What to watch for from U.S. Women’s National Team on Wednesday

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Tom Sermanni era of United States Women’s National Team soccer is still over a month away, even if the transition period begins tomorrow. At tenuous post-Tom, pre-Pia period means the match will be like most since the U.S. won gold: rich on star power but light on relevance.

A continuation of the States’ prolonged post-Olympic celebration tour, Wednesday’s match against the Republic of Ireland comes two-and-a-half years before the team’s next major competition. It also features an opponent that’s ranked 34th in the world (10 spots below Mexico) that never threatened to get out of their group in Euro 2013 qualifying. If last month’s matches against Germany were overlooked, Wednesday’s may barely be noticed.

The level of competition is a reminder of context. This is a celebration tour. The team’s not preparing for anything; rather, they’re taking this opportunity to leverage a successful Olympic campaign, selling a few tickets in the process.

The most important part of this year-ending, five-match stretch (two against Ireland, three against China) will be a veteran auditioning for their new coach. Even though Jillian Ellis will continue running the team, every player knows Tom Sermanni will be watching. How the team performs in this pre-tryout period will be the main reason to follow the next three weeks worth of games.

Here are some areas to watch, though for a team that’s gone 23-1-3 this year, they’re all relative concerns:

source: AP1. When will the Serrmani effect be felt?

The question is actually assumptive, on three levels. It presumes a new coach (a) who has still not officially taken over will (a) have an effect and (b) that effect’s impact is a matter of when, not if. It’s possible the 58-year-old Scot’s main influence will be on continuity – forcing a bridge between a highly successful Sundhage regime and his own. If that happens, we won’t be able to detect Sermanni’s influence.

Although there were small stylistic differences in how Sermanni’s Australia teams played, the approach was largely the same as a U.S. side that’s aspired to a more possession-sensitive approach in the wake of Germany 2011. When he arrives, Sermanni (right), who has already spoken positively about his new team’s technical qualities (hinting they may be underrated), will help this progression, though we’re unlikely to see much difference in the interim.

Still, as a Portland crowd who have been waiting for Caleb Porter know, an absentee coach’s effects can still be felt. If you see this U.S. team show a sudden disinclination toward playing long out of the back, credit Tom Sermanni.

MORE: More detail on the U.S.’s new head coach

source: AP2. Is the defense improving?

National team diehards have long expressed concerns about the team’s defending, with seven goals allowed in six World Cup matches underscoring the team’s problems against top competition. Those problems appeared on the wane when the U.S. gave up only three goals in this year’s first 10 games, but as the Olympic semifinal against Canada showed, the U.S. have to outgun too many teams. Over their last seven games, the U.S. have given up 10 goals.

A lot of that was Pia Sundhage’s willingness to play open games. With a new coach coming in, the defense may need to prove it can lock down opponents.

Christie Rampone (right), the team’s 37-year-old captain, appears to be sticking around to anchor the defense. She’s still among the best players in the world at her position, though the spot to her left – often occupied by Rachel Buehler – needs to be firmed up. That could be done by restoring Buehler’s confidence, though fan favorite Becky Sauerbrunn, who possesses the ball skills to help the U.S.’s stylistic shift, should be considered.

source: Getty Images3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

The States have a lot of depth in attack and on the wings, but in midfield, they’re sorely lacking for choice. Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney (right), and Carli Lloyd are Sermanni’s — uh, Ellis’s — current options, with Cheney and Lloyd the likely pairing as the team approaches Canada 2015. Cheney’s positional versatility and Lloyd’s flare for the dramatic make it a capable pair, but against teams like France, Germany, and Japan, the lack of speed, variety, and ball-winning leave the U.S. at a disadvantage.

In Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, Sermanni has wide players capable of playing attacking midfield positions, but it’s unclear whether that role would conflict with Abby Wambach, who (with the emergence of Alex Morgan) spends more time occupying that space, waiting for play to come to her feet.

The other idea would be to restore Sauerbrunn to the midfield, a role she playing in college. At the base of a triangle with Cheney and Lloyd, Sauerbrunn would allow the two more attacked-minded midfielders to venture forward without exposing the defense. Her skill on the ball can act as a fulcrum when the States have established their attack, while her time as a defender make her the best choice to protect (and possibly solve the problems of) a vulnerable defense.

Conceivably carrying many of the qualities of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Sauerbrunn’s a potential response to the midfield strength of the U.S.’s main rivals (Germany, France, Japan). While some have envisioned a similar role for Lauren Cheney, moving Sauerbrunn into midfield would allow one of the States’ goal scoring threats to stay higher up the field.

MORE: Coach Sermanni’s to-do list ahead of Canada 2015

source: Getty Images4. Is Heath really a wide player?

For most of her career at North Carolina, Heath played left midfield for teams that won three national titles, a position that allowed her to take on defenders with her elite one-on-one skills. Three years after playing her last game at Chapel Hill, Heath has started to establish herself in the same position with the national team, though with mixed results.

She still shows the ability to break down a defender one-on-one, but against a higher level of competition, it happens less often. When she does beat her mark, her opposition’s increased athleticism means quicker recovery. Even when Heath’s skills prove a plus, they aren’t enough of an advantage to justify forgoing opportunities to work through Wambach and Morgan, particularly since Heath’s yet to prove a strong crosser of the ball.

Her skill, however, is undeniable, and it’s not difficult to imagine her passing, vision, and quickness being effective in the middle, given the right teammates around her. In the middle, her shot from 18-24 yards can be a real weapon. It all begs a question Serrmani must eventually answer: Is Heath a wide player – somebody who should be taking time away from Heather O’Reilly – or somebody who can help a thin midfield? Her latest audition begins Wednesday.

source: Getty Images5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

When U.S. Soccer announced the new women’s professional league last week, president Sunil Gulati noted that for the time there would be a direct link between Major League Soccer and one of the top-flight women’s teams. The Paulson family, backers of MLS’s Portland Timbers, had signed on to support a women’s team, one that will likely make Jeld-Wen Field its home.

It’s tempting to see Wednesday night’s game as a test of women’s soccer in Portland, but for a number of reasons, we’re unlikely to see the amped atmosphere that accompanies Timbers games. As of Monday, thanks to little citywide buzz and a $38 entry-level ticket price, only 8,600 tickets had been sold for Wednesday’s match, a number trailing ticket sales for upcoming games in Phoenix, Detroit, and Houston. Add in the late weekday start and the bite of a fall northwest night, and the game won’t threaten Jeld-Wen’s 20,438 capacity.

Perversely, all those circumstances could make Wednesday’s match a good litmus test for women’s professional soccer in Portland. Even though the new team won’t be playing in late fall, there are a number of other obstacles it will have to overcome. Creating buzz will always be a problem (especially in a city that’s fallen for its MLS product), but ticket prices will be much more reasonable.

Given the circumstances that are keeping many away, getting a crowd of over 10,000 for Wednesday’s game against Ireland would be a great sign for the new professional team, especially if two or three of the night’s stars are playing for Portland come March.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Coutinho to Barca; Sanchez to Man City

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Barcelona will make an improved bid for Philippe Coutinho according to Sky Sports.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Real Madrid? ]

Liverpool have reportedly turned down a $93.9 million bid for the Brazilian playmaker but the Reds are said to be expecting an improved offer from the Spanish giants.

Coutinho, 25, only signed a new five-year contract with Liverpool in January but as he continues to score stunning goals on the way to leading Jurgen Klopp‘s men back to the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s biggest clubs have stepped up their interest in the diminutive playmaker.

Neymar, a close friend and Brazil teammate of Coutinho, may have a big say in this deal. If he leaves for Paris Saint-Germain in a world-record deal, Barca will obviously have plenty of cash to spend, but perhaps linking up Coutinho with Neymar at the Nou Camp will convince Brazil’s skipper to stay?

Coutinho’s record in recent seasons speaks for itself after he’s scored 26 goals in 79 PL appearances with many long-range beauties and curling, dipping free kicks among them. He has also added 12 assists over the past two seasons and he sets the tempo for Liverpool’s play in the attacking third. Coutinho would be a perfect replacement for Barca legend Andres Iniesta who is coming to the end of his career.

Klopp has already stated that he had a chat with Coutinho last week and insists he is not going anywhere. That said, Luis Suarez’s move to Barca in the summer of 2014 didn’t seem too likely either. Coutinho isn’t quite at a Suarez-esque level of importance for Liverpool yet, but we all know how that Barca pursuit ended.


The Independent claims Alexis Sanchez prefers a move to Manchester City.

With Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich all said to be offering Sanchez more than City in wages, it appears the Chilean forward would take less money to join Man City from Arsenal this summer.

Arsene Wenger has said multiple times that Sanchez will not be sold but with just one year left on his current deal can the Gunners really turn down a big offer from Man City if it came in?

Of course, Pep Guardiola‘s side being a main PL rival for Arsenal is the big spanner in the works of this deal but with Guardiola working with Sanchez at Barcelona in the past, the duo get along and Sanchez would obviously add even more dynamism to City’s ridiculously stacked forward line.

Where would he fit in at the Etihad Stadium? Well, that’s anybody guess but what we do know is that if you have Sanchez on your squad, he’s playing. The 28-year-old scored 24 goals and added 10 assists in the PL for Arsenal last season and City could slot him in to a fluid front three of Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane, then have Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling around too.

Quite why City needs Sanchez is a mystery, but reports continue to state both parties are interested and Man City will surely challenge for the Champions League title, something Sanchez has stated he wants to do.

Top Premier League rivalries – Part 1

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With the new Premier League season just 17 days away, let’s get the juices flowing.

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Below is a look at three of the biggest rivalries in the PL with local pride on the line as heavyweights collide.

Part 1 of the PL rivalry series takes a look at the North London derby, the Merseyside derby and the North West derby.

Enjoy readying yourself for the upcoming battles, while Part 2 of the rivalry series will be coming soon.


North London derby

Merseyside derby

North West derby

Who will be the winners in Virgil van Dijk situation?

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The situation surrounding Virgil Van Dijk is fast becoming the transfer saga of the summer in the Premier League.

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Last week Southampton’s captain told his manager Mauricio Pellegrino that he wants to leave the club and he has now been told to train on his own back in England while Saints are on tour in France.

Van Dijk, 26, has been chased by Liverpool but Jurgen Klopp‘s men were forced to issue a public apology in early June stating that would “end their interest” in the player following a complaint from Southampton to the Premier League about an alleged illegal approach.

For most of preseason VVD has trained with Saints but the first warning signs arrived on their last trip to Austria where he did not play in their preseason friendly as he was said to be still recovering from a foot injury he suffered in January.

Now the Dutch international center back is effectively on strike at Southampton but with a $70 million pricetag around his neck and Liverpool, his preferred destination, seemingly out of the picture, he doesn’t have a lot of options. Chelsea and Manchester City were said to be interested but they have spent big elsewhere on defenders, so it’s Liverpool or bust for van Dijk.

Now that he’s an outcast at Southampton, many would suggest that’s that for van Dijk at Saints. Hold your horses.

As often as Southampton have sold star players over the past five seasons (Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne to name a few) they’ve also held firm when they wanted to. They insist van Dijk is not for sale and have done so since late last season season when Pro Soccer Talk spoke to their chairman Ralph Krueger.

“We do not need to sell a player this summer,” Krueger said. “Any transfer in and out now will be to increase the quality of the squad and do what is best for the club. I have to tell you, straight up, we do not have to sell anybody. We will do our best to retain the core, solidify the core and move with some synergy into next season.”

With past players Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane, they were all told to give Saints one more season before moving on to some of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool respectively. They did that and had their best seasons in a Southampton shirt knowing they were in the shop window and great play would help shape their future.

Could the same happen with van Dijk? This situation is slightly different but Saints have no interest whatsoever in selling him.

The Dutchman signed a new five-year contract last summer and has been named team captain following his impressive displays since arriving from Celtic in the summer of 2015, plus he also signed on with a new agent over the summer. He is the face of this team and settling back into the squad and being accepted by fans just a few weeks after stating he did not want to play for the club won’t be easy.

An added layer to all of this is that it’s Liverpool involved, the club who has bought more Southampton players than any other over the past four seasons, plus some of Liverpool’s club legends have spoken in the media and told Van Dijk to go on strike. Animosity levels are high.

It’s unlikely van Dijk will be adored by Southampton’s fans anytime soon, and if he leaves he will booed and jeered just like Lallana and Lovren who reportedly pushed for a move away in 2014 and are still given that treatment every time they touch the ball from Saints’ fans.

Van Dijk’s name was sung loudly at every Southampton game and he is the one true world-class player they possess. They still possess him, but the dilemma for Saints here is do they buckle to pressure and sell him or do they keep hold of van Dijk and hope he changes his mind and wants to play for the club again?

If he doesn’t do the latter he will rot in the reserves while being one of the top earners at the club. Nobody wants that. Not van Dijk. Not Southampton. Nobody. But Saints can live with it if they have to.

That’s why they will hold out and hope that time away from the team will sway VVD’s mind into sticking around and help them push for another top 10 finish under new manager Pellegrino.

It is tough to stand in the way of a player when a team can offer him UEFA Champions League action and his talent clearly deserve that, but if Southampton don’t want to sell him, why should they?

Many would suggest player power is at an all-time high in the PL with contracts not worth the piece of paper they’re written on. Yet if you look around the league there are similar situations playing out at mid-sized clubs who are now benefiting financially from the PL’s riches and have no need to sell their stars to fund new signings and other projects.

Swansea are holding on to Gylfi Sigurdsson despite his refusal to go on their U.S. tour. Leicester aren’t prepared to sell Riyad Mahrez on the cheap despite his public declaration he wants to leave. And then there’s Southampton who don’t want, or need, to sell van Dijk.

Yes, Southampton are playing hardball and their manager Pellegrino has taken the drastic action to cut van Dijk from first-team training for the foreseeable future, but what else could they do? If it was any other player wanting to leave they would do the same.

Speaking to local journalists from the Daily Echo last week about his decision, Pellegrino summed up the situation, and his strong stance, perfectly.

“The club was clear. The club told me they will not sell Virgil,” Pellegrino said. “I translated the idea of the club to the player and for me it was easy because I had to manage the dynamic of the team. Now he is not involved with the team because psychologically he is not 100 per cent. If you are not 100 per cent with the team I need to work with the players who are 1000 per cent to defend Southampton. It’s easy for me.”

These situations are never fun for anyone involved but van Dijk now has a decision to make. Southampton have made theirs and he is not for sale.

It’s now up to van Dijk to accept that or continue to refuse to play to force a move away. It may eventually happen later in this window or even in January, but he will lose not only playing time but respect from all corners.

Chelsea lose to Bayern Munich in Singapore

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Bayern Munich beat Chelsea 3-2 in an entertaining Inernational Champions Cup clash in Singapore on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Mbappe to Real Madrid?

The German giants struck three times in the first half four with Rafinha opening the scoring and Thomas Muller grabbing two for himself.

Antonio Conte‘s side were stunned but pulled back a goal just before half time with Marcos Alonso hammering home. New $95 million signing Alvaro Morata made his Chelsea debut in the second half but it was Michy Batshuayi who scored his second goal in as many preseason games to make it 3-2.

Next up for Chelsea is a game against Inter Milan in Singapore on Saturday before they head back to the UK for the Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembley on Aug. 6.

Chelsea went behind early on as Rafinha put the German champions 1-0 up with a low shot from the right which took two bounces and skipped inside the far post and past Thibaut Courtois.

Soon it got worse for Chelsea as Muller scored twice in quick succession, the first a volley from Franck Ribery’s fine cross, the second a brilliant curling effort from over 25 yards out to give the Germans a 3-0 lead with just 27 minutes on the clock.

Chelsea improved before half time with Conte’s men creating chances on the break and Alonso then smashed home Victor Moses‘ cross as the Blues trailed 3-1 at the interval.

Both teams soon made subs with Kingsley Coman replacing Robert Lewandowski for Bayern, plus David Luiz came on for Andreas Christensen and Alvaro Morata made his Chelsea debut, replacing the impressive Jeremie Boga.

Gary Cahill then denied James Rodriguez with a great block but Chelsea couldn’t find a way back into the game as Morata lined up on the left of a front three with Michy Batshuayi in the middle.

Batshuayi went close to pulling another goal back but couldn’t get on the end of a cross, then James’ twice went close for Bayern but Courtois denied him.

Luiz hit the post for Chelsea late on and then Batshuayi finished after Morata’s flick on from a Cesc Fabregas corner to make it 3-2, but the west London club couldn’t grab an equalizer and tasted defeat for the first time in preseason after beating Arsenal 3-0 in their opening last weekend.