Draw with Sundhage’s Sweden puts U.S. in Algarve Cup final

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It was a tale of two halves in Lagos, appropriate given who was on the opposing bench. Under Pia Sundhage, the U.S. Women’s National Team garnered a reputation for late match theatrics, and while the same level of drama wasn’t required in Monday, the U.S. were still forced to come from behind against their former coach.

Pulling back a fourth minute goal from Sweden’s Lisa Dahlkvist, Alex Morgan secured the U.S.’s spot in the Algarve Cup final, heading home a 56th minute corner kick from Megan Rapinoe. The 1-1 draw gave the U.S. first place in Group B and a spot in Wednesday’s tournament final against Germany.

That’s the good news. A more critical eye would point to the first blemishes of the U.S.’s tournament. Dahlkvist’s score was the States’ first goal allowed in three games, an ignominious start to goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris’s senior team career. Though the Washington Spirit keeper did well to come out and thwart Swedish star Lotta Schelin, her goal was left unattended as Dahlkvist one-timed the opener from near the center circle.

With the lead, the Swedes frustrated the Americans through halftime, their physical play perhaps leveraging knowledge Sunhage accumulated during five years on the U.S. bench. Against a Swedish side that had drew earlier in the tournament with China (a team the U.S. defeated 5-0 on Friday), it was a disappointing start for the world’s No. 1 team.

But the U.S. recovered in the second half. Morgan’s equalizer gave the States over half an hour to chase a second goal, with Rapinoe coming close to a second in the 88th minute.

Ultimately, the U.S. outshot their former coach’s team 18-5 and put six shots on goal to Sweden’s two. True, they’re the type of numbers you’d expect when an underdog takes an early lead against a favorite, but they’re also indicators that if this match were played again, the U.S. might get a better result.

That doesn’t mean the draw wasn’t discouraging. The U.S. stumbled, and they did so in way that feeds into common complaints. Whether criticism that chasing matches will eventually catch up to the U.S. is well-grounded or not, their recent history of falling behind in games and relying on comebacks leads some to ask when the U.S.’s luck will run out.

But Monday’s wasn’t a big game. It was a group stage match at a low point in the game’s four-year cycle. With the stakes so low, there’s little evidence to bolster any criticisms, and with the World Cup more than two years away, there are only so games where the U.S.’s results will lead to solid conclusions.

Wednesday’s may be one of those games, with the States facing world No. 2 Germany in the tournament final. It’s the first of two games between the rivals in less than a month, with the teams set to meet in Offenbach on April 5.

Currently the game’s best international soccer rivalry, a U.S.-Germany match for the Algarve Cup title should provide the stakes today’s match lacked. While the teams have played recently, drawing two U.S.-based friendlies in October, Wednesday match will likely feature a level of intensity last fall’s matches lacked.

If the U.S.’s problems resurface against Germany, then it’s time to talk. But against a team whose coach has an intimate knowledges of the U.S.’s strengths and weaknesses, a draw with Sundhage’s Sweden can be written off.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday