USMNT vs Nigeria: Snapshot Preview

The USMNT may have its hands full dealing with Nigeria's Victor Moses in the middle.

The USMNT may have its hands full dealing with Nigeria’s Victor Moses in the middle.

by Roderick MacNeil

As has been the case with the entire Send-Off Series for the USMNT, the lineups are the most important thing to watch. Klinsmann’s choices against Nigeria will tell us a great deal about what we can expect to see in nine days against Ghana. Based on what we’ve seen in the Azerbaijan and Turkey matches, there’s still some experimentation occurring, and still some questions to be answered about which combinations work best. Here are the biggest spots to watch today:

Left Back: Timothy Chandler vs. DaMarcus Beasley (vs. Fabian Johnson?)

What’s clear is that Jurgen Klinsmann wants Timothy Chandler to be his starting left back. What’s not clear is whether that is going to work. Chandler hasn’t played on that side prior to the matches against Azerbaijan and Turkey, and thus far, the results are concerning. Chandler simply hasn’t looked comfortable. The amount of space Turkey found high up the field on his side was alarming. Surely no single player deserves all the blame when that happens, but it’s part of the equation when determining how certain combinations work. There are still lingering questions about Chandler’s fitness level after missing three months with a torn meniscus. He appeared to be laboring in the latter stages of the game, and was directly responsible for the turnover that led to the Turkey penalty kick.

The most likely alternative is to go back to DaMarcus Beasley, who manned that side throughout most of World Cup Qualification. This might sound odd given that Beasley is a converted midfielder, but he’s played at fullback so much for the USMNT, that at this point his presence would return a degree of stability.

Of course, the heavy use of Chandler recently might say something about Klinsmann’s degree of comfort with Beasley. The other option is to shift Fabian Johnson back over to the left side and start a player who is more accustomed to being on the right. Coincidentally, that person could be Chandler. It also could be DeAndre Yedlin, who’s gotten a solid run-out in both pre-World Cup friendlies. Yedlin seems to settle in against Turkey and may finally have shaken the obvious nerves that showed in earlier appearances. But as unpredictable as Klinsmann has been, he’s not likely to give a player his first career USMNT start at the World Cup. If he’s pondering starting Yedlin at all, we’d see it today.

If it’s Chandler on the left again, it means we’re going to see him there on June 16. Sink or swim, Klinsmann has faith it’s going to work with one more game to work the kinks out.

Left Midfield: Brad Davis vs. Alejandro Bedoya

This one feels completely up in the air. My hunch is that Bedoya has the slight edge, but it’s very close. Bedoya offers a bit more creativity and versatility, but Davis is a better defender and set piece specialist. It’s really a matter of what Klinsmann prefers. Of course the decision at left back directly impacts the one at left midfield. Klinsmann speaks of how one change impacts several other positions, and that can’t be overlooked. Davis and Bedoya have very limited experience playing with Chandler at all, let alone during this experiment on the left side. How each player communicates and interchanges with Chandler is critical. A lack of familiarity could pose big problems in Brazil. This is an important position to get right, err, left.

The Middle: Paging Kyle Beckerman

Another glaring issue is the ability of the central midfield to maintain contact with the central defense. There’s been a lot of talk about the diamond midfield and specific concern about Jermaine Jones staying deep enough for it to work. Klinsmann has downplayed the importance of formations, particularly the diamond. According to him, the system is to supposed to play like a diamond going forward, but flatten out in defense. What that means is a whole lot of responsibility for Michael Bradley to get up and down the field. If anyone’s got the fitness to pull that off, it’s Bradley, but what we saw against Turkey was acres of space to operate in front of goal, and a central defense often sent scrambling. Jermaine Jones arrived to make several goal-saving blocks and clearances, but his services shouldn’t be required in that capacity nearly as often as we saw on Sunday.

One possible solution is reexamining the use of Kyle Beckerman. This can take place in more than one form. The first is the possibility of a straight one-for-one swap for Jones. We all remember how effective the Bradley-Beckerman combination was against Mexico in April. Beckerman was a steady presence in both the Gold Cup and during qualification when Jones wasn’t available. He’s more than proven himself a viable option.

There’s little question that Klinsmann’s ideal first choice is Jones. That famous “spine”, as declared by Klinsmann, has always included Jones in the middle. But if there are problems with his effectiveness when relying upon Bradley as an attacking midfielder, that combination needs to be reconsidered. Beckerman offers superior distribution and greater range in defensive cover. Jones brings a physical presence both on the ground and in the air that no one else on the USMNT roster can match.

The outside-the-box answer is to consider shifting to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with both Jones and Beckerman at CDM, and relieve some of the defensive burden on an attacking Bradley. The result would be improved possession in the midfield, as well as narrowing the gaps against Group G opposition that can exploit the diamond by overflooding the midfield. This also allows the fullbacks to get forward without putting too much pressure on the wingers to support on the counterattack. The tradeoff is removing a wide attacking player like Bedoya or Davis for what Beckerman provides in the middle. It would be a change of pace for Klinsmann, but it’s one worth considering.

 

The Skinny on Nigeria:

  • Reigning African Champions: Winners of Africa Cup of Nations 1980, 1994, 2013
  • Have qualified 5 of last 6 World Cups, only missing in 2006
  • Group winner in first 2 WC appearances (1994 & 1998)
  • Finished last in group last 2 WC appearances (2002 & 2010)
  • Have never won a match in the Knockout Rounds
  • Current FIFA ranking: 45
  • Peak FIFA ranking: 5 (April 1994)
  • Only 1 prior meeting between USA and Nigeria: June 1995 Friendly, Foxboro, MA, USA Won 3-2
  • Will play in Group D vs. Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran
  • U.S. coach Klinsmann chose to play Nigeria because he views them as playing a similar style to Ghana, particular the way its front 5-6 players line up.

 

Project USMNT Lineup:

GK: Howard

D: Johnson, Cameron, Besler, Chandler

M: Zusi, Jones, Bradley, Bedoya

F: Dempsey, Altidore

The United States kicks off vs. Nigeria at 6:00 pm ET, Saturday, June 7 at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, FL (ESPN2, UniMas, WatchESPN).

USMNT vs. Azerbaijan: Your One-Stop Complete Preview & Scouting Report

One of these two teams will face the USMNT on May 27 in San Francisco.

One of these two teams will face the USMNT on May 27 in San Francisco. We provide some clarification.

by Roderick MacNeil

Azerbaijan, Land of Fire.

I’ve got to admit, that sounds pretty darned exciting. The slogan is emblazoned across the chests of players at Atletico Madrid, the new reigning champions of La Liga in Spain. The phrase stirs intrigue, mystery, maybe a touch of fear of the unknown. It evokes fantastical images of a place brimming with active volcanoes, their eruptions dotting the visible landscape. Is there fire in the sky, perhaps danger in the air?

A tourist risks approaching a deadly mud volcano in Azerbaijan.

