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Sunderland is heading for relegation

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It’s not unusual that a mainstay top-flight club will sleep its way through the Premier League season only to wake in early spring and find itself locked in a relegation battle. This year two clubs, Aston Villa and Sunderland, find themselves in this undesirable predicament. But whereas Villa have come to life through stunning offensive performances by Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann as well as back-to-back wins against Reading and QPR, Sunderland shows no signs of waking from their slumber.

Despite hovering around mid-table for a good portion of the season, there’s been little to cheer about for Martin O’Neill’s side. The biggest positives have come from off-the-pitch acquisitions in the summer and January transfer markets where the Black Cats snapped up Steven Fletcher from Wolves and Danny Graham from Swansea City. Both strikers seemed to be promising buys for a club desperate for strikers to relieve Stephane Sessegnon’s scoring burden.

Fletcher marked his debut at Sunderland with a fantastic double to earn his side a 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium. As the Fall wore on, however, the goals were harder to come by for the 26 year old, eventually prompting O’Neill’s coup of Graham this winter. But in six appearances the Gateshead-born striker has yet to open his scoring account for his new club. This drought has contributed to a run of form that has seen the Black Cats go winless in their last seven matches, taking only three points of the last 21 available.

The barren streak has dropped Sunderland to 15th in the table on 31 points, just four points clear of the drop zone. Things turned from bad to worse this week for the North-East outfit when Fletcher was ruled out for the rest of the season (along with Lee Catermole) after suffering ankle ligament damage while on international duty with Scotland on Friday. With the former Wolves man sidelined the goal-scoring burden falls squarely on Graham. “I think Danny is a couple of games away from getting a good run,” said Adam Johnson. “It’s important someone gets the goals with Fletch missing because we haven’t scored that many or created many chances.”

When addressing the need to take chances therein lies yet another problem for Sunderland – a brutal final schedule that’s unlikely to be full of opportunities. With matches against in-form Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton still to come, not to mention a Tyne-Wear derby away at Newcastle and six-pointer clashes with Southampton and Aston Villa, things look bleak for the Wearsiders.

So bleak, in fact, that even non-Sunderland supporters will feel the pangs of doom when reviewing the Black Cats predicament. It sounds ridiculous to say that it will take a miracle for a club outside of the relegation zone to avoid the drop but when it comes to Martin O’Neill’s side, that’s exactly the case.

With a poor run of form, low morale, an absence of dependable strikers and a fiercely difficult remaining schedule, the writing is on the wall. Sunderland, my friends, is getting relegated.

Morgan, USWNT cruise past Costa Rica 5-0 behind early flurry of goals

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The U.S. Women got off to a flying start in Olympic qualification Group A play by torching Costa Rica 5-0, including goals from Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Crystal Dunn.

Morgan led the way with a double, including one in the opening 12 seconds – only six passes off the opening kick – that set the record for quickest goal in U.S. Soccer history. Lloyd and Dunn both struck in the opening 15 minutes to make it 3-0 before Costa Rica even had time to blink. Lloyd’s came on a penalty after Dunn was felled for the captain’s 83rd international goal, and then the latter bagged one of her own minutes later on a rebound off a shot by Morgan.

[ VIDEO: Alex Morgan caps off a 12-second, six-pass goal ]

The visitors were able to make it Morgan scored her second after the hour mark to cap the goal tally. Jill Ellis completed her trio of substitutions after the fourth goal and the U.S. saw the game out easily.

The fifth came late on a cross from Tobin Heath that fell to Christen Press in the box. With her back to the goal, the 27-year-old produced a simply stunning first touch, back-heeling the ball down before whipping around the opposite direction to lose her defender and firing home the fifth goal.

With the final whistle, the United States improved their record against Costa Rica to a perfect 13-0. The U.S. will play Mexico next on Saturday before finishing out Group A play against Puerto Rico on Monday, February 15.

VIDEO: Alex Morgan scores goal against Costa Rica in 12 seconds

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The United States got off to a historically roaring start in Olympic qualifying. Taking on Costa Rica in Frisco, Texas to begin Group A play, Alex Morgan opened the scoring in just 12 seconds, taking just six passes to complete the masterpiece.

According to the USWNT twitter account, the goal is the fastest in U.S. Soccer history.

According to CONCACAF, the goal is also the quickest in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying, breaking Abby Wambach’s of 35 seconds in a 14-0 domination of the Dominican Republic in 2012.

[ WATCH LIVE: USWNT vs Costa Rica live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

The United States scored three goals in the first 15 minutes against Costa Rica tonight. They will take on Mexico and Puerto Rico across the next five days.

Watch Live: USWNT vs Costa Rica in Olympic qualifying

SAN DIEGO, CA - JANUARY 23:  (L-R) Carli Lloyd #10 of the United States is congratulated by teammate Alex Morgan #13 after a goal against Ireland at Qualcomm Stadium on January 23, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
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The United States women are set to begin Group A play in Olympic qualification, taking on 36th ranked Costa Rica at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas at 8:30 a.m. ET.

The game takes place after a 17-day camp at the national training camp in Carson, California.

[ WATCH LIVE: USWNT vs Costa Rica live online on NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Other teams in the group include Mexico and Puerto Rico. The Mexicans dominated Puerto Rico 6-0 in the first game.

LINEUP

United States: Solo; Krieger, Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg; Brian, Horan, Dunn, Lloyd, Heath; Morgan.

Columbus, NYCFC release new kits to mixed results

NYCFC
New York City FC
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Two Major League Soccer clubs have put their kits out there for the 2016 season. They’ve received a mediocre welcome at best.

Columbus was the first, and their kit makes a bold statement moving away from the traditional yellow and black that so often adorns their regular shirts. Instead, the kit incorporates the Columbus flag onto it. The release has seen quite a negative reaction on social media.

The kit was unveiled at the Columbus City Hall on Wednesday, featuring the traditional adidas stripes, although instead of the usual placement on the shoulders, the stripes come down the side of the torso. Recently, adidas has the tendency to copy general jersey patterns across its multiple properties, so look for this design with other clubs in the near future.

The negative reaction to the Columbus release isn’t terribly surprising considering fans often enjoy sticking to tradition, and backlash is common when clubs deviate from the norm. As an additional hurdle, the color contrast between red and yellow is somewhat stark, lending to the difficult reception. Add in the bright pastel blue shorts and…yikes.

While the club didn’t describe how they will utilize this kit during the season, it’s likely to be the primary (at least for now) as the club release says the kit portfolio also includes last year’s black kit, which is traditionally the away kit.

NYCFC’s release of their secondary kit was more positive, receiving a mixed response on social media.

As you can see, adidas again copied their general outline with the stripes down the side of the torso. However, the German clothing manufacturer did much better with the general design of these kits than the Columbus ones. I will give a bit of personal opinion here: I absolutely love these kits. The ripple effect accentuates the crest with a near-3D effect, and the colors mesh perfectly which serves to assuage the eye from being overwhelmed by a busy design. If there’s any criticism, it’s that without an outline, the Etihad logo tends to get in the way a bit, but that’s nitpicking. Well done NYCFC. Columbus…I’ll leave that one to you all.