Abby Wambach - South Korea v United States

US women ‘focused’ as Wambach aims for history

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MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Thursday’s United States women’s national team match falls smack in the middle of the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season. It’s a friendly. It’s against the same team, Korea Republic, that the United States just handily defeated 4-1 on Saturday.

But its relevance is critical, particularly to Abby Wambach – and for more reasons than the obvious.

“People might say that these games are irrelevant and that they don’t matter, but it’s about putting ourselves in a position to learn more about each other every single match,” Wambach said after Tuesday’s training session, which lasted almost 2 ½ hot, humid hours.

“And if you do that consistently and if you commit yourself to learning about each other and how we are going to play this specific game, you give yourself a better chance of winning a World Cup, and for me that’s all I care about. That’s my focus and every single game does matter, no matter who we are playing, or how many times in a row we are playing them.”

Wambach is team-first — always. But the individual brilliance can’t be ignored. She is, of course, two goals away from tying Mia Hamm’s all-time international goal scoring record of 158. Wambach drew one closer on Saturday with a goal from the penalty spot in the final of 45-plus minutes. She’s likely to start on Thursday at Red Bull Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra), in no small part to help get on with the talk about her chase of the record.

“Of course I would love for it to be over and done with at some point. You never know what could happen – I’m an older player,” Wambach said, acknowledging, as always, that she has to earn time in the lineup first.

“I’ll be glad when it’s over so we can all stop talking about it and move on to 2015.”

U.S. coach Tom Sermanni agrees that it would be good to end the hype and hone in on putting together a “focused” 90-minute team effort.

“It would be nice to kind of get it out of the way, because it’s one of those constant things that’s now been talked about for six months – a long time,” Sermanni said. “So it would be good to get it out of the way, get it off the table and focus on going forward.”

If Wambach doesn’t tie or break the record – something very possible against a Korea Republic team that proved shaky in the back on Saturday – she’ll have to wait until September. The national team will take a break until the National Women’s Soccer League season ends on August 31.

She’ll certainly get her chances, though. Sermanni says that “if she feels up to 90 minutes,” then she’ll play.

For club and country

Sermanni will likely make several changes to the starting lineup that played against the same opponent six nights earlier. Part of that comes with managing a team based primarily on NWSL players. Sermanni is well aware of the full weekend ahead of league play, including the Portland Thorns FC-Sky Blue FC matchup. Both teams are tied for first with identical 8-2-1 records.

While Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said he has had dialogue with Sermanni to get an idea of how Thursday may play out, Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone says she hasn’t contacted the U.S. skipper, “and that’s by design.”

Combine Sermanni’s awareness of Saturday’s match just down the Garden State Parkway (which Thorns forward Alex Morgan could be available for) with his noting how Sydney Leroux has been “on fire” in training and Leroux could line up next to Wambach to start Thursday’s match.

Hope Solo is likely to start in net, but won’t play the full 90 minutes.

Thursday will also mark the first time Megan Rapinoe has played on U.S. soil professionally or internationally since Feb. 13, when she scored in a 3-1 win over Scotland.

WATCH: Walcott compares Wenger speech to Pacino

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What if Tony D’Amato of American football was Antoine Dumond of the world’s game?

Theo Walcott says Arsene Wenger inspired him to make that comparison after a recent pregame speech, a fiery number that convinced the Arsenal attacker how badly his manager wanted to win the Premier League.

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Speaking to Arsenal TV for a series of questions on former and current teammates — and Wenger — Walcott shared a pretty funny tidbit:

“The manager did a speech the other day. I won’t be able to do the speech because it was that good.”

“It genuinely reminded me of the film ‘Any Given Sunday’. I actually said that to him, and I was little bit embarrassed.’ You remind me of that film, that speech,’ I didn’t know if he had seen the film.

“Just showing the passion and how hard, and how long it’s been as well. He really wants it, like all of his players.”

Here’s the thing, though: Walcott doesn’t give us the answer as to whether Wenger has seen “Any Given Sunday”. And how about you, Theo, do you see yourself in Willie Beamon or Cap Rooney?

CAS rejects Serbia’s challenge to Kosovo joining UEFA

Supporters of Kosovo's national soccer team raise Kosovo flag during their international friendly soccer match at Adem Jashari Stadium in Mitrovica, Kosovo on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Kosovo host Turkey for their second friendly match of the country's national football team. Turkey won the match 6-1. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) The Serbian soccer federation’s appeal against Kosovo joining UEFA has been rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The court ruled that Kosovo met the standard of UEFA entry rules because it is “recognized by the majority of the United Nations member states as an `independent state.”‘

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Serbia argued that Kosovo, which joined European soccer’s governing body last May despite not being a U.N. member, should be blocked.

CAS decided that because “there is no formal recognition of countries by the U.N.,” then acceptance of Kosovo’s statehood by most countries was valid for the soccer application.

European soccer federations voted 28-24 in favor of Kosovo’s entry to UEFA after Serbia led opposition to its former province.

Serbia and its allies, including Russia, have not recognized Kosovo since the Balkan republic declared independence in 2008.

UEFA’s decision led to Kosovo joining FIFA one week later, and being fast-tracked into a 2018 World Cup qualifying group.

Still, Ukraine hosted Kosovo in neutral Poland in October, because its government also does not recognize Kosovo’s statehood.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”