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

1 Comment

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.

UCL wrap: Napoli, Celtic win big; Nwakaeme volleys beauty (video)

Cesare Abbate/ANSA Via AP
Leave a comment

A day after three of five road sides felt good with their work in first legs of the UEFA Champions League playoff round, it was the hosts time to celebrate good results.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL first legs ]

Home sides in Italy, Scotland, Greece, and Israel posted wins. Spanish side Sevilla did manage a road win.

Napoli 2-0 Nice

Chances and even possession was at a premium for the visitors, and Napoli found its breakthrough from one of the more overlooked gems in the world. Dries Mertens scored in the first half, his sixth career UCL goal, and Jorginho converted a second half penalty to give Napoli a foot in the group stage.

Adding insult was a pair of red cards in the 80th minute, the first to Vincent Koziello for a dangerous tackle (it was a harsh call) and Alassane Plea was given a second yellow for protesting the sending off.

Mertens’ goal was smooth as silk:

Celtic 5-0 Astana

A pair of Scott Sinclair goals joined an Astana own goal as the Bhoys went a long way towards avoiding the tight tie that made the last round tricky.

Olympiacos 2-1 Rijeka

Heber gave the visitors a halftime lead in the 42nd minute, but Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe equalized in the 66th minute to minimize the damage for Olympiacos, who would go on to win.

Istanbul Basaksehir 1-2 Sevilla

Remember Eljero Elia? The Dutchman’s on his eighth club and third since leaving Southampton after just a half season, but he’s given his Turkish side hope against mighty Sevilla after Sergio Escudero gave the Spanish side an early lead and Wissam Ben Yedder nabbed the winner.

Hapoel Be’er Sheva 2-1 Maribor

Goals from Anthony Nwakaeme and Shir Tzedek boosted the Israeli hosts to a come-from-behind win.

In the case of the former, it was a beauty:

Brighton breaks transfer record (again) with Izquierdo (video)

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Brighton and Hove Albion have broken its transfer record.

A week after setting a new club standard with the signing of Davy Propper from PSV Eindhoven, the Gulls have signed electric Colombian attacker Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge for over $15 million.

[ MORE: Matuidi medical at Juve ]

Izquierdo averaged a goal every other match for Brugge last season and broke through to the Colombian national team with two caps this summer, scoring in a friendly against Cameroon.

With Propper and Izquierdo, manager Chris Hughton has two more playmakers who can better set the table for a strike corps that has been questioned at the Premier League level.

Brighton lost to Man City 2-0 on Saturday and next faces Leicester City at King Power Stadium.

Matuidi having a medical at Juventus ahead of move from PSG

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Leave a comment

TURIN, Italy (AP) Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Blaise Matuidi was having a medical at Juventus on Wednesday ahead of a potential move to the Serie A club.

Juventus said that Matuidi arrived at Turin airport in the afternoon and was undergoing tests.

Juventus will reportedly pay PSG 20 million euros ($23 million) plus bonuses for the 30-year-old Matuidi, who had a year left on his contract with the French club.

[ MORE: Wenger issues updates on Alexis, Ox, Wilshere ]

PSG, which is also trying to balance the books after buying Neymar for 222 million euros, could not afford to lose Matuidi on a free transfer.

Matuidi played nearly 300 games for PSG in all competitions after joining from Saint-Etienne in 2011.

After a difficult first season, he quickly became an integral part of the team for successive managers, Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc.

He flourished from a largely defensive midfielder to a robust, tireless runner with an eye for goal and an enormous work-rate.

Overcoming some technical deficiencies in his game, Matuidi gradually earned himself a place in the France lineup and became a key player at the 2014 World Cup and last year’s European Championship.

At the beginning of last season, after Blanc was fired and replaced by Unai Emery, he expressed a desire to leave PSG and already wanted to join Juventus. But the club blocked his move, considering him too important to leave, and he stayed for another season.

Altogether, Matuidi has scored 33 goals for PSG in 295 appearances, becoming a well-respected player among fans and teammates alike, often taking a public stance when others would not and when tensions arose within the club.

In all, Matuidi has won four league titles, three French Cups and four League Cups with PSG.

This story has been corrected to show that Neymar’s fee was 222 million euros, not 220 million euros.

Furious Cristiano Ronaldo responds to five-game ban

Getty Images
4 Comments

Cristiano Ronaldo has hit out at the Spanish soccer federation after his five game ban for pushing a referee in the back was upheld.

Ronaldo, 32, pushed the ref after he was shown a second yellow card in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Barcelona on Sunday.

It capped an eventful El Clasico for Ronaldo who arrived in the second half as a sub, then scored a stunner to put Real 2-1 up.

He received his first yellow for taking off his shirt and holding it up to the Nou Camp crowd to mock Lionel Messi for doing the same in a goal celebration in April at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ronaldo then received a second yellow for going down in the box under a challenge.

In an Instagram post the Real Madrid forward had the following to say about the decision which sees him banned for the second leg ag the Bernabeu on Wednesday as well as Real’s next four games.

“It seems to me exaggerated and ridiculous, this is called persecution.”