Abby Wambach, Christen Press USWNT

Beyond the goals chase: Five players to watch for USWNT tonight

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All the talk heading into Thursday’s United States women’s national team’s game vs. South Korea is about Abby Wambach, and that’s exactly what she doesn’t want.

Wambach’s chase for the international goal scoring record is well-documented. Her 156 goals for the United States are two short of the mark held by Mia Hamm, arguably the best ever and a former teammate of Wambach with both the U.S. and the Washington Freedom.

But Wambach isn’t all that fond of the attention on the record. She wants to win a World Cup, something she’s twice been denied, the latest agonizingly so in 2011.

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

[MORE: Wambach aims for history on Thursday]

So let’s pause for a moment and take a look at some of the other stories that could emerge from Thursday’s game (live on NBC Sports Network and streamed online on Live Extra).

Thursday’s match is the last for the United States until September. It’s the last chance for some to make an impression, and for others just to get back into the mix.

Here are five players to keep an eye on tonight:

Hope Solo: Still not at 100 percent, Solo is still likely to start tonight. It would be her first start since Feb. 13 vs. Scotland after having left wrist surgery in early March. She came on at halftime for the U.S. on Saturday and made an immediate save but then had very little to do, which is similar to how her first two games back with Seattle Reign FC have gone. Solo has not been greatly tested to date and she probably won’t be on Thursday either. All said, that’s probably a good way to gradually get back into the mix for the world’s top goalkeeper, who admits she still has a lot of progress to make.

Megan Rapinoe: Thursday is Rapinoe’s homecoming of sorts, having played all spring in France with Lyon and missed out on the first half of the National Women’s Soccer League season, as well as Saturday’s game and the June 2 win over Canada in Toronto. How has Rapinoe’s game changed since spending six months in France? And how will that fit with the United States? We’ll find out Thursday night.

Sydney Leroux: She was been “on fire,” according to U.S. coach Tom Sermanni and she finished just about every ball that came her way in an intense Tuesday training session. Leroux was effective on Saturday from a wider right position, which is how she created the 3rd minute goal for Kristie Mewis. Of note: that ability on the wing is what Boston Breakers coach Lisa Cole has tried to instill in Leroux, something the 23-year-old has reluctantly accepted.

Christen Press: How Press fits into this U.S. team is a question not only for Thursday, but moving forward toward the 2015 World Cup. Sermmanni has an abundance of forwards at his disposal and that includes Press, but she also has the ability to play as an attacking midfielder or in a wide role. Press scored twice as a wide player in her U.S. debut on Feb. 9. She leads the Swedish Damallsvenskan with 12 goals this season.

Morgan Brian: Fresh off a U-20 World Cup victory, the 20-year-0ld out of the University of Virginia has impressed in camp and earned her first cap in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Korea Republic, entering the game in the 77th minute. Brian has been sharp in training and that hasn’t gone unnoticed on Wambach:

“I’m very impressed with Morgan Brian,” Wambach said. “She’s come into her first camp and she’s not only come in and done sub-average, she’s actually doing really well. She’s been great. Being a young player, it’s one of those things – sometimes you just have to grind through the training sessions; you don’t know what to expect, or your legs are heavy, or you’re tired – you’re not as up to speed as the rest of us. That’s normal. But it’s those players that don’t skip a beat that you kind of, ‘wow, Morgan Brian, she’s actually doing really well.’ Confident, comfortable on the ball. And for me, that just says our youth programs are really working.”

Klinsmann side-steps blame, calls USA-Mexico one of world’s best rivalries

Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT
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The rivalry between the national soccer teams of the United States and Mexico is one of the fiercest and most unique of its kind in the world of sports. Anyone who’s participated in, or simply attended, a competitive fixture between the two sides will immediately attest to that.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking to ahead of Saturday’s clash against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, it’s quite interesting to hear current USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann describe the rivalry from his point of view, both before and after having coached in it on a number of occasions.

Before we get to that, though, Klinsmann had a bit more blame side step regarding his side’s fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup, the USMNT’s worst-ever showing at the tournament for CONCACAF nations.

Q: What did you learn from this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, where you lost to Jamaica in the semi-finals?

A: There were so many things that happened in the tournament and decisions that were made that affected the outcome. It was difficult for the players to know what to expect. For Mexico and for Panama it was the same thing. The lesson is that you just have to roll with it and try to control the things you can.

What’s the no. 1 thing players can’t control? Who gets called into the team/plays in the games.

What was the no. 1 problem for the USMNT at this summer’s Gold Cup? Who got called up/played game after game despite performing very poorly. Ultimately, it’s what undid them in the semifinals and third-place game.

Just once — once — would it hurt Klinsmann to answer a question with an “I,” or “me,” or even “we?” The question was “What did you learn,” yet the answer always come back to “the players,” or “they,” or “them.” At this point, Klinsmann either believes he’s infallible, or he’s simply trying to see how many ridiculous statements he can get away with.

Q: You’ve been in the top US job for almost five years now and you’ve met Mexico many times. How would you define the rivalry between these countries on the pitch? Can you compare it with others you’ve experienced?

A: The USA-Mexico rivalry is one of the greats in world football. For me, it compares to Germany-Holland in terms of the intensity and emotion it brings out in the fans. As USA coach, it was a learning curve to understand how much this rivalry means to our fans. We had won some games against big nations, but the reaction from everyone to when we went down to [Estadio] Azteca and beat Mexico there for the first time was just amazing.

Q: What makes the rivalry unique?

A: What is unique is that there are so many Mexican-Americans living in the United States, so the rivalry crosses borders. We have seen many times in these last years that younger Mexican-Americans will wear a Mexico jersey to our game, and when we start doing well they take it off and have a U.S. jersey underneath! More and more they’re supporting us, and we hope to continue to win them over.

Klinsmann gets this one absolutely right. With the two countries situated right next to each other, the aforementioned immigration of so many Mexican soccer fans into the U.S., and the classic battles between the two sides over the years, USA-Mexico not only feels amazing to get one over on your rivals, but perhaps more than anything it’s avoiding that feeling of defeat, of embarrassment, of being taunted and haunted for days, weeks, months and sometimes years, that makes beating the old foe so satisfying.

Ozil, Coquelin: Arsenal can win the title this season

Mesut Ozil, Arsenal FC
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I suppose, in theory, that any Premier League club that fields a team could win the league title for a given season, so the above headline could have been written in reference to any one of 20 teams a few short weeks ago.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Fast forward eight rounds of fixtures to the present day, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer with every passing week that it’s a three-horse race — Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United, who currently sit 1-2-3 atop the league — for the 2015-16 Premier League title.

So — and stick with me for just a second — why not Arsenal? [The crowd gasps loudly] Arsenal midfielders Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin believe the Gunners have what it takes to win the title this year, so why doesn’t anyone else?

Ozil and Coquelin, on Arsenal’s progression to title contenders — quotes from the Guardian:

Ozil: “We have a great team with many world-class players. Our goal is to win the Premier League and I think that this season it’s possible to do it, if we all stay healthy. But the season is long.”

Ozil: “I didn’t expect [Bayern Munich] to beat Dortmund 5-1. Their recent results show they are simply in great shape … But our victory against Manchester United was a sign: when we play and want it 100 percent, then we can beat Bayern.

“We are playing at home. Although we have respect for them, we don’t have any fear. We know how to score goals against Bayern and we can be successful. It will be difficult – but we have the potential to beat any team.”

Coquelin: “We proved a lot of people wrong. Inside the dressing room we knew we could do good things this season. We knew we could be contenders, but obviously we have to be consistent.

“We are getting stronger against the big teams. We beat City last season, now United. It’s all about consistency. The league is getting tougher, so we need to be getting results every week … We knew we had to put it right after Olympiakos and that’s what we’ve done.”

Coquelin is absolutely right — no one expected Arsenal to throttle Man United the way they did on Sunday. The Gunners acquitted themselves quite well, though it should be mentioned that Louis Van Gaal set up United to fail miserably with the immobile midfield duo of Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger against a quick, dynamic Arsenal unit.

[ MORE: “Super computer” predicts final Premier League standings ]

That’s not meant to take anything away from Arsenal’s scintillating performance, because they did exactly what they should be doing against a poorly planned side — that’s not always been the case for Arsenal against top teams. The Gunners will play hosts to Man City on Dec. 19; perhaps we’ll better be able to dub them contenders or pretenders based their showing that day.