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.

Report: Man City, Guardiola to discuss new contract this summer

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Manchester City does not want to let Pep Guardiola start the third year with the club without signing on for longer term.

Guardiola enters the third and final year of his deal in August, and the BBC reports that Man City plans to negotiate a new deal with the Catalan wizard this summer.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given City’s outstanding sophomore season under Guardiola.

Unbeaten City has an 11-point lead on the Premier League table after 18 weeks, with one draw and a PL record 16-straight wins. They have 56 goals scored, conceding just 12.

They’ve won five of six UEFA Champions League matches, only losing a match their opposition needed and they did not, 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. City faces Basel next, and visits Leicester City in the League Cup quarterfinals Wednesday.

Lanzini charged by FA for fooling ref with dive

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Manuel Lanzini dove to earn a penalty in West Ham’s 3-0 win over Stoke City on Saturday at the bet365 Stadium, and he may pay for it.

Lanzini, who also posted an assist in an influential performance, drew the penalty converted by Mark Noble when he hit the deck under minimal contact from Erik Pieters.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

He could miss two matches for “successful deception of a match official,” the same penalty given to Everton’s Oumar Niasse for a similar offense.

West Ham pulled out of the drop zone with the win, but has three bottom-half battles coming up over the festive fixtures: Saturday versus Newcastle, Dec. 26 at Bournemouth, and Jan. 2 versus West Brom.

Griezmann backtracks over ‘insensitive’ blackface tweet

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MADRID (AP) Soccer star Antoine Griezmann has apologized for any offense caused after posting an image of himself on social media in blackface as part of an NBA party costume on Sunday.

Griezmann, who is white, was also wearing a wig and holding a basketball in the photo which had “NBA 69 ALLSTARS” on the jersey.

[ MORE: Making sense of the PL table ]

The photo on his official Twitter account was accompanied by the message “80’s Party” followed by basketball and laughing emojis.

One response called the photo a “bad idea” with others urging the France forward to delete the tweet.

Griezmann at first reacted to the criticism by tweeting: “Calm down friends, I’m a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters and of this great era… It’s a tribute.”

He later tweeted an apology to those he had offended.

“I recognize that’s it’s insensitive on my part. If I offended some people I’m sorry,” he wrote.

The 26-year-old Griezmann plays for Spanish team Atletico Madrid but has been linked to a move to Barcelona.

Alex Morgan named CONCACAF Female POY, Navas wins Male POY

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CONCACAF awarded some of its finest players and coaches on Sunday night, and two familiar faces took home the evening’s most notable awards.

[ MORE: Making sense of table in Man City’s world ]

U.S. Women’s National Team forward Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride) and Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Real Madrid each earned Female and Male Player of the Year honors, after boasting tremendous 2017 seasons.

Morgan who primarily plays for Orlando in the NWSL, was also a member of Lyon, who went on to win the Women’s Champions League this past season.

Navas, on the other hand, played a key role in Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League run, as well as Los Blancos’ La Liga title.

For Morgan, the award is her third since CONCACAF began handing out its annual awards in 2013. Meanwhile, Navas has now won Male Player of the Year on two occasions.