It Only Takes Two Women Coaches For The NFL To Tie For

NFL023 MLB01716 LEAGUECEO/ PRESIDENTVICE PRESIDENTMAJORITY OWNERS Tides does not calculate majority owner percentages for the NFLSource: Tides NBA7205 Female leadership in pro sports Tides lists 13 women who were either principal owners or held significant ownership stakes in NFL franchises in 2015, an increase over the nine owners counted in 2014. The report does not provide data on the overall share of NFL owners who are female.CORRECTION (Jan. 21, 3:40 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of female assistant coaches hired by the NBA. The basketball association has two female assistant coaches, not one. That means that the NFL is tied with the NBA for the best record in pro sports on hiring women to coach male athletes; it does not have the best record. PERCENTAGE FEMALE MLS0170 WNBA28%26%36% Six months ago, I took a look at the (lack of) female representation in coaching and front offices in major sports, just after Jen Welter became the first female assistant coaching intern in the NFL. On Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills hired Kathryn Smith as the league’s first full-time female coach (specifically, as an assistant special teams quality control coach).That gives the NFL a tie with the NBA for the best record in U.S. pro sports on hiring women to coach male athletes. The NBA has two female assistant coaches, and no female head coaches. MLB and MLS have no women coaches at any level.Off of the field, only modest progress in hiring women to the major pro leagues was made last year. According to the 2015 report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NFL, MLS and the WNBA show a modest uptick in the percentage of female vice presidents across the leagues. But only the WNBA has expanded its share of female CEOs. read more

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The Thunder Are On A Historic Playoff Run

1986Houston Rockets141559164082 1972New York Knicks1214701592123 2003New Jersey Nets141543162481 The Oklahoma City Thunder just keep shocking the basketball world. It wasn’t enough to knock the 67-win San Antonio Spurs out of the playoffs in six games; they’ve also been trouncing the Golden State Warriors like it was nothing special. After crushing the Dubs again Tuesday night, 118-94, OKC is suddenly a win away from eliminating the record-busting defending champions and punching a ticket to the NBA Finals.One way to measure just how impressive this run has been is to look at the Elo ratings, FiveThirtyEight’s favorite way of measuring a team’s strength that takes into account both opponent strength (very strong!) and margin of victory (very high!). Through their first 15 playoff games, only five teams in NBA history increased their Elo rating more than OKC has this postseason. 1995Houston Rockets141531162594 In other words, the Thunder started the playoffs as a very good team. Since then, they’ve become a great one — and, soon, they might have a conference championship to show for it.Check out our latest NBA playoff predictions. With an 85-point increase since the playoffs opened, the Thunder have elevated their Elo to 1767, setting yet another high-water mark for the franchise and — here’s the real shocker — pulling (slightly) ahead of the Warriors as the No. 1-ranked team in the NBA. (Our adjusted CARM-Elo ratings also rank the Thunder first, meaning they would give the Thunder the head-to-head edge over Golden State on a neutral court.)Obviously, Elo ratings aren’t the final word on these two clubs. But in this case, they help underscore just how quickly a team’s level of play can change. A little over a month ago, the 73-win Warriors and 55-win Thunder finished their regular seasons. Now the two squads are basically evenly matched, with a slight edge to the team that won 18 fewer games.And the Thunder’s improvement is in a class of its own, at least in the context of where they started the playoffs. Unlike some squads, such as the 2001 Lakers team that came off of a championship and snoozed through the season before snapping to life in the playoffs, this year’s Thunder squad began the postseason far more highly rated (with an Elo of 1683) than any playoff team that made similarly stark gains. OKC has work to do to catch up with that Lakers squad in overall rating, but the team is already close despite having been blown out a few times in the playoffs. 2010Boston Celtics1415381678140 ELO YEARTEAMGAMES INTO PLAYOFFSSTART OF PLAYOFFSEND OF RUNCHANGE 2013San Antonio Spurs1516011721121 2009Denver Nuggets141607169184 2016Oklahoma City Thunder151683176785 2001Los Angeles Lakers1516471770123 2015Cleveland Cavaliers141631171282 Teams that gained at least 80 Elo points in 15 playoff games or less Source: basketball-reference.com 2001Charlotte Hornets81542162281 read more

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The MLB Closers Best At Cleaning Up Their Own Messes

