What we learned from the United States’ latest 3-1 win over Scotland

4 Comments

A severe step back from their Saturday form was still good enough for the U.S. Women’s National Team to cruise to a 3-1 victory over Scotland, but if Tom Sermanni is looking for Christen Press-esque positives from Wednesday’s match in Nashville, the team’s new head coach will be hard pressed. A flat performance against inferior opposition left the U.S. with few lessons learned as they closed out a two-match set with Scotland.

A choppy beginning to the match saw the U.S. fail to establish any rhythm against a Scottish defense that was quick to collapse into its own end. With Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan all missing from Sermanni’s starting XI, the U.S. lacked fluidity going forward, single-touches throughout their team failing to generate any meaningful scoring chances. Without somebody willing to assume a creative presence, the U.S. had initial difficulty creating opportunities against a Scottish defense content to keep the world’s No. 1-ranked team at arm’s length.

The U.S.’s opening goal came in the 21st minute after the Scots turned off on a cross from the U.S.’s left. Megan Rapinoe, having switch flanks with Heather O’Reilly five minutes earlier, was allowed to collect the pass and wait for it to drop toward her right foot before curling a shot inside the left post with the outside of her boot. Taking advantage of a moment’s indecisiveness, the U.S. was up 1-0.

After playing out the rest of a choppy first half, the U.S. looked sharper in the second. Thanks in large part to the effort of forward Sydney Leroux, the U.S. was finally able to open up the Scottish defense. In the 51st minute, that running finally paid off when Leroux cut under defender Jennifer Beattie and onto a pass from O’Reilly before crossing for Abby Wambach. Heading home the 153rd goal of her career, Wambach gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead.

Thirteen minutes later Christen Press, who had just come on for Wambach, slid a 10-yard shot inside the right post to make it 3-0. For Press, it was her third-goal of the week, but with no defender within eight yards of her as she raced into the right side of the box, it was clear the Scots had finally worn down.

The scoring ended in the 81st with a consolation strike, Scottish striker Suzanne Grant one-timing a Emma Mitchell cross past Hope Solo to score in her 100th international appearance.

At 3-1, the final score ultimately mirrored Saturday night’s in Jacksonville, but the performance wasn’t as strong. Over the first half, little separated two teams who are miles apart on the international ladder.

Here are some of the other takeaways from Wednesday’s match:

source: Getty ImagesLauren Cheney, midfielder, is still a question mark – She has all the skills to be a great forward, but on a team that has Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux being great is no guarantee of playing time. So Lauren Cheney, who also has the intelligence and technical quality to play in midfield, has been slowly adapting to a middle-of-the-park role since post-2011 World Cup.

On Wednesday, that learning curve was exposed. Cheney was competent and mistake-free paired with Shannon Boxx in the middle, but for a team at the U.S.’s level, being competent is not enough. One-touch passes into defense and wide to O’Reilly and Rapinoe need to be complemented by a threat going forward. When Scotland’s midfield gave her time to turn and look upfield, Cheney demurred. Until Sydney Leroux started dropping back and to take the ball high in midfield, the U.S. had no threat coming through the middle.

That lack of creativity is a problem when Carli Lloyd is in the team, too. Tonight, however, Cheney failed to show she can be an improvement.

It’s almost an unfair challenge to give somebody – asking a player so close to becoming a world-class striker to, in her mid-20s, become a world-class midfielder. And when, in the second half, Cheney was near the penalty area and put a nice touch on a ball hit out of the back, we saw that forward’s skill set still rests in her. And yet she’s being put in position to be judged against players who’ve trained most of their lives to be midfielders.

Wednesday’s was only one game, but it’s a game that’s consistent with a larger body of work. It’s still unclear Cheney is an answer in midfield.

Wide play dropped off – Sermanni changed both of his outside midfielders, electing to start Rapinoe and O’Reilly over Press and Heath. Despite Rapinoe’s goal, neither player had standout games. Aside from some nice service on dead balls, Rapinoe failed to provide a needed spark. O’Reilly was a non-factor partly do to a mid-first half switch that put her on the left side, where she was ineffective.

The trouble on the wings ended up inhibiting fullbacks Kelley O’Hara and Ali Krieger. Both defenders had strong performances on Saturday, but the combination play between them and their corresponding wingers just wasn’t there on Wednesday. O’Hara, so vital on the U.S.’s second goal in Jacksonville, was never a factor, while Krieger was kept from getting forward by a Scotland attack that tended to throw a forward at her while breaking out of their end.

Mixed reviews for central defenders – Sermanni also swapped out both central defenders, replacing Christie Rampone and Becky Sauerbrunn with Whitney Engen and Rachel Buehler.

Engen, making her first start for the national team, looked capable but unsteady, at one point arching her back while attempting to head a ball after being caught turning her back to the field of play. She’ll need better performances than this one if she’s going to challenge for a regular spot.

Not surprisingly, Buehler was more solid, but her tendency to get caught out of position on forays into the midfield was on display in the first half. Multiple times the veteran came out of defense to challenge for possession only to pull up short and end up trailing the play as the ball moved past her.

It’s the type of play Christie Rampone’s capable of covering for, but it’s also the opposite of what we saw from her replacement on Saturday. While Sauerbrunn was far from mistake-free in Jacksonville, she was better at making decisions on when to jump into midfield, memorably coming forward to head the ball off a throw-in out of the Scottish end in the first half.

Buehler is probably still the first choice at left-center half, but the reality of the U.S. central defense remains unchanged. The back four still depends on Christie Rampone.

Abby Wambach looked better – It still wasn’t vintage Wambach, but more active and less mistake-prone than Saturday, the FIFA World Player of the Year bounced back from a bad game in Jacksonville. Her early second half energy helped produce a goal that leaves her five short of Mia Hamm’s all-time record.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).