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

1 Comment

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.”

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

Associated Press
Leave a comment

Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.

Netherlands manager Danny Blind fired after Bulgaria loss

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Netherlands are in real trouble, and the manager has paid the price.

The Dutch national team has parted ways with Danny Blind the day after a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria left the Dutch fourth in their World Cup qualification group halfway through.

The move garnering all the headlines from Saturday’s loss was Blind’s decision to start 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax youth product, who has just two Eredivisie starts to his credit, made two crucial errors and yanked at halftime, but the damage had been done. Spas Delev scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for Bulgaria, and that was all the home side needed as the Dutch offered little in front of goal.

Blind was also criticized for not getting Memphis Depay on the field as they chased the game. The Netherlands held 74% possession, but could only manage 3 shots on target. Depay has been in good form since his January move to Lyon, with five goals in his 10 Ligue 1 appearances.

This decision was something Blind saw coming. He told national broadcaster NOS immediately after the Bulgaria loss, “I blame myself. It can’t go on like this. Things have to change.”

“I need to think about [my future]. I do not throw the towel in here. I’m incredibly disappointed, especially since I had a good feeling about this match. It makes sense that I put myself in front of the mirror.”

However, the problems for the Dutch go far deeper than Danny Blind. They missed out on Euro 2016 largely thanks to the failed 2nd tenure for Guus Hiddink. His assistant Blind took over, but the results have been equally as poor. The Netherlands sit fourth in UEFA World Cup qualification Group A, with losses to Bulgaria and France plus a draw with Sweden. It’s not over for them though, as they sit three points back of a second place spot with five matches to go, and three of those five at home.

With the Netherlands still yet to play their friendly against Italy this coming week, former goalkeeper Fred Grim takes over on an interim basis. Grim collected 101 caps for the Netherlands, and has served as the Netherlands U-21 manager for the last two years. Before that, he took charge of his first full managerial job as head man of Dutch 2nd-tier club Almere City.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

[ MORE: Under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.