Tom Sermmani’s early ‘to-do’ list ahead of Canada 2015

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By now, you should know a little more about Tom Sermanni, the 58-year-old Scot who has been chosen to guide the U.S. Women’s National Team toward Canada 2015. What we’ve yet to cover are the challenges he’ll face trying to get the team to move forward, something that must happen if the USWNT’s to stay on (or near the) top of an increasingly competitive international soccer landscape.

Increased competition is not the only external issue facing Sermanni. As World Cup 2011 showed, the women’s game is evolving, quickly. France, Japan, and the changes we see in Germany’s approach provide a glimpse of a faster, very technical future. While the U.S.’s style has remained relatively static, rivals have been absorbing and implementing the game’s broader tactical innovations. Combined with countries’ improved development, the U.S. is facing significant challenges to their perch atop the women’s game.

While that’s incredibly exciting for the sport, it also depicted a landscape that could envelop the U.S by 2015.

How does Serrmani keep the U.S. at the forefront? Here are the issues (in no particular order):

1. What course with the fullbacks – Pia Sundhage converted Kelley O’Hara from attack to defense and started pool midfielder Meghan Klingenberg down the same road. Serrmani could elect to continue with these progressive options or go back to natural defenders, a choice that would leave central defenders Amy LePeilbet, Whitney Engen, and Rachel Buehler as options at left back. Right back Ali Krieger, the best at her position at World Cup 2011, should be back by the time the U.S. plays its next important game, solving the problem on the opposite flank.

2. Centrally, the defense – In their last four (all at home) games, the U.S. has allowed six goals. Granted, they’ve scored 11, but their defending continues to be a cause for concern, particularly given Christie Rampone’s uncertain future. Thankfully, it looks like the captain’s sticking around. The 37-year-old is still one of the best defenders in the world, but who do you play next to her? Buehler’s confidence appears to be shaken. Becky Sauerbrunn would add some needed class on the ball, while LePeilbet was twice chosen WPS’s best defender. There are options, just a lack of answers.

3. Middle of midfield, too – Increased use of three-woman midfields presents a huge problem for the U.S. By formation, they’re often outnumbered, leading to large spans where they fail to control games against elite competition. By personnel, they’re thin. Carli Lloyd got redemption in this summer’s gold medal game after losing her place in the team, but questions reamin about her consistency and defending. At 35, Shannon Boxx isn’t expected to make it to Canada 2015 (and could retire at any time). Lauren Cheney’s conversion to central midfield remains a work in progress. As the rest of the world is bolstering in the middle, the U.S. is in need to new options.

4. Heath, Rapinoe, O’Reilly … Rodriguez, Cheney – No team has better wide play than the U.S., but there are decisions to be made here, too. Tobin Heath’s been starting wide left opposite Megan Rapinoe, with Heather O’Reilly unable to reclaim a consistent starting spot after her leg injury. Though she has her best days ahead of her, Heath has failed to match O’Reilly’s effectiveness, and it’s unclear she’ll ever be as good on the flank as the player she’s replacing. The U.S. has a couple of years to find out, with Cheney and Amy Rodriguez also factoring into the equation.

5. A future without Wambach – Abby Wambach will be 35 by the time 2015 starts, and she’s starting to wear down. What does the U.S. do if their focal point can’t play 90 minutes come Canada? Sermanni has to come up with a plan. It’s not enough to rely on Alex Morgan, a completely different type of player. How does the U.S. rebuild when the center of their attack moves on?

6. Bringing in new blood – Among the few complaints about the Pia Sundhage era was her inability, at the end, to bring new players into the team. While the likes of Cheney, Rapinoe and Morgan were able to crack the starting XI, we’re not seeing a lot of new blood on the bench. Kelley O’Hara and Sydney Leroux have gotten time, but it took far too long for Ali Krieger to unseat Heather Mitts at right back. As we see with the situation in midfield, there aren’t a lot of options waiting in the wings. Sermanni has to change that.

7. A team and a product – We take the iconography of the USWNT for granted, but if you think about a world where the team isn’t at the top of the game, it’s easier to see success as a huge part of this program’s identity (even if they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999). As he makes tough calls on these issues, Sermanni has to keep the team at the top of the game, even if the speed at which the world’s improving makes it inevitable that the U.S. lose its spot. Unfortunately for Sermanni, there’s no tolerance for that happening over the next four years.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.