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Sporting KC locks up four mainstays including Besler, Zusi

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Sporting KC likes its corps.

Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Ilie Sanchez, and Roger Espinoza have signed new multi-year contracts with the MLS outfit.

[ MORE: Girona-Barcelona in Miami ]

Besler, 31, has appeared in more matches for Sporting than other player in club history, and the 32-year-old Zusi is not too far behind. The latter’s success since being moved to right back under Peter Vermes has been profound.

Coach Peter Vermes isn’t worried about the ages of the quartet. Sanchez is the youngest of the group at 27, but Espinoza is 31 like Besler. From KansasCity.com:

“We think all of them are in their prime,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “We just feel they have a lot of years left to give.”

While Besler hasn’t had an exceptionally strong season, the other three have been quite good for third-place KC. Zusi and Sanchez have played every league minute for the club, while Espinoza’s six assists trail only Daniel Salloi (7) on the team.

Sporting have played the fewest matches in the West, and sit four points back of the Western lead with a match-in-hand on LAFC and FC Dallas. They close the season with matches against each.

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.

Three things from the USMNT’s blowout of Panama

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The United States men’s national team now stands a result away from Russia, as Bruce Arena’s men responded with an emphatic beatdown of Panama in Orlando.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

Jozy Altidore scored twice, Christian Pulisic had a goal and an assist, and Bobby Wood also scored in the win.

Here are three matters of import from Friday’s blowout, with a trip to Trinidad and Tobago on the docket for a Tuesday match.


Pulisic

We don’t need more than one word, but will provide several more on the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund man.

Christian Pulisic has been a regular in our “3 Things” posts following Hex matches, but there’s little debating the topic now: He’s the best player on the USMNT, and not far from being the best player in CONCACAF.

The teenager has revolutionized this team and almost single-handedly saved its World Cup hopes, by extension salvaging the eight-cycle progress of the USMNT. (Of course this assumes the Yanks get the appropriate result in T&T).

The 8th minute finish was all you need to see from Pulisic, who had the calm to carry around Jaime Penedo and then slot home from a difficult and acute angle.

He’s here. And he’ll have to fall off precipitously to not become the best player in American history (Sorry, Clint).

[ WATCH: Pulisic scores | Feeds Jozy for 2-0 ]

By the way, he’s not hurt, as he told Julie Stewart-Binks on television after the match:

“I just got kicked in the calf there at the end, but I’ll be alright.”


CONCACAF killers get rest

The beauty of the Yanks’ waxing Panama is that both Pulisic and Jozy Altidore were able to leave the matches without putting in a full 90 (or even 65).

Altidore is a handful for any team in this confederation to deal with, and we’ve covered Pulisic in depth above.

The possibility of starting a similar lineup on Tuesday, with perhaps Clint Dempsey in for Bobby Wood, should go a long way toward assuring a fresh and ready road win and qualification for Russia.

Again, that’s assuming no significant let down in mentality, no “job’s done” from the gents. Right now, in the afterglow of Friday’s light show, that seems downright impossible.


It’s not over (and it wasn’t perfect)

The score line masked a fairly sloppy defensive first half. The pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler was a choice for familiarity over prowess, with Arena not starting ready and willing Geoff Cameron.

The bad news? A better finishing team punishes at least two of the errors from Gonzalez and Besler in the first half of what could’ve been 4-2 at the break.

[ MORE: U-17 World Cup Day 1 roundup ]

Besler was a warrior, and be better if paired with Geoff Cameron on Tuesday (AP Photo/John Raoux).

Gonzalez was megged by 900-year-old Blas Perez, and Besler’s twin mistakes weren’t as glaring but weren’t welcome. Granted an elbow made sure both his eyes were bandaged, but this side needs to schedule November friendlies against decent attacks to see if Matt Miazga and some of its other center back options are legit for the roster in Russia.

The chances were wide open in the first half, and it’ll be harder if those chances are handed to Kevin Molino and Joevin Jones.

The good news is that Cameron and Tim Ream are both available for Tuesday in Trinidad and Tobago, should that be Arena’s plan (he’s liked his rotation).

The better news is the desperation and energy on display from not just Pulisic and Altidore, but Paul Arriola and DeAndre Yedlin. If Michael Bradley is the cylinder in the engine of the U.S. midfield and Pulisic is the motor, then Arriola was a firing piston.

Even experienced old hats like Tim Howard were fired up for this one, and will be sure to have the men ready on Tuesday.

Is 3 the answer? Formation options for USMNT in key October battles

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The United States men’s national team controls its own destiny when it comes to World Cup qualifying, a fact that has been in its corner since the beginning of the Hex and even its 0-2 start.

Matches remain at home against Panama, the team currently occupying the final automatic spot in Russia, and on the road against Trinidad and Tobago. The Yanks drew Panama on the road and waxed T&T at home, but that was before this week’s setbacks put the U.S. under World Cup qualifying pressure it hasn’t faced in years.

[ MORE: USMNT’s World Cup scenarios ]

Even worse? A draw against stingy Panama, which has only allowed five goals in eight Hex matches, would leave the Yanks requiring a win and help in order to slide into third.

The United States has picked up just two points from its five matches against the teams ahead of it on the table, a home draw with Panama and a road point at Mexico. The Yanks have also kept just two clean sheets, and those came in 6-0 and 2-0 home wins over Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.

