Realities of CONCACAF, tyranny of goals on display Tuesday for U.S. women


Sydney Leroux stole the show Tuesday, but if there was ever a ho-hum four-goal performance, this was it. That’s not to say Leroux, trying ardently to make her case to start for the U.S. Women’s National Team, doesn’t deserve credit. She certainly does, though with a header into an open goal, a tap in of Lauren Holiday’s work, a left-footed jab Mexico’s Cecilia Santiago should have stopped, and a nice set piece header, Leroux’s performance was more opportunism than dominance. The tyranny of goals (how they overshadowed the details) ruled the headlines after the U.S.’s 7-0 win on Tuesday, though in that way, Leroux’s night was a metaphor for her entire team’s performance.

The U.S. weren’t at their best. Who would have expected them to be, with most of the team having just completed their teams’ NWSL seasons? In a friendly scheduled three days after the North American women’s league’s final game, the team looked capable, controlling, but far from their best. Some nice second half spells of possession were the exception in a game defined by the pure disparity in talent.

Despite getting zero minutes from Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Ali Krieger (with only Morgan even in camp), the U.S. were still light years ahead of their competition. And that’s the case almost anytime they play in CONCACAF. Though it wasn’t so long ago the U.S. were actually losing to Mexico (as they did in qualifying for the 2011 World Cup), most competition in this part of the world proves a step down from a spirited intrasquad scrimmage. It’s too bad “USA 1 vs. USA 2” wouldn’t sell as many tickets as “USA vs. Mexico,” because it would be a better test.

The final score line looked good, and the team hit the 90th minute at their typical CONCACAF canter, but ultimately, we learned almost nothing from the match. That Sydney Leroux can pour in goals against regional competition is a well-established fact. Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Heather O’Reilly, and Christie Rampone still perform at their same elite levels. We knew this. The performance from Mexico was so meek, we didn’t get a chance to learn anything about Erika Tymrak’s international-readiness, the “Kristie Mewis Left Back Project,” Leigh Ann Robinson, Crystal Dunn, or Becky Sauerbrunn’s viability in defense, or Hope Solo’s current quality. And because of the way the U.S. played, we didn’t get to judge Lauren Holiday’s ability to translate her Kansas City creativity to the international stage. Mexico just didn’t offer enough resistance.

That, unfortunately, is life in CONCACAF. There’s nothing the U.S. can do to change it, besides be more willing to meet stronger teams on their own turf (which, to their credit, they’ve done multiple times this year). For now, the toughest competition Tom Sermanni will find is within his own player pool, one so talented that the second-best XI in CONCACAF may also be under U.S. Soccer’s umbrella.

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FC Kansas City’s Erika Tymrak was one of six Blues in the U.S. team during Tuesday’s second half. The current NWSL Rookie of the Year was joined by Lauren Holiday, Kristie Mewis, Becky Sauerbrunn, Leigh Ann Robinson, and Nicole Barnhart.

That’s why it’s been so important that Sermanni’s expanded the player pool, brought in players like Erika Tymrak (left) or Christen Press, and recalled players like Yael Averbuch. It’s something that Pia Sundhage did at the beginning of her tenure, though she ultimately settled on a squad that, while good, lost its edge internally. By the time Sermanni was appointed, you didn’t have to go far to find a player who was looking for a new challenge, if not the outright chance to shake up what’d become a very stoic pecking order.

At almost every position in the team, there’s competition right now. Even Christie Rampone, the team’s 38-year-old captain (coming off a strong season in the NWSL) isn’t guaranteed her place. The team has four elite strikers, three world-class wide players, four defenders fighting for spots in the middle, and new, developing options at fullback. Beyond the assumption a healthy Hope Solo’s unlikely to lose her spot, central midfield is the only place where there seems to be little competition, though even there Sermanni’s brought in names to challenge Lloyd and Holiday. Nobody expects Averbuch or Morgan Brian to win spots, but Sermanni’s clearly trying to lengthen the depth chart.

That competition’s not something we’re going to see in a friendly like Tuesday’s. All many observers will see is the lopsided score, the four-goal game, and assume everything is business-as-usual. But it’s not. In truth, the team looked like they’d just come off a long season, and that’s okay. And although there wasn’t much competition on the pitch, the emerging, internal competition will help this team meet its new challenges.

Mourinho’s deflection game suggests big changes

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“I’m not the problem, they are.”

That would have been the more succinct (and boring) way for Jose Mourinho to sum up the current situation at Manchester United after their disappointing UEFA Champions League exit to Sevilla on Tuesday.

Instead he went on a 12-minute rant on Friday about Manchester City’s heritage and then following Man United’s FA Cup quarterfinal win against Brighton Saturday he slammed his players, saying they were “scared” to play and many lacked “desire” and “personality” throughout the game.

With player power at an all-time high in the Premier League and Mourinho a recent victim of that in 2015, just six months after leading Chelsea to the title, this is a dangerous game for him to play.

He wants the club to back him unreservedly ahead of his players and even though some fans are already showing their disdain towards Mourinho, he’s powering on.

What is the end game for Mourinho here?

Having just signed a contract extension in January to keep him at Old Trafford until 2020, Mourinho looks hellbent on cutting some serious deadwood this summer and trying to totally rebuild this squad.

That’s his main aim and heading into an international week and a two-week break from action, that’s the message ringing loud and clear not only in the minds of his players but also the hierarchy at United.

He always has an agenda and he always knows the correct time to ramp it up.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward will know the main aim of Mourinho’s rant is to be given more money to spend and get rid of players like Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera from previous regimes.

“A few guys were scared to play. I think it is a relation with personality, trust and class. When the sun is shining and you win matches, every player is a good player and is confident to play. When it is dark and cold and you have a period of bad results, not everybody has confidence and personality to play,” Mourinho said after Saturday’s unconvincing win against Brighton in the FA Cup.

Nemanja Matic was singled out for praise, while Scott McTominay was scolded for his display against the Seagulls but praised for his attitude. As for the rest of the players, well, Mourinho didn’t even bother mentioning them.

That says it all.

Mourinho is playing a dangerous game here. With clashes with Paul Pogba making the news in recent months as the power struggle between the two is clear for all to see, Mourinho is flexing his muscles and asserting his power on the club and he is blaming the players for their lack of success. Along the way he has also hit out at fans for their criticism of his team and it is starring to create a fractious atmosphere at the club.

This is exactly why Sir Bobby Charlton was said to be wary of Mourinho taking charge of United in the past.

It is a case of Mourinho’s way or the highway. That’s how it is.

Is that a bad thing? Right now there is clear progression. From winning the League Cup and Europa League last season and finishing sixth in the PL to being in second in the PL, in the FA Cup semifinal and reaching the last 16 of the UCL this season, Mourinho is moving things forward, even if it is incredibly slowly.

You can talk about the style of play all you want but Mourinho just wants to win. United’s fans just want to win too. Yet their manager is now constantly telling them that the players they have, no matter how much you spend on Romelu Lukaku, Pogba or others, aren’t good enough to get the job done.

With Pep Guardiola‘s dynasty at Man City about to add a Premier League title and red-hot favorites to win the Champions League, United have a big decision to make.

Do they ignore player power and go all-in and let Mourinho make the sweeping changes he wants, even if that means saying goodbye to Pogba and Co. and perhaps a dip between now and August until he can get in the players he wants?

Or do they cut out Mourinho and risk not being able to replicate his recent success, even if the style of play may improve with someone else in charge?

Mourinho is forcing Man United’s hand and it appears that a lot of the fans aren’t all on board with the way he is doing this. Yet the lofty expectations which engulf United needed addressing for some time as Sir Alex Ferguson‘s shadow still looms large over the club.

Like Fergie, Mourinho is calling the shots. Now it’s all about if he will be given the time, and the funds, to completely rebuild this United side. He is trying to buy himself extra time by solely blaming the players for his team not going deep in the UCL and seriously challenging Man City for the title this season.

Given the fact United just gave him a new contract we should expect Mourinho to be around at United for at least the next two years. We shouldn’t expect many of this current squad to be joining him.

But this risky deflection game could signal the end game for Mourinho at United sooner than he thinks.

One way or another the three-year syndrome which has encapsulated his managerial career seems to be extinct.

LIVE, FA Cup: Wigan v. Southampton in quarterfinal

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The Mark Hughes era begins at Southampton with upset alerts ringing loudly in the background.

[ LIVE: Wigan v. Saints ]

Premier League side Saints travel to third-tier Wigan on Sunday (9:30 a.m. ET) in the FA Cup quarterfinal knowing that the hosts have already knocked out Bournemouth, West Ham and Manchester City during their incredible run to the last eight.

Paul Cook’s men will fancy their chances of upsetting a fourth Premier League team in a row to reach the FA Cup semis at Wembley next month, as Southampton sit in the bottom three of the PL table and sacked Mauricio Pellegrino as their manager earlier this week after just five wins in 30 league games.

With Tottenham and Manchester United booking their spot in the last four on Saturday, Wigan remain the lowest ranked team left in the competition.

In team news Hughes starts with Manolo Gabbiadini and Guido Carrillo up top in a 4-4-2 formation.

Wigan bring in Gary Roberts for Nick Powell.


Wigan Athletic


Salah “on his way” to Messi’s level

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Mohamed Salah scored four goals on Saturday and grabbed an assist as Liverpool beat Watford 5-0 in the Premier League.

It was special. But it was almost as if we’d come to expect this. He is one of those players you pay the entrance fee alone to watch and most PL defenders spend the 90 minutes watching him run by them.

Following the stunning display from the Egyptian winger, Jurgen Klopp was asked about the current level Salah is at as he now leads the PL scoring charts with 28 goals and is the highest scoring Liverpool player ever in a debut season at Anfield with 36 in all competitions.

“I don’t think Mo wants to be compared with Lionel Messi,” Klopp said. “Messi has been doing what he’s been doing for what feels like 20 years or so. The last player I know who had the same influence on a team performance was Diego Maradona. But Mo is in a fantastic way, that’s for sure. As it always is in life, if you have to have the skills you have to show that constantly and consistently, and he is very good.”

Salah’s rise to prominence has been hugely unexpected with the $50 million Liverpool paid to Roma for his services last summer raising plenty of eyebrows.

That transfer fee now seems like a bargain.

The 25-year-old who struggled to break through at Chelsea after arriving from Basel as a youngster is now, like Messi, a genuine global superstar. Everyone knew he was quick and nimble around the box as a winger but nobody expected these gaudy numbers and this kind of output in his debut season at Liverpool.

With Liverpool facing Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League last eight, plenty of City’s defenders will already be having sleepless nights as to how to stop Salah.

Sitting in third place in the table with seven games to go and in the latter stages of the UCL, Liverpool have a hugely talented squad with the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino consistently delivering goals and assists and Klopp’s project is kicking on.

But like Messi at Barcelona, one man helps Liverpool climb above the rest: Salah.

On this form Kevin De Bruyne will have a serious run for his money when it comes to the player of the year awards in England this season.

Salah is still some way off Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of consistent excellence as his subdued display at Manchester United showed last weekend. However, he is getting towards that level and the Egyptian wizard is in the perfect team for his talents to flourish.

Three MLS Things: Growing pains in ORL; hat-trick hero

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The third Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and we learned a few (more) things along the way.

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

One game is just one game; two games is too small of a sample size; but three games is the beginning of a trend…

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Lots of changes, lots of kinks to work out

Inside the last nine months alone, Orlando City SC acquired the following who’s-who list of MLS star-level players: Dom Dwyer, Yoshi Yotun, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell. That’s one half of an uber-talented, but brand new, starting lineup (at a massive cost) — which is to say, Jason Kreis and Co., have made serious changes, and everything isn’t going to coalesce overnight.

Throw in the fact that Kljestan was suspended the first two games, Dwyer has battled multiple muscular injuries since January and is yet to make his 2018 debut, and Rosell didn’t arrive in Orlando until the week before the season opener and hasn’t played either, and you begin to understand how “such a talented team can have just one point from their first three games.”

Saturday’s 2-0 loss away to a David Villa-less New York City FC was frustrating in more ways than just “we’re still figuring things out, but we’re getting there.” Both of NYCFC’s goals resulted from self-inflicted, avoidable mistakes in possession which turned into easy counter-attacking chances going the other way.

Rosell will undoubtedly fix many of Orlando’s problems with regard to ball circulation and defensive organization/transitions, but only upon his arrival into the lineup can his tricky and important integration begin.

NYCFC, on the other hand, have three wins from three games, have conceded just once (while scoring six) and now hold a nine-point lead on the defending champions from Toronto. Oh, and did I mention they looked just fine without David Villa?

Martinez closing in on history

Just 23 games into his MLS career, Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez is one hat trick from tying the all-time record for hat tricks in a career (6 – currently held by Landon Donovan, Stern John and Diego Serna). To put that into perspective, the three aforementioned players made 340, 55 and 124 appearances during their respective MLS careers.

Assuming he doesn’t pick up another long-term injury (he missed 10 games between March and June last year) and/or transfer back to Europe in the summer, Martinez should summit the hat trick-scoring chart by early June. Given the veracity and vigor with which Atlanta engulf their opponents, Martinez scoring at least two more hat tricks this season feels like the safest bet one could make in a league full of constant flux.

Take, for example, Saturday’s 4-1 thrashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps, which not only saw the Five Stripes fire 21 shots (4 on target – 100 percent, obviously), but more importantly hold more than 72 percent of possession and limit the visitors to just five shots in total (Kendall Waston was sent off in the 13th minute, leaving the ‘Caps a man short for much of the evening). Jeff Larentowicz has solved most of the problems in midfield and allowed Darlington Nagbe to settle in quickly and thrive. If that trend is to continue, the sky is truly the limit for Tata Martino’s boys, and Martinez will bag goals by the handful.

Where’s the real Sporting KC defense?

Should we be a little worried about the Sporting Kansas City defense, a group which finished 2017 as the league’s stingiest unit and returns its entire back-six in 2018? After conceding just 29 goals in 34 games last season, the group led by past Defender of the Year award winners Ike Opara and Matt Besler has conceded seven goals in their first three games this year.

If it were any other team, and any other group of MLS veterans, with any other coach, I’d be officially worried right now. But, given their (perennial) stake to one of the league’s best defensive records, I remain in a holding pattern, even after giving up another soft/sloppy goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Sporting head coach Peter Vermes made a fair and valid point following the game, reminding the assembled media that playing more freely going forward — a massive weakness for Sports in recent seasons — comes at the expense of defensive positioning and numbers. Sure enough, they’ve scored seven goals in three games (tied for the most in MLS – all coming in the last two). Sporting scored their seventh goal of the 2017 season on April 29.

Here’s the thing about Sporting’s recent seasons: they’ve been a lock-down side throughout the regular season and never figured out how to consistently score goals, and it cost them plenty of points along the way and ultimately they played on the road in the knockout round each of the last four seasons. That style, which they’ll surely settle back into come playoff time, doesn’t lend itself to playing on the road. Securing a home playoff game, which would the first for the team since winning MLS Cup 2013 at home, is priority no. 1, and Vermes might just be willing to sacrifice a little bit of defense for a whole lot more offense (finally).