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.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.