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Hamm, Wambach, Morgan lead U.S. Soccer’s all-time women’s best XI (but no Solo, Milbrett)

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Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly were among the icons recognized by U.S. Soccer today, the federation naming its all-time women’s best XI as part of their ongoing centennial celebration. Striving to honor players’ legacies,  longevity and overall performance, and contribution on the field (especially in World Cups), 11 players are chosen by a 56-member panel of media, administrators, and former players, with results leaning heavily toward the team that won the 1999 World Cup.

The top of the team’s 4-3-3 formation features one of the panel’s unanimous selections, with Hamm’s 275-cap, 158-goal career making the two-time World Cup-winner an obvious pick. Abby Wambach, having recently passed Hamm as the program’s all-time leading scorer (163 goals), garnered 52 votes, while Alex Morgan, the team’s youngest player (24), named on 15 ballots.

In midfield, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly each fell one vote short of unanimous selection, while Julie Foudy received 40 votes. Akers concluded her 16-year tenure in 2000 with 105 goals, having been considered the best player in the world for much of her career. Lilly is the most capped player in program history with 352 appearances, while Foudy played in four World Cups and three Summer Olympics.

At the back, Joy Fawcett was the team’s second unanimous selection, the 239-time international having played key roles in the 1995, 1999, and 2003 World Cups. She is joined by current national team captain Christie Rampone and fellow “`99ers” Carla Overbeck and Brandi Chastain. Rampone has featured at eight major tournaments (four World Cups; four Olympics), Overbeck made 168 appearances in her 13-year international career, while Chastain is best known for converting the final penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final’s shootout.

The goalkeeper on that 1999 team, Briana Scurry, garnered 31 votes, the panel acknowledging a career that also featured two goal medals (1996 and 2004). Her selection over Hope Solo, however, maybe be a slightly controversial one, with some seeing the current U.S. No. 1 as the superior player. Given the criteria U.S. Soccer put forth, however, the selection makes sense. The panel was asked to give extra weight contributions to World Cups, and while Scurry has been part of a world champion, Solo is still waiting for her first World Cup winner’s medal.

A more controversial selection should be Alex Morgan’s, though with only 15 votes, the current star’s selection is more the result of a fractured vote than the product of some broad consensus. Why that consensus didn’t form around Tiffeny Milbrett, however, deserves some consideration. Milbrett’s 15-year international career ended in 2005 after 204 appearances and 100 goals. She made two Olympic teams, four World Cups, led the team in goals during U.S.A. 1999, and won a gold medal in 1999. Morgan has the bigger name now and, in 134 few games, a better goal rate, but honoring Milbrett’s achievements above Morgan’s four-year international career should have been a no-brainer.

But given the nature of these types of honors, it’s no surprise there’s a blemish in the results, particularly the one that acknowledges a player that’s had such a huge effect beyond the field. And perhaps the team leans a little too much toward the `99ers – players who performed in a less competitive international landscape. But with those careers having finished, it’s easier to evaluate their contributions. Players like Solo and Carli Lloyd are still building their legacies.

For a team being selected to celebrate a centennial, landing on the side of history is best. Given the huge influence the 1999 team has had on women’s soccer in the United States, nobody will fault the panel for defaulting to the those legends in selecting the federation’s all-time best XI.

The full team, as grabbed from U.S. Soccer:

Goalkeeper – Briana Scurry 1994-2008 (31 votes)

Defender – Brandi Chastain 1988-2004 (31)
Defender – Joy Biefeld (Fawcett) 1987-2004 (56)
Defender – Carla Werden (Overbeck) 1988-2000 (49)
Defender – Christie Rampone (Pearce) 1997-present (46)

Midfielder – Michelle Akers 1985-2000 (55)
Midfielder – Julie Foudy 1988-2004 (40)
Midfielder – Kristine Lilly 1987-2010 (55)

Forward – Mia Hamm 1987-2004 (56)
Forward – Alex Morgan 2010-present (15)
Forward – Abby Wambach 2001-present (52)

And again, copied from U.S. Soccer, here are all the eligible players and (in parenthesis) their vote totals:

GOALKEEPERS :
Briana Scurry (31), Hope Solo (24), Mary Harvey (1)

DEFENDERS :
Joy Biefeld Fawcett (56), Carla Werden Overbeck (49), Christie Rampone Pearce (46), Brandi Chastain (31), Kate Markgraf Sobrero (9), Lori Chalupny (5), Ali Krieger (2), Rachel Buehler (Van Hollebeke) (1), Linda Hamilton (1), Heather Mitts (1), Cat Reddick Whitehill (1), Stephanie Lopez Cox (0), Lori Henry (0), Amy LePeilbet (0), Kelley O’Hara (0)

MIDFIELDERS :
Michelle Akers (55), Kristine Lilly (55), Julie Foudy (40), Shannon Boxx (13), Carli Lloyd (13), Shannon MacMillan (8), Megan Rapinoe (6), Heather O’Reilly (5), Shannon Higgins (4), Tobin Heath (1), Tiffany Roberts (1), Tisha Venturini (1), Lauren Holiday Cheney (0), Lorrie Fair (0), Angela Hucles (0), Lindsay Tarpley (0), Aly Wagner (0)

FORWARDS :
Mia Hamm (56), Abby Wambach (52), Alex Morgan (15), Carin Gabarra Jennings (13), April Heinrichs (12), Tiffeny Milbrett (10), Cindy Parlow Cone (1), Sydney Leroux (0), Amy Rodriguez (0)

Jozy Altidore’s foundation funding Copa America watch parties in Haiti

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jozy Altidore has never shied away from his Hatian decent, and while the 26-year-old will miss the Copa America, but his second home certainly won’t.

Altidore’s charity organization the St. Luke Foundation has set up watch parties across Haiti so the island nation can watch all the United States and Haiti matches, as well as the semifinals and finals.

In a phone interview with Sports Illustrated, Altidore cited that Haiti had not been invited to a major international tournament since 1974, and that the country should be able to watch. According to SI, the watch parties will allow those in the country to watch who otherwise would be unable to do so.

“I thought this would be something cool knowing how much Haitian people love their national team” Altidore told SI, “to have thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the matches broadcast the group games and see them perform.”

Haiti plays in Brazil’s Group B along with Peru and Ecuador, with group stage games on June 4, 8, and 12.

[ MORE: Copa America Group B preview | USA in Group A ]

Altidore will miss the tournament due to a hamstring injury which will take 6-8 weeks to recover from.

The New Jersey product has been very active with charity work in Haiti in the past, mostly through his foundation. Altidore’s parents were both born in Haiti. He said he hopes that the Haitian team “can surprise some people” in the upcoming tournament.

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
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This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide