Spotlight remains on Wambach as US welcomes South Korea

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There aren’t many firsts anymore for Abby Wambach.

She’s the second all-time leading international goal-scorer in women’s soccer, three tallies away from tying U.S. legend and former club and country teammate Mia Hamm. Three goals from ending all the hype and getting back to the bigger picture: the team.

”I’m sure I’m going to be glad to be done with it,” the current FIFA World Player of the Year told media after Friday’s training session.  ”You know, I’m excited for people to not talk about it as much.”

Always speaking about the team before her individual goals, Wambach will have to do something she has never done before in order to quickly end the #ChasingMia campaign: score against South Korea, an opponent she’s never faced.

[MORE: Big week for Wambach proves she’s ready for stretch run to 2015]

The two teams last played three matches over eight days in November of 2008 as part of the United States’ Olympic gold medal celebration tour, an Olympics Wambach missed after breaking her leg on the eve of the team’s flight to Beijing.

Wambach currently has 155 goals. Tying Hamm at 158 conceivably could be done over a two-game span against a good-not-great Korea Republic team, ranked No. 16 in the world.

If she wants to end the chase and the hype (the media will continue talking about this even when the mark is reached), she’ll need to do it in this mini-series on Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. (7 p.m. ET) and Thursday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra). These are the last two games for the United States until after the end of the National Women’s Soccer League season; the championship game is August 31.

A familiar bunch for the United States

U.S. coach Tom Sermanni called in a predictable bunch of players for the pair of friendlies, but the roster includes a pair of exciting returnees.

Hope Solo is back on the official training camp roster after undergoing left wrist surgery in early March. Solo already made her return in NWSL, playing in the last two losses for a winless Seattle Reign FC team on an eight-game skid. She also trained with the United States before the team’s 3-0 win over Canada, but was not on the roster for the game, making this training camp Solo’s formal return.

[MORE: Sermanni names 23-player roster for South Korea matches]

Also back (more notably on U.S. soil than anything else) is midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who missed the Canada game to stay in France as Lyon wrapped up its season. Lyon won the French Cup last weekend, though it failed to claim the bigger prize of the Champions League after being upset by Wolfsburg. Rapinoe will play with the U.S. before continuing west to Seattle, where she could make her debut by month’s end.

The main new face is that of University of Virginia midfielder Morgan Brian getting some time in camp with the senior team. Brian was part of the U.S. U-20 team that won the 2012 World Cup, upsetting Germany 1-0 in the final. Brian, a crafty, technical sort of midfielder that would catch the eye of Sermanni, enters her junior year at Virginia this fall.

Getting to know the visitors

With the 2015 World Cup expanded to 24 teams, five will qualify from Asia, giving Korea Republic a very likely chance of making their first appearance since 2003 (especially with their northern neighbors ineligible for the tournament due to a doping scandal).

The visitors have never beaten the United States (0-5-1 all-time).

Keep an eye on forward Ji So-Yun. The 22-year-old was the star of the 2010 U-20 World Cup and currently plays for INAC Kobe Leonessa, the two-time defending champion of Japan. She has a Marta-esk dribbling ability in which the ball sticks to her foot.

Maybe you remember her from that 2010 tournament (you should), when she scored eight goals in six games. Check out the highlights of those goals below, along with a goal she scored for INAC Kobe in 2011 which displays just how good of a dribbler she is:

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.