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.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.