A tourist encounters a dangerous mud volcano somewhere in Azerbaijan.

Alas, the terrain of the real Azerbaijan is a bit more tame. Oh, there are plenty of volcanoes, but it’s more commonly known for its “mud volcanoes” than the ones that spew fiery molten lava. Mud volcanoes still seem like a cool thing, but perhaps a letdown if you’re envisioning towers of fire.

I don’t know much about the nation of Azerbaijan. I can locate it on a map. I can tell you its capital (Baku), identify its flag, and even offer a snippet or two on its semi-recent political history as a former Soviet Republic. Maybe that’s more than the average American can do.

When it comes to the Azerbaijan national soccer team, I know even less. (Well, at least that was the case before I prepared to write this article.) Even amongst the most educated fans of the game in this part of the world, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has ever seen the team play, let alone anyone who could name a single player on its roster.

More confusingly, as alluded to above, the most recognizable soccer team in the world that bears jerseys reading “AZERBAIJAN” across the front is not, in fact, Azerbaijan. That would be the aforementioned Spanish professional club Atletico Madrid, which has a multi-year sponsorship agreement that promotes tourism to Azerbaijan. The club’s recent run to the UEFA Champions League final has done its part to bring greater notoriety to the small Caspian Sea nation.

On Tuesday night at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the USMNT begins its pre-World Cup “Send Off Series” with an International Friendly against the actual national team of Azerbaijan. The match features perhaps the unlikeliest pair of opponents you can find on the schedule. Perhaps it’s perversely fitting that this oddball matchup is being held at venue set for demolition in a matter of months.

Berti Vogts and Jurgen Klinsmann in a 1997 German training session. (RTR Photo)

Berti Vogts and Jurgen Klinsmann in a 1997 German training session. (RTR Photo)

Why Azerbaijan? The connection begins and ends with Berti Vogts, the team’s head coach since 2008. Vogts and USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann  have a long history together. Vogts coached the German national team from 1990-98, a period coinciding with the last 8 years of Klinsmann’s international career, most notably winning the 1996 European Championship together.

Less than two months ago, Klinsmann named Vogts as special assistant to the U.S. national team. Interestingly, Vogts brings very specific recent coaching experience against each of the USMNT’s upcoming Group G opponents. During his tenure with Azerbaijan, his team faced Portugal twice during 2014 World Cup Qualification, and faced Germany twice during Euro 2012 Qualification. Additionally, prior to taking the Azarbaijan job, Vogts served a short stint as Nigeria’s head coach, during which time he managed against Ghana in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations.

Klinsmann’s hope is that Vogts’ firsthand knowledge will be useful in preparing his own team for Brazil. So an arrangement was worked out with the Azerbaijan federation; Vogts will advise Klinsmann and serve as a key scout for the U.S. ahead of this summer’s World Cup, but will remain as head coach of Azerbaijan, including coaching the team against the USMNT Tuesday night. The scheduling of the match was a bargaining chip in the agreement between the two national sides.

From a U.S. perspective, Azerbaijan is a blip on the upcoming schedule; a relative minnow in the soccer world, a mere warm-up before moving on to face the more accomplished national squads of Turkey and Nigeria. For the Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, this match is a massive opportunity against a highly ranked opponent.

Azerbaijan has never qualified for a major championship in its brief 23-year history as an independent nation. It has never reached a World Cup nor a European Championship, so its infrequent clashes with teams as strong as the United States are big events across this small Caucacus nation.

Things are looking up for the “Milli” (translation: “The National Team”), as they’re affectionately called by their home supporters. Under the direction of Berti Vogts, Azerbaijan has achieved its highest FIFA ranking ever, up to 85th in the May 2014 edition. Occupying a spot in the top half of the (currently) 209-member list is only a very recently achieved milestone.

Azerbaijan collected respectable results during 2014 World Cup Qualifying. Drawn into a group with Russia, Portugal, Israel, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg, the team finished fourth, earning 9 points in 10 matches with a 1-6-3 record. More impressive was the defensive prowess displayed in only surrendering a total of 11 goals. Perhaps unsurprising for a team coached by Vogts, who first made his name as a standout defender, helping lead West Germany to the 1974 World Cup title, as well as winning 5 Bundesliga titles with Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Vagif Javadov can beat you if you let him. Just ask Russia.

Vagif Javadov can beat you if you let him. Just ask Russia.

The signature WCQ result for Azerbaijan came in the group stage finale against eventual group winner Russia. Despite falling behind early 1:0 and playing with ten men after a 73rd minute red card, the Milli weathered the storm from its neighboring powerhouse and stayed within a goal. The Russian defense was caught ball-watching on a 90th minute free kick, when forward Vagif Javadov connected a header off a looping cross into the box, finding the back of the net, tying the match and sending the home crowd into delirium.

Even Ronaldo couldn't score against Azerbaijan.

A frustrated Ronaldo couldn’t score against Azerbaijan.

Also of note: in the two matches against Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo did not score. In fairness, he missed one match due to suspension. But in the return match, Azerbaijan held Portugal scoreless for 65 minutes before the deadlock was broken. Two late goals stretched the final margin to 3:0, but the 2013 Ballon D’Or winner never broke through. If Vogts helped find a way for Azerbaijan to contain Ronaldo, surely there’s hope for a successful American game plan.

Azerbaijan’s defensive success hasn’t come without a fair dose of aggression. Too often, that aggression has gone too far and crossed the line into violent play. During the 2014 WCQ group stage, Azerbaijan was punished with 3 red cards in 10 games. Something for the USMNT to beware of; the Azerbaijanis will be ramped up for this game, and there’s a track record of being unable to keep those emotions under proper control. Escaping this match injury-free will be one of the most desirable outcomes for Klinsmann’s team.

Azerbaijan’s roster is primarily one drawn from its top domestic league, the Azerbaijan Premier League. UEFA’s coefficient currently ranks it 32nd out of 54 European leagues. It’s obviously quite far behind the level of the top leagues, but slowly and steadily creeping up the pecking order.

Team captain Rashad Sadygov is Azerbaijan’s most capped player in the team’s history. Still in his prime at age 31, he’s the backbone in central defense. Sadygov has had two ill-fated stints with clubs in the more prestigious Turkish Super Lig, one of which was due to injury. One strange note to his career: He spent the 2006 season playing for a local pro basketball club in order to stay fit, after somehow missing a registration deadline to be remain eligible for soccer.

Forward Vagif Javadov isn’t an internationally recognized player by any means, but he did once sign a long-term contract with FC Twente of the Dutch Eredivisie. Unfortunately, injuries ended that dream before he made a single appearance in Holland. He later signed with Volga of the Russian Premier League, only to return to Azerbaijan after a half-season with zero goals. Still just 25 years old, Javadov is a bit of a cult hero at home in Azerbaijan. Not only did he score the dramatic tying goal against Russia last year, but he managed the exact same feat in a 1:1 draw against Russia during 2010 World Cup Qualification. With 9 international goals, he is Azerbaijan’s active career leader.

Bursting on the scene more recently is young forward Rufat Dadashov. At 22, Dadashov is one of the few Azerbaijani players playing professionally in a foreign league. He’s currently with 1. FC Kaiserslautern II, the reserve side for a parent club that has spent most of its history in the German Bundesliga. Dadashov has scored four international goals over the past year with just 11 caps to his name. Azerbaijan has only scored 12 total goals as a team during that time.

Another playing generating much excitement locally is Elvin Yunuszade. The 21-year-old center back made his senior team debut just two months ago in a friendly vs. the Philippines. He celebrated that occasion by scoring the winning goal. That performance was rewarded with a second call-up and a trip to California to face the United States.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s midfielder Ruslan Abishov, who almost by default is considered Azerbaijan’s best player. Abishov lines up primarily as a defender for Rubin Kazan of the Russian Premier League, and is the only Azerbaijani player at a high profile club outside of Azerbaijan. Playing for a club that regularly appears in UEFA Champions League pretty strongly trumps all other claims. Vogts has typically deployed Abishov as defensive midfielder, where his creative ability proves more useful in jumpstarting Azerbaijan’s limited attacking prowess.

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijanis are also busy preparing for their next challenge: Euro 2016 Qualification. The expanded 24-team format raises new hope for a smaller footballing nation like Azerbaijan. Its Group H qualifying mates are Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria and Malta. The top two will qualify directly, with the third place finisher entering a playoff round. Attaining that third spot will be Azerbaijan’s big 2016 dream.

It’s a daunting task, but the 2014 WCQ campaign leaves reason for optimism. Surely Italy and Croatia live in a different stratosphere. The others? Well, perhaps now more reachable than ever. Malta is an eternal minnow. Once-proud Bulgaria has been on the decline, last week even drawing 1:1 with lowly Canada, a team that only scored 1 goal in all of 2013. Norway is another team headed in the wrong direction, falling as low as 60th in recent FIFA rankings, barely edging out Albania for 4th place in its 2014 WCQ group. All things considered, Azerbaijan has good reason to be bullish on its soccer future.

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So what does this all mean for the USMNT heading into Tuesday night? In truth, not a whole lot. It’s a game the Americans are expected to win, and win handily. Azerbaijan struggles to create quality scoring chances, but like any club that packs numbers defensively, is dangerous on the counterattack. It’ll be a good test of the USMNT’s back line organization, since we’re all but certain to see a foursome that hasn’t played together as a unit. As a team, disciplined marking on set pieces must be consistent. Even against a team with the limited attacking capabilities of Azerbaijan, a momentary lapse can lead to disaster.

Remain calm and patient against that Azerbaijan defense, Clint & Jozy. The goals will come.

Remain calm and patient against that tightly packed Azerbaijan defense, guys. The goals will come.

On the offensive side of the ball, patience will be tested. If the game goes to halftime scoreless, it’s important that Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore don’t get frustrated and take unnecessary yellow cards. The chances will continue to come, but it might take a while to find the breakthrough.

The end result for the USMNT matters much less in this game than the overall quality of play. There will be players in the starting XI who haven’t played competitive matches together before. This game represents a perfect opportunity to gain that familiarity, and for coaches to recognize quickly if certain combinations aren’t working. For example, if Timothy Chandler starts at right back, how quickly does he develop an understanding playing behind Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya?

At minimum, it would be a disappointment if the U.S. fails to keep a clean sheet. This team also has the attacking talent to find the holes in the Azerbaijan defense. If the patience is there to find the first goal, the second and third ones should quickly follow.

Jurgen Klinsmann has proven himself unpredictable with his choices for the 23-man roster. Projecting a starting lineup in this match might be futile, but I’ll give it a whirl nonetheless. The goalkeeper and forwards are easy calls. The rest is anyone’s guess. Here’s mine:

GK: Tim Howard

D: Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley

M: Graham Zusi, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya

F: Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore

Johnson has been playing exclusively on defense during camp so far, mostly on the right side. That’s exactly where he played the latter portion of the Bundesliga season with Hoffenheim, so I see Klinsmann giving him a run out there. Omar Gonzalez may not have quite lost the starting CB job, but he’s also still not 100% recovered from a recent knee injury. Cameron’s been playing CB in camp and that’s where Klinsmann prefers him. I could easily see Bedoya on the right wing over Zusi; it’s close, but Bedoya’s greater versatility allows him to switch to the left. Kyle Beckerman has been impressive and looked great partnering with Bradley against Mexico, but remember that Jermaine Jones is part of Klinsmann’s so-called “spine.” I think Jones still gets the starting nod.

There may not be any broad conclusions to be drawn from the lineup choices to start this game. We’ll be able to tell a lot more when we see how those choices change next Sunday against Turkey.

The United States kicks off against Azerbaijan on Tuesday night, May 27, 10:00 ET, ESPN2, UniMas, WatchESPN.

Klinsmann’s ‘Youth Movement’: Four Players Age 31+ Make World Cup Debuts

2014 USMNT Roster: Youth Will Be Served?

2014 USMNT Roster: Youth Will Be Served?

by Roderick MacNeil

Landon Donovan, at age 32, widely considered to be the greatest soccer player in American history, is out of the 2014 World Cup.

Julian Green (age 18), DeAndre Yedlin (age 20) and John Brooks (age 21) have all been named to Jurgen Klinsmann’s Final 23-man Roster.

The popular narrative goes something like this: Klinsmann’s decision indicate a clear “youth movement.” The coach’s star recruit, Green, has supplanted the legendary Donovan, with an eye as much, if not more so, toward Russia 2018 as Brazil 2014. The old guard is on the way out, the kids are taking over.

Except that narrative is woefully misguided.

A more honest look at the full roster reveals a trend in direct conflict with that gross oversimplification. Klinsmann has selected four (FOUR!) players over the age of 31 that will be appearing in their first World Cups. All four have spent their entire professional careers in Major League Soccer:

1. Chris Wondolowski, 31, Forward (San Jose Earthquakes)
2. Brad Davis, 32, Midfielder (Houston Dynamo)
3. Kyle Beckerman, 32, Midfielder (Real Salt Lake)
4. Nick Rimando, 34, Goalkeeper (Real Salt Lake)

That’s a rather interesting method of engineering a youth movement.

Much of the roster-aftermath discussion has centered on the selection of Green contrasted against the omission of Donovan. The inconvenient truth with this comparison is that several of the “older” players listed above were in direct competition with Donovan for roster positions.

Brad Davis is a player who slots almost exclusively at left midfield. In the Klinsmann era, Donovan has most often lined up as a wide midfielder, usually on the left. It’s not easily forgotten that Davis started ahead of Donovan in the USMNT’s last match, just six weeks ago vs. Mexico. It’s been well documented that Davis offers quality left-footed set piece service, and there’s little debate that Davis is a more active and effective defensive player than Donovan at this point in their respective careers.

Then there’s Chris Wondolowski. On the preliminary 30-man roster, Donovan was listed as a forward. Klinsmann has made statements supporting this revised view of Donovan as a forward. The implication is clear: in Klinsmann’s view, Donovan no longer has the pace to function as a winger in his system, which features fullbacks charging forward aggressively, while requiring significant defensive cover and pace from the overlapped wingers. As a forward, Donovan wouldn’t be a potential defensive liability. If these decisions were based on a complete body of work, Donovan clearly trumps Wondo, no contest. That’s not the case for Klinsmann, so Wondo got the nod.

Need more evidence that these decisions aren’t all about youth? Again we look to Mr. Wondolowski. Lost in the hubbub over the Donovan decision is the fact that Wondo was also selected ahead of the hottest goalscorer on the preliminary roster. That would be 23-year-old Terrence Boyd, who just completed a 20-goal season with Rapid Vienna, included a run of 6 goals in his last 4 matches. Boyd will be in the mix for 2018. Wondo most assuredly won’t be. Yet Klinsmann chose the much older forward, the one he prefers for right now.

What about 23-year-old Joe Corona? Nope, no room on this roster for him either. But the midfield contingent does include the afforementioned Davis, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones. All are age 32.

How about the goalkeeping corps? Tim Howard, at age 35, has confirmed this will be his last World Cup. Nick Rimando is headed to Brazil as the third string keeper. The chances he sees even a minute of action in this World Cup are next to nil. At age 34, it’s fair to say the same about any future World Cup for Rimando. But rather than bring along a younger keeper, perhaps Sean Johnson (24) or Bill Hamid (23), who have both received frequent call-ups during Klinsmann’s tenure, the choice this summer is Rimando. He’s on the plane because he’s proven he is currently the third best keeper available, regardless of how he projects for the next cycle.

There’s no denying that the selections of Green, Yedlin and Brooks represent bold, and to various extents, surprising choices. With a combined 6 caps between them, they are all relatively unknown quantities to USMNT fans. But they are on this team because Klinsmann believes they give the United States the best chance for success next month, not 48 months from now. Whether he’s right remains to be seen.

Bringing along too much youth and inexperience may yet prove to be part of Klinsmann’s madness. But it’s most definitely not his method. He knows there are no throwaway World Cups.

Thirty Minus Seven: USMNT World Cup Roster Battles

Seven of these faces won't be smiling on June 2.

Seven of these faces won’t be smiling on June 2.

by Roderick MacNeil

Jurgen Klinsmann’s much anticipated 30-man Preliminary Roster, unveiled earlier this week, has convened in Northern California for an extended pre-World Cup training camp. From that exclusive group, only 23 will emerge to make the Final Roster.

There were some surprises in the 30-man group: Defender Timothy Chandler, who hasn’t appeared in a USMNT match since February 2013, and midfielder Joe Corona, who hasn’t seen the field since an August 2013 substitute appearance vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, both add intrigue and deepen the competition in training camp.

The most notable omission by far was Eddie Johnson, who was the team’s second-leading goalscorer throughout World Cup Qualifying. His absence may provide clues about other players’ chances at the final roster. More on that later. Others that figured prominently in qualifying that missed the cut: midfielders Sacha Kljestan and Brek Shea, defender Michael Orozco, along with the recently surging forward Juan Agudelo.

The final selections also featured a nod towards youth, as 18-year-old Julian Green, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, and 21-year-old John Brooks all made the first cut.

Another significant group in camp: a trio of players who returned to Major League Soccer with the explicit purpose of improving their chances at making the World Cup: Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst and Clarence Goodson. So far, so good, for all three.

With all this in mind, let’s break down the roster and locate key positional battles that will determine who goes home on June 2, and who finds a seat on the plane to Sao Paulo:

LOCKS

First let’s get the automatic rock-solid locks out of the way. These are players believed, barring injury, to be virtually assured (>90% likely) of a place on the final 23-man World Cup roster. Jurgen Klinsmann hasn’t given any assurances, but I’ll give them mine. Any of these players being left off the final roster would be an utterly shocking development. Fifteen (15) Players fall into this category. Goalkeepers are in ranked order; the rest in alphabetical order by primary USMNT roster position:

Goalkeepers:
1. Tim Howard (Everton) – The unquestioned starter in goal, Howard’s leadership & experience are invaluable.
2. Brad Guzan (Aston Villa) – Ready to step in if called upon, Guzan’s time will come soon enough.
3. Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake) – The best MLS has to offer, reaches his first World Cup at age 34.

Defenders:
4. DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla FC) – A fixture at left back throughout qualifying, a key veteran presence and likely starter.
5. Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) – After Howard & Bradley, perhaps the most secure member of the Starting XI. Besler’s been very impressive.
6. Geoff Cameron (Stoke City) – Starter or substitute, defense or midfield, Cameron will play a role.
7. Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy) – Apparent starter, needs to show more, but his place is not in doubt.
8. Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim 1899) – Potential starter in at least three different positions; will see plenty of minutes.

Midfielders:
9. Alejandro Bedoya (FC Nantes) – A Klinsmann favorite, will be among the first off the bench.
10. Michael Bradley (Toronto FC) – The engine, the key to it all. USMNT success demands a strong Bradley World Cup.
11. Jermaine Jones (Besiktas) – Part of JK’s “spine,” a starting role in central midfield is his to lose.
12. Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City) – Pencil him into the starting right midfield role. Nah, write it in ink.

Forwards:
13. Jozy Altidore (Sunderland) – Clean slate after a rough EPL campaign. He’s the man up top, and rightfully so.
14. Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC) – Remember when people were worried about Clint Dempsey?
15. Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy) – Looking like less the guaranteed starter once thought, but he’s too valuable to leave home. Still a difference maker.

 

FAVORITES

The next group of players are those believed very likely (>75%) to make the final roster.  Some are nearer to the “Lock” category than others. The omission of any of these players would be unexpected, but perhaps not entirely shocking. Three (3) players fall into this category, again, listed alphabetically by position:

Defender:
16. Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes) – As near to the “Lock” category as could be. Center back depth is thin and he’s been a consistent part of the rotation. If John Brooks were ready, Goodson might be looking over his shoulder. Not yet.

Midfielder:
17. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake) – Impressed in extended starting minutes in both the Gold Cup and numerous friendlies; has earned JK’s confidence. Maurice Edu will push him, but not enough to threaten his place on the roster.

Forward:
18. Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar) – Conventional wisdom says he’s a lock. I’m not convinced the separation he’s created on the depth chart is as large as most observers believe. Still, he would be a surprising exclusion. The effort to get AJ to switch from Iceland to the U.S. had 2014 well in mind.

 

PROBABLES

These are the players who are in strong position (>60% likely) to make the final roster, but still face substantial competition in training camp. The exclusion of these players would be somewhat unexpected, but still entirely possible. Two (2) players fall into this category:

Defenders:

19. Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC) – Klinsmann’s first choice right back for nearly a full year now. He’s going to Brazil and probably starts. Increased competition in camp raises some eyebrows, but he’ll get the nod. The argument against Evans typically boils down to this: He plays in MLS (in contrast to competitors in the EPL & Bundesliga) and he plays midfield for his club. Yet those two facts are not a problem to Klinsmann. Then consider this fact: Ever since Evans’ first USMNT start (last June vs. Germany), Klinsmann has never selected another player ahead of a healthy Evans. That’s not a band-aid solution, it’s a clear preference.

20. Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew) – Versatile, experienced, and has featured regularly. He brings too much to the table to ignore. He can play anywhere across the back line. On a roster that values players who can play different positions, Parkhurst has a place.

 

BUBBLES

These are the last few players on the Final 23-man Roster. They are only slightly better than 50% likely to make the cut. The exclusion of any of these players would not be greatly surprising, as the competition is close with those on the wrong side of the bubble. Three (3) players fall into this category:

Midfielders:

21. Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg BK) – Makes the roster largely based upon the lack of depth at his position, despite concerns over reduced club minutes in Norway. However, there’s a glaring need for a player capable of backing up Michael Bradley. Mix isn’t truly the ideal answer, but he’s been serviceable and is the best suited of any player on the roster to step in and provide a creative presence. He’ll be pushed by Joe Corona in camp, but there’s a reason why Diskerud has been such a consistent call-up under Klinsmann. I’ve been down on Mix lately, but it’s become increasingly clear that he fills an important need.

22. Julian Green (Bayern Munich II) – The effort to land Green *now* wasn’t for naught. He’s going to the World Cup barring a disastrous camp. Perhaps he was unofficially promised a roster spot, perhaps not. What we do know is that Green possesses a skill set that no one else in the current player pool can replicate. He’s far from a finished product, but his talent is significant enough to be a difference maker in Brazil, even as a substitute. The team will benefit both now and in the future by having him around this summer.

Forward:

23. Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna) – Boyd’s World Cup chances were left for dead a couple of months ago, and I didn’t disagree at the time. Three significant developments have since changed the equation in Boyd’s favor: 1) First and foremost, he elevated his level of club play tremendously, scoring 6 times in his last 4 games, totaling 20 on the season; 2) The elimination of Eddie Johnson from the roster leaves Boyd as the most likely backup to Jozy Altidore: a target forward who utilizes his size and strength to maintain possession, and whose presence occupies defenders and opens up space for Clint Dempsey & Co.; 3) Landon Donovan, viewed as a forward, marginalizes the value of Chris Wondolowski. If Donovan isn’t a starter and your need off the bench is a poacher who can score goals with savviness and smart positioning, then Donovan is always your choice over Wondo. Therefore, Boyd’s skill set is a more valuable and distinct asset, and Wondolowski is unfortunately out.

 

CUTS

These players are less than 50% likely to make it to Brazil. Nearly all are in close battles to make the final roster. Seven (7) players fall in this category, and thusly, are the ones I expect to be sent home on June 2:

24. Chris Wondolowski, Forward (San Jose Earthquakes) – Wondo is probably the most difficult cut to make. You could easily argue that he’s earned a spot, and it seems he’s done everything asked of him. He’s scored goals consistently for both club and country, the latter of which isn’t something that fellow forwards Johannsson and Boyd can claim. Nonetheless, the roster calculus works against him, as pointed out above regarding Terrence Boyd.

25. Maurice Edu, Midfielder (Philadelphia Union) – His return to MLS has done wonders for his candidacy to even make it this far. He needs a strong camp and could certainly impress enough to edge somebody out. Unfortunately for Edu, it looks like that person would have to be Kyle Beckerman, who at this point is downright entrenched in the midfield rotation. Edu’s versatility is a plus; he can slide into central defense if called upon, but that’s not a large enough need to punch his ticket. He’s third on the depth chart at CDM, and there are already five others on the roster who can play center back. It’d be great to have Mo around, but there just isn’t room.

26. Timothy Chandler, Defender (FC Nurnberg) -This is also among the more difficult cuts. Chandler has a cult following among USMNT supporters, and with good reason. He’s a regular starter at a Bundesliga club, and as an attacking fullback with speed, is probably the ideal fit for Jurgen Klinsmann’s style of play. If only it were that simple. Chandler hasn’t made an appearance with the national team in over 15 months. Regardless of the reasons, it’s difficult to insert a player into your lineup into such an important position at this late a date who hasn’t been part of your team for so long. There are also injury concerns. Chandler just returned from a torn meniscus suffered in February. A year ago he tore a knee ligament. Is he reliably healthy enough to take up a valuable roster spot? I view Chandler’s 2014 candidacy as one of hope, but not one of reality.

27. Brad Davis, Midfielder (Houston Dynamo) – If the roster had room for a specialist, I’d take Brad Davis in a heartbeat. You can’t mention his name without including a reference to his left foot and quality set piece service. That’s not enough to get him to Brazil. Whether it’s Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley or Landon Donovan on the ball, I’m comfortable that set pieces are in good hands. The clincher in Davis’s exclusion is the arrival of Julian Green. If Green is going, Davis is not. There isn’t room for both.

28. Joe Corona, Midfielder (Club Tijuana) – Corona’s path to the final roster comes via beating out Mix Diskerud. If Mix comes in and has a poor camp, there’s an opportunity for Corona. If total appearances and minutes over the past year are an indication of Klinsmann’s preference, you would conclude Diskerud is higher on the depth chart, and there isn’t much recent evidence to suggest Corona’s been able to change that. I’m left with the impression that Corona is here to provide some level of competition, but that it’s Diskerud’s spot to lose.

29. DeAndre Yedlin, Defender (Seattle Sounders FC) – I don’t subscribe to the theory that Yedlin is just here for the experience with a look towards 2018. Certainly that’s a side benefit, but make no mistake, Yedlin is here because Klinsmann believes he can win a roster spot. That said, he seems a long shot this time around. There’s an argument to be made that Yedlin’s speed, youth and fitness could prove valuable off the bench, particularly in the high humidity expected in Manaus. The image of him chasing down Cristiano Ronaldo is an intriguing one, to be sure. Yedlin’s game is deeper than that and has evolved considerably since making his MLS debut, but the sense here is that 2014 isn’t his time yet. He’d likely have to beat out both Brad Evans and Timothy Chandler and he only plays one position (so far?), so that’s hard to foresee. His time is soon, but not now.

30. John Brooks, Defender (Hertha Berlin) – Brooks is another player I wrote off in March after a dismal performance against Ukraine. A return to regular starting club minutes, and more importantly, an impressive level of play, earned Brooks an invitation to camp. “Potential” is still the most apt word that comes to mind with Brooks, as he’s a player that projects to be a fixture of the USMNT central defense for many years to come. But it would still take an extraordinarily dominant camp performance to make the final roster. There’s a lot to like about Brooks’ game, but it’s still difficult to feel comfortable depending on him at the international level, much less against the likes of Portugal and Germany.

 

One thing is very clear looking at this 30-man roster, along with the players who didn’t make it to Stanford: Jurgen Klinsmann has succeeded in cultivating a deeper pool of players than the USMNT has ever seen before. The competition at each position is strong, and that can only be a good thing going forward. Whichever 23 men suit up this summer, each one will have earned his spot. There are many legitimate concerns to discuss ahead of this year’s World Cup, but complacency is not among them.

 

 

 

 

 

Jozy Altidore Earns Game-Winning Penalty Kick for Sunderland

by Roderick MacNeil

Jozy Altidore goes down on the game-winning PK call Saturday against Chelsea (Mike Hewitt - Getty Images)

Jozy Altidore goes down on the game-winning PK call against Chelsea (Mike Hewitt – Getty Images)

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Jozy Altidore at Sunderland?

Saturday at Stamford Bridge, the beleaguered USMNT striker played the hero against Chelsea, earning a decisive penalty kick in the 81st minute. The resulting goal put Sunderland ahead 2:1, and the Black Cats held on for a massive upset over the title-chasing Blues. It also gives great hope for cellar-dweller Sunderland to survive relegation.

The penalty call was not without controversy. The sequence began with Altidore intercepting an errant ball just a few yards outside the 18-yard box. He took a few touches toward goal with Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta pursuing closely. Azpilicueta went to ground in a slide-tackling motion and Altidore quickly hit the floor as well. Slow-motion replays showed no clear contact initiated by the defender. Altidore appeared to go down easily, while his left leg ended up on top of the defender’s foot as he fell. From the angle the play was viewed by the official, it’s easy to see how a foul could be called. In truth it was a dubious call at the very best.

Outrage followed on the Chelsea sideline. Assistant coach Rui Faria had to be physically restrained by Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho and others to keep him from confronting head referee Mike Dean. Faria was ejected from the sideline and escorted down the tunnel before order was restored.

Altidore entered the match as a substitute in the 66th minute. It marked his first appearance in a Premier League match for Sunderland since March 26. He was left off the game day roster entirely for two consecutive matches, including one week suffering the indignity of an assignment to the club’s U-21 side. Three days ago Altidore was an unused substitute in a 2:2 draw at Manchester City.

For Chelsea, the loss was a shocking and devastating blow to its Premier League title hopes. They could potentially drop five points behind first-place Liverpool ahead of the showdown between the two clubs next week at Anfield. Liverpool plays Sunday at Norwich City.

Sunderland now finds itself with emboldened hopes of avoiding relegation from the Premier League. Despite still sitting at the bottom of the table, the club is a mere three points below the drop zone. The remaining schedule also seems to favor Sunderland.

The Black Cats have three remaining home matches against Cardiff City, West Brom and Swansea City, along with a single away fixture at Manchester United. Meanwhile, fellow relegation-battler Norwich City faces the very real prospect of not earning another point the rest of the season, with a daunting schedule: home vs. Liverpool, at Manchester United, at Chelsea, home vs. Arsenal. Even a surprise draw or two would likely prove insufficient for Norwich.

More importantly for the United States Men’s National Team, there are signs of life from Jozy Altidore. First of all, just the fact that he got the field is a huge step in the right direction. Entering with the scored tied in such a critical match shows that he’s slowly regaining the trust of Sunderland manager Gus Poyet. Even better is that Altidore made good use of the minutes he spent on the pitch. He was active and involved, causing problems for the Chelsea defense. In addition to the key turnover leading to the PK call, Altidore found himself in dangerous positions on several occasions. He also showed flashes of the quality holdup play that has been so effective in USMNT matches.

There’s still plenty of reason to be concerned about Altidore’s longer term future at Sunderland. Whether Sunderland survives relegation will play a big part in answering those questions. But in the short term leading up to the 2014 World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann has to be pleased to see Altidore getting minutes again. A productive appearance today could bode well for Altidore’s playing time in the final weeks of the Premier League season.

Sunderland next plays on Sunday, April 27 at home in a massive relegation battle vs. Cardiff City.

The Jozy Altidore Problem

by Roderick MacNeil

Jozy Altidore's struggles are an ongoing concern for the USMNT. (Getty Images)

Jozy Altidore’s struggles are an ongoing concern for the USMNT. (Getty Images)

USMNT Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has a problem on his hands. His top striker, the man who lines up atop the self-defined “spine” of his team, is not only not scoring goals with his club, he’s now not even making the bench.

The concern over Jozy Altidore continues to mount. For the second consecutive week Altidore was left off Sunderland’s game day roster by manager Gus Poyet. A week ago Altidore suffered the indignity of being assigned to Sunderland’s U-21 squad. His scoring drought continued through that match as well.

Officially, the Barclays Premier League website lists Altidore among Sunderland’s  “Injured Players.” Without details provided or any trace of an explanation forthcoming, skepticism reigns.

Poyet attempted to downplay the U-21 assignment earlier this week. “He’s a professional, and I’m sure it was difficult for him – the Under-21 game was at the Stadium of Light, and we were playing on the same night,” said Poyet. “But it wasn’t a punishment – there was a reason behind it. There were a few players who needed a game – Ondrej Celustka and company. It was all nicely prepared, and it wasn’t for any other reason. It’s the sort of decision you have to make in this job.”

Spin it however you like, but for a player of Altidore’s stature, it was a humiliating demotion. He’s the starting striker for his national team, he led the Eredivisie in scoring a year ago, and is currently among the highest paid players at his club, having arrived on a $13M transfer fee last summer.

Altidore was expected to be a major part of Sunderland’s attack this season. Instead, he’s only scored one Premier League goal and has been in and out of the lineup all season.

What does this mean for Klinsmann and the USMNT? Klinsmann has long emphasized the importance of his players getting consistent minutes with their clubs, and of course, playing well during those minutes. Altidore is doing neither currently, and its become a fair question whether he’ll play again for Sunderland this season at all. Perhaps a post-World Cup change of scenery is in Altidore’s future, but that’s not solving any immediate USMNT problems for either him or Klinsmann. For all practical purposes, it’s too late to secure a loan anywhere to get more pre-World Cup playing time.

Meanwhile, Aron Johannsson continues to pile on the goals in the Netherlands. He’s coincidentally doing so with the same club (AZ Alkmaar) that Altidore scored 31 goals with a year ago when the two players were teammates. Johannsson’s experience at the international level is minimal, but at what point does current form trump experience?

Regardless of where you choose to assign blame for Altidore’s struggles at Sunderland, the end result is that he’s a striker lacking confidence at the present time. If he doesn’t have opportunity to change that before the end of the Premier League season, which version of Altidore is going to arrive at USMNT camp in May?

The optimist will believe that he can flip a switch and continue the goal-scoring success he had during World Cup Qualifying in 2013. It may seem like just yesterday he was scoring a hat trick against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo. That was actually eight months ago, before he ever appeared in match wearing a Sunderland kit.

Altidore remains a critical player for the USMNT’s chances in Brazil. It’s clear that Klinsmann puts a lot of trust in him, and it’s difficult to envision anyone but Altidore positioned atop the starting lineup. Johannsson has the hot hand in club play, but lack of experience aside, he doesn’t possess the same skill set as Altidore nor does he present the same matchup difficulties to opposing defenses.

So sink or swim, Altidore is Klinsmann’s guy. Jurgen and USMNT supporters alike will hope that Altidore has the maturity and composure to put his recent club failures behind him, and be the player who scored 8 goals in 14 games for the United States a year ago. The fate of the USMNT this summer depends on it.

Report: 2016 “Copa America Centenario” in U.S. Confirmed; Will Include CONCACAF

by Roderick MacNeil

The Copa America Centenario may be coming to a stadium near you in 2016.

The Copa America Centenario may be coming to a stadium near you in 2016.

If a report from beIN Sports’ Phil Schoen is to be believed, then a major international soccer tournament is on its way to the United States in 2016.

Rumors have long been swirling that a special centennial edition of  CONMEBOL’s championship tournament will be hosted on U.S. soil. In addition to featuring all ten members of the South American continental association, this version of the event would also include national teams from the United States and Mexico, along with four additional sides (to be determined) from CONCACAF. The regular quadrennial competition is next scheduled to be held in 2015 in Chile with its usual 12-team format.

The proposed 2016 tournament would be a financial boon, with organizers seeking to capitalize on the large communities of South American expats spread throughout the United States. The inclusion of the U.S. and Mexican national teams would also, of course, introduce much greater potential for television revenue and corporate sponsorships. For U.S. Soccer, the opportunity to participate in such a prestigious event holds unquestionable appeal from both an economic and competitive standpoint.

However, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati was quick to throw water on the report, posting the following response to his Twitter account shortly after the story surfaced:

Gulati doesn’t deny that the tournament will happen, but it would seem that at the very least, some questions remain. One critical issue would be assuring that the tournament is added to the FIFA calendar. If players are not required to be released by their respective clubs, there’s really no point in going forward. Fans aren’t going to support a series of glorified friendlies. It must be officially sanctioned by FIFA and includes first-choice rosters.

The other less clear-cut issue is the behind-the-scenes haggling over how the revenues are divided. Certainly U.S. Soccer isn’t interested in merely being the gracious host to a party that will primarily line the coffers of CONMEBOL. Details to hash out related to stadiums, ticket sales and broadcast rights are just some of the complicated negotiations that would need to be agreed upon. There may be very different opinions between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials on how those agreements should be structured.

Putting the behind-the-scenes details aside, it’s obviously a very exciting prospect for soccer fans in the U.S. We’re very accustomed to seeing high profile friendlies involving Brazil, Argentina and the rest of South America’s best. Competitive matches involving those teams? That’s a rare treat.

At least one report indicates that aside from the United States and Mexico, the four additional CONCACAF teams would be determined as follows:

  1. Winner of 2014 Copa Centroamericana
  2. Winner of 2014 Caribbean Cup
  3. Best finisher in 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup not automatically qualified
  4. Best finisher in 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup not automatically qualified

For the sake of conversation, let’s say those teams could likely be:

  1. Honduras (highest current FIFA ranking in Central America)
  2. Jamaica (host of 2014 Caribbean Cup)
  3. Costa Rica (highest remaining FIFA ranking in CONCACAF)
  4. Panama (highest remaining FIFA ranking in CONCACAF)

The 16 national teams, in that case, would be as follows, listed in order by current FIFA ranking (FIFA ranking in parentheses):

  1. Colombia (3)
  2. Uruguay (4)
  3. Argentina (5)
  4. Brazil (6)
  5. USA (13)
  6. Chile (14)
  7. Mexico (19)
  8. Ecuador (28)
  9. Honduras (32)
  10. Costa Rica (34)
  11. Panama (35)
  12. Venezuela (41)
  13. Peru (43)
  14. Paraguay (54)
  15. Bolivia (68)
  16. Jamaica (82)

With 16 teams competing in Copa America Centenario, the likely format would consist of a three-game Group Stage with four teams in each group, with the top two from each group (eight total) advancing to the knockout rounds.

Based on 1-16 rankings above, I’ve distributed the 16 participants into potential groups, assigning them in a snaked pattern based on the rankings above so that the composition of each group is of similar overall strength. Obviously these rankings will shift significantly in the next two years, but just for fun:

Group A – Teams 1, 8, 9, 16
Group B – Teams 2, 7, 10, 15
Group C – Teams 3, 6, 11, 14
Group D – Teams 4, 5, 12, 13

Group A
Colombia
Ecuador
Honduras
Jamaica

Group B
Uruguay
Mexico
Costa Rica
Bolivia

Group C
Argentina
Chile
Panama
Paraguay

Group D
Brazil
United States
Venezuela
Peru

Now imagine the quality knockout round matchups amongst the eight teams emerging from the Group Stage. Each stadium would be filled with tens of thousands of supporters with divided allegiances. Worldwide attention on the tournament would be unprecedented. The magnitude of this event could only be rivaled by the 1994 World Cup in the history of soccer tournaments held in the United States. Given the growth of the sport in this country over the past twenty years, one could argue the 2016 Copa America Centenario may end up being even bigger.

We’ll look forward to hearing the official word and the details as the develop in the months ahead.

American Outposts: Goals from Johannsson & Bedoya

by Roderick MacNeil

Alejandro Bedoya nods home a goal for Nantes vs. AS Monaco (FC Nantes – A.O.)

Aron Johannsson was back in the scoring column this weekend for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie. The USMNT forward notched his 26th goal of the season in all competitions with a 60th minute strike vs. Roda JC Kerkrade. It was his first goal since scoring on March 13 in a Europa League match. He is now 5 goals away from Jozy Altidore’s record of 31 goals for American players abroad.

Johannsson began a snaking run about 25 yards from goal in anticipation of a right wing cross from teammate Steven Berghuis. Johannsson eluded the Roda defender to put a perfectly placed header on target just inside the six-yard box. He also assisted on Markus Henrikson’s 46th minute tally. Johannsson’s goal tied the match at 2:2, and that’s how it would end.

The draw leaves AZ Alkmaar in 7th position on the league table, 9 points behind Vitesse for 4th place and direct place in the 2014-15 Europa League Group Stage. With just three games remaining this season, it appears certain that the club will instead advance to the Europa League playoff qualification.

Johannsson was also the victim of a bizarre incident in the 40th minute, when Roda defender Guy Ramos grabbed Johannsson’s crotch. The offense apparently went unnoticed by officials, as no card was assessed at the time. There is still no word on any possible disciplinary action for Ramos.

AZ Alkmaar next plays on Thursday, April 10 at Benfica in the second leg of the 2013-14 Europa League Quarterfinals. Benfica holds a 1:0 edge, so it’ll be an uphill climb for Johannsson’s club.

Here’s Johannsson’s 60th minute goal:

In Ligue 1 action in France, USMNT midfielder Alejandro Bedoya was on the scoring sheet again for FC Nantes. It was the 5th goal of the season in all competitions for Bedoya, who appears to have a moderately secure World Cup roster spot at this point.

With Nantes trailing 3:0 in the 78th minute against powerhouse AS Monaco, Bedoya got on the receiving end of a beautifully lofted cross from teammate Johan Audel. Bedoya elevated above the Monaco defender from about 12 yards out to angle a headed ball into the far upper right corner beyond the reach of the diving Monaco goalkeeper. Nantes wouldn’t score again, falling by a 3:1 final margin.

Nantes dropped to 15th position in the Ligue 1 table in what has been a struggling campaign for the club. With just six games remaining in the French season, Nantes is still 8 points clear of the drop zone and appears likely to survive relegation.

Nantes next plays on Sunday, April 13 vs. Guingamp, in an important relegation battle. Guingamp sits just two points behind Nantes on the league table.

Here is Bedoya’s 78th minute goal:

Report: MLS Expansion to Atlanta Announcement Coming Soon

by Roderick MacNeil

Rendering of the soccer configuration for the new Atlanta stadium.

That gaping hole in Major League Soccer’s franchise map is being rapidly filled. (Note: Pun about the stadium rendering above not intended.)

For more than a decade, the league hasn’t had a club south of Washington, DC and east of Texas. That changes in 2015 when Orlando City SC joins, marking MLS’s return to Florida for the first time since the contraction of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2002. David Beckham’s investment group is working to secure a stadium in Miami for a team that will join at a date yet to be determined, creating a brand new rivalry in the Sunshine State.

But now for the first time in the league’s near-twenty-year history, it looks as if there will also be a club located in the “Capital of the South.”

A report Saturday from Philly.com claims that the much-rumored Atlanta MLS expansion franchise will be officially awarded as early as April 16. The author indicates that several sources have confirmed an announcement is imminent, and that final details are being worked out.

The new club’s principal owner will be Arthur Blank, current owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and founder of Home Depot. The MLS club and the Falcons would share a new downtown stadium due to open in 2017. The facility will have a retractable roof and an artificial playing surface, and is being designed to accommodate both NFL football and professional soccer.

Major League Soccer’s approval of such a stadium arrangement is further proof of how the league’s philosophy on stadiums has evolved. In recent years, the primary emphasis was on creating “soccer specific” facilities controlled by the clubs. The current trend has shifted to prioritizing location, and more precisely, urban locations with access to public transit.

MLS is betting that this shared facility arrangement with an NFL team will work out more like the one in Seattle than the one New England. Time will tell.

With the league’s announced expansion to 24 teams by 2020, all but one franchise has already been spoken for. The race is on for that final spot, with Minneapolis and San Antonio believed to be the leading candidates. However, given the ever-growing list of interested cities and ownership groups, Major League Soccer may very well blow straight past number 24. The other four “major” sports leagues have settled in at 30-32 teams each. It seems more probable that MLS keep growing to a similar size.

Or perhaps beyond.

Dempsey Hat Trick Headlines Big USMNT Day in MLS

by Roderick MacNeil

Clint Dempsey says hello to the fans at Providence Park (mikerussellfoto.com)

Clint Dempsey says hello to the fans at Providence Park (mikerussellfoto.com)

In the blink of an eye, Clint Dempsey is now the leading goalscorer in Major League Soccer.

And he wasn’t the only USMNT player with a big day on Saturday, as Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu both got in on the scoring action as well.

Dempsey scored three times and earned Man of the Match honors as he led the Seattle Sounders’ stunning comeback to earn a 4:4 away draw against the Portland Timbers.

The first goal developed quickly off a Portland turnover in its own end. Kenny Cooper intercepted a pass with a volley straight to Osvaldo Alonso’s head, who directed the ball to the feet of Obafemi Martins. With one touch to control and a quick turn, Martins found an open Dempsey at the top of the box. Dempsey slotted it home with a simple touch inside the post to tie the game at 2:2.

The Sounders found themselves down 4:2 late in the second half when substitute Lamar Neagle chipped a cross into the box. Martins got a kung-fu flick-on the ball that Dempsey corralled with his chest and poked home to draw Seattle within 4:3 in the 85th minutes.

Less than a minute later, USMNT teammate DeAndre Yedlin was taken down in the box and awarded a penalty. Dempsey smooth-talked teammate Gonzalo Pineda (Seattle’s designated PK-taker for the day) into letting him attempt to complete the hat trick. Dempsey struck it cleanly and tied the game in the 87th minute.

There’s been much consternation in recent months surrounding the alleged “poor form” of the USMNT captain. With yesterday’s performance, Dempsey will hope to quiet much of that discussion. As he continues to develop a successful strike partnership with Martins in Seattle, the goals just may start to come in bunches.

With the draw, Seattle holds steady at 5th place in the Western Conference with 7 points through 5 matches (2-2-1). Seattle next plays on Saturday, April 12 at league-leading FC Dallas.

Dempsey’s three goals can be seen at 3:22, 7:26 and 8:19 of the following video highlights clip:

USMNT Captain Michael Bradley got into the act as well with Toronto FC. Following up his dominant performance on Wednesday night vs. Mexico, Bradley scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal for TFC in a 2:0 win at Columbus.

Bradley was on the receiving end of a perfectly weighted through-ball from Mark Bloom. He one-timed a low blast from an extremely narrow angle just outside the six-yard box, somehow finding a lane across goal to sneak it inside the far post. Replays showed that the Columbus keeper had the angle covered, but got beaten through the wickets on an attemped kick save.

The win propelled Toronto FC into second place in the Eastern Conference. Both Columbus and Toronto are at 9 points through 4 matches (3-1-0), with the Crew just ahead on goal differential. Toronto FC next plays at home on Saturday, April 12 vs. the Colorado Rapids.

Here’s Bradley’s 11th minute goal:

Meanwhile in Bridgeview, Illinois, Maurice Edu followed up his first USMNT appearance in over a year with another solid performance with the Philadelphia Union. Edu got the Union on the scoreboard in the latter stages of the first half with his first goal since returning to MLS after six seasons in Europe. The 32nd minute strike tied the match at 1:1 at the time, with the game ultimately ending in a 2:2 draw against the Chicago Fire.

Edu picked up a deflection at the top of the six-yard box, and ended up with one of the easier goal-scoring opportunities he’ll see this season. Chicago defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado went to ground behind Edu as the deflection fell to Edu’s feet. A wholly disinterested Bakary Soumare stood and watched Edu turn and line up a well-placed volley past goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

The draw kept Philadelphia steady in 5th place in the Eastern Conference with 6 points through 5 matches (1-1-3). The Union continue to get results, having only lost once, but have been unable to close out wins. Philadelphia next plays at home on Saturday, April 12 vs. Real Salt Lake.

Here’s a look at Edu’s first goal of 2014: