Sauerbrunn, Quon, and why its still too early to see NWSL’s influence on Sermanni’s choices

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It’s too early to tell who will be the NWSL’s Becky Sauerbrunn – somebody who used the ill-fated Women’s Professional Soccer as a springboard into the U.S. women’s national team. The then-Washington Freedom defender had seen some limited time with Pia Sundhage’s team before WPS began, but she wasn’t a real factor. By the time the league started in 2009, she’d been seen and judged; seemingly a long shot to forge a role with the national team.

In that new league, the Virginia grad was a stand-out, her cerebral leadership combining with a two-plus-year iron woman streak to force her way into the squad. With it, her recall became a symbol of hope of an array of professionals who, shut out by an increasingly stagnant national team roster, could see Sauerbrunn’s ascension as vindicating their persistence. Thanks to WPS seasons that put Sauerbrunn’s intelligence, consistency, and dependability on display, the now-FC Kansas City captain embedded herself at the international level. Now, after 42 caps, Sauerbrunn’s an obligatory call-up.

We’re now a month and a half into WPS2; or, WUSA3, depending on how you want to look at it. Tom Sermanni has been at NWSL games just about every weekend, and with every team streaming their home games online, the U.S’s new boss has seen all the potential candidates. After six weeks, there’s a pretty big body of evidence to suggest who is in form, so if somebody had emerged as an early Sauerbrunn, they would have called up, right?

The June 2 against Canada is a friendly. It’s on foreign soil, where there’s no significant need to sell tickets. It’s against a rival, but one that the U.S. faces with some regularity. With the World Cup two years out, there’s no pressing need to see how the Alex Morgans and Abby Wambachs of the world will do against the Canadians, even if it’s always good for the team to get time together. In a low-leverage situation where the information you gather about players is more important than the final result, doesn’t it make sense to call in a few more borderline players?

[MORE: Breaking down the 21 called into to face Canada.]

Perhaps. Perhaps Sermanni doesn’t agree that a month and a half of games is enough to justify any shakeups. And perhaps there haven’t been any players who’ve made a sufficient case, because when yesterday’s roster was announced, there were no huge surprises. No new Sauerbrunns had won a spot. Even the inclusion of an uncapped Amber Brooks caused little discussion, given her form at Bayern Munich and Shannon Boxx’s continued recovery from surgery. With a team as tight as the U.S. women’s national team, it might not be worth shaking things up, even if that means some of the same motives that kept players like Christen Press from breaking in appear to be in play.

That may also be why Yael Averbuch and Megan Rapinoe were the only surprise omissions, with U.S. Soccer making the point to explain Rapinoe, at a busy point on the calendar with Olympique Lyonnais, will join the team for June’s matches against South Korea. Megan Klingenberg was also a potential call in, but having only three national team caps, the omission of the former Tar Heel wasn’t a huge surprise. Alyssa Naeher could have gotten a look, with her season in Potsdam done, but her absence surprised no one.

The roster’s curiosities aren’t so much the omissions as two of the inclusions. Carli Lloyd, who spent the first part of the season recovering from a broken shoulder, has only made one brief substitute’s appearance for Western New York. Jillian Loyden, who broke her hand before Sky Blue FC’s season started, was recalled despite having yet to play a minute in the NWSL. Rather than look at Becky Edwards or McCall Zerboni in midfield, or give young Adrianna Franch another camp’s training in goal, Sermanni’s elected to stay the course.

It’s too early in Sermanni’s tenure (and NWSL’s existence) to start drawing conclusions, but it’s worth considering what it would take for somebody to be dropped from the national team. Lloyd and Loyden have barely played ahead of a friendly on foreign soil, yet they’re still in. Kelley O’Hara has inexplicably struggled for Sky Blue, and while it’s probably far too early to be dropping her from the national team, no natural left backs were called up. As the league moves forward, we’ll have to see if fitness or form influence national team recalls, because after Wednesday’s selection, the only thing we know will keep you from an invite are finals in UEFA Champions League and the French Cup. If that’s the standard, it’s going to by 2011-12 all over again.

If you’re looking for a drawback to the lack of turnover in a highly successful team, look to the Canada. Look to the squad they named on Wednesday. Illinois-born left back Rachel Quon, in her first season with the Chicago Red Stars, has been recalled by John Herdman, the Stanford alum having a connection to Canada through her father. The CSA still has you get her cleared, and who knows if the call-up will stick, but this could turn into a minor irritant for the U.S. No, Quon was never likely to be a major contributor for the national team, but if she evolves into a regular for Herdman, she’ll join Lauren Sesselman, Karina LeBlanc, and Chelsea Stewart as U.S.-born players who’ve elected to play for Canada (all with varying levels of connection to the States). Those aren’t Sydney Leroux-level players (somebody who made the opposite switch), but for a U.S. team looking at an improving rival, it should still be a concern.

There are two things that make Quon’s move particularly interesting. First, she’s been playing well, and when rumors circulated last week that the U.S. may have a surprise call-up, Quon’s name was one you could have inferred. Ultimately, however, it’s unclear she’s that much better of a long-term prospect than somebody like Sky Blue’s Kendall Johnson. Camille Levin, starting for Göteborg in Sweden, could also be an option. Quon may have a U-level pedigree, Stanford training, and be in form, but ultimately, the difference between her and Johnson could prove irrelevant.

The second curiosity may become more important. Left back is arguably the States’ weakest position, which only highlights the loss of a potential contributor. Kelley O’Hara’s first on that depth chart and played very well this winter, but while being shuttled between left back and left-wing for Sky Blue, O’Hara has struggled. If she carries that form into national team duty, Sermanni has problem. (Keep in mind, we’re still two years out from the World Cup.) Kristie Mewis, a natural attacking midfielder, is number two on the depth chart, through Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen, Sauerbrunn, and even Megan Rapinoe are capable of playing left back.

It is troublesome that, in light of potentially losing Quon, there are no natural left backs on the roster, the team’s first choice is in a slump, and none of the alternatives are playing the position for their clubs. But perhaps more troublesome is a sacred cow syndrome that kept Press out of the team for so long and perhaps contributed to Quon’s Canada call-up. Having played at U-levels for the United States, it’s reasonable to assume the 22-year-old would have remained loyal to the U.S. given reason to do so. But with as little roster turnover as we see from the States’, it’s difficult to blame her for pursuing an international career.

In his fifth month on the job, it’s far too soon to say whether Sermanni will protect the sacred cows. While none of the last cycle’s core have been dropped, Sermanni has found time for players like Press, Dunn, Mewis, Ashlyn Harris and Julie Johnston – all encouraging signs. Those inclusions may be a function of injuries and absences or a concerted effort by a new coach, yet when you see Lloyd and Loyden as obligatory callups while a player like Quon is turning to Canada, it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind: Is there too much deference to the old guard? And when will another Becky Sauerbrunn rise from the domestic league?

Right now, it’s far too early to answer those questions. Just file it away.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.