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The Big Three: A hat trick of talking points in the USWNT’s 4-1 win over China

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The USWNT’s showdown against China featured some nervy moments, but ended on a high. There were nearly as many talking points as there were spectators (i.e. many). But for the sake of brevity, here are three.

Alex Morgan is in a very, very good place right now.

The USWNT’s ‘It-girl’ padded her already impressive stats with two goals on the night. Her 35th minute goal – and credit to the typically industrious Heather O’Reilly for the assist – leveled matters at 1-1. It had something of a calming effect on the U.S.’s jittery attack. She followed that effort up in the 50th minute with a lovely solo shot that essentially capped off the victory. Both strikes were vintage Morgan: composed, clinical, completed with fine technique.

That said, her combination play with Abby Wambach looked a tad bit disjointed at times. China played with a high defensive line in the first half, which may have compromised the passing fluidity between the two. Morgan acknowledged the difficulties in her post-match comments. “[China’s defense was] smart and organized. They would bring the line up and catch you offside sometimes. They were pretty tricky and I needed to watch myself…and be aware that they were going to drop or step really quickly.”

Morgan managed to unlock China’s defense which went a long way in securing the win. She’s now scored 14 goals in 12 matches this year. That incredible goal tally will be put into context shortly.

Sundhage’s second half adjustments paid off tremendously.

The USWNT has a bizarre habit of having disconcertingly unsteady first half showings. The team more than makes up for their sluggish starts with spirited performances in the latter half. Maybe Pia Sundhage gives especially rousing halftime speeches. Either that or she makes impactful second half substitutions.

Tonight’s game followed the same script. Carli Lloyd was exchanged in favor of Lauren Cheney at the half. Cheney – a versatile, tour de force kind of player – has dabbled in nearly every position in midfield. Tonight she settled in alongside holding midfielder Shannon Boxx in what looked like an unorthodox double six formation with two deep-lying midfielders.

The tactical switch paid dividends as Cheney’s clean-up work gave the attacking players more license to bomb forward. The ball was played through the central channels more frequently and possession was maintained for longer spells. Neither of those things happened all that much in the first half.

There was another catalyst for the U.S.’s adventurous second half exploits and her name is Megan Rapinoe. Either Sundhage instructed the left midfielder to move into a more central role following Lloyd’s departure or she took it upon herself. Rapinoe sat behind Morgan and Wambach and helped dictate the team’s passes through midfield. It resulted in a more fluid style of play that stood in stark contrast to the team’s listless first half.

Kelley O’Hara is among the players eager to hop on that plane to London.

O’Hara was today named to the U.S.’s Olympic roster, and tonight’s performance proves why. The converted left back is making rapid progress in her new position.

As has been the case in previous games, O’Hara found an untold amount of confidence as the match progressed. She also showed off some of her attacking flair, proving she hasn’t learned to ignore her offensive instincts. O’Hara’s link-up play with Rapinoe down the left flank was one of the U.S.’s most dynamic creative tandems.

Sydney Leroux is also en route to the U.K. She made a cameo appearance tonight, but showed her value coming off the bench. Her quick thinking and quicker reflexes nearly resulted in the U.S.’s fifth goal of the night when she almost caught China’s goalkeeper out seconds before stoppage time expired.

The kits made their debut appearances on the USWNT. It’s been said a hundred times before, but having a gray number against a white background defeats the purpose of having numbers on shirts.

The webcast featured zero technical hiccups which was a welcome relief. Constant buffering made the stream of the USWNT/Sweden friendly last November virtually unwatchable. Indeed, beggars can’t be choosers, but it was lovely to see the production go off without a hitch.

Speaking of which, the sold out crowd made the occasion twice as nice. The atmosphere sounded quite lively up to China’s early goal before cooling off. It jolted back to life following Wambach’s 83rd minute goal. The evening ended with a crescendo of fireworks, which was also a nice touch.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.