United States Women’s National Team en route to Sweden for tune-up tournament

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Practice is paramount ahead of the Olympics. The U.S. will face old foes Sweden on June 16 and Japan on June 18 at an international friendly tournament in Sweden. All the vitals herein.

Who’s on the plane

The 22 players selected for the Olympics are on board, along with three of the four alternates (goalkeeper Jill Loyden, defender/midfielder Meghan Klingenberg, and midfielder Lori Lindsey).

Striker Christen Press is currently based in Sweden. The Stanford alum plays for Gothenburg in the Swedish top-flight and is the league’s second-leading goal-scorer. She might be able to give her teammates a guided tour of the surroundings as the USWNT will play its matches in Halmstad, approximately an hour and a half away from Press’ HQ.

Why it matters

With under two months to go before the commencement of the Olympics, matches against top opponents typically offer up a lesson or two. The team has amassed an 11-1-1 record so far this year. Despite the imposing record, wobbly defending, unkempt midfield play, and chronically poor first halves are worth nitpicking over. These two matches should serve as an up-to-date progress report.

Pia Sundhage made some minor tactical modifications in the team’s last match against China. Several players are also still auditioning for starting roles. The next few weeks in Sweden could go a long way in determining the line-up set to return to the world stage this summer.

Scouting the competition

Next to France (who will be the USWNT’s first group stage opponents this summer), Sweden and Japan are likely the two most intriguing opponents imaginable for the USWNT. Dating back to July of 2011, the U.S. has lost two matches and drawn four (that includes the ill-fated World Cup final, which technically ended in a tie). Either Japan or Sweden were the opponents in five of those six matches.

Japan are becoming the USWNT’s bogey team. Both the lone draw and lone loss the USWNT suffered this year came at the hands of Japan. Reigning Ballon d’Or winner Homare Sawa battled vertigo throughout the spring, but has recently begun playing full matches for her club team. The U.S. will have another chance to get one back against the world champions and their well-regarded style of play.

Sweden have proven to be tricky opponents for the U.S. as of late. In the last five meetings between the sides, the USWNT has claimed just one victory. The U.S.’s final World Cup group match against the Swedes was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Horrific defending cost the U.S. the result, and consequently, the top spot in Group C. Of course, the subsequent quarterfinal match against Brazil worked out a lot better for the Americans.

This won’t quite be the same Sweden the U.S. has grown accustomed to, however. Ace center back Charlotte Rohlin and outside midfielder Therese Sjögran have each recently suffered serious injuries. Their presence in Thomas Dennerby’s side will be sorely missed.

The USWNT’s comfort level on foreign soil

This will be the team’s first trip to Pia Sundhage’s motherland since July 2008. The team faced the host nation that day and came away with a 1-0 win courtesy of a Carli Lloyd goal. The U.S. has a solid record on Swedish soil. The team has played seven matches in the Scandinavian nation dating back to 1995. All but one match has ended in a victory for the USWNT.

The team has led something of a jet-setting life in 2012. The USWNT’s Swedish expedition follows Olympic Qualifying in Vancouver, the annual Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal, and a three-team tournament in Japan. Save for a loss at the Algarve Cup and a draw in Japan, the team has logged many miles with its wins. We’ll see if that remains the case come mid-June.

Premier League preview: Man United vs. Newcastle United

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  • Red Devils unbeaten in 31 of last 32 home fixtures vs. Newcastle
  • Newcastle winless in its last six PL matches
  • Lukaku hasn’t scored in United’s last seven games

Manchester United hosts Newcastle United on Saturday from Old Trafford (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) as the Red Devils could potentially welcome back several of it biggest stars for the match.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo could return for Jose Mourinho’s side this weekend, as Man United looks to bounce back from its 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Nov. 5.

The ex-Sweden international Ibrahimovic hasn’t appeared in a match since April 2017, after being United’s top goalscorer a season ago.

The Red Devils will have to deal with the absence of Phil Jones at the back, though, as the England international misses out on the match with a thigh injury.

Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu and Jamaal Lascelles, which certainly hurts the squad’s attack, while Mikel Merino and Paul Dummett remain sidelined with respective injuries.

What they’re saying

Jose Mourinho, on Paul Pogba’s status:  “I can say now because he’s back – I don’t like to speak while he’s injured – you can clearly see there is a Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury. There are qualities in our football, qualities that influence our approach in matches, with Pogba and without Pogba. Simple as that.”

Rafa Benitez, on growing pains of being a young side“We are a newly-promoted club that has to settle down in the Premier League. We have a young squad, so it’s a learning process for everyone and losing some games is part of the process. Hopefully we can stop that this weekend, but we know it has to be like this. We have to think that the target is to stay in the Premier League, then after try to go as high as we can in the table.”

Prediction

Newcastle has had its share of struggles this season, and running into a Man United side that is gaining full fitness is a dangerous task. The Red Devils are a tough squad to beat at home, so Rafa Benitez and Co. have their hands full. Man United 2-0 Newcastle

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32