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

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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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Watch Live: Arsenal v. Tottenham in North London derby

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This is it.

The Premier League returns with a bang following the two week international break as Arsenal host Tottenham Hotspur at the Emirates Stadium (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Arsenal haven’t won any of their last six games in the Premier League against Tottenham, while Spurs are three places and four points above the Gunners in the PL table.

In team news Arsenal start with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette up top, with Shkodran Mustafi returning from injury.

Tottenham have Dele Alli, Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane fit to play after recovering from injury.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Kolasinac; Ozil, Sanchez; Lacazette. Subs: Ospina; Mertesacker, Wilshere, Iwobi, Welbeck, Maitland-Niles, Coquelin

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris; Sanchez, Dier, Vertonghen; Trippier, Dembele, Sissoko, Davies; Eriksen, Alli; Kane. Subs: Vorm; Foyth, Aurier, Winks, Walker-Peters, Son, Llorente

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

[ MORE: Caleb Porter out as Portland Timbers head coach ]

MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.

Moyes: Chicharito could miss two weeks with hamstring strain

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David Moyes has given Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez assurances that he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a starting role with the Hammers, but the Mexican international will have to wait a bit for a chance.

[ MORE: North London Derby takes center stage Saturday morning ]

Hernandez, 29, is currently nursing a hamstring strain, leaving his status for this weekend against Watford in doubt.

“I think everyone knows he [Chicharito] has got a hamstring injury,” Moyes said during Friday’s press conference. “It could take a week, it could take two weeks.”

Moyes didn’t mince words recently when speaking about Chicharito and other players within the squad, essentially pointing out that no player will be awarded a starting role simply because of their stardom.

Hernandez has scored four goals in 13 matches this season for West Ham, who currently sits 18th in the Premier League. The Hammers have won just two matches to start the 2017/18 campaign and sit on nine points.