Australia v United States

United States begins three-match stretch with cruise past Australia (Video)

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Like the rest of her teammates, Australia’s Lisa De Vanna will see her efforts forgotten, the cruel nature of sports’ bottom lines likely to overshadow the multiple tests she gave Hope Solo. With the U.S. goalkeeper responding each time, finishing the match with five saves, the final looks like most other friendlies the U.S. has hosted through a still-undefeated 2013. The 4-0 final was an apt illustration of the divide between the world’s first- and eighth-ranked teams.

Expect more in the weeks to come. Today’s match in San Antonio was the first of a three-game stretch, the U.S. Women’s National Team closing October with friendlies against New Zealand (Oct. 27, 30). The Football Ferns, however, are unlikely to offer as much resistance as the still-overwhelmed Aussies.

Lauren Holiday got the U.S. on the board early, her shot from just inside the penalty area deflecting off an Australian defender on its way past Lydia Williams. Eight minutes later, a nice, controlled left-footed volley from Carli Lloyd saw Holiday’s midfield partner score from roughly the same range, giving the U.S. the 2-0 lead they’d carry through halftime.

Abby Wambach got on the board in the second half, the FIFA World Player of the Year registering her 162nd international goal in the 56th minute. In stoppage time, Christen Press scored her seventh goal in 10 games, giving the U.S. a controlling four-goal win.

That control wasn’t complete, however. The defense was caught out multiple times, occasions where the ever-working De Vanna was able to get on to direct balls from her teammates and past the States’ defense. The two goals the team had in the second half could have possibly been more if it weren’t for a handful of occasions where better execution and finishing would have made this into a truly overwhelming result.

But there are only so many qualms you can have about a four-goal win over quality opposition, and given the point of these matches is to continue improving ahead of 2015 World Cup qualifying, the performance (and its details) was more important than the final score.

And on that performance, here are five things that jumped out:

source: AP
Sky Blue FC forward Lisa De Vanna nearly broke through for Australia on Sunday, often stressing North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn – the U.S.’s starter at right back. (Photo: AP Photo.)

1. Defense gave Australia their chances

We covered De Vanna, somebody whose exceptional work rate can exploit problems in any defense. Thankfully, Lisa De Vanna isn’t the greatest finisher in the world; otherwise, the U.S. would have gotten themselves into a shootout.

In her post-game interview, Hope Solo mentioned how excited she was to be playing behind a defense that was playing more two-way soccer, but the cost of that is sometimes being caught out. Maybe a fullback (Crystal Dunn) finds herself out of position. Maybe your central defenders end up isolated. There are costs to any approach, and if the U.S. truly is changing theirs — moving away from a philosophy that saw a natural central defender deemed an acceptable left back at the last World Cup — they’ll be a period of adjustment. If this is the direction Tom Sermanni’s decided to go, the U.S. will be better off for it, but they may also need Solo to paper over the cracks in the short-term.

Then again, this may have just been a bad day. Maybe we’re reading too much into Hope Solo’s words. Regardless, if the U.S. had been playing Germany, Sweden, or even Canada, the scoreline wouldn’t have been as forgiving.

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Becky Sauerbrunn started in central defense for the U.S., going 90 minutes in their win at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Photo: Getty Images.)

2. Was this Becky Sauerbrunn’s best game of the Tom Sermanni era?

If the U.S. is going to play out of the back more, getting their defenders more involved in play, then Becky Sauerbrunn may become the central defender most likely to claim the spot next to Christie Rampone (who did not dress today). Though her range of passing was an issue under Pia Sundhage, Sauerbrunn is great playing the short passing game Sermanni may want. Out of all the people vying for the place next to Rampone, she is the most intelligent with the ball – somebody whose presence could allow both Holiday and Lloyd to push on, given Sauerbrunn and Rampone’s comfort with the ball.

All of this was in Sauerbrunn’s repertoire before today’s game, but today was the first time she really asserted herself. Starting next to Whitney Engen, Sauerbrunn was more aggressive in possession than we’re used to seeing her at the international level, flashing the type of game we’re accustomed to seeing with FC Kansas City. There she was voted NWSL Defender of the Year in part because of the command she had over games, using not only her defensive instincts but also her offensive awareness to make an impact.

If that awareness starts to exert itself for the U.S., Sauerbrunn will have an advantage Rachel Buehler and Whitney Engen do not. The player domestic soccer fans have wanted to see get more time since she blossomed in Women’s Professional Soccer? If today’s any indication, she may finally be coming through for the national team.

3. Sydney Leroux out wide, huh?

Sydney Leroux is the best athlete on the team. She can play anywhere, if she wants. Under Pia Sundhage, the natural striker even had a (very brief) spell at right back.

On Sunday, she started wide in a 4-4-2. It’s not her natural position, but it gave her a start she covets, and given the U.S. was extremely thin on wide midfielders coming into this game, a solution like this was necessary.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of an impact. At least, we didn’t see her have the kind of impact we often see the Boston Breakers star have in these types of games. Coming off a four-goal performance against Mexico on Sept. 3, Leroux was kept off the scoresheet on Sunday, and while 57 minutes in a role isn’t enough to draw any conclusions, it’s safe to say Leroux’s turn out wide produced mixed results.

source: Getty Images
Alex Morgan didn’t get on the scoresheet on Sunday, but particularly in the second half, she was a constant threat against Australia. (Photo: Getty Images.)

4. Alex Morgan looks healthy

The last time we saw Alex Morgan, she had a near-hip-to-ankle leg brace, trying to protect some injured knee ligaments. It wasn’t anything major, but it was enough to slow her down over the last month of the NWSL season. The last time we saw a healthy Alex Morgan was mid-summer.

At least, until today. Morgan looked back to her normal self, constantly sprinting past the Australian defense to get onto balls lofted down the left side. It’s the U.S.’s stock way to get Morgan involved. Thankfully, she’s back to the point where she can pull it off.

The game also served as a reminder of how much Morgan benefits from playing with Abby Wambach. For Portland in the NWSL, those long balls would often see defenses collapse on her, close own all her options, leaving her with low percentage chances. She led the league in shots and shots on goal but didn’t challenge for the scoring title, largely because, for much of the year, she was stranded up top.

Wambach, however, demands a defense only give so much attention to Morgan, and while that’s not breaking news, it’s interesting to note in light of what happened this past NWSL season. Though Thorns FC has Canadian international Christine Sinclair as a potential partner, for much of the year she was relegated to midfield. Was this game a reminder of how best to use Alex Morgan? If so, 2014 could be a big year for both her and her captain at club level.

5. So does Hope Solo

It seemed like she rushed back from wrist surgery. With the Seattle Reign off to a disastrous start in the NWSL, Hope Solo may have hurried back for a club that desperately needed one of their stars to show up. Between that and persisting questions about the flexibility of her surgically repaired shoulder (from which she hastily returned off to take part in the World Cup), Solo’s health remains an issue.

Today, however, Solo looked fine. Actually, she looked more than fine. As De Vanna streaked through the U.S. defense on multiple occasions, she was left on her own to come up big. Just as she did before her surgeries, just as she’s likely to do through the rest of this cycle, Solo stepped up.

She didn’t hesitate to act. If there was any uncertain about what she could and could not do, it didn’t show. Solo didn’t hesitate to get down on that Alamodome turf.

Maybe it was a confidence thing, Solo looking shy upon returning for Seattle. Maybe there was rust. Or maybe there really were (are) lingering issues. Athletes break down.

Solo, however, looked like the player who’d claimed the title of world’s best goalkeeper. When called upon on Sunday, she was back on that pedestal.

Arsene Wenger “99.9 percent confident” new players will arrive at Arsenal

LILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 12:  Shkodran Mustafi of Germany runs with the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group C match between Germany and Ukraine at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 12, 2016 in Lille, France.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger is just teasing Arsenal’s fans now.

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With the Gunners reportedly closing in on a double swoop for Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez which will cost them almost $70 million, Wenger seems very confident that the deals will get done very shortly.

Speaking to the media on Friday ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Watford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Wenger confirmed they are closing in on new signings ahead of the summer transfer window shutting on Aug. 31.

“We are working on the deals. We are not close enough to announce today that they will sign for us, and will we sign anybody before the end of the transfer window? I am 99 per cent confident.”

The deal for 24-year-old Mustafi has been rumbling on for some time now with Valencia driving a hard bargain for the German international defender. However, it is believed a fee of $46.2 million has been agreed for the center back and he is now on his way to London to complete a medical.

[ MORE: Europa League draw tough for United, Saints ]

As for Perez, the 27-year-old striker from Deportivo La Coruna has emerged as a late target for Arsenal after Everton had tracked him for most of the summer. It is believed Arsenal has met the $22.5 million release clause in his contract after Lucas scored 17 goals in La Liga for Deportivo last season. He will challenge Olivier Giroud for the central striking position at the Emirates Stadium but can also play in a variety of positions in the attacking unit.

If both of these deals go through as expected then Arsenal will have actually spent the third-most of any PL club this summer on new players, trailing only Manchester City and Manchester United in spending. They also signed Swiss international midfielder Granit Xhaka for $40 million earlier this summer.

Wenger joked about now being branded a big spending this summer and told one journalist “it is a shame you are not my friend. You will see I spend a lot of money,” when asked about the perception that Wenger doesn’t like to spend much in the transfer market.

Arsenal’s manager also revealed that Calum Chambers is likely to leave on loan before the window shuts with Mustafi taking his place, while the Gunners will have Gabriel back soon to join youngster Rob Holding, Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny as center back options. There is also club captain Per Mertesacker but he center back is out with a long-term knee injury and won’t be back until January.

UEFA Europa League group stage: Man United, Saints handed tough draws

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal with Paul Pogba during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Premier League clubs Manchester United and Southampton were both handed tough, but exciting, draws in the 2016-17 group stage of the UEFA Europa League.

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The draw, which took place in Monaco on Friday, saw Jose Mourinho’s United placed in Group A as they face Turkish giants Fenerbache, Dutch powerhouse Feyenoord and Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk with some big games coming up at Old Trafford.

United’s manager was happy with the tough tests for his squad: “It’s a big match to play in Istanbul as it is in Rotterdam – it’s good for us,” Mourinho said.

Saints, who have reached the group stage of the Europa League for the first-time in club history, face mouth-watering clashes against Inter Milan, while they also have tough games against Czech giants Sparta Prague and the champions of Israel Hapoel Beer-Sheva.

48 teams who had qualified for the Europa League group stage were split up into 12 groups of four teams with some other big ties cropping up as Group G looks particularly strong as it contains Ajax, Standard Liege, Celta Vigo and Panathinaikos.

The Europa League final will take place in Stockholm, Sweden at the Friends Arena on May 24, 2017.

Below is the draw in full, with the opening group games taking place on Thursday Sept. 15. There are six group games in total for each team and you can see the full schedule by clicking on the link above.


GROUP A
Manchester United
Fenerbache
Feyenoord
Zorya Luhansk

GROUP B
Olympiakos
APOEL FC
Young Boys
FC Astana

GROUP C
Anderlecht
St Etienne
FSV Mainz 05
Gabala

GROUP D
Zenit St Petersburg
AZ Alkmaar
Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Dundalk

GROUP E
Viktoria Plzen
AS Roma
Austria Wien
Astra Giurgiu

GROUP F
Athletic Bilbao
Genk
Rapid Wien
Sassuolo

GROUP G
Ajax
Standard Liege
Celta Vigo
Panathinaikos

GROUP H
Shakhtar Donetsk
SC Braga
Gent
Konyaspor

GROUP I
FC Schalke 04
FC Salzburg
Krasnodar
Nice

GROUP J
Fiorentina
PAOK FC
Slovan Liberec
Qarabag

GROUP K
Inter Milan
Sparta Prague
Southampton
Hapoel Beer-Sheva

GROUP L
Villarreal
Steaua Bucharest
FC Zurich
Osmanlispor

UEFA: Top four leagues guaranteed four teams in UCL from 2018

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27:  UEFA  Champions League trophy is seen ahead of the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The UEFA Champions League will see a big change for three seasons from the 2018-19 campaign.

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On Friday it was announced by UEFA that several changes, most notably the way teams qualify for the UCL, had been approved and will take place in the next competition cycle.

The biggest change and the one everyone is talking about is that from 2018 the teams who finish in the top four of the four highest ranked UEFA nations will automatically qualify for the UCL group stage.

[ MORE: Analyzing UCL draw for PL teams ]

That means no more UCL play-off for teams who finish fourth in the Premier League.

In a statement on their website, UEFA’s General Secretary ad interim Theodore Theodoridis revealed everyone is happy with the changes.

“The amendments made will continue to ensure qualification based on sporting merit, and the right of all associations and their clubs to compete in Europe’s elite club competitions. We are happy that European football remains united behind the concepts of solidarity, fair competition, fair distribution and good governance.”

Some argue that having 16 places guaranteed to teams from the top four nations in Europe — currently Spain, Germany, England and Italy — is a monopoly and limits the chances of smaller clubs from smaller nations from qualifying.

UEFA also revealed a new coefficient system with clubs no longer having a country share tacked on to their coefficient under most circumstances, plus historical success will be weighted in the coefficient rankings to take into account past UCL and Europa League titles won.

For example, Liverpool’s coefficient will likely increase despite not playing in Europe this season as instead of the coefficient being solely made up of how they and other English teams have performed in Europe over the past few years, now their five previous UCL titles will be weighted and their coefficient will improve due to past success.

Blatter says he will accept verdict as CAS appeal begins

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter arrived for his appeal hearing against a six-year ban from football on Thursday, pledging to accept the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport

“I do hope it will be positive for me,” Blatter, sporting a light gray beard, told reporters at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) ahead of a hearing expected to last several hours.

The court’s verdict is expected within several weeks, and could be challenged in a further appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

The 80-year-old Blatter denies wrongdoing in authorizing a $2 million payment to former FIFA vice president Michel Platini in 2011. They claimed it was for backdated and uncontracted salary for work Platini did in advising Blatter from 1999 to 2002.

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The so-called “disloyal payment” led Blatter to be put under investigation for criminal mismanagement by Swiss federal prosecutors last September. That investigation is ongoing.

FIFA’s ethics committee judged the $2 million deal was a conflict of interest and initially banned Blatter and Platini for eight years last December. FIFA’s appeal committee cut both bans to six years.

Platini’s appeal to CAS was already judged in May, when Blatter appeared in person as a witness. Platini promised a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal after his ban was only cut from six to four years.

Platini arrived at the hearing around midday local time to be a witness. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter’s comments Thursday suggest he would not pursue a federal case. Federal judges can intervene only if legal process is abused.

“We are football players, we learned to win but also we learned to lose and it will not be the end of the world,” Blatter said outside CAS.

The three-member panel for Blatter’s case is expected to respect the verdict of a separate panel which judged Platini.

A failure to overturn the ban for Blatter would likely end his hope to one day be named FIFA honorary president by its 211 member federations.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The case already ended Platini’s chance to replace Blatter as FIFA president, and also forced him out of European governing body UEFA.

On Sept. 14, UEFA members will elect a successor to replace Platini who had a mandate through March 2019. By imposing a four-year ban, the CAS panel ensured UEFA had to replace Platini, rather than wait for him to return.

The “disloyal payment” emerged last year when Platini was strongly favored to win the election to replace Blatter, who had announced his departure plans after 17 years as president amid pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption implicating senior FIFA officials.

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Both men were questioned at FIFA headquarters last September by Swiss investigators who were waiting for them outside an executive committee meeting.

During the turmoil in world football, Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, submitted an election candidacy on the entry deadline day and won the vote in February.

Arriving at the hearing with his Zurich-based lawyer Lorenz Erni, Blatter said he hoped the CAS panel “will understand that the payment made to Platini was really a debt that we had against him.”

“This is a principle, if you have debts you pay them,” Blatter said.