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.

Reports: Liverpool reject latest Barcelona offer for Coutinho

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Barcelona has reportedly upped its offer for the services of Philippe Coutinho. But the response from Liverpool has remained the same.

According to multiple reports, Liverpool has rejected a third Barcelona offer for Coutinho, believed to be worth up to $151.5 million. Coutinho put in a transfer request a week ago but Liverpool has remained firm on its desire to keep Coutinho for this season. Liverpool has not yet publicly commented on Barcelona’s latest transfer bid.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Coutinho meanwhile is still off the field for Liverpool due to a back injury, the club states.

“Phil is not available; he is not training so far, so there is nothing new,” manager Jurgen Klopp told reporters. “It is always how it is with injured players, there is no real time on when he is back.”

The Brazilian midfielder signed a new five-year contract with Liverpool just last January and the deal doesn’t have a buy-out clause. But should Liverpool accept a new bid for Coutinho, he’d become the second-most expensive transfer behind fellow Brazilian Neymar.

It’s unclear whether Barcelona will shift focus to other targets such as Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele or Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann as a replacement for Neymar.

Conte can’t stop laughing when asked about Costa

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Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was asked for his thoughts on Diego Costa‘s latest comments on the club-player impasse. When he heard a reporter say Costa felt he was being treated like a criminal, Conte lost his composure and began laughing.

Conte spent a good 20 seconds giggling during the question before responding, saying “I can tell you that everyone who was in Chelsea knows what happened last season with Diego.

“I’m not interested to continue this issue.”

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Diego Costa has held out from Chelsea training to stay in his native Brazil after being told to train with the reserves ahead of the 2017-2018 Premier League season. Costa has made clear his desire to leave Chelsea for a return to Atletico Madrid, but Costa claims that Chelsea are asking for an absurd transfer fee, which prices Atleti out of the market.

[ Costa: Chelsea “won’t decide my fate”]

It’s unclear as to what’s next in the transfer saga, but it’s looking more and more likely that it will come down to the final hours of the transfer window. Complicating matters is that Costa’s preferred destination, Atletico Madrid, is banned from signing players during this transfer window and can’t add new pieces until January.

Transfer Rumor Wrap: Tottenham set to make Ajax’s Sanchez its record signing

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Tottenham look set to break the bank on one of the world’s most exciting defensive prospects.

According to a report in the Guardian, Tottenham and Ajax have agreed on a $54.1 million transfer fee for centerback Davinson Sanchez. The Colombian international only joined Ajax a year ago but led the backline to the Europa League final, where Ajax fell to Manchester United.

Spurs officials reportedly traveled to Amsterdam earlier this week to sort out a deal to bring Sanchez back to London. It’s believed to be a $36 million transfer with add-on clauses worth around $18 million.

Sanchez will add more speed and strength to one of the Premier League’s best backlines, giving Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen a partner to play with in a back three.

Here’s some more news from around the Premier League:

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Costa: Chelsea “won’t decide my fate”

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As each day passes, the impasse between Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and Diego Costa grows.

Costa is continuing to holdout from Chelsea after being asked to train with the reserves and has made clear his preference to transfer back to his former club, Atletico Madrid. But in his latest comments to ESPN Brazil, Costa said that Chelsea are asking for a transfer fee that’s well above what Atletico can afford.

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“Chelsea offered me to several clubs,” Costa said. “But I was very clear with them. They said that since I’m not part of the coach’s plans, I want to choose my destiny. For them they have made more money, I will not let them decide my destiny. Even because when I came to Chelsea they paid well below the proposal that is coming now. I think they have to be aware and see everything I’ve done.”

It’s easy to feel sympathetic for Costa and his situation. He said in the interview that he’s struggled with English and as such, has had to rely on people at the club to take care of a lot of tasks. In Madrid, a country he’s received citizenship from and a city and language he’s comfortable with, he doesn’t have these worries.

But for all the good will he earned, Costa also painted himself in a bad light later in that response to a question about what the deadlock was about with Chelsea.

“It’s not my fault I’m not there,” Costa said. “If it was up to me, I’d be playing. There’s already (been) a month. Holiday is good, but it gets boring. I did not cause this situation. Since this is where the club has to think in two ways. Of course they have to have a payback, as I have given sportily and financially as well. After three years you will receive an amount above what you paid.”

Costa though did provide some insight. It had been believed over the past week or so that Costa would only move to Atletico Madrid, but the Brazilian-born Spanish international forward clarified that statement, saying he’d prefer to go to Atletico but if Atletico can’t afford him or can’t figure out a deal to sign him and get around the club’s transfer ban, he’d be open to going to another European club.

“I have already shown my affection and my interest in playing for Atletico,” Costa said. “But if they, Athletic and Chelsea did not reach an agreement and they [Athletic] do not force a move, I can not be wanting to play in a club that does not want to make a greater effort. I know that this will happen. If it is to pay as much as Chelsea want [the transfer], it is not possible. You must see this. What I know is that the proposal to come will exceed that Chelsea paid when he brought me. And I gave back in every way.”