Abby Wambach of the U.S. kisses her gold medal after winning the women's soccer final against Japan during the victory ceremony at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Abby Wambach claims her first FIFA Women’s Player of the Year

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Abby Wambach has won U.S. Soccer’s Athlete of the Year five times, but only once had she been a finalist for FIFA World Player of the Year. Last year she finished third in voting for an award destined to go to Japan’s Homare Sawa. Today, however, the focal point of the U.S.’s attack was recognized by the international community as the world’s best player, claiming her first Player of the Year honor.

“I’m very, very surprised,” Wambach said of the award. “Individual honors only happen if you have great teams and great people who have given you the chance to be here.”

It was the right choice, though many might consider it an upset. After Marta won this award from 2006-2010, the Brazilian has become the default choice. That she finished second in the balloting despite doing little to recommend herself over players like Canada’s Christine Sinclair speaks to the stubborn focus of the voting pool. Brand still matters to this electorate, and despite a lack of elite success on a personal or team level in 2012, Marta is still one of the most recognizable names in the sport.

That Wambach beat out Alex Morgan, the third-place finisher, is more noteworthy since the U.S.’s biggest star had a truly award-worthy year. Morgan’s superior numbers were coupled with a popularity rising to rival Marta’s more buzz-worthy days. It looked like Morgan would snare the award, whether she was most deserving or not.

“Not only do I think Marta and Alex could have won, but many other players could have been here as well,” Wambach conceded, graciously, after winning the award.

Wambach’s teammate, in particular, had a strong claim to this honor, but it’s difficult to watch the United States game after game and feel Morgan, for all her talents and production, deserves this honor over Wambach. Thanks to 28 goals and 21 assists, Morgan won U.S. Soccer’s Athlete of the Year honor, but her numbers are the product of a system reliant on Wambach’s playmaking an imposing penalty are presence. Defenses have to set up to account for Wambach, strategies that leave them exposed to Morgan’s speed and clinical finishing.

All of which would be mute if Wambach wasn’t putting up numbers of her own. With 27 goals in 32 games, Wambach’s goal rate was higher than her career average (152 goals in 198 appearances). Despite playing against defenses set up to contain her, Wambach posted her highest goal total in eight years.

Now, Wambach is a much different player than she was while scoring 31 times in 2004. Then, her pure physicality made her a near-unstoppable during the U.S.’s gold medal run. Today Wambach is more likely to play with her back to goal, dropping away from defense before moving the ball wide and ghosting into the box. The approach hasn’t padded her assist total (Wambach with only eight on the year, fifth on the team), but the decision-making makes her the key component of the U.S.’s attack.

“She’s so completely deserving of this award and I’m truly happy for her,” Morgan said. “She’s made such a huge mark on women’s soccer over the past decade. She’s an inspirational to not only the thousands of young girls around the country and world, but also to me.”

Wambach does benefit from Morgan’s presence, with Wambach enjoying more space than she did while Amy Rodríguez played Pia Sundhage’s lead attacker. Morgan’s the main reason why Wambach’s been able to be as productive while switching to a role that will likely prolong her career. Had the 23-year-old claimed her first Player of the Year on Monday, it would have been a entirely justifiable decision.

But surprisingly, FIFA got it right. After years of defaulting this award to Marta, FIFA’s voters were able to look beyond Marta’s brand and Morgan’s flash and make the correct choice. Morgan will undoubtedly claim this award in the future, but giving her this award wouldn’t reflect the realities of today’s U.S. Women’s National Team.

Even at 32 with stars emerging around her, Wambach is still the focal point of her team. She’s their most indispensable player, and given her goal output, you can also argue she is their best.

FIFA made that argument today, a shockingly cogent stance for an award that was once the assumed to be Marta’s to lose. But playing on a goal medal winner that lost only once in 32 games, Wambach may have forced their hand – forced them to make the right call.

Ahead of huge top four showdowns, who are the title favorites?

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This weekend is massive. Huge. Monumental.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview ]

In terms of the Premier League title race having two games between all of the current top four means one thing: bedlam.

Following the Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) encounter, we should be provided with a much better idea of where the title is heading.

[ VIDEO: Man City-Tottenham preview

Then again, if Arsenal beat Leicester and Man City draw with Spurs, there will be just five points between all four teams. With 13 games to go this is tight and tense and the most open title race we’ve had in decades. It is also awesome.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play in 2016 MLS All-Star Game ] 

Let’s take a look at all four title contenders and try to see who has the best chance of winning this thing on May 15.


Leicester City
Current position: 1st (53 points)
Biggest plus: No pressure, they were meant to be relegated
Biggest negative: None of their current squad have ever been in this situation. How will they cope?
Key man: Jamie Vardy – A few off days in front of goal recently for the PL’s main man. If he regains his touch, the Foxes will win it.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Arsenal, Apr. 30 at Man United, May 15 at Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule (1 is weak, 10 is tough): 2/10 – The best of any of the title contenders, on paper, and no cup games.


Tottenham Hotspur
Current position: 2nd (48 points)
Biggest plus: Mauricio Pochettino. He’s met every major challenge head on.
Biggest negative: Having the FA Cup and Europa League to contend with. Relatively small squad compared to the rest.
Key man: Harry Kane – If he can hit yet another purple patch, combined with Spurs’ solid defense, then that will be huge.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Man City, Mar. 5 vs. Arsenal, Apr. 9 vs. Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule: 3/10 – A very soft run-in for Spurs between now and the end of the season.


