Australia offers another test for USWNT’s developing defense

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Tom Sermanni has a strong grasp on what his lineup looks like across about two-thirds of the field, but the back four for the United States women’s national team is still a work in progress.

Sunday’s game against Australia (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) – the team he last managed – is the first of four matches in three weeks for the U.S. head coach to continue to get an idea of what his defensive unit might look like as the stretch-run to the 2015 World Cup approaches.

“It’s probably the area of the team that is most unknown,” Sermanni said. “I think from midfield up, it’s a fairly established group in a sense.

“But defensively, when you are looking at probably a more set, cohesive starting group, that is probably still kind of up in the air. At the moment, I don’t think we’ve got a ‘this is our best back four,’ ‘this is our most settled back four.’”

Despite personnel uncertainty in the back – and to be clear, there’s none in goal, where Hope Solo is still one of the world’s best – the United States has only given up eight goals in 12 games this year. They are 10-0-2 in 2013 and riding a 35-game unbeaten streak and 73-game home unbeaten streak.

[MORE: US women bringing full-strength roster for Sunday’s friendly]

The most set of the defensive line is captain Christie Rampone, who is still the team’s best defender at 38 years old, but whose status for the 2015 World Cup remains to be seen. She is typically paired with Rachel Buehler, though Becky Sauerbrunn’s emergence in the National Women’s Soccer League as the leader of FC Kansas City’s impressively cohesive defense has boosted her stock considerably.

And soon to be 26-year-old Whitney Engen continues her long wait for more minutes. She’s been the U.S. center back of the future for a few years, but still only has nine appearances for her country. Confidence should be high for Engen, though, who just anchored Liverpool to its first-ever first division league title in England and immediately joined Swedish club Tyresö for their UEFA Champions League campaign (a successful one thus far, beating PSG in the Round of 32).

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Crystal Dunn, 21, has emerged as one of the United States’ best options at fullback. (AP Photo)

But the recurring question for the past few years has been on the outside. Ali Krieger was arguably the best right back in the 2011 World Cup (Japan’s Yukari Kinga the other), but left back has been a revolving door. Amy LePeilbet admirably filled in there in 2011 and then at right back during the 2012 Olympics (for an injured Krieger) despite being more comfortable centrally. LePeilbet had surgery early this year on her left ACL and Sermanni expects her to join the team for its December training camp, along with forward Amy Rodriguez, who missed the entire calendar year due to pregnancy, giving birth to her son in August.

Kelley O’Hara has been the first-choice left back since early 2012 after converting from forward, but she hasn’t played since early July and underwent right ankle surgery in August that will keep her out until early 2014.

So who does Sermanni turn to at left back, with Krieger looking healthy and ready to own the right back role once more? Crystal Dunn, the 21-year-old North Carolina Tar Heel who won the 2012 MAC Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s best player, is the most likely answer.

Dunn plays in an attacking role for UNC, leading the No. 4 ranked team with 11 goals and 25 pts. But Dunn plays as a fullback for the United States. She has played there in all seven career senior team appearances, all during this “very impressive” year, as Sermanni calls it.

“I don’t have any concerns about her playing the different positions and then coming in and playing the fullback for us, because she is such a focused player,” he said. “As a young player, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who has got a focus like she has, so I don’t have any concerns with her coming in and switching from an attacking midfield player to a fullback.”

Dunn is only in camp for Sunday’s game against Australia and will miss the Oct. 27 and Oct. 30 matches against New Zealand. It seems unlikely she would be called in for the No. 10 game against Brazil on NBC, since that is the same day as the ACC Championship.

Also in camp just for Sunday are defenders Leigh Ann Robinson and Stephanie Cox. Robinson earned her first cap last month against Mexico and Cox is back in the fold having last played for the U.S. in May 2012. Cox had her first child on April 7 and played in four games late in the season for Seattle Reign FC.

Mourinho: Van Gaal left good team, but I brought belief

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Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are bringing happiness to the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, or at least more of it.

The United boss says the club’s turnaround is emotionally-based, and that the cupboard certainly wasn’t bare when he took over the Red Devils last summer.

[ MORE: Fellaini red  had “a bit of acting” ]

United finished fifth in the Premier League last season, tied for fourth with Man City and 15 points back of Arsenal. Mourinho’s men sit in the same spot this year, but are in the semifinals of the Europa League, have won the League Cup, and have the door open to the Top Four.

So what’s different? Here’s the boss, from the BBC:

“I think Mr. Van Gaal left a good group of boys with very good relations between them.

“[But] I think they missed happiness, they missed trust, belief, this extra bit that brings resilience, brings fight and they have it [now].”

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster with the Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luke Shaw drama, but — like any new manager — Mourinho did have to sort the club. Now we wonder whether he’ll keep it happy or hit a traditional rut by Year Three (assuming he gets there, and United should be very good next season).

Spurs confirm Wembley as 2017-18 home

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May 14 will indeed be the last time Tottenham Hotspur takes the field at White Hart Lane.

Club chairman Daniel Levy has announced that Spurs will play all of its 2017-18 home matches at Wembley Stadium, and that WHL will be demolished in the offseason.

Spurs have a new venue under construction next door to WHL, calling the venue “the heart” of regeneration plans in the region. From TottenhamHotspur.com:

“This marks a momentous day in our Club’s history as it is the day we formally agreed the demolition of our beloved White Hart Lane.

“The Lane means a huge amount to each and every one of us and we needed to gain greater certainty on the delivery of the new stadium before we made the final decision to commence with the decommissioning of our iconic, historic home for some 118 years.

‘We shall ensure that we give the Lane a fitting farewell when we play our last match here on May 14.”

West Ham’s final match at Upton Park was a memorable one last season, thanks not just to the off-field but the on-field as well. The Irons came back to beat Manchester United 3-2 on a Winston Reid goal.

With Manchester United coincidentally (?) serving as the visitor on May 14, with Top Four if not title implications likely still in play, sign us up for a comfortable seat in front of TV.

Pochettino: Derby matters, but this is about title not “Totteringham”

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Mauricio Pochettino is a focused boss, one many of us wouldn’t mind as our manager.

The longtime Espyanol man knows a thing or two about being relegated to second fiddle in town, with Catalan rivals Barcelona enveloping the spotlight 99 times out of 100.

That’s why he’s not even bothering with treating Arsenal and “St. Totteringham’s Day” — the Gunners’ annual celebration of clinching a spot above Spurs in the standings — like anything than a derby date.

“I really don’t think about which position Arsenal are in. My view and focus is to try to win every game and try to win the Premier League.

“For me (finishing above Arsenal) is not a motivation. The motivation for me is to win because it’s a derby and I know what it means to win a derby. My motivation is to try to win some titles with Tottenham, and my players improve every day and show we are better than the opposition.”

Spurs as a club is growing in big ways, and aiming to sit atop the Premier League standings every year. Yes Premier League derbies are important, but aiming to finish above a rival versus above all rivals is short-sighted. Pochettino’s got it right.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 35

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The Premier League games continue to come thick and fast with 10 matches on the slate this weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush”

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Brom 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Man United 2-0 Swansea City – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM

Crystal Palace 3-1 Burnley – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Stoke City 2-2 West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 am. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Sunderland 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM

Southampton 2-1 Hull City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Watford 2-1 Liverpool – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Everton 2-1 Chelsea – (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM