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.

Sam Allardyce: I’d give myself 11 out of 10 on survey

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Sam Allardyce has responded to Everton sending out an email survey to fans asking to rate his performance.

Yep, that actually happened earlier this week as fans were asked to rate, out of 10, if they “have a high level of trust in the current manager and coaching staff of Everton e.g. in making the right decision to get the best out of the team.”

Speaking to the media on Thursday ahead of Everton’s clash with Newcastle on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), Allardyce replied “P*** Off. Eleven” when asked what he would give himself out of 10.

He then went into more depth about what happened and confirmed he had received an apology from majority owner and chairman Farhad Moshiri.

“The survey… the managing director of marketing and communications has clearly slipped up,” Allardyce said. “Even though I believe the survey has been recently passed out before, from my point of view it was a big mistake. I think it has allowed you to write some beautiful headlines on that situation. The actual question was what do you think of the manager, the players and the staff – and obviously our managing director of marketing is clearly not a great understander of football and how football works, because he is into marketing and branding and market research.”

Most of Everton’s fans would give Allardyce less than a five, hence why this is such a big deal, as the former West Ham, Sunderland and Crystal Palace manager is fighting to keep his job with just over 12 months left on his current deal.

The English manager took charge of Everton back in November 2017 after Ronald Koeman was sacked following the Toffees being sucked into a relegation battle. Since then Allardyce has steered Everton into the top half of the table but has been heavily criticized by fans for negative tactics as he was booed at Swansea last weekend in the 1-1 draw.

Allardyce has laughed off suggestions of negative soccer from fans and the fact he has jokingly given himself an 11 out of 10 will only antagonize the large band of Everton fans who want him out this summer.

The brash character then said he would be “disappointed” if he lost his job this summer and is planning to be in charge of Everton next season. Maybe those in charge of the club will now be forced to give Big Sam a little more time after this unfortunate email scenario.

Sweden not keen on Zlatan’s World Cup return

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With Zlatan Ibrahimovic already making his mark in Major League Soccer with three goals in his first three games for the LA Galaxy, the veteran Swedish forward is eyeing a return to international duty for the 2018 World Cup this summer.

“A World Cup without me wouldn’t be a World Cup” said Ibrahimovic, 36, recently as he also confirmed during an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show that he will be going to Russia but didn’t give specific details if it was as a spectator or a player.

Well, perhaps we won’t be having a World Cup because it appears not all of his former teammates would be on board if Zlatan took a U-turn on his decision to retire from the Swedish national team after EURO 2016.

Back-up goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson had the following to say to outlet Main Oppose.

“We managed to qualify and go through to the World Cup without him, and I think we can manage to play well at the World Cup without him,” Johnsson said. “But it’s up to the coach to see if he wants to bring him – and I am sure if he does join, he will play well. As a team, we play as a collective, all the players together. With Zlatan, as a person, as a player he’s an individualist, and the play goes around him. Instead, now, we play more the team all together.”

Boom.

Zlatan has said multiple times that he is thinking about a return to the Swedish national team squad and with World Cup squads set to be announced in around about one month from now, surely Sweden’s head coach Janne Andersson must now if he will call up Zlatan.

The positives for Sweden are obvious. The can bring in their all-time leading goalscorer to jump off the bench late in tight games to try and get them out of Group F where they face Germany, Mexico and South Korea.

The negatives are centered around what Johnsson said, with Sweden looking like a tighter unit and all pulling together to get to the World Cup after missing out on qualifying for the last two in 2010 and 2014.

Zlatan has actually only played in two World Cups, in 2002 and 2006, scoring just once, and if he does go to the World Cup he will be taking the spot of one of Marcus Berg, John Guidetti, Ola Toivonen and Issac Thelin in the squad. Berg scored eight in qualifying, while Emil Forsberg scored four and the Swedish attacking unit seems to flow a lot better from Zlatan.

Look, Zlatan will probably go to the World Cup. But it appears not everyone will be happy with this decision.

PHOTOS: Tottenham’s stunning new stadium

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Tottenham Hotspur’s new $1 billion stadium is taking shape and it is looking magnificent.

The plan is for Spurs’ new home at White Hart Lane to be ready for the 2018/19 season, with reports stating that Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will play their first couple of games away from home next season in order to squeeze in a few more weeks for construction.

Spurs’ new  home will seat 62,062 fans and will be the second-largest stadium in the Premier League behind Manchester United’s Old Trafford.

Take a look at the photos below in the spring sunshine in London, with the largest single-tier stand in Europe looking sublime as the roof panels are going on and the stadium is really starting to come to life.


Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso handed three-game ban

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After being named in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year on Wednesday, it has been a mixed few days for Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso as he has received a three-game ban with immediate effect after being found guilty of violent conduct.

Alsono, 27, stamped on Shane Long‘s calf in Chelsea’s 3-2 comeback win at Southampton last time out but referee Mike Dean missed the incident completely.

Since then Alonso has received a retrospective charge from the English FA and although the Spanish left back appealed the decision and the length of the ban, it was upheld and he will now miss Chelsea’s next three games.

Alonso will miss the clash at Burnley on Thursday, the FA Cup semifinal against Southampton on Sunday and the trip to Swansea City on Apr. 28.

Who will come in for Alonso?

Antonio Conte has already stated that Emerson Palmeri, a January arrival from AS Roma, will start at Burnley on Thursday and if the Brazilian full back impresses then it is highly likely he will stand in for Alonso in the big FA Cup semifinal on Sunday against Saints. Other options would be Davide Zappacosta playing as the left wing-back or even Cesar Azpilicueta out there.

As for Saints, they feel hard done by after Dean didn’t spot Alonso’s foul even though he was standing yards away from the incident and looking straight at it. At the time of the incident they led 1-0 going into half time and their manager Mark Hughes believes it would have made a big difference as Alonso’s cross set up Olivier Giroud to make it 2-1 and the Spaniard made a big difference from left back in the incredible 3-2 comeback victory. Still, at least Saints won’t have to play against Alonso on Sunday with revenge in the air…