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Brad Guzan’s heroics vital to Aston Villa — and to the USMNT

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There are plenty of stories to be found in Aston Villa’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday. One of the biggest, of course, is that of the way Anthony Taylor lost control of the match early on, leading to several questionable decisions and the unwarranted sending-off of Laurent Koscielny. There’s also the off-the-pitch drama, which centers on the lack of players brought in during the transfer window. A home loss to a club that finished 15th last season isn’t going to calm Arsenal supporters’ fears, particularly with the first leg of their Champions League qualifier coming up next week. Certainly many stories will be written about what went wrong during their opening match, and speculating on who might be brought in to help repair the damage.

There are also the stories to be written from the Villa perspective. Paul Lambert started off this transfer season with a bang, bringing in seven new players, but started just one of his fresh faces against Arsenal. Did the team’s experience playing together last season help them hang on for all three points? Or was it simply Lambert’s consistent emphasis on attacking play? But while the exuberance of this young Aston Villa side may be a joy to watch, it means that sometimes the biggest Villa flaw is overlooked: its haphazard defense.

Villa’s defense has been all over the map for the past couple seasons, and for much of the opening match it appeared as though nothing had changed. While his goal in the final minutes of the match may have made many label Antonio Luna’s league debut as “stunning,” it overshadowed his defensive capabilities at left-back. Ron Vlaar allowed himself to be pulled out of position, enabling Olivier Giroud to score the opening goal for Arsenal. Nathan Baker came off early with yet another head injury, being replaced by the inconsistent Ciaran Clark, who did little to dissuade Arsenal from threatening the goal.

But that’s where Aston Villa’s hero of last season, Brad Guzan, comes in. It’s difficult to remember now, but Guzan was not the starting goalkeeper when Villa kicked off last season. Instead, it was Shay Given between the sticks for the first two matches, during which he conceded a combined four goals to West Ham and Everton. That led to Guzan being given the gloves for the League Cup match against Tranmere Rovers and the rest, as they say, is history. Guzan started the remaining 36 league games, making 114 saves and being named Villa’s Player of the Year for the 2012-2013 season.

Despite Christian Benteke’s 23 goals last season, Guzan was also the top player for the fans, with the goalkeeper collecting the Supporters’ Player of the Year award as well. Although the Belgian’s goals undoubtedly helped Villa stay up last season, it was Guzan’s ability to keep the opposition’s out that was ultimately most important. His impressive heroics behind the shambolic Villa defense did not go unnoticed by Jurgen Klinsmann, either, and the American was rewarded with starts against Mexico and Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying.

This season’s first match should further convince Klinsmann that Tim Howard cannot be the presumptive favorite between the sticks for the United States. Sure, Guzan did not keep a clean sheet, but neither did Howard for Everton — and clean sheets aren’t the only factor that caps should be based upon. Guzan put in an impressive performance against Arsenal today, particularly after Koscielny’s sending off. Arsenal may have been down a man but they were bent on scoring an equalizer, and multiple shots found their way through the Villa backline. It was only thanks to the heroics of Guzan — in particular one block which looked as though the keeper saved it with a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy — that Villa managed to stay in front.

It was Tim Howard that started the USMNT qualifier against Honduras in June, and Howard who played the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina last week. In between, Nick Rimando took the gloves during the Gold Cup. But it’s Guzan, who at almost 29 years old is reaching his goalkeeping prime, that should be the one in goal should the United States reach the 2014 World Cup. His command of the area, his distribution, and, most of all, his ability to mop up the mistakes of an incredibly shaky back line demonstrate his worth — both to country and to club.

NWSL Playoffs set: Portland, Washington, Chicago, Western New York

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The National Women’s Soccer League will crown its fourth champion in mid-October, and for the first time in three years the winner will not be FC Kansas City.

FCKC finished sixth after the 20-game regular season concluded this weekend, six points out of the final slot occupied by the Western New York Flash.

[ MORE: Allardyce on England hot seat? ]

The Flash join Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit in attempting to topple NWSL Shield winners Portland, a Thorns side which won the title in 2013 and has only missed the playoffs once.

Washington hosts Chicago on Friday in the first semifinal, while the Flash travel to Oregon for an Oct. 2 semi.

Portland Thorns (1) vs. Western New York Flash (4)

The two best goal differentials in the league meet at Providence Park, where Mark Parsons’ Thorns and their league-best defense will be tasked with stopping the highest-scoring offense in the NWSL. That means stopping Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams and runner-up Jessica McDonald, who’ve accounted for 21 of WNY’s 40 goals.

The Thorns are loaded. Women’s soccer legend Christine Sinclair, who once lifted a trophy for the Flash, is there with a quintet of USWNT mainstays. French star Amandine Henry, too, as well as leading goal scorer and Danish star Nadia Nadim.

USWNT regulars on each side
Portland: Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, Emily Sonnet, Lindsey Horan

WNY: Samantha Mewis

Washington Spirit (2) vs. Chicago Red Stars (3)

The two sides split the season series, with Chicago hosting a 3-1 victory on Saturday. Sofia Huerta had a goal and an assist, as she and Christen Press combined for nine shots. They’ve combined for 15 goals on the season, though the Red Stars have only found nine goals elsewhere.

No Washington player has scored more than five goals this year, and the Spirit haven’t had a multi-goal game in September, but Argentina national teamer Estefanía Banini’s five goals in 13 matches in an impressive haul.

USWNT regulars on each side
Washington: Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn

Chicago: Alyssa Naeher, Julie Johnston, Christen Press

UEFA Champions League preview: Spurs, Foxes, and BVB hosts Real

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 02:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid takes on Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Borussia Dortmund during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 2, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Leicester City gets a home Champions League match, Spurs head to Russia, and two of the world’s best attacks meet in Germany; Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League slate is pretty tasty.

[ MORE: Allardyce on England hot seat? ]

An out-of-form Cristiano Ronaldo has Real Madrid in a mini-slump, and a trip to Borussia Dortmund isn’t exactly the antidote now, is it? Normally we wouldn’t dial that up, but Ronaldo has a knack for shining brightly when folks question him. We’ve seen this one before. Expect a highlight-reel night from CR7, but perhaps the same from high-flying BVB.

Spurs are buoyed by the news that Harry Kane‘s injury may not be as serious as first thought, but could be sunk back into the depths with a loss at CSKA Moscow on Tuesday. Spurs fell to Monaco, while CSKA scooped up a solid draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Leicester City is looking to stay perfect after an impressive UCL debut at Club Brugge, and faces a big test in Portugal. Porto does quite well in this tournament almost annually, and won’t be scared by a trip to King Power Stadium. El Tri trio Miguel Layun, Jesus Corona, and captain Hector Herrera join familiar names Iker Casillas, Yacine Brahimi, and Maxi Pereira on the Porto roster.

Tuesday’s UCL matches

all matches at 2:45 p.m. ET

Sporting Lisbon vs. Legia Warsaw
Sevilla vs. Lyon
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Juventus
CSKA Moscow vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid
Monaco vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Copenhagen vs. Club Brugge
Leicester City vs. Porto

Kei Kamara “shocked” at boos in return to Columbus

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 13:  Soccer player Kei Kamara attends the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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Kei Kamara couldn’t gather his emotions after his return to Columbus as a member of the New England Revolution.

The star striker netted 27 times in 41 appearances for the Crew before a locker room falling-out found him traded to New England.

[ MORE: Harry Kane to return sooner? ]

The reigning MLS joint-top scorer and a member of the 2015 Best XI, Kamara was back at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday. The Revs fell 2-0, thanks to Columbus’  new Kamara, and Kei was booed.

There was bitter, smarmy Kei (from MLSSoccer.com):

“I was shocked,” he said after the match. “Come on. You make so many sacrifices for an organization to really boost it. But hey, if I can bring some life to the stadium for once in the season, why not?”

And there was also sad, pensive Kei:

“It wasn’t something I asked for, to move,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s been tough. It’s been really, really tough. But after today, I got the final answer to everything. It’s time to move on.”

“It’s time to move on. I’m happy where I am now and I wish [Columbus] the best of luck.”

I’ve rarely understood the booing of former players unless that player grievously harmed your club on the way out the door. Here in Buffalo, I’ve seen even the least-celebrated of ex-Sabres get the boo treatment, though, so it’s not uncommon.

Winter on Allardyce corruption allegations: “Touch and go whether he survives”

England international soccer team manager Sam Allardyce, centre, his assistant Sammy Lee, left, and FA chief executive Martin Glenn, right, applaud during the launch event of UEFA Euro 2020 and the unveiling of the tournament brand and the London host city logo at City Hall, in London, Wednesday Sept. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
AP Photo/Tim Ireland
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As details continue to unfold from the Telegraph’s sting operation that may’ve caught England manager Sam Allardyce in its grasp, the question of whether the ex-Sunderland man could be fired after just months on the job is moving to the forefront.

Allardyce, 61, is on tape talking about third party ownership of players — a big no-no for FIFA — and the words have some alleging that he is giving advice on how to buck the system.

[ MORE: Watford’s Deeney rages after loss]

Given that the manager has only overseen one match for the Three Lions and had been accused, but never charged, with accepting bribes from agents in 2006, some think he may not survive the issue.

Well-connected The Times of London writer Henry Winter says it’s possible.