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%*

Herrera: Ibrahimovic competitive drive insatiable in everything

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Ander Herrera is dishing the goods on his Manchester United teammates while on Spain duty this week, and was asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swede is a fierce competitor on and off the pitch, which Herrera jokes is an ever-present challenge to personal patience.

[ MORE: Deulofeu laments early Messi talk ]

It almost seems like there’s a bit of envy that Ibrahimovic can charge into public comments the way Herrera goes into tackles.

From Marca:

“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.

“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”

There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).

We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.

Gerard Deulofeu calls early Messi comparisons “detrimental”

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Players often like to brush off speculation or criticism in the moment by claiming they don’t read stories written about themselves, but we all know better.

Former Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu confirmed that sentiment by citing specific comparisons he remembers as a youth with Barcelona, citing stories that compared him to Lionel Messi. Now 23 years old, Deulofeu reflects on those early comparisons and wishes the media wasn’t so quick to jump to conclusions about his career.

“In the end, [the comparisons] were more detrimental than beneficial,” he told weekly magazine Forza Milan. “Normally I don’t read newspapers, but that headline I remember well. It created too much expectation among Barcelona fans. There’s only one Messi.”

With expectations high, Deulofeu made just six senior team appearances without a goal or assist before loan spells at Sevilla and Everton saw him out of the club permanently. His time at Goodison Park was up and down as well, with his ability to dazzle a crowd punctuated by long spells of invisibility, failing to earn himself a consistent starting role.

Deulofeu is now on loan from Everton at AC Milan, looking to revitalize his career. He has started every league game since arriving, and has picked up a goal and three assists in 11 matches. There is speculation he could end up in Milan on a permanent basis this summer, but he’s not focused on that right now.

“My future? It’ll be seen to,” Deulofeu said. “My sights are in the present, from experience I know it’s best to leave the past behind and focus on the present. We’ll see what happens in the future. For now, I just want to enjoy the good time that I‘m having at Milan.”

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)