best players in CONCACAF, but also the transfer lists of any number of major European clubs.

Andy Najar’s “dream” is to play for Arsenal, as ex-DC United star plots move

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Former D.C. United academy product Andy Najar has spoken out about a possible move to the Premier League.

Najar, 22, has impressed for Belgian giants Anderlecht since arriving from D.C. United back in 2013 and now Najar, who scored this stunning goal for the Honduran national team last week, has spoken about his love for England and how his “dream” has always been to play for Arsenal.

The Daily Mirror in the UK has quotes from Najar saying the following, as he has previously trained and had been watched by Arsenal’s bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

“I would like to go to English football and have always had a team in England which has been my dream – Arsenal,” Najar said. “I keep that in mind. When I was little I liked Thierry Henry and I always had this dream of reaching Arsenal.”

Najar actually played against the Gunners in the UEFA Champions League this season as they snatched a 3-3 draw at the Emirates Stadium and the winger (who can also be deployed at full back) scored in Anderelcht’s 2-1 defeat at home to the north London outfit in the UCL. The former DCU standout and 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year has been turned professional at the age of 17 and hasn’t looked back since after representing Honduras at the 2014 World Cup last summer.

It remains to be seen if there’s interest from Arsenal but at a price of around $6 million and having so much experience at a relatively young age, Najar seems like an Arsene Wenger-type pick. Look at Joel Campbell and Carlos Vela for past transfers involving young CONCACAF stars.

Maybe Andy’s dream will come true. Watch this space.

WATCH: Andy Najar’s wonder goal helps Honduras into 2015 Gold Cup

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‘Twas a strike so sweet, French Guyana’s goalkeeper didn’t even feign an attempt to stop it.

Honduras attacker Andy Najar (Anderlecht, ex-DC United) was given room to set up his first-touch, and sent an arrow over keeper Apagui Janot to start Los Catrachos’ 3-0 win on Sunday, one that ensured the side’s participation in this summer’s Gold Cup.

[ MORE: How will US line up against Switzerland? ]

That Honduras was in this position was surprising. The World Cup participants failed to qualify automatically after a miserable showing at the Copa Centroamericana, which found them dueling French Guyana, who surprised at the Caribbean Cup.

Najar would score again, and Anthony Lozano also tallied, as Los Catrachos won the tie 4-3 on aggregate. And here’s the beauty that started it off.

Honduras joins Panama, Haiti and the United States in a tough Group A this summer. The tournament begins July 7, with the States facing Honduras in Frisco, Texas.

Arsenal’s Podolski, Gibbs break Belgian hearts in left-for-late win

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A snoozer pretty much from the opening kickoff, neither Anderlecht nor Arsenal could break through despite Alexis Sanchez’s best efforts.

Thrills were waiting, though, in Arsenal’s 2-1 win in UEFA Champions League group play on Wednesday night.

In the 71st minute, it was ex-DC United attacked Andy Najar who rose above the Arsenal back line to head home the game’s opening goal. Anderlecht was up 1-0 in Belgium, and the Gunners were in trouble.

But Kieran Gibbs rescued the visitors a pair of minutes from time, and Arsenal earned the full points when Lukas Podolski was in perfect position to blast a winner home inside the six-yard box in the 90th minute.

[RELATED: UCL news | Standings | Champions League schedule]

With Borussia Dortmund hammering Galatasaray to stay perfect in group play, Arsenal stays second in Group D with six points. Anderlecht stays with one, and sits in third.

Really, Anderlecht deserved better than its cruel fate, and should’ve led by more than one.

As for Sanchez, an argument could be made that the Chilean was the only Gunners attacker worth his salt in the first half, but fortunately for Arsenal they were facing a “down” Anderlecht side.

Sanchez nearly broke through after Santi Cazorla did the sam in the 64th minute. Cazorla’s shot was cleared before Sanchez blazed his shot from the 18 just over the bar.

United States international Sacha Kljestan was on the bench for the Belgian giants.

Arsenal carried possession, nearly two-thirds, for the most of the match but the shots were even (and just two had been on frame after an hour).

Then Dennis Praet sent in the cross that Najar nodded past 22-year-old keeper Emiliano Martinez, who was called into duty thanks to an injury to David Ospina and suspension of Wojciech Szczesny.

Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain subbed on in the 75th minute to try and inject some life into Arsenal, but Anderlecht nearly doubled its lead moments later. A low cross found no mate on the back post.

Moments later, they struck the post before Najar put the rebound off the side netting.

Yet Gibbs jetted in to bury an equalizer close to the death.

Report: Tottenham watching former MLS standout Andy Najar

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Andy Najar was once one of the brightest young talents in the MLS. Now, he is being linked with a possible move to White Hart Lane.

After moving to the United States from Honduras at the age of 13, Najar joined D.C. United’s youth academy. By the age of 17, he was voted MLS Rookie of the Year and penned the future of United.

With so much promise at such a young age, Najar attracted interest from multiple European clubs before making a move to Belgian side Anderlecht in 2013.

[ RELATED: D.C. United sells Honduran international to Anderlecht ]

At Anderlecht, the 21-year-old has impressed many scouts, in particular those from Tottenham Hotspur.

The Daily Star reported that Spurs sent scouts to watch Anderlecht’s Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund, and were so impressed that they will also attend Anderlecht’s match against Arsenal.

For such a young player, Najar has amassed quite the resume. The former MLS Rookie of the Year has Champions League experience with Anderlecht, as well as featuring for Honduras in this summer’s World Cup. At 21 years old and still developing as a player, Najar’s big game experience could help raise his stock throughout Europe.

Najar has become a regular for Anderlecht out wide, playing both attacking winger and as a wingback. With DeAndre Yedlin heading for Tottenham after the MLS season, could we see two of Major League Soccer’s most talented products lining up for the same Premier League club?