Tom Sermanni

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.

Real Madrid loses Modric and Marcelo to injuries in Malaga win

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 21:  Marcelo of Real Madrid CF comes off substituted during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at the Bernabeu on January 21, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The 40-game unbeaten run seems like a distant memory.

Real Madrid had lost two straight matches before a 2-1 La Liga win over Malaga on Saturday, but despite the three points, they still did lose in a way.

Los Blancos lost both Marcelo and Luka Modric to injury in the match, and both could potentially miss up to a month of time.

Modric has been in and out of the squad this season due to injuries, and during his other lengthy spell on the sidelines, he was replaced adequately by 22-year-old Mateo Kovacic, and he was the man to replace Modric against Malaga with 12 minutes remaining. Reports say the Croatian suffered an adductor injury which can be quite painful and could keep him off the field for a number of weeks.

Marcelo, meanwhile, has been a staple in the Madrid lineup, appearing in the last 11 league matches and starting all but two of those. Marcelo was brought off just 25 minutes into the Malaga win reportedly with a hamstring problem, replaced by Isco. The likely long-term replacement for the 28-year-old Brazilian would be Nacho Fernandez, who has seen time this season on both defensive flanks.

The injuries puts not just the immediate La Liga and Copa del Rey futures of the two in jeopardy, but also could affect their availability for the start of the Champions League knockout stage which begins on February 15th against Napoli.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. Hull City (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea warms up prior to the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Diego Costa has returned from his short absence as the Brazilian starts in front of the home fans at Stamford Bridge live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Costa had missed the 3-0 win over Leicester City with what was officially tabbed as a back injury, but with reports swirling that the striker had been unsettled by a big offer from China and a bust-up with management. Now, he’s back after missing just a single match.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs. Hull City live online at NBCSports.com ]

John Terry does not make the Chelsea squad despite returning from suspension, with Kurt Zouma on the bench in relief Antonio Conte‘s preferred back three.

Hull City is without leading scorer Robert Snodgrass, a big loss for a player who has struggled with injury problems the last two years. David Meyler returned to training this week and is on the bench.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard.
Subs: 
Begovic, Ake, Zouma, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

Hull City: Jakupovic; Maguire, Dawson, Davies, Elabdellaoui; Mason, Huddlestone, Clucas, Robertson; Evandro, Hernández.
Subs: Marshall, Meyler, Maloney, Diomande, Niasse, Tymon, Bowen.

Arsenal 2-1 Burnley: Arsenal into second in stunning fashion

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What appeared a straightforward result for Arsenal ended in stunning fashion as a pair of penalties in stoppage time saw Arsenal through to second in the Premier League table.

A 59th minute header by Shkodran Mustafi had Arsenal 1-0 in front, and it remained that way for much of the game. Granit Xhaka was sent off again in the 65th minute, but it didn’t appear to make much of a difference to the Gunners.

Then, things exploded in stoppage time with seven added minutes due to earlier injuries. Referee Jon Moss pointed to the spot two minutes into stoppage time for a kick from Francis Coquelin, and Andre Gray buried the chance to level things up, appearing to have wrapped up a point. But in the final tick of seven added minutes, Arsenal themselves earned a penalty when Ben Mee produced a high boot to the face of Laurent Koscielny, leaving the referee no choice but to point to the spot. Alexis Sanchez cooly went down the middle, and Arsenal came out on top.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley started brightly, but it was Arsenal that had the best early chance. With six minutes gone by, Alexis Sanchez broke down the left and delivered a good ball in, but Olivier Giroud‘s flick header was from too far out, and the Frenchman probably should have let it go with the ball set to arrive at the feet of Aaron Ramsey.

That chance sparked Arsenal to begin pummeling the Burnley box, mostly up the left edge with Sanchez. The visitors packed in the box, forcing the Gunners to get creative, and Mesut Ozil fired wide on the half-volley past 20 minutes.

