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.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.