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

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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.

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.