Arsenal
Current position: 3rd (48 points)
Biggest plus: They have the biggest squad and with Cech in goal their defense looks very settled.
Biggest negative: How many times have we been here before? Have to get over mental barrier, plus UCL and FA Cup to focus on too.
Key man: Alexis Sanchez – Hasn’t quite hit top form since returning from his hamstring injury. Can he hit top gear during crunch time?
3 key games: Feb. 14 vs. Leicester City, Mar. 5 vs. Tottenham, May 7 at Man City
Strength of remaining schedule: 6/10 – Probably the toughest out of all the contenders. Really need Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to pull through.


Manchester City
Current position: 4th (47 points)
Biggest plus: Strongest squad and Vincent Kompany should be returning soon. That, and wanting to send Pellegrini out on a high.
Biggest negative: Guardiola arriving means plenty of uncertainty. If Aguero or Kompany go down injured, title run could be over.
Key man: Vincent Kompany – City will always score goals with Aguero, Sterling, Silva and De Bruyne but they need Vinny back. Big time.
3 key games: Mar. 2 at Liverpool, Mar. 20 vs. Man United, May 7 vs. Arsenal
Strength of remaining schedule: 5/10 – Marginally easier than Arsenal’s because they play United and the Gunners at home. Still. Very tough.


 

Arsenal named as 2016 MLS All-Star Game opponent in San Jose

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Mesut Ozil (C) of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with his team mates Hector Bellerin (L) and Aaron Ramsey (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is coming to San Jose, California.

On Thursday it was announced that the Premier League giants will take part in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

The decision to play against another PL opponent makes it the ninth time that’s happened and MLS’ best will have faced seven different PL clubs in Fulham, Chelsea, West Ham United, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham and now Arsenal.

The venue for the 2016 ASG will be San Jose’s splendid, yet slightly compact, Avaya Stadium and the game will take place on July 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Gunners fans in North America hoping to get tickets for the clash will have to act fast as the ‘Quakes home only holds 18,000 people, but there will be another chance to watch Arsenal play as they will face Chivas Guadalajara at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. on July 31.

Safe to say Arsene Wenger won’t need to don his famous long padded jacket for matches in California this July…

As well as seeing Arsenal stars Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud and more, the chance to watch young U.S. international Gedion Zelalem in action will excite many. That said, with the game coming late in July, plenty of Arsenal’s top stars may be on extended breaks due to their exertions for their national teams at the 2016 European Championships and the 2016 Copa America Centenario also being staged in North America.

VIDEO: Previewing the massive Man City vs. Tottenham encounter

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On the same day Arsenal host Leicester City in a clash between two title contenders (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the two other teams in the top two also meet on Sunday.

Your Valentine’s Day is officially sorted.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

On Sunday Manchester City welcome Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to the Etihad Stadium as second-place Spurs sit just one point above fourth-place City. It could not be tighter at the top.

Earlier this season Spurs hammered an injury-hit City 4-1 at White Hart Lane and revenge will be sweet for Sergio Aguero and Co. as both teams are in serious contention to win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: Preview – Arsenal vs. Leicester ]

In terms of their clashes at the Etihad, Spurs have not found it a happy hunting ground in recent years as they’ve lost four of their last five games away at City. Their last two defeats have been 6-0 and 4-1. Expect a tighter clash this time around as Harry Kane looks to keep his hot-streak going and City will aim to bounce back from their demoralizing, and potentially crucial, home defeat to Leicester last weekend.

So much on the line this Sunday. Click play on the video above to hear all the major headlines heading into this clash.

Mourinho to Man United: Key players to be sold? Locker room unrest, transfer gossip

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The papers are having a field day with the Jose Mourinho to Manchester United whispers.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

Several different outlets are reporting numerous pieces of gossip about Mourinho, 53, taking over at United this summer and now seems like a good time to round it all up and have a look at what is out there.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Here it goes…

[ REPORT: Mourinho tells friends he’s going to United


First up, the wages.

Okay, Louis Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract with the Red Devils through the 2016-17 season but many believe that barring a miraculous finish to the current campaign the Dutchman will be let go this summer. If that’s the case — and with United six points off the top four it certainly seems like another season of disappointment will play out — then El Confidencial is reporting that Mourinho will be handed a contract worth $20 million a year. That may seem like a lot, but actually it would be $9 million less a year than Manchester City is paying Pep Guardiola to be their boss. Interesting.

Juicy nugget number two: The Daily Mail states that Mourinho has already instructed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to sell Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. The midfield duo aren’t in Mourinho’s plans with the Portuguese coach selling Mata to United during his time in charge of Chelsea, while he doesn’t appear to be a fan of Belgian midfielder Fellaini either.

No. 3: The Daily Star reports that Mourinho will be handed $420 million to spend on new players and totally rebuild the under-performing squad. The same report claims Mourinho has his eye on Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Thomas Muller, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane to help restore United to past glories and add to his tally of three Premier League titles during five full seasons with Chelsea.

And finally, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Sun reports that United’s locker room is split over whether Mourinho arriving would be a good thing. Well, yeah, with a massive cull on the horizon if he does arrive, it’s not too difficult to understand that the general feeling among the players will be one of trepidation. However, the main issue seems to be where No. 2 Ryan Giggs will fit into Mourinho’s plans if he does get the job.

Again, take these reports with a pinch of salt but it’s certainly interesting to keep your ear to the ground and listen to all of the tidbits circling about Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford.