Sinclair of Canada battles for the ball with Krieger of the U.S. during the second half of their friendly women's soccer match in Toronto

Five takeaways from the United States’ win over Canada

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You can excuse most people for fixating on what happened to Sydney Leroux. For most of Sunday’s match at BMO Field, there was little to talk about, a punchless Canada team constricting a United States squad that may have been thrown off by John Herdman’s surprise formation shift. It wouldn’t have been the first time a team had to collect itself against a surprise 3-5-2.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S.’s first two goals exploited the formation. On the first, Abby Wambach went wide left, played behind Canada’s wing back, creating a one-on-one for Alex Morgan against Emily Zurrer. Tom Sermanni couldn’t have asked for a better matchup. On the second, Tobin Heath immediately played wide left into a similar space. The movement was different, but it exploited the same weakness – the room wide of the back three giving Morgan space behind Canada’s wing back. On her stronger left foot, Morgan completed her brace in the 72nd minute, and the U.S. had secured their eventual 3-0 win.

For Herdman, the switch was worth the gamble. Canada may not have reproduced Manchester’s dramatics, but if he had any inkling a formation change could yield results against the U.S., now was the time to try. Despite talk or redemption, lingering feelings from last summer, or this being some kind of launching pad for World Cup 2015, Sunday’s was a meaningless, out-of-cycle friendly, one which justified experiments on both sides of the ball.

For the U.S., the biggest experiment was finding a replacement for the injured Kelly O’Hara at left back, though playing without Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo while reintegrating the recovered Carli Lloyd, there were plenty of other talking points for the world’s top-ranked team.

Since the writers’ union I’m imagining in my head obligates me to post “things we learned” lists in threes or fives, let’s go big. Then, after these five notes, we can all go home.

source: Reuters1. Talkin’ a defense that didn’t give up a shot on goal – It’s not only that the U.S. defense didn’t give up a shot on goal, it’s debatable whether they even gave up a shot. Officially, Canada gets a face-saving “1” in the shots column, but it took over 90 minutes to record it, and given the shot in question may have been as far from goal after it hit Tiffany Cameron’s shin as before, it was more of a shot away from goal.

So reasons for Canada’s problems: The formation change probably didn’t help. Melissa Tancredi starting while otherwise on hiatus also diminished a valuable part. But you also have to give the U.S. defense some credit. No shots on goal against a team featuring Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson? No complaints there.

That leads to the central defense question. Whitney Engen, in what otherwise looked like a ‘starting our best’ kind of team, got the call along side Christie Rampone. Is that a hint as to Tom Sermanni’s depth chart? Who knows, but after another strong performance by the Liverpool defender, nobody would begrudge Sermanni if Engen has become the default choice.

2. Crystal Dunn and a glimpse of left back depth – Remember that post a while ago? You know that one, national team fans. We talked about Kelley O’Hara’s NWSL struggles and the lack of depth at left back. Just a little thought experiment about the value of calling in new players in a world where a player like Rachel Quon trades in her bald eagles and happy meals for maple leafs and Tim Horton’s.

Sunday gave us a glimpse of an O’Hara-less world (though defenders like Ali Krieger, Amy LePeilbet, or Heather Mitts never get hurt, right). With the first choice left back still recovering from an ankle injury, North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn got her first start at left back. She’d previously playing on the right, but with no other left backs called into camp, the Tar Heel beat out Kristie Mewis for the start.

The results were mixed. Going forward, Dunn showed a lot of composure, contributed to a passing game in a way the more dynamic (read: fly forward and scare the crap out of the other team) O’Hara doesn’t. She led the teamin passing efficiency, but in the end, her contributions were a six of one half, half-dozen of the other debate: the wide threat O’Hara can offer versus the help a player like Dunn could give in support of the midfield. It’s interesting to think what a different style of player could offer.

But interesting is where it stopped. With left midfielder Tobin Heath becoming more accustomed to cutting in from the left, contributing in the space behind the strikers, a presence like O’Hara’s is really needed. There were so many times you’d look at the U.S.’s build up, particularly in the first half, and imagine O’Hara bursting down that left side, drawing defenders with her. In that regard, she was missed.

There was also a thankfully not-so-key moment where O’Hara’s absence was apparent at the back. In the 42nd minute, Sinclair burst from the right flank, catching Dunn (and to a certain extent, Rampone) flat-footed as she raced onto a ball sent past the defense. A quick read from Nicole Barnhart defused the situation, but “slow to react to Christine Sinclair” isn’t something that should appear on one of your scouting reports.

Add in a second half instance where she kept Sinclair onside (though the linesperson saw it differently) and Dunn was a little shaky in defense. Give her some credit, though. It was only her first start there for the U.S. – a decent jumping off point, especially for a prospective number two. But the lapses still reminded you how far O’Hara’s come.

3. So that’s the number three goalkeeper, huh? – Without any shots to stop, it’s hard to be too effusive about Nicole Barnhart, yet “Barnie” was as advertised: Solid. Her highlight was the read to come out quickly on Sinclair in the 42nd minute, but in claiming crosses before they could reach their targets, she played he part in keeping that shot total down.

Much like the situation in central defense, the performance prompts a question about Sermanni’s depth chart. Who’s the No. 2? Presumably, Hope Solo is still the No. 1, but until Jill Loyden broke her hand, it was thought the Sky Blue goalkeeper had asserted herself as Solo’s understudy. But with Barnhart getting the call today, doing well over 90 minutes, is she poised to reclaim the backup’s role?

The tea leaves are still too murky on this one. And ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter too much.

source: Reuters4. Not bad, Carli Lloyd. Welcome back – Maybe the time off charged Carli Lloyd’s batteries, because ever since she was cleared to play in mid-May, she’s looked very good. In her first start, playing behind Abby Wambach in Western New York’s 4-2-3-1, Lloyd showed promise in a role she’s never had the opportunity to play with the national team. And today, given a place in the starting XI despite only one full NWSL game, Lloyd was nearly as impressive, showing little of the rust you’d expect from somebody who spent most of the spring on the sidelines.

One of the big questions ahead of Tom Sermanni’s arrival centered around midfield, with many asking how long the Lloyd-Shannon Boxx partnership would remain viable. With questions regarding both the personnel and the tactics (the pair often deployed as an old school, stoic 4-4-2 duo), the U.S. looked ill-equipped to match up against the Germanys and Frances of the world.

But perhaps the original question, one of tactics and talent, is less complicated than originally thought. With the tweaks Sermanni’s making to Pia Sundhage’s team, Lloyd may end up more than an opportunistic goal scorer often left outmatched against teams capable of contesting the midfield. Maybe a player teammates and coaches quickly label as a highly skilled playmaker will have more chances to show those talents.

Like so many in these early days of Sermanni, the potential evolution of Carli Lloyd is something to note, file away, and potentially ignore. She may just have a spring in her step, enthused by returning after a long layoff.

source: Reuters5. Tobin Heath – on the left; Tobin Heath – through the middle – Go back in time a year and buy 2012 Richard a second beer and he’ll talk for an hour about how the U.S. needs to move Tobin Heath to the middle. The diatribe will likely espouse the virtues of the 4-3-3, the idea of Lauren Cheney as a ideal regista, and a blurry-eyed justification of Becky Sauerbrunn as a potential Sergio Busquets. I’m not proud of what I was.

The basic justification for Tobin Heath in the middle was getting her on the ball. She’s the team’s most skilled player. She’s its best playmaker, and getting her out of a role where she’s constantly taking on right backs would leverage her creativity. Why not get your best players on the ball?

Nowadays, Heath’s seeing enough of the ball, albeit still starting as a left-ish midfielder. But whereas over the last couple of years she was still settling into that role, now she’s become so comfortable that she’s begun cutting in with regularity, her flank left open in the attacking phase, the fullback expected to provide the width.

In the second half on Sunday, Heath spent much of her time within the width of the penalty area, a position that paid dividends in two distinct moments. In the 53rd minute, Heath was closer to the right side of the field while playing a defense-splitting ball for Alex Morgan, with only a last-ditch lunge from Kadeisha Buchanan preventing a chance on Erin McLeod. Twenty minutes later, Heath forced a turnover in the middle of the park and immediately played a long ball that led to the second goal.

The biggest complaint about Tobin Heath as a left midfielder is the time she spends on the ball, but that’s a function of position as well as tactics. At left mid, she’s asked to break down the opposing right back, something that both utilizes and limits her talents.

Through the middle, all of Heath’s skill, quick decision making, and scoring talent can be utilized. We got another glimpse of that in the second half.

FOLLOW LIVE: Two hours to decide it all on Decision Day

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against Colorado Rapids during the first half of the MLS soccer game in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP)
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231 days after First Kick, the 2016 MLS regular season is a mere three hours from its conclusion. Decision Day — 10 games, all kicking off at 4 p.m. ET.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS scoreboard for Decision Day updates ]

Back on March 6, 20 teams dreamt of lifting MLS Cup in December. Nearly eight months later, eight playoff places have been clinched, with another four on the line on Sunday — one in the Eastern Conference, three in the Western Conference.

Also still up for grabs: the Supporters’ Shield. FC Dallas have the inside track on the regular-season “title” and home-field advantage for as long as they may compete in the postseason. Bradley Wright-Phillips (23 goals) and David Villa (22) are neck-and-neck for the Golden Boot, with BWP currently holding the tiebreaker (assists — 5 to 3) in the event of a tie.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — All the Decision Day scenarios ]

For a full list of scenarios in the East, the West — to clinch berths and seeding implications — as well as the Shield race, hit this link and this link. Hit the link toward the top of this post, or right here, to keep up with all the action across the league over a frantic two-hour period (for yours truly, mostly). And, of course, check back on PST for full coverage of the afternoon and the setting of the stage for the playoffs, which begin Wednesday night with the knockout round.

Full schedule of games — all kickoffs at 4 p.m. ET

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
New York City FC vs. Columbus Crew SC
Toronto FC vs. Chicago Fire
Orlando City SC vs. D.C. United
New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact

Western Conference

LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas
Colorado Rapids vs. Houston Dynamo
Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers

Antonio Conte is becoming what Jose Mourinho was

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LONDON – At the full time whistle Jose Mourinho pulled Antonio Conte close and didn’t let go.

It was not a loving embrace.

[ MORE: 3 things learned ]

With his team 4-0 up towards the end of the game, Conte turned to Chelsea’s fans and gestured for them to raise the decibel levels. Manchester United’s fans were the only supporters who could be heard inside a very happy, yet quiet, Stamford Bridge.

On his incredibly embarrassing return to the Bridge — first half goals from Pedro (after just 30 seconds) and Gary Cahill, plus clinchers from Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante did the damage — Mourinho apparently took exception to Conte’s actions.

Speaking after the game United’s manager refused to reveal what he said to Conte but with TV cameras all over the world were fixed on him a the final whistle.

It was clear something along the lines of: “You don’t wind up the crowd at 4-0. You do it at 1-0. It’s humiliating” was said.

It was a far from magnanimous end to an utterly humiliating return to Stamford Bridge for Mourinho as he suffered his worst-ever defeat as a Premier League manager and United’s worst away defeat in the PL since 1999.

Asked in his post-game press conference about what was said, both Mourinho and Conte declined to comment.

“You know me. I speak to Conte. I don’t speak to you. You know me that I am not this kind of guy to come here and share with you things I don’t want to share,” Mourinho said. “It was with me and Antonio and stays with me and him. Unless he wants to share with you if he wants. That is Antonio’s problem.”

What is clear is that Mourinho’s problems are much worse than Conte’s.

Only once had a team he’s managed conceded four or more goals in a Premier League game and on his first visit back to west London since he was fired as Chelsea’s boss last December, Mourinho’s defense were all over the place as they couldn’t cope with Chelsea’s wide men set up in a 3-4-3 system. Conte’s side were well balanced and had learned from their early season defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.

Chelsea’s Italian manager laughed a little when asked about Mourinho’s comments — something which will have likely incensed his opponent — then explained why he turned to Chelsea’s fans and gestured for them to sing loudly towards the end of the game.

“I think that the private conversation must remain private. Then if someone discover something, okay. For me a private conversation remains private,” Conte said, smiling. “I think that today it was right to call our fans in a moment I was listening to only the supporters of Manchester United after 4-0. I called the fans to do a great clap to the players after this type of performance. I think that the players after a 4-0 win, they deserved it. It is very normal.”

Did Conte regret his passion on the sidelines? His constant jumping around? His whipping the home fans at Stamford Bridge into a frenzy for the final moments of the game?

“Me? No. I think we live with emotion,” Conte said. “If we want to cut the emotion we can go home, stay at home and change my job.”

This was all about much more than Conte whipping up the crowd late on. Mourinho’s back was up. He was hurting and he lashed out.

Once upon a time he would be the man whipping up crowds and providing plenty of antics on the sidelines. Now he’s lost a large chunk of his sparkle. The 53-year-old is six years Conte’s senior and it shows.

Chants of “You’re not special anymore!” and “You’re getting sacked in the morning!” greeted him from some sections of Chelsea’s supporters as he returned to the club where he delivered three Premier League titles in five full seasons in charge over two spells. With United having just 14 points after nine PL games (the same record David Moyes had) Mourinho has been reduced to moaning and complaining while he watches on at others such as Jurgen Klopp and Conte succeeding.

His comments last Monday about Klopp’s Liverpool being the “last wonder of the world” in attack were telling. He is starting to look like he feels out of the loop, out of touch and some might even say yesterday’s news.

You could argue that Conte is what Mourinho was.

Sure, the Italian boss has never won the UEFA Champions League title and has only had success in Italy, but he is passionate, driven and lives and dies by his relationship with his players and the fans. Sat behind Chelsea’s bench on Sunday, or any gameday for that matter, it is exhausting to see Conte in action. Whether or not his constant gesticulation and shouting makes a difference remains to be seen but in stark contrast Mourinho stood on the sidelines with his hands in his pockets for most of the second half as he watched his team waved the white flag as Chelsea raced into a 4-0 lead.

Mourinho used to be the one running on the pitch and hugging his players at the final whistle and urging Chelsea’s supporters to create a cauldron of noise in the comfy surroundings of Stamford Bridge. Now, Conte is doing that.

Both managers have only been at their respective clubs since the summer but Conte is much further along in stamping his mark on his team.

And when it comes to Conte’s tactics, he’s been brave enough to change his system in recent weeks to great success.

Since Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 formation, they’ve won all of their last three games, conceding zero goals. ProSoccerTalk asked Conte if the defensive improvement following the 3-0 shellacking at Arsenal, which made him livid, has been the most pleasing in recent weeks.

“After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte said. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”

Conte will go home happy on Sunday in west London. Mourinho often did. But not anymore.

Jose Mourinho believes Manchester United “played well” in 4-0 defeat

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Jose Mourinho, as he has so many times this season after slip-ups by Manchester United, has chosen to stay positive.

A monstrous 4-0 defeat at the hands of his former club Chelsea saw a calamatous number of defensive errors lead to goals for the opposition, but the new Manchester United manager is looking ahead already.

“The team played well,” Mourinho claimed after the match. “If we can delete the defensive mistakes we make…if we can delete that, the team played well. Courtois had more work than De Gea, their central defenders had more work than my central defenders, we were always in control, we played in their half for long periods, we put foot in their box many many times, we have what I call chances and half-chances, but they are very dangerous in counter-attack, we knew that.”

“I told the players that at halftime, that if we scored the 2-1 the game is different, but it was not for us to score the 2-1, it was for them to score the third and fourth in counter-attack.”

[ RECAP: Chelsea dismantles Manchester United 4-0 at Stamford Bridge ]

Mourinho believed that every time his team was close to scoring, they would concede on the other end, pegging them back even further.

“It’s one of these games where they scored the goal, then we are close to the 1-1, they scored the second goal, we are close to the 2-1, they score the third goal, we are close to the 3-1, they score the fourth goal, and then we are close to the 4-1, and probably a few more minutes they score the fifth goal.”

In the end, Mourinho chalked up his team’s defensive frailty to human error, backing his defenders despite the ugly performance.

“I think that mistake is crucial, it’s a mistake that is difficult to accept, but that’s football and human beings and you have to accept. And then the game was different.”

Mathieu Valbuena injures shoulder but won’t need surgery

GENT, BELGIUM - SEPTEMBER 16:  Mathieu Valbuena of Lyon runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between KAA Gent and Olympique Lyonnais held at Ghelamco Arena on September 16, 2015 in Gent, Belgium.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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French midfielder Mathieu Valbuena will miss a month with a dislocated shoulder, but while initially it was feared he would need surgery, that is no longer an option, and four weeks should be an adequate recovery time according to reports in France.

The 32-year-old has struggled with injuries this year, missing a pair of matches with a hip problem, and now will be sidelined much longer after a hard landing in the 75th minute on Saturday in a loss to Guingamp.

After the match, president Jean-Michel Aulas told TV channel Canal+ that Valbuena would likely need surgery, but after further testing they will look to get him back by the start of December.

Lyon is struggling mightily, having lost three of four in Ligue 1 play and falling to 10th in the table.

Valbuena has been a regular for the French national team, missing just two matches since late 2012. With this injury, he will most certainly miss France’s World Cup qualifier against Sweden in early November, plus the following friendly against the Ivory Coast.