Germany v United States

One more: Tobin Heath headed for Paris Saint-Germain

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If Megan Rapinoe’s blazing a new trail with her exploits in Lyon, it looks like one of her teammates will be right behind her. Attacking midfielder Tobin Heath appears to be following in her fresh footsteps, having signed a contract with emerging Division Feminine club Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.

Her six-month deal will mirror Rapinoe’s with Lyon, with both stars set to miss the start of the upcoming National Women’s Soccer League season.

Sources within the league confirmed the signing, news that originally leaked after U.S. Soccer posted a roster for the impending national team camp detailing Heath’s new affiliation. Her official team has since been corrected to reflect her place with Portland Thorns FC; however, the announcement still says the former University of North Carolina star’s time in Tom Sermanni’s first camp will be cut short by her commitments in Paris.

Sources within the NWSL have confirmed Heath’s contract will run until June. Rapinoe signed a similar deal with Lyon.

Heath was recently allocated to Thorns FC along with Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair in what most considered the league’s most favorable allocation; however, with Heath set to miss the beginning of the season, head coach Cindy Parlow Cone must now find somebody capable of making the connection to Morgan and Sinclair.

Sources also confirm the league was aware of Heath’s possible move at the time of allocation, a fact that could explain why the league was willing to add the midfielder to a talented Thorns roster.

Love of the game

Though Rapinoe and Heath are not the first U.S. players to see time in France (Hope Solo spent time with Lyon in 2005), it’s no coincidence they are the two most prominent members of the current national team to take advantage of new opportunities in Europe. Ali Krieger was already there (Germany), as were borderline national teamers Ashlyn Harris (Germany) and Meghan Klingenberg (Sweden), but Rapinoe and Heath are the first from this summer’s Olympic team to make this leap.

The commonality between the two is their love of the game. Both Rapinoe and Heath have a reputation for being insatiable soccer players, and while Heath’s health (during her WPS days) and national team commitments have left her with a playing record not dissimilar to other her age, Rapinoe had spent time in Australia in addition to a brief stint with the Seattle Sounders Women.

With the NWSL season still at least two-and-a-half months away (no official schedule’s been released), it’s not shocking that two players who can’t get enough of the game will spend their winter in France. That each will cash in on France’s escalating arms race make the moves financially and competitively attractive.

source: APHeath was the one

There are a series of national team players entering crucial points in their development. If players like Morgan, Lauren Cheney and Sydney Leroux don’t find opportunities to test themselves more consistently against top competition, they could risk a relative stagnation. At the rate at which the women’s international game is improving, it’s no longer good enough to stay home and develop through national team tours and W-League summers. It’s unclear the NWSL will solve this problem.

Teams like Germany and France see their players near-constantly playing against top competition. The Frauen-Bundesliga and Division Feminine are among the best leagues in the world, each competition placing its best talents in a quickly improving UEFA Champions League. With the margin for error for the U.S. Women’s National Team smaller than ever, it’s unclear whether its stars can afford to miss out on opportunities to play for clubs like Lyon, PSG or the various teams in Germany.

Heath is the player with the most to gain from time abroad. She’s the U.S.’s most technically gifted player, but because of injuries incurred after leaving North Carolina in 2010, she’s never played consistently at club-level. In addition, her role as a creative presence in midfield is the type that would be consistently tested against the tactics and talents of the European game. It’s more than just a striker trying to beat better defenders.

At a very important point in her development, opportunities like PSGs will only help Heath realize her potential: That of a game-defining playmaker on the international level. Other players have that potential but fall short, but with this move, Heath is giving herself the best chance to succeed.

French pursuit

Lyon has the most talented squad in women’s soccer, but getting into the U.S. market is key for them. Club president Jean-Michel Aulus admitted as much when Lyonnais announced Rapinoe’s capture, and with rumors that representatives have also reached out to Alex Morgan, it wouldn’t be a shock if Rapinoe’s capture is the tip of the iceberg for a team looking to raise an already high bar.

PSG’s Heath signing is the same. The Parisian club signed a six-figure deal last year for Colorado teenager Lindsey Horan — a declaration of the emerging club’s financial intent — but trying to track down Lyonnais’ juggernaut, high school prospects are not enough. Playing in the wake of Lyon, PSG needed more talent.

With the Heath signing, the Parisians have made another foray into the U.S. market, one which will help them secure the second place (Champions League) spot they currently hold in France.

And just as with Rapinoe, there’s always the possibility this deal leads to something more. The core of the U.S. Women’s National Team is committed to helping the NWSL launch, but there’s nothing to say players like Heath and Rapinoe won’t finish the NWSL season in August before signing up for another stint abroad. The experience and money are hard to turn down.

Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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Designing the perfect UEFA Champions League Round of 16

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 06:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona chips the ball over goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Bayern Muenchen to score his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final, first leg match between FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Muenchen at Camp Nou on May 6, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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With 16 teams settled into their spots for Monday’s UEFA Champions League draw, what would be the most tantalizing octet of matches for February’s Round of 16.

We’ll include a full list of seeded and unseeded teams at the bottom so you can pair ’em up however you like, but let’s start with our best ideas.

Remember: Teams can neither be drawn against teams from their own domestic leagues, or against the other advancing team from their group stage quartets.

[ MORE: USMNT GK off to Belgium? ]

Let’s begin with the reigning champions. Real Madrid is unseeded, and cannot draw Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and Borussia Dortmund. Our vote would be Juventus and a reprisal of the 2015 final in Berlin.

Real boss Zinedine Zidane would not be pleased.

Staying in Spain, seeded Barcelona only knows it will avoid Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Sevilla. We’re interested in attractive soccer, so how about a bombastic battle with Bayern Munich.

Manchester City is the lone Premier League team in the unseeded pool, and cannot face Arsenal, Leicester City, or Barcelona. We’re thinking Sky Blue vs. Sky Blue, and a match-up with Napoli.

Leicester City completes the Premier League trio. Given our above draw and group mates Porto, that leaves Benfica, Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla, and PSG as potential rivals. We’ll chose Bayer Leverkusen as the match-up likely gives the Foxes their best chance to hit the snooze button and keep dreaming.

The biggest name left is Paris Saint-Germain (with apologies to BVB). Unai Emery’s bunch would be left with Atletico Madrid as the lone option, and another tete-a-tete between the ex-Sevilla boss and Diego Simeone works for us.

Now Arsenal… who do you draw with the hopes of a quarterfinal berth in ages? The remaining options are Benfica, Sevilla, and Porto. We’ll give Benfica a trip to the Emirates, leaving Porto to face Monaco, and Sevilla on the road to Borussia Dortmund.

Our final draw:
Arsenal vs. Benfica
Monaco vs. Porto
Borussia Dortmund vs. Sevilla
Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Napoli vs. Manchester City
Leicester City vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Juventus vs. Real Madrid


Seeded
Arsenal
Atletico Madrid
Barcelona
Napoli
Monaco
Leicester City
Juventus
Borussia Dortmund

Unseeded
Paris Saint-Germain
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Benfica
Bayer Leverkusen
Porto
Sevilla
Real Madrid

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Europa League preview: Saints, Man Utd hope to join Spurs in Round of 32

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Yuto Nagatomo of Internazionale (R) and Ivan Perisic of Internazionale close down Nathan Redmond of Southampton during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur will be seeded in the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 32. What do Manchester United and Southampton need to do Thursday to join them?

Both the Red Devils and Saints enter the final group stage match day in their respective groups’ second place, but only United can claim a seeded place in the Round of 32.

[ UCL: Scenarios for Premier League sides ]

United can still win Group A, and would need to better Fenerbahce’s result on Thursday. Jose Mourinho’s men are in Ukraine against bottom-dwelling Zorya Luhansk, while Fener are away at Feyenoord.

Manchester United will advance with a draw, and could also go through if they lose and Feyenoord doesn’t defeat Fenerbahce.

As for Saints, Claude Puel‘s men are level with Hapoel Be’er Sheva and welcome the Israel side to St. Mary’s after drawing 0-0 in the reverse fixture.

Southampton needs to beat Hapoel or hold them to a scoreless draw. A scoring draw would push HBS through via road goals.

Full UEL schedule

11 a.m. EDT
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. EDT
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. EDT
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

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