Laurent Koscielny was needed at the back after a mistake in possession by his defensive partner Shkodran Mustafi, but the Frenchman was calm, cool, and collected to dispossess Andre Gray on the break. Koscielny had a chance on the other end as well, past the half-hour mark as he headed a free-kick on net but it looped agonizingly over the bar, settling on the top netting.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Arsenal continued to attack the packed-in Burnley box, and Sanchez whipped a shot in three minutes before halftime that swerved just wide of the post. The Gunners kept at it right out of the break, as Grioud fed Ramsey with a header, but the Welsh international tried a scorpion kick, and it went over. Sanchez fired a fizzing shot on net on 50 minutes, but it curled just beyond the top right corner. Arsenal should have had a penalty, with Mustafi going down under a silly challenge from Gray, but no call was awarded.

The hosts finally and deservedly broke through in the 59th minute as Mustafi expertly headed in off a corner. The header was from a very tight angle, as Mustafi met the ball ahead of the near post, angling it all the way across the face of goal and tucked inside the far corner past a diving Tom Heaton.

Arsenal was pegged back when Granit Xhaka earned his second red card of the Premier League season for a two-footed lunge on Steven Defour. Xhaka had passed the ball straight to Defour and as the Burnley midfielder distributed it to a teammate, the Swiss international went in studs showing, and after a conference with the assistant referee, head official Jon Moss sent Xhaka off.

With 15 minutes remaining, Burnley lost a steady man as Dean Marney was forced off after a heavy challenge with Mesut Ozil that earned him a yellow card. The stretcher was required after what appeared to be a serious injury to his right knee which took the full brunt of Ozil’s weight in an awkward position.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

As the game wound to a close, there were seven added minutes due to the Marney injury. Early in stoppage time, Burnley won a penalty and appeared to have earned themselves a point. Substitute Francis Coquelin kicked Ashley Barnes in the lower leg, and the penalty was awarded. Gray buried the penalty down the middle, and things were level with just minutes remaining.

Arsenal poured forward, and with an angry Arsene Wenger sent to the tunnel, the Gunners produced a winning moment. A free-kick looped in to the far post, and Mee’s boot contacted Koscielny in the side of the head, again forcing the referee to award the penalty. Sanchez broke out the panenka finish, dinking the ball down the middle and in for a last-gasp 2-1 lead. Replays show the penalty was the correct decision, but Koscielny was in an offside position when the delivery came in, the flag failing to punish the Gunners.

The win moves Arsenal past Liverpool and Tottenham, into second place with 47 points, five behind leaders Chelsea who are yet to play this weekend. Burnley, meanwhile, remain with just a single point all season away from home, sitting in 13th place with 26 points, having been passed by Southampton who won in the early Sunday match.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri admits tactical mistakes after another road defeat

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Ever-gracious Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has taken full responsibility for the Foxes’ recent struggles, claiming his lineup tinkering has fallen flat.

The Italian said following the 3-0 defeat to Southampton that he has tried a few different formations to maximize his players’ abilities, but that it hasn’t worked out.

[ RECAP: Leicester falls on the road again at Southampton ]

“I think the last two matches I changed the shape to try and help my players to play better and find the right solution, but maybe I make mistakes. I am wrong against Chelsea when I play with three at the back, and also today when I wanted to play with a diamond. My players are used to playing with a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and they recognize the position, the game, everything, the movement. I wanted to give something more, but I make a mistake, I was wrong.”

Honesty sure is Ranieri’s best policy, and deflecting criticism from his players is clearly the tactic here. Managers often like to play down the importance of tactical formations at times, but here it clearly has weighed on Ranieri’s mind, who may revert back to his tested formations.

[ MORE: Is Pep Guardiola unhappy in the Premier League? ]

“I think it’s much better to give to them what they know very well. I look and they had to push a lot with this system and this mentality, and keep going and improve of course.”

Whatever the case, something will have to change with Leicester City this season if they wish to continue in the English top-flight. The Foxes have gone all season without a single away win, and they’re 15th in the table with just 21 points, five above the relegation zone.