The biggest problem, by far, is defense. Whether set pieces, counterattacking, or even the run of play, the U.S. has allowed 11 goals in the Hex. And clean sheets against Panama have been hard to come by, with 1-1 draws in the last four competitive matches between the two.

So is the answer three at the back?

It’s a small sample size, but the U.S. looked bright in recent matches against Mexico and late in the Honduras draw when it moved to three defenders at the back. Arena used Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Geoff Cameron in the 1-1 draw at Mexico, flanking them with DaMarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin. Against Honduras, there was Cameron, Gonzalez, and Matt Besler in the middle.

[ USMNT: Recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

A 3-5-2 or even a 3-6-1 with Jozy Altidore or Bobby Wood up top would give the Yanks a plethora of midfielders, a position which has been lonely if not awful over the last two qualifiers (Alejandro Bedoya, Danny Williams, or even — gasping while ducking — Jermaine Jones would be welcome respites from the soft play of the middle section).

John Brooks’ thigh injury will keep him out of October’s qualifiers, but Yedlin should return to return Graham Zusi to backup status. Timmy Chandler continues to perform very well for Eintracht Frankfurt, but Arena has said he doesn’t want to call up players who haven’t been involved with the team. That’s problematic because he’s the one who hasn’t taken a look at the right-sided Bundesliga player, who’s had struggles in the U.S. shirt but played the third-most minutes for a mid-table German side (Might wanna look, Bruce).

Also, I believe that Arena should be forced to watch Zusi and Gonzalez on Honduras’ goal every morning when his alarm goes off and then during the final two hours before he announces his lineups for Panama and T&T.

Alas, that’s digression.

Arena loves the 4-4-2, so it seems likely three at the back remains a break glass in case of emergency tactic. But humoring the idea, would you rather have Fabian Johnson at left back — if we see Jorge Villafana again, oh my — left mid, or left wing back? To me that’s the question.

Here’s a 3-5-2:

Wood — Altidore

Johnson — Pulisic — Bradley — Bedoya — Yedlin

Besler — Cameron — Ream

Howard

And a 4-4-2:

Wood — Altidore

Pulisic
Nagbe — Arriola
Bradley

Johnson — Besler — Cameron — Yedlin

Howard

And, for fun, a 4-4-2 if Arena breaks from his routine of only using guys who’ve been in his call-ups:

Wood — Altidore

Pulisic
Chandler — Arriola
Bradley

Johnson — Besler — Cameron — Yedlin

Howard

Player ratings from the USMNT’s fortunate draw in Honduras

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The United States men’s national team nearly walked behind the 8-ball in terms of World Cup qualifying, but super sub Bobby Wood moved the Yanks’ chances of Russia closer to likelihood.

[ MORE: Honduras 1-1 USMNT | 3 things ]

Wood’s 85th minute goal, kept alive by Matt Besler and Jordan Morris, helped the Americans to an unlikely point after an insipid performance versus Honduras in a 1-1 draw at San Pedro Sula.

The Yanks will finish the international break outside the automatic qualifying places if Panama wins vs. Trinidad and Tobago later Tuesday.

How’d the men rate? Read on…

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 5 — Sometimes, the keeper is just there.

DaMarcus Beasley (Off 62′) — 5 — The left side of the defense wasn’t great, but didn’t have a quarter of the problems and miscues of the right side.

Matt Besler — 6 — The best of the U.S. backs gets a bonus point for keeping the play alive after Acosta saw his free kick parried past the back post.

Omar Gonzalez — 2 — Woeful, but saved himself from the ‘1’ we had here with a game-saving late tackle and another good intervention.

Graham Zusi (Off 63′) — 2 — Almost a laughably bad day. Can’t be pardoned for what appeared to be an extreme lack of focus on Honduras’ opener, and he was often cooked for pace.

Michael Bradley — 5 — Nothing impressive from the maestro, as he completed just eight of a astonishingly low 13 passes according to CONCACAF.

Kellyn Acosta — 5 — One of the few players to consistently show desperation, an otherwise subpar performance was mostly redeemed by his late free kick that led to the equalizer.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 73′) — 3 — After an early dribble to set up a chance, Nagbe disappeared as Honduras bodied him out of the game.

Christian Pulisic — 5 — Dealt better with the constant fouling than Nagbe, but couldn’t quite put his imprint on the game aside from an early chance stymied by Luis Lopez.

Clint Dempsey — 4 — Surprisingly, the big game player’s most noticeable moments were petulant pull backs and fouls. Not a banner night in a starting role.

Jordan Morris — 6 — Deprived of service, the Seattle Sounders man produced the best chance of the first half and received an assist for heading the ball back to Wood.

Subs

Paul Arriola (On 62′) — 6 — Worked hard down the right and put his shoulders into Honduran players. It shouldn’t have been a sight for sore eyes, but it sure was.

Geoff Cameron (On 63′) — 6 — Perhaps the best part about his introduction into the game was that Omar Gonzalez calmed the bleep down. No surprise he rebounded from Friday’s rare awful performance.

Bobby Wood (On 73′) — 7 — Scored the equalizer and came within a shoelace of getting a chance at a winner. Should’ve started.