U.S. WNT ready to face China at PPL Park in front of sold out crowd

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Tonight’s friendly against China presents the U.S. WNT with another opportunity to fine-tune. And the capacity crowd will make this a memorable first stop on the team’s pre-Olympic send-off tour.

The match will kick-off from PPL Park at 7 PM E.T. This is the team’s penultimate domestic match ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

In what has become a surprising but welcome trend, the match will be streamed live on USSoccer.com. U.S. Soccer also provided webcasts of the USWNT’s previous two friendlies against Sweden in Glendale, Arizona and New Zealand in Frisco, Texas – all by popular demand. Gone are the days of relying exclusively on Match Tracker and Twitter for firsthand accounts.

A few notes:

– This match-up first gave rise to the Alex Morgan phenomenon. China squared off with the U.S. in a friendly at this  same venue back on October 6, 2010. The U.S. faced a one-goal deficit as the match entered the final stretch. Morgan, making just her third international appearance, came on late and ended up scoring her debut goal with the senior team. The 21 year-old broke away from the Chinese defense and netted the equalizer. It was a sign of things to come.

– Pia Sundhage wasn’t expected to make wholesale changes to the pre-Olympics squad. Thus, today’s 18-player roster is virtually bereft of surprises. Veteran defender Heather Mitts is back in the mix and could replace an injured Ali Krieger. 23 year-old Meghan Klingenberg has the fewest caps of any player in the roster and might be an interesting option at outside back. Winger Tobin Heath misses the cut after sustaining an ankle injury last week.

– The U.S. MNT debuted U.S. Soccer’s new kits last night. The U.S. WNT will get their turn tonight. The team’s previous kits (most frequently characterized as the dreaded nurse outfits) were largely pilloried by the team’s fanbase. In this case, change is good. (Video of players donning the new kit here).

– Will Sundhage make further tweaks to the back four? There’s really only one glaring question mark about the squad, and it has everything to do with defense. Rachel Buehler has looked increasingly unsteady at center back. Natural center back Amy LePeilbet appears a bit more comfortable at outside back, but still has her share of shaky moments. Kelley O’Hara is halfway through her transition from outside attacker to fullback. Will Sundhage give KO another run at that position or will Heather Mitts get the start?

– The U.S. will try to protect a 16-game unbeaten run against China. The Steel Roses (easily the coolest nickname in women’s soccer) came close in 2010, but were undone by Alex Morgan’s late heroics. January 2011 marked the last time the two teams met and the USWNT came away with a 2-0 win.

A brand new world:

Tonight’s game is a sellout. That phrase isn’t often used in reference to USWNT matches. Sundhage’s team is living in a ‘pre-World Cup’ and ‘post-World Cup’ world. And boy, are they different. Despite the runners-up finish, the USWNT’s exploits in Germany has ushered in a new era of popularity.

Attendance figures are a solid indicator. The last time the U.S. appeared at PPL Park (you know, the Alex Morgan game), a measly 2,505 attendees were on hand. It was a humiliatingly low number and served as a harsh reminder of the team’s diminished status.

While that number was astoundingly low, it wasn’t exactly an outlier. The USWNT’s three previous friendlies before that match attracted an average crowd of 5,713 people.

How about now? The team’s three previous domestic matches ahead of tonight’s match have attracted an average of 19,243 attendees. That’s a 237% increase between then and now.

In the olden days, MLS soccer-specific stadiums proved to be unsuitable venues for the USWNT. Attendance-wise at least. In 2010 and pre-World Cup 2011, the team’s average percentage of capacity for friendlies in such stadiums was a mere 20.75%. Post-World Cup 2011 and 2012? That number has skyrocketed to 93%. Today’s capacity  crowd will see that figure increase to a mind-boggling 96.5%.

The breakdown:

March 31, 2010 vs. Mexico – Rio Tinto Stadium – 3,732 – 19% of total capacity

October 6, 2010 vs. China – PPL Park – 2,505 – 14%

May 14, 2011 vs. Japan – Columbus Crew Stadium – 5,234 – 26%

June 5, 2011 vs. Mexico – Red Bull Arena – 5,852 – 24%

September 17, 2011 vs. Canada – Livestrong Sporting Park – 16,191 – 88%

September 22, 2011 vs. Canada – Jeld-Wen Field – 18,570 – 91%

February 11, 2012 vs. New Zealand – FC Dallas Stadium – 20,677 – 100%+

May 27, 2012 vs. China – PPL Park – 18,50 – 100%*

Report: City Football Group set to expand outreach with Girona deal

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City Football Group appears on the verge of adding to its global outreach, and it’s next destination looks to be in Spain.

[ MORE: Are Southampton’s days of selling behind the club? ]

The group of investors, which are known for controlling Premier League side Manchester City, are reportedly nearing a deal to purchase a partial stake in Spanish club Girona — which is set to make its La Liga debut in 2017/18.

CFG is said to be gaining a near “50 percent” stake in the club, with the rest of the club owned by Media Base, a company owned by Pep Guardiola‘s brother, Pere.

Over recent years, CFG has vastly expanded its ownership outreach and currently has a stake in five clubs around the world, with Girona set to be the sixth.

MLS side New York City FC, Australian A-League side Melbourne City FC, Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos and Club Atletico Torque in Uruguay are all part of the CFG enterprise, alongside Man City.

New York Red Bulls ink goalkeeper Luis Robles to new deal

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The “Iron Man” will keep up his amazing journey with the New York Red Bulls, after signing a new deal with the club on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder on verge of joining Los Angeles FC ]

Goalkeeper Luis Robles has extended his contract with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, as the American continues to raise his consecutive starts streak, which stands at 157.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the club’s release.

Robles joined the Red Bulls back in 2012 after playing in Germany, and the shot-stopper hasn’t missed a start ever since.

Report: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson

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Minnesota United has had its shares of ups and down in its debut MLS season, but the Loons are on the verge making an exciting young signing.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder closing in on Los Angeles FC move ]

ESPN FC is reporting that Minnesota will sign Hearts winger Sam Nicholson from the Scottish Premier League on a deal that makes him a Loon until 2019.

The young attacker is expected to join the MLS side when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

Nicholson, 22, has played with the Edinburgh side since his youth days, and made his senior debut with the club in 2013. During his time at Hearts, Nicholson scored 16 goals in all competitions for the team.

Last season, Nicholson missed 16 matches due to a significant knee injury.

According to the report, Scottish sides Rangers and Aberdeen were also among those interested in acquiring Nicholson, while English Championship clubs Bristol City and Barnsley also reached out about the attacker.

Premier League vet Scott Parker calls quits on playing career

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Scott Parker has announced his retirement from soccer after a stellar 20-plus year career in England.

[ MORE: Chile bests Portugal on PKs to reach Confed Cup final ]

The 36-year-old spent almost the entirety of his career in the Premier League, and played with seven teams during his time on the pitch.

“I believe now is the right time to move on to the next chapter in my life and career,” Parker said in a statement.

“I feel incredibly honoured and proud to have enjoyed the career that I have and I’ve loved every moment of it.”

Parker began playing with Charlton after coming up through the team’s youth academy, before completing a move to Chelsea in 2004.

Throughout his career, Parker also spent time at Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham, before finishing up at Fulham this past season.