Christen Press, seen here embracing U.S. national team teammate Carli Lloyd, had 23 goals this season for Tyresö in Sweden. Her club has given her permission to join the U.S. this Sunday in San Antonio. (Photo: Getty Images.)

What we learned from the U.S.’s win over Scotland

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If you’re not an international women’s soccer expert and need a quick and dirty way to assess U.S. competition, watch the midfield. No team capable of winning major titles gives the States’ midfielders time on the ball. When Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx go up against Japan, Germany, and France, they have to make quick decisions to get the ball out of their feet or they’re going to give it up.

Against Scotland, the U.S.’s central midfielders had all the time they wanted. Trap, look, pass. Maybe take an extra touch. That was the first 30 minutes of their night. Scotland was much more interested in keeping the play in front of them than breaking their lines, even if that meant the supply line to the U.S.’s dangerous wide options went unchallenged.

Carli Lloyd would venture forward, Shannon Boxx would put in some challenges, but for the most part, the U.S.’s midfield duo just knocked the ball between the flanks, tried to maintain passing lanes for the attackers, and never had to worry about their Scottish counterparts. It was too easy.

That’s what life was like during the U.S.’s 4-1 win Saturday in Jacksonville, a game that broke at a canter and never reached a gallop. The U.S. were up two by the 32nd minute, added a third through Shannon Boxx in the second, and cruised through the final half hour. Aside from some Scottish frustrations over the last half hour, a trademark late goal from Sydney Leroux was the only thing to write home about.

For head coach Tom Sermanni, it was a comfortable opening to his national team  career. If comfort was the primary goal, then mission accomplished, though as we were reminded during most of the U.S.’s just completed gold medal celebration tour, there’s very little to learn from these types of matches. If the competition is so low that the opposition can’t even periodically mimic situations you’d face against even the Australia, Italy, and Norways of the world (teams that are not going to compete for big trophies anytime soon), these are little more than public appearances.

There were, however, a few interesting tidbits (and one huge morsel) Sermanni could glean from Saturday’s friendly:

source: Getty ImagesPressheads, rejoice – Among hardcore women’s national team fans, the “Pressheads” are the fans who have pined for Stanford alum Christen Press’s national team inclusion. Ever since the attacker won the MAC Herman Trophy in 2010, Pressheads have insisted she’d be a factor, but because of Pia Sundhage’s loyalties, players like Press where left out.

In his first game, Sermanni proved so eager to get Press into the team he played the 24-year-old out of position. The outcome of the Christen Press, right midfielder experiment? Two goals in the Tyreso forward’s debut. A 18-yard blast from the top of the box opened the scoring in the 13th minute, while her header from a Tobin Heath cross just past the 30-minute mark completed her double.

Out-leaping her mark that the right post to score he second international goal, Press became the third player in national team history to record a double in her debut. Pressheads, rejoice.

She may not have been a regular under Sundhage, but under Sermanni, Press is definitely on her way. Her debut was so impressive, we’ll have more on it later tonight.

Was that Kelley O’Hara?  – We all know O’Hara, another Stanford alum, is a very good player. We just don’t know if she’ll be an elite left back. A dearth of full back options led Sundhage to convert the former attacker in 2011. For better or worst, Sermanni’s elected to persist with the experiment.

On Saturday, we saw why. Her eagerness took her out of position at times, but that’s something you can live with at left back, especially when that energy proves so dangerous going forward. The best example led to a goal, her aggressive 32nd minute run freeing up Tobin Heath to put in a perfect cross from Press’s second.

For years the U.S. has talked about full backs that can get forward, but O’Hara finally provided that on Saturday. And provided it in a way that was more than a tip of the hat, idealistic, but ultimately empty tactical ambition. With her and Heath reading each other perfectly, building down the left flank became the team’s most dangerous option.

source: Getty ImagesAli Krieger’s back – The U.S.’s other fullback did her share of attacking, too, though the big news surrounding Ali Krieger was her mere presence in the team. This time last year, Krieger’s Olympic dream was shattered by a knee injury suffered in CONCACAF qualifying. Now, she’s back. And she looks as good as ever.

Krieger had already returned to club soccer in Germany, but she wasn’t included in the team’s celebration tour. Ready to reclaime her first choice spot, Krieger’s instincts as a natural right back showed obvious benefits. Multiple times during the first half, she was able to get forward and offer Press support on the right flank, twice putting shots toward goal.

She may not be the type of all-out wide runner O’Hara teased us with tonight, but she she can definitely get forward. And she was the best right back at the 2011 World Cup. Her recall is a welcome addition.

Dead ball specialist? – For a team that wins a lot of fouls, the U.S. doesn’t have much of a dead ball threat on goal. There’s Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath, but unless they’re within a few yards of the penalty box, you know they’re going to target Abby Wambach. It’s predictable, rarely fruitful, and ultimately a waste of chances.

Enter Yael Averbuch, a 26-year-old Goteborg midfielder who has slowly been squeezed out of the team over the last three years. But new coach, new life, and Averbuch almost took advantage of it late in the game, blasting a 30-plus yard restart off the Scottish woodwork.

Welcome back, Yael Averbuch. That will give you something to talk about in the next #wsoccerchat.

Wambach was off – Most of the team looked sharp. Sure there was a wobble from Christie Rampone, and Becky Sauerbrunn’s failed clearance led to the only goal, but most of the team looked in shape, alert, moved well an looked comfortable on the ball.

Not Abby Wambach. Saturday was one of the rougher games we’ve seen in a while from the FIFA Player of the Year. She missed two sitters, had multiple brow-furrowing giveaways, and failed to match her teammates’ sharpness. She did well in the air, knocking down passes for Alex Morgan and Press. But that was about it.

Just a rare bad night.

Wait for news on Morgan – Alex Morgan locked ankles with a Scotland midfielder and had to leave just before halftime. Helped off the field by medical staff, the new Portland Thorn was unable to put any weight on her left leg. While the team could have just been practicing caution, the injury didn’t look good. She didn’t even try to put any pressure on it.

No diagnosis was announced during Saturday’s broadcast, so keep your ears open for what U.S. Soccer has to say about their striker’s prognosis.

Premier League Preview: Watford vs. Everton

WATFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09:  Jose Holebas (1st R) of Watford scores his team's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on April 9, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
Stephen Pond/Getty Images
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  • Everton are unbeaten in 11 straight matches vs. Watford (all comps)
  • Troy Deeney is one goal shy of 100 in Hornets kit
  • Toffees have won just one of last nine in PL

Watford hosts Everton on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from Vicarage Road as the two clubs look to keep pace in the running with the Premier League’s top six.

The Hornets have lost three of four in the PL and currently sit 11th in the table on 18 points. In that span, Watford has been outscored 11-4, including the team’s brutal 6-1 defeat at Liverpool in early November.

Etienne Capoue leads the way for Watford in the goals department, with five on the season, while Troy Deeney has three of his own and sits just one away from notching his 100th for the club. Defending his been a bit of an issue though for the Hornets — who have conceded 24 in 14 matches — with only four teams allowing more goals this season.

[ MORE: Swansea remain committed to Bob Bradley despite struggles ]

Everton could potentially have to deal without Yannick Bolasie for the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury, while Seamus Coleman is expected to play after sustaining a head injury a week ago.

The Toffees enter Saturday with just one win out of their last nine, and while one point separates Ronald Koeman‘s side from sixth place Manchester United, a victory is very much needed for the Merseyside club. While Romelu Lukaku continues to carry the load up front for Everton with seven goals thus far, the Toffees rank mid table in terms of goals scored this season (17).

What they’re saying

Walter Mazzarri on importance of upcoming fixtures for Watford: “It’s very important. The next six games will probably decide our future and decide if we are going to be in the Premier League. It will decide in a certain way, if we are going to be up or playing in a different way and struggling more. These games will decide this. We have been unlucky on injuries and have been in a bit of an emergency for a couple of months.”

Ronald Koeman on Everton striker Romelu Lukaku’s form: “You can have a good run of scoring goals and then have a bit of time where you don’t really get big chances to score. The players around him need to create more and he can improve in his movements – it’s a team question to create more chances. But if he gets the chances, we always know he will score goals.”

Prediction

Both sides enter Saturday’s encounter in desperate need of a victory, but Everton’s last time out against Manchester United was a bit more encouraging. It won’t be an easy task to take points at Vicarage, however, I expect the Toffees to come away with something against the struggling Hornets. Watford 2-2 Everton

Strootman has 2-match ban for Rome derby melee lifted

ROME, ITALY - DECEMBER 04:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico on December 4, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
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ROME (AP) Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman has had a two-match ban lifted on appeal, clearing him to play key matches against AC Milan and Juventus.

Strootman had been banned for instigating a melee after scoring during Sunday’s Rome derby.

After the goal and an extended celebration, words appeared to be exchanged as Roma’s players walked back onto the field alongside Lazio’s bench.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Final preview ]

Strootman appeared to toss water from a bottle at Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi, who reacted by tugging the neck of Strootman’s shirt as the Netherlands midfielder walked away.

That prompted both benches to get involved.

Cataldi, who had been on the bench, was given a red card while Strootman was shown a yellow.

The two-match ban was decided on Monday, with league officials deciding that Strootman simulated falling to the ground after Cataldi grabbed his shirt.

However, the football federation’s appeals court determined that the simulation could not be proven.

Besides a one-match ban for the red card, Cataldi’s full punishment has not been announced yet.

Roma won the derby 2-0.

The second-place Giallorossi host Milan on Monday and then visit Serie A leader Juventus.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola