U.S. Women begin Algarve Cup today against Iceland

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It won’t take long for the U.S. Women to have their first real test of the Tom Sermanni era. During their four games, the U.S. is unlikely to face a team ranked lower than 17th in the world.

That’s the nature of the Algarve Cup, a tournament that will provide the U.S. with their best competition of 2013. Starting with Iceland today at 9.a.m. Eastern, the U.S. will face the 15th, 17th (China) and sixth (Sweden) ranked teams in the world. Get through that unscathed, and the U.S. could face Germany or Japan in the tournament’s knockout round.

And of course, that match against Sweden will feature a meeting with the team’s old coach, Pia Sundhage. The women who led the U.S. to gold in Beijing and London is now coaching her home country’s national team.

For the U.S., the Algarve Cup is a huge step up in competition from the team’s winter friendlies against Scotland, but it’s one the team has dominated in recent years. The States have won seven of the last 10 tournaments, and only a group stage loss to Japan in last year’s competition prevented the team from making their 10th straight final.

But that loss, the only one the U.S. suffered in 2012, serves as an admonition. Whereas in previous years the U.S. would arrive in Portugal as heavy favorites, now they’re one of a handful of teams that could win this tournament. Both Germany (last year’s winner) and Japan would take the title, while Sweden is also capable of knocking off one of the big three.

With a few exceptions, Sermanni’s best team is in Portugal. While Hope Solo missed the trip with a wrist injury and Amys LePeilbet (knee) and Rodriguez (pregnancy) are long term absences, 10 of Sermanni’s starting XI could be filled with first choice options. Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan lead the attack, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe will be featured in midfield, while captain Christie Rampone anchors the defense.

Results are always important, but the real story of this year’s tournament will be the time Sermanni gives new faces. As Christen Press showed in the first game against Scotland, the United States has a number of talents would could potentially contribute to the senior squad. Players like Press, North Carolina defender Crystal Dunn, and Liverpool Ladies’ defender Whitney Engen have opportunities to win regular roles in the team. Four games in eight days will give Sermanni a change to evaluate his full squad.

source: Getty ImagesAmong the more intriguing names in that squad are Lindsey Horan and Kristie Mewis (pictured, with Canberra United).

Horan is an 18-year-old who bypassed college to play in France. At Paris Saint-Germain she has seen early success, scoring 11 times in her 15 Division Feminine appearances. Called in for the Algarve Cup, the Golden, Colorado native is in line for her first senior national team cap.

Mewis is a 22-year-old attacking midfielder who just completed four stand-out years at Boston College. Set to begin her professional career in earnest with FC Kansas City (she spent a short time in Australia this January), Mewis has had prolonged success at U.S. U-levels as both a creator and goal scorer. Having received her first cap on Feb. 9, Mewis may be primed for a bigger role provided she can craft a niche among the team’s array attacking options.

Older players may also be looking at this year’s Cup as an opportunity to break through. Goalkeeper Jill Loyden will have a chance to cement herself as Hope Solo’s number two, while Ashlyn Harris could get her first cap. Becky Sauerbrunn is competing for a starting spot in defense, and Yael Averbuch (17 caps since 2008) will continue to get chances to reestablish herself in the squad.

The U.S. always expects to win the Algarve Cup, but with a series of new faces vying for roles in the team, this may be a rare occasion where individual performances prove more important than team results. Of course, if those individual performances contribute to wins, they’ll look all the more impressive.

Here is Sermanni’s Algarve Cup squad. Matches are available live on pay-per-view or tape delayed on FOX Soccer.

GOALKEEPERS (3): 18-Nicole Barnhart (FC Kansas City), 24-Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), 21-Jill Loyden (Sky Blue FC)
DEFENDERS (7): 19-Rachel Buehler (Portland Thorns FC), 6-Crystal Dunn (UNC), 14-Whitney Engen (Liverpool, England), 11-Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), 5-Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), 3-Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), 4-Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (8): 16-Yael Averbuch (Göteborg, Sweden), 7-Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), 12-Lauren Cheney (FC Kansas City), 17-Tobin Heath (PSG, France), 10-Carli Lloyd (Western New York Flash), 8-Kristie Mewis (FC Kansas City), 9-Heather O’Reilly (Boston Breakers), 15-Megan Rapinoe (Lyon, France)
FORWARDS (5): 22-Lindsey Horan (PSG, France), 2-Sydney Leroux (Boston Breakers), 13-Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), 23-Christen Press (Tyresö, Sweden), 20-Abby Wambach (Western New York Flash)

Pique says Neymar “does not know what to do”

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Barcelona defender Gerard Pique has spoken out about the Neymar saga, stating that he and his fellow teammates are trying to lend their comrade a hand as he looks to sort out his future between Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain.

Speaking ahead of the El Clasico preseason match in Miami, Pique told reporters, “Neymar and I we are very close and I want him to stay and I know the situation. Right now he doesn’t know what to do and we are trying to help him, the ones [on the team] that are more close to him to take the right decision.”

[ MORE: Miazga loaned back to Vitesse ]

Pique was the source of intrigue a five days ago when he posted a Tweet with picture of himself and Neymar and the caption “He stays.” The defender was forced to clarify later saying that his post was only a hopeful prediction of the future rather than a bit of breaking news.

“It depends on what he wants,” Pique said at the pre-match press conference. “He can be in all the clubs in all the world. He can be in Paris, Barcelona, Chelsea or City. All the clubs will want him. It’s about your priorities. What do you want? Do you want more money? Do you want to win titles?”

Then, Pique used his knowledge of American sports to make a comparison, perhaps indirectly referencing Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving. “It’s happening here and it’s happening in the NBA as well. There are some players that are not earning all the money that they deserve to win titles. So sometimes you have to take decisions in life and it’s all about priorities.”

Meanwhile, club captain Iniesta was also asked about Neymar, and he said he just wants a decision soon. “We [as players] just want peace which will benefit everyone – the players, the club and everything surrounding it.”

Former Barcelona defender Carles Puyol also spoke out about Neymar’s situation, telling Spanish publication Marca that he thinks Neymar should make his decision soon to erase the uncertainty.

Cheers! Czech soccer club shapes dugouts like beer cans

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PRAGUE (AP) Czech club Viktoria Plzen has come up with innovative beer-can shaped dugouts that truly represent the city.

The club from Plzen, or Pilsen in English, is known as the Czech capital of beer which gave the world the golden “pilsner” lager in 1842.

This week, it unveiled the new dugouts at its Doosan Arena that look exactly like beer cans.

Plzen manager general Adolf Sadek said it was a joint idea from the club and the nearby Gambrinus brewery.

“Such dugouts are unique and I daresay no other club has them,” Sadek said.

Added Gambrinus brewer Zdenek Polak, “Beer and football belong to each other.”

Players welcomed the novelty, particularly with leather heated seats.

The dugouts will first be tested in Viktoria’s season opener against Dukla Prague on Saturday.

Report: USMNT’s Paul Arriola attracting MLS, European interest

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Several U.S. Men’s National Team players made strong impressions on Bruce Arena and Co. at this month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup — which resulted in a Stars and Stripes title.

[ MORE: NYCFC continues push to top in latest MLS Power Rankings ]

One of those players is Club Tijuana attacker Paul Arriola, whose performance for the USMNT and in Mexico have drawn him significant interest from MLS, Portugal and the Netherlands, according to Goal USA.

The report from Goal states that a “half dozen” sides in MLS have shown interest in Arriola, including Real Salt Lake.

Arriola, 22, has played for Xolos in Liga MX since 2013 after finishing up his academy career with the LA Galaxy.

The Galaxy would hold the rights to Arriola if he were to join MLS due to a Homegrown claim, despite the forward only spending one season with the club’s academy from 2012 to 2013.

Chanot, Wallace among missing for NYCFC’s clash at Toronto

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Patrick Vieira’s men have been flying high as of late, but New York City FC’s difficult schedule continues over the weekend north of the border.

[ MORE: NYCFC continues push towards top of PST MLS Power Rankings ]

NYCFC will take on Toronto FC on Sunday afternoon at BMO Field, but the third-place side in the Eastern Conference will have to do so without six first-team players.

[ MORE: MLS Week 22 preview — Sigi makes LA debut against Sounders ]

A number of injuries will keep out regulars like center back Maxime Chanot, winger Rodney Wallace and Ronald Matarrita, while Miguel Camargo, Khiry Shelton and 16-year-old midfielder/defender James Sands are also sidelined ahead of the Toronto clash.

Wallace and Camargo each sustained injuries during the CONCACAF Gold Cup while on duty with Costa Rica and Panama, respectively.

The two sides settled for a 2-2 draw when they last met on July 19 at Yankee Stadium, but an NYCFC victory could mean a strong push for Vieira and Co. towards the top of the East.

As the table stands, NYCFC currently sits just three points Toronto at the top of the Eastern Conference through 21 matches, while the Chicago Fire are lumped in between the two clubs on 38 points.

Meanwhile, TFC will continue to deal with a couple injuries of its own as Steven Beitashour and Benoit Cheyrou remain out with abdominal and calf ailments, respectively.