Luke Gregerson2361.702.46+0.75 Cody Allen1751.672.36+0.69 PITCHERSHUTDOWNSMELTDOWNSINITIALMAXIMUMINCREASE Shawn Tolleson981.382.08+0.71 These days, New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia is saving everything in sight. On Tuesday night, Familia closed out the back end of New York’s doubleheader split against the St. Louis Cardinals for his 36th save of the 2016 season, the most in the majors. Toss out those pesky postseason stats, and Familia has successfully preserved Mets victories in 52 consecutive save opportunities, stretching back nearly a full calendar year — the third-longest streak in major league history.But as any Mets fan can tell you, the sailing is not always smooth with Familia. Underneath his unblemished saves mark, Familia’s control can be erratic; the 3.4 walks he’s allowing per nine innings ranks 11th-worst among regular closers this season. As a result, he frequently pitches his way into varying degrees of peril before bearing down and escaping with a save.To put Familia’s — and other closers’ — habit of pitching dangerously into perspective, I compiled what I’m calling the “heart-attack index” for relief pitchers. One of the core concepts is leverage index: how important any moment of a game is (relative to average) based on how much it could potentially swing each team’s probability of winning. On average this season, Familia has entered the game when the leverage index is 1.71,1Through Monday, so this doesn’t include Tuesday’s games — nor do the rest of the numbers in this article. which means these moments are about 70 percent more important than a typical at-bat. In the average Familia outing, that number balloons to 3.08 at its peak, meaning the pressure ratchets up more per appearance for Familia than it does for any other qualified2According to FanGraphs’ relief-pitching leaderboard. closer in the game: Jonathan Papelbon1751.692.68+0.98 Brad Ziegler2131.682.88+1.21 Jeanmar Gomez2151.852.82+0.96 Francisco Rodriguez1831.692.41+0.72 Santiago Casilla18102.273.51+1.24 Kevin Jepsen1191.552.19+0.63 Arodys Vizcaino1761.482.43+0.95 Steve Cishek1972.003.19+1.19 Fernando Rodney1741.522.12+0.60 Sam Dyson2331.832.78+0.95 Tony Cingrani1791.582.35+0.77 Unsurprisingly, there’s Familia again on the top left, losing more win probability than any other qualified reliever before the pressure-valve alarms start to buzz, only to also gain the most win probability afterward as he brings the team back from the brink of a meltdown. (To some extent this is circular — Andrew Miller of the Yankees, for instance, seldom pitches himself into enough trouble to rack up huge win probability credit on the other side of max leverage — but that’s also kind of the point.)Other relievers, such as deposed Chicago Cubs closer Hector Rondon, pitch into nearly as much trouble as Familia but aren’t as skilled at extricating themselves from danger. (Which might help explain why the Cubs on Monday dealt for Aroldis Chapman, who gets into considerably less trouble on the mound than Familia but pitches well when in a jam.)In Familia’s case, it’s fair to ask how much of this high-wire act is repeatable: Surely his save streak will eventually end if he keeps pitching so dangerously, right? Well, maybe. WPA isn’t a very predictive statistic because of the large weight it places on high-leverage situations; if a player performs above his usual level in important moments, it’s unlikely to hold up for very long. But by the same token, Familia isn’t a bad pitcher who just happens to have pitched great under pressure — putting leverage-based metrics aside, he also ranks eighth among qualified closers in fielding independent pitching, despite the shaky walk rate. (It’s also worth noting that Familia’s signature pitch, the sinker, tends to either miss low in the zone — hence the walks — or induce ground balls, which often double up base runners who walked to first.)Familia may not be the best closer in baseball, and his save streak is destined to end sooner or later. But a pulse-pumping pitching style isn’t automatically a bad thing — provided fans’ hearts can take the drama while they watch from the couch. David Robertson2361.762.86+1.10 A.J. Ramos2021.602.41+0.82 Zach Britton2611.632.37+0.74 Mark Melancon2041.542.49+0.95 Trevor Rosenthal10111.522.57+1.06 Shutdowns and meltdowns are FanGraphs’ alternatives to the save and blown save. Statistics through July 25.Source: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference.com Which closers crank up the pressure most? Roberto Osuna1931.392.09+0.71 Hector Rondon1461.502.13+0.62 Aroldis Chapman1731.902.53+0.63 RELIEF PITCHER INDICATORSAVG. LEVERAGE Wade Davis1621.512.28+0.76 Craig Kimbrel1661.742.42+0.69 But pitching into trouble3And it’s worth noting that for appearances of greater than one inning, a pitcher’s offensive teammates could affect how his leverage index changes — but in an era of one-inning closers, that consideration doesn’t come up often. is only half the Familia formula — he’s also been masterful at pitching his way out of the jams he creates. To get a sense both for the holes that Familia digs and for his ability to climb out of them, I plotted the amount of win probability every reliever loses per at-bat before hitting the maximum leverage index of each appearance against his win probability added per at-bat from that moment onward: Alex Colome1651.622.95+1.32 Jeurys Familia3021.713.08+1.37 Kenley Jansen2351.822.35+0.53 Carlos Estevez1281.512.08+0.56 Andrew Miller2441.722.46+0.74 Ryan Madson1981.762.73+0.97 Will Harris2621.602.44+0.84 Jeremy Jeffress1941.592.79+1.20 read more

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Michael Jordan Give Me Kobe Bryant Over LeBron James

Michael Jordan said if he had his druthers, he would take Kobe Bryant over LeBron James.During an interview with NBA-TV, Jordan acknowledged James’ current dominance of the NBA. But for Jordan, winning is the ultimate measure of a great player’s greatness, and Bryant’s five rings with the Los Angeles Lakers trump James’ single title earned last June.“Five beats one every time I look at it,” Jordan said. “And not that (James) won’t get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.”The debate between Bryant and James is a heated one that both sides argue with great passion. Jordan, widely considered the greatest player of all time, said it would not be an easy decision. Clearly, he admires the talent of both perennial all-stars.But Bryant’s body of work in 17 seasons – including an NBA record 16 straight All-Star game appearances – was the determining factor. James, in his 10th season, finally reached the basketball summit with the NBA Finals victory over Oklahoma City.James recently set a record with six straight games of at least 30 points on 60 percent shooting. His team is playing better than any others in the league, and James has never performed better.“It doesn’t matter to me,” James said on Thursday about Jordan’s comments. “If you take Kobe one and I go second, it doesn’t matter. I don’t get too involved in what guys say about me, or if you take Kobe or if you take LeBron. As long as I’m on the floor and I make plays for my teammates, I don’t do what I do for other people’s approval.”Jordan, who turns 50 years old on Sunday, won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, six NBA Finals MVPs and five league MVPs. read more

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Derrick Rose Practices 5on5 For 1st Time In Comeback

Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who is recovering from an ACL injury, took a big rehab step on Monday by practicing in 5-on-5 drills for the first time this season.Rose had been cleared by doctors for regular contact for weeks, and had been seen working out the last couple of weeks before games. But Monday gave the All-Star an opportunity to participate in his first scrimmage.“He was able to get out there, and it’s good,” Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said. “It was something that (we) as a team needed, as far as every individual coming off the (All-Star) break needed to scrimmage a little bit. And I’m sure it was good for (Rose), helpful to … give him a good gauge where he’s at.”The Bulls intentions were to allow Rose to participate in 5-on-5 drills after the All-Star break, and would closely observe how his body would respond, according to Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson.Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau gave short answers to questions about Rose.“He did what everyone else did. Just a normal practice.”Rose made headlines last week, saying he would not come back until he’s “110 percent” and that he would be fine with missing the remainder of 2012-13 season.Last week, the Chicago native said he knew he had not fully recovered because of his inability to dunk the ball. Monday was no different; he was still not dunking, according to teammate Joakim Noah.Rose has been attacking his rehab aggressively. His teammates notice his drive to return, with him being the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.“I would love to (come back this season),” Rose told ESPN in Boston on Feb. 13. “I would love to. That’s why I approached my rehab and my workout so hard. I’m trying to get back on the court as quickly as possible, but if I have anything lingering on, it’s no point.”The Bulls will return to action Tuesday night against the New Orleans Hornets and will look to get a boost from Hinrich, who has missed the last seven games with an elbow infection. They will also look to guard Nate Robinson to continue to give them a spark.But Thibodeau reiterated that Rose will only return when he has fully recovered.“We have to be patient,” Thibodeau said. “When he’s ready, he’ll go.” read more

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Crime Doesnt Pay Was it a Mistake Drafting Aaron

Until recently, Aaron Hernandez had successfully left a troubled early life behind him. After a drug-plagued college career that caused him to drop in the NFL Draft, he quietly turned into a big-contract star for the New England Patriots. Now it seems the team took a risk on the player that didn’t pan out.Currently, the former star tight end is sitting in a jail after being charged with murder.  Of course, this is America and “innocent until proven guilty” must be taken into account. But the damage is done and it seems as though Hernandez has already been judged.After his arrest and charge, the Patriots realized they made a mistake drafting Hernandez and separated themselves from him.Was it a dumb risk for the Patriots to draft  Hernandez?

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Do MLB Teams Undervalue Defense — Or Just Value It Differently

Absent a helpful general manager opening up his computer system — or letting you hack in, if that’s more your style — it’s tough to know what baseball teams think of different players. But one place GMs leave clues about their preferences is in free agency. Since each team can bid on every available player, and the competition to acquire the most valuable talent is fierce, the free-agent sweepstakes is baseball’s closest answer to an open market; accordingly, the cash that teams deal out tells us how much they’re willing to pay for each area of on-field expertise. And for all the strides made in evaluating defense (plus convincing clubs to buy in), my analysis of recent offseasons suggests that MLB teams still don’t value defense the same way as sabermetricians do — though it might not be because they don’t value it enough.To estimate how much teams pay for offense relative to defense, I looked at the average annual value of every non-catcher1I removed them from the sample because their value has been affected by the quantification of pitch-framing (more on that later). position-player contract signed since the 2006 offseason2According to salary data from ESPN. and compared those dollar figures to players’ offensive and defensive runs above average (according to FanGraphs.com) in the previous three years.3I used a linear regression over that time period, three seasons being a reasonable sample upon which a player can be judged. I found that, from the front-office perspective, a run saved just isn’t worth as much as a run scored.For every offensive run a player generated above average in the season before he inked a new deal, he was paid an extra $215,000. An offensive run two years back was worth $113,000, and there was even value — $93,000 per run — in stats from three years in the past. By contrast, each defensive run was worth only $84,000 one year back, with the benefit even lower in earlier years.4Specifically, the value per defensive run dropped to $29,000 two years back and $69,000 three years back. (The higher value for the latter is likely just statistical noise.)As far as teams are concerned, then, offense is what drives a player’s value, with defense a secondary priority. That’s not to say that front offices ignore fielding entirely when signing players, but they do appear to take defensive statistics with a grain of salt.One potential reason is obvious: Teams may be late to understanding the value of good defense. Mitchel Lichtman, the sabermetrician who created the defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating, told me in an email that “it will probably be a long time before teams fully appreciate the proper mathematical role of defense in evaluating players and making transactions.”Of course, analytics experts have been arguing that teams undervalue defense since the days of Moneyball. And in the years since, sabermetrics has gone mainstream. Teams now employ huge research and development departments — many staffed directly from the ranks of baseball writers who used to criticize teams for undervaluing defense. So it seems unlikely that those analysts forgot about glovework when they walked through the front-office doors.Moreover, teams have shown that they can rapidly adjust to new information about player value when it emerges. For instance, pitch-framing skills — wherein a catcher boosts the chance that a pitch will be called a strike — weren’t quantified until about 2009. Before that offseason, there was no significant relationship between a catcher’s framing ability and the average annual value of his free-agent contract;5The correlation coefficient was 0.16, with a p-value of 0.31. afterward, the correlation spiked.6It rose to 0.33, which is significant with a p-value of 0.006. In other words, teams quickly learned about framing skill and calibrated their contract offers to adjust for it.So another potential explanation for the seeming disconnect between defense and dollars is that teams do properly quantify defense, but in a different way than our publicly available metrics. In other words, if we replaced the public metrics in my previous analysis with proprietary ones cooked up by front offices, there’s a possibility that the inconsistency between defensive performance and pay would disappear.I spoke with a handful of former and current front-office analysts about how teams value defensive metrics, none of whom would speak on the record. They mentioned that some teams have proprietary systems to measure the value of defense, sometimes adding input from scouts or other non-public data sources. If even a handful of teams have systems that produce substantially different fielding valuations than the public statistics, it could appear as though they are disregarding defense — when, in fact, they’re measuring it better than we know.At a minimum, teams have access to much better data with which to construct defensive metrics than the public. With the advent of Statcast, MLB’s radar-based tracking system, team analysts can quantify the location and movement of every player on the field. Statcast also provides raw data on the running speed and reaction times of fielders, allowing front offices to break defense down into its individual components.MLB is providing only a fraction of that data to the public. But if we’ve learned anything from early attempts to model fielding using Statcast — such as Catch Probability, which measures the likelihood that any given batted ball will be caught — it’s that new fielding metrics can disagree significantly with conventional ones.Depending on the analysis being run,7Whether you limit the comparison by sample size (i.e., the number of opportunities) or by position. Statcast-based Catch Probabilities correlate with Ultimate Zone Rating either moderately (r=.47) or strongly (r=.71). Some have taken the latter as confirmation that UZR was correct all along. But consider as well that the correlation between batting average and on-base percentage is also 0.71.8For qualified hitters in the 2016 season. The realization that OBP was a better hitting metric than batting average, you may recall, formed one of the cornerstones of the Moneyball revolution.Similarly, if Statcast-fueled metrics represent as much of an upgrade on public defensive stats as OBP was on batting average, it’s no wonder that teams don’t seem to value defense. Those clubs might just be so far beyond currently available fielding statistics that sabermetricians can no longer criticize them.It’s likely that not every team has its own defensive metric, and some teams’ metrics are probably no better than the public’s. But occasionally, it’s obvious that a team is onto something we don’t know about. Take the case of outfielder Dexter Fowler: Before he joined the Cubs for the 2015 season, writers raised questions about his defense based on poor public metrics; that year, he ended up earning 3.3 wins above replacement, fueled largely by a 20-run improvement in his UZR. Then in 2016, after more skepticism about Fowler’s fielding, he put up the best defensive numbers of his career to date. That, in turn, led to his signing by the St. Louis Cardinals this past offseason for the staggering total of $82.5 million over five years, questionable defense be damned.Whether because of Statcast or scouting, the Cubs and now the Cardinals have seen something in Fowler’s performance that current fielding valuations don’t seem to capture. And when two of the smartest front offices in baseball appear to be discarding defensive metrics, it makes you stop and wonder whether the metrics might just be wrong. read more

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The Warriors Can Breathe Easier — For Now

The Rockets-Warriors series has provided a steady diet of haymakers from both sides over the past week and a half, with two of the NBA heavyweight clubs duking it out for supremacy again.But the fight, and the future of the proverbial championship belt as a whole, seemingly hung in the balance late Wednesday when superstar Kevin Durant came up limping after hitting a jumper with just over two minutes left in the third quarter of Game 5 at Oracle Arena. The fact that he hadn’t been touched by anyone escalated fears even more: His reaction — to grab the back of his lower right leg — suggested that he might have severely injured his Achilles tendon. Durant walked gingerly to the locker room with Golden State clinging to a 3-point lead after holding a 20-point cushion just a quarter earlier. As he left, the basketball world wondered whether Golden State’s chances of adding on to its dynasty had exited with him.The Warriors staved off that more existential question for at least a couple of nights, digging deep for a gutsy 104-99 win without Durant to take a 3-2 series lead over Houston. They also got a reprieve in the sense that Durant avoided an Achilles injury, which would have ended his postseason and possibly jeopardized his next season. Instead, the club deemed the injury a right calf strain; Durant is set for an MRI on Thursday to determine the severity of the injury — and how much time he may have to miss.If Durant misses the rest of the series, at least some will compare his absence to that of Chris Paul a little less than a year ago, when the Rockets took a 3-2 lead but lost Paul to a hamstring strain for Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals. (Houston would drop each of those games, along with the series.) Yet losing Durant — the best player in the series, if not the world at this point — could have an even bigger impact, even though the Warriors have played without him before.Consider that Golden State has outscored opponents by 79 points this postseason with Durant on the court and has been outscored by 14 points in the minutes he’s been sidelined. Before leaving Wednesday’s game, he had led the Warriors in scoring for eight consecutive contests. His 34.2 points per game this postseason rank second1Among players who’ve logged at least 10 games in a single postseason. over the past 25 seasons, trailing only LeBron James’s 2009 playoff run, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.The Warriors’ reliance on Durant as of late left many of us wondering whether Stephen Curry and Golden State could step up and take out a tough opponent without Durant there. Both Curry and teammate Klay Thompson had struggled mightily with their jumpers earlier in the series, but Curry answered the bell, hitting 5 of 9 from the field for 16 points after KD’s injury, a vast improvement from the 9 points on 4-of-14 shooting he logged before Durant went down. (Thompson’s 27 points, after having 27 over the two prior games combined, were also huge — especially his bizarre turnover-turned-layup that sealed the game with four seconds left.)On the other side of this, Houston is going to have a handful of regrets from Game 5 — usually a bellwether when it breaks 2-2 series ties, as 82 percent of Game 5 winners advance — if it fails to get past the Warriors yet again. In many ways, this felt like the Rockets’ chance to pounce.In Game 4, P.J. Tucker terrorized Golden State by dominating the offensive glass. But on Wednesday, Kevon Looney seemed to come up with just about every key rebound, including five offensive boards. Meanwhile, Tucker was whistled for a particularly brutal out-of-bounds call with just under three minutes left in the game, when his heel was on the sideline just before he drained a shot that, had it not been waved off, would have cut Houston’s deficit to 2 points.It didn’t help that, at just 3 of 14, Chris Paul had the worst shooting night of his playoff career.And perhaps most noteworthy and mind-bogglingly: Houston’s James Harden, the reigning MVP and back-to-back league scoring champion, largely took a backseat, with just one shot attempt — a layup with 18 seconds left — over the final seven-plus minutes of action in the loss. The Rockets performed just fine offensively as a club despite that, scoring 18 points over that stretch. But it was still somewhat shocking to see Harden not even touch the ball on a number of fourth-quarter possessions. (He finished the period with just three shot attempts — down from the eight he’d averaged in fourth quarters in the first four games of the series.)With Durant sidelined, Harden was free of the much longer, taller defender who had limited him over the course of the series.2Of the six Warrior defenders who have matched up with Harden at least 20 times on defense, Durant has held Harden to his second-lowest scoring average per 100 possessions (after Andre Iguodala) and forced him into more turnovers than any of his teammates have, while limiting his assist totals more than anyone, according to data from Second Spectrum. So to not see him take advantage, or even really try, was surprising, given that he finished 7 of 7 from inside the arc, and with an efficient 31 points on just 16 shots.Still, much can and probably will change with a day or two of game-planning, especially if Durant is forced to miss time. The things that Harden and the Rockets didn’t attack in the moment during Game 5 could become points of emphasis in Game 6, while the Warriors figure to retool their thin rotation in hopes of mitigating Durant’s absence.There’s plenty we still don’t know yet. But one thing is clear: With Game 5 in hand, the Warriors can at least breathe a sigh of relief for now, knowing their backs won’t be against the wall, on the road without Durant, in Game 6.Check out our latest NBA predictions. read more

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World Cup Anxiety Reaches Its Boiling Point For The USMNT

In the home matches, Pulisic received 40 passes in the central area of the final third.2This refers to the area of the penalty box extended out to about 35 yards from goal. In the qualifiers on the road, he received just 11 in that area. At home, he has been free to drop back in buildup, receiving 30 passes in the defensive half, compared with 12 while away. Pulisic is distinctly a winger in away matches, with 63 percent of all his away receptions (40 out of 64) taking place in wide areas; in home matches, that figure is only 35 percent (43 out of 123).This is by design. With half the teams in the CONCACAF “Hex” qualifying group reaching the World Cup, a pattern of home wins and away draws is more than sufficient for a berth. In the recent away matches, the USMNT has taken a more conservative approach and kept Pulisic in his assigned position to protect the wing and offer a counterattacking outlet. Looking for wins at home, Arena has freed Pulisic to make plays either early in buildup (dropping back into the defensive half) or around the box (receiving passes in the center).The U.S.’s attack has thrived with such tactics, outscoring its opponents 8-2 in home matches. Even in the 0-2 loss to Costa Rica, the Americans led the expected goals tally 1.3 to 0.8, meaning that they had more opportunities despite the result. Panama was able to slow Pulisic down in its home fixture (a 1-1 draw), but he will be much harder to contain in a less tactically restricted role on Friday night — assuming that Arena and Pulisic continue this recent pattern.3) The U.S. needs to plug the holes in midfield.The U.S. lined up in a 4-4-2 formation in both of its last qualifying matches, with a pair of strikers in each (Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood vs. Costa Rica; Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris vs. Honduras). Two strikers, plus the use of Pulisic in a more aggressive role, should strengthen the attack, but Arena will need to tighten his midfield at the same time. The opening goal against Honduras shows why U.S. fans should be a little worried. Since 1990, qualifying for the World Cup has seemed like a birthright for the U.S. men’s national team. In the three decades since it last failed to qualify for a World Cup (1986), all of England, France, Portugal, Uruguay and the Netherlands have missed the cut at least once. In fact, largely because of the comparatively easy qualification process for teams from this part of the world, only six countries have a longer active World Cup streak than the U.S.1Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain.That run may come to an end this year. After taking just 1 point from its last two matches, the U.S. is running dangerously close to being left at home when the World Cup convenes in Russia next year. What happens in the Americans’ high-stakes match against Panama in Orlando on Friday night will go a long way to determining that. Here are three three factors that will bring you up to speed on the match.1) Make no mistake — this one is really important.ESPN’s Soccer Power Index projects that if the USMNT can win, the side will have a 93 percent chance of making the tournament. But a loss cuts the U.S.’s chances down to 44 percent. Among the group of six in CONCACAF, Mexico has already punched its ticket to Russia, and Costa Rica needs only a single point from two matches to join El Tri. That leaves two remaining spots for the region: Third place gets the last automatic qualifier while fourth place will play in an inter-confederation playoff against either Australia or Syria. Panama is currently a point ahead of the U.S. in the table, and every team has two matches left to play. Here is how the result of this game will affect the various scenarios::A win for the U.S. against Panama would boost the Americans into the third guaranteed qualifying place with only a relatively easy trip to Trinidad and Tobago remaining. Any other result will leave the USMNT scoreboard-watching.If the two countries draw in Orlando, Panama will need only a win over an already qualified Costa Rica team to secure the third qualifying spot.A win for Panama would clinch World Cup qualification for Los Canaleros for the first time in their soccer history, leaving the U.S. sweating Honduras’s results in hope of landing in the fourth-place playoff.2) Home Pulisic is the best Pulisic.In such a huge match, the U.S. will be looking to its young superstar to step up. However, Christian Pulisic has been a very different kind of star in home and away matches. Since Bruce Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann, he has kept Pulisic on the wing in the team’s three away matches in CONCACAF qualifying (against Panama, Mexico and Honduras). But during the three qualifying home matches (against Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica), the Borussia Dortmund attacker has been free to roam infield in a free, creative role — and this has been true regardless of formation. In the three home matches, Pulisic had three goals and two assists. In the away matches, he had a clutch assist against Panama but has otherwise been kept off the scoresheet.Here’s a look at all of Pulisic’s pass receptions (home and away) in those six World Cup qualifying matches. Certainly defender Omar Gonzalez’s missed tackle was the biggest problem on this goal, but he was put in position to make this mistake because the U.S. midfield allowed a pass to be picked out under absolutely no pressure. The 4-4-2 formation gives the U.S. one fewer player to challenge opposition passers in midfield. What’s more, the U.S.’s back line has been shaky, which puts more pressure on the midfield to prevent the sort of attacking moves that can apply pressure on the defense.And in the last two games, the two center midfielders — first Darlington Nagbe and Michael Bradley, then Bradley and Kellyn Acosta — have been unable to disrupt opposing midfielders, who have connected on many direct forward passes. Against Costa Rica and Honduras, the U.S. conceded 21 direct attacking moves driven by long, forward passes through midfield.3I am defining direct attacks as attacking moves in which at least 60 percent of overall ball movement is directly toward goal and long forward passes as passes that travel at least 15 yards forward toward goal. In the four previous matches, the U.S. had conceded just 22 of these direct midfield attacks.The USMNT should be favored against Panama no matter the lineup, but a susceptibility to direct, central attacks doesn’t bode well. One or two good counterattacks could be enough to get Los Canaleros their result. The solution here could be some sort of single-striker system. By not playing two out-and-out-strikers, Arena would have flexibility to get another presser into midfield without limiting Pulisic positionally. Of course, this puts more of the burden on the 19-year-old to create goals by himself, but ultimately, what else is a superstar for if not that?Whatever he chooses, Arena needs to get this game right because a World Cup trip — as well as his legacy — may hang in the balance.Check out our latest club soccer predictions. read more

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