U.S./France Olympic preview, or how to combat Les Bleues’ charm offensive

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And so it begins. Momentum is as stake in the U.S.’s first Olympic group stage match tomorrow against an endearingly modish French side.

The U.S. stumbled out of the starting blocks in 2008 when the team dropped its first Olympic match against Norway. Does recent history promise to repeat itself on Wednesday? France likely pose the biggest threat to U.S. chances until the Knockout Round. Les Bleues nearly got the best of the U.S. in the World Cup Semifinals last summer, but failed to contain Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. It’s a match-up between perennial powerhouses vs. potential powerhouses and anything can happen.

Who gets the starting nod in midfield; Lauren Cheney or Carli Lloyd? The USWNT’s previous three friendlies have seen Pia Sundhage do the improbable as Carli Lloyd remained on the bench in favor of Lauren Cheney. While Lloyd is certainly capable of being a productive force (she scored the game-winning goal in the 2008 Gold Medal match, after all), inconsistency and wastefulness have made her a frustrating figure to USWNT devotees. Sundhage rolled the dice by giving Cheney the surprise start in the U.S.’s opening game against  North Korea at the World Cup last summer. Will it be déjà vu in Glasgow?

(MORE: Hope Solo talks about her new autobiography)

Expect France to rack up the style points. It’s been said at least a dozen times before but it bears repeating before special occasions like this. Les Bleues’ meteoric rise on the international scene can be partially attributed to the vast successes amassed by Olympique Lyonnais at club level. Lyon have been lauded for their progressive, possession-oriented style of play; a style France has worked to duplicate. Eleven players on France’s 18-player squad won the Champions League title with Lyon last May. Look for Lyon midfielders Camille Abily and Louisa Necib (she’ll be the one with the eyeliner) to provide France’s attacking thrust. Both are capable of some truly wondrous performances.

How will the U.S.’s defense fare against France’s flair? The United States defense has experienced its share of woes this calendar year. 23-year-old newly-converted defender Kelley O’Hara could be tabbed to start at outside back. France’s speedy wingers are nearly as dangerous as the side’s mercurial attacking midfielders. Lapses in concentration are likely to be punished. The U.S. defense should be prepared to face its stiffest test so far this year.

–  Will Alex Morgan continue to make strides towards history? It seems not even the allure of Alex Morgan can fill seats at Hampden Park (80% of tickets were reportedly distributed to school children in response to sluggish ticket sales). Still, Morgan will have the chance to light up the scoresheet as she’s done so many times this year. She’s merely three goals away from becoming just the fifth player in U.S. WNT history to net 20 goals in a single season. And her premiere World Cup goal came against France, y’know.

(MORE: Comparing the 2008 and 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic sides)  

Final say: Between Morgan, Wambach, and Megan Rapinoe, the U.S.’s frontline looked ferociously potent in the team’s previous three friendlies. Defensive frailties have remained present, however, so it won’t be a shock to see the team cough up a first half goal. Still, one of the U.S.’s three aforementioned attacking players will be eager to make it 2-1. France might need an additional group game before truly hitting form, but a highly competitive duel of contrasting styles will likely be on tap.

The proceedings begin at 12 PM EST on NBC Sports.

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.