U.S. Women start their Algarve Cup defense on Wednesday

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The U.S. Women’s National Team’s annual foray into the Algarve Cup starts on Wednesday when the world’s No. 1-ranked team taking on 2011 World Cup winners Japan. Also grouped with Sweden and Denmark, the U.S. is guaranteed to get three strong games during their trip to Portugal, with a potential meeting with Germany in the championship match making this the most competitive point on the team’s 2014 calendar. While the team’s return to a series of domestic, mostly non-competitive friendlies will occupy the summer, providing tepid preparation for October’s World Cup qualifying tournament in Mexico, March’s chance to claim a 10th Algarve Cup will define where they rank against the rest of the world.

If the U.S. can beat Japan (ranked third) and Germany (second) while avoiding a slip in its reunion match with former coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden (or against Denmark), the team can cruise through the rest of the year assuming it remains the best in the world. Fall to Japan or Germany, and 2014 becomes about seeing the World Cup from a challenger’s role, knowing that the last time the team faced another of Canada 2015’s favorites they came up short.

To this point, Tom Sermanni (the person who replaced Sundhage in Jan. 2013) hasn’t had any such setbacks. Last year, the U.S. beat Germany 2-0 in the Algarve Cup final, affirming their place at the top of the world’s soccer hierarchy. This year, they’re favored to do the same, but an inability to snare first place will cast the run  to next year’s World Cup in an entirely different perspective.

Format: 12 teams are divided into three, four-team groups to play a round-robin format over the tournament’s first week. The competition’s final round will see winners of Groups A and B (compromised of the tournament’s top eight team) face off in the final, with runners up going into the third place match. Third place finishers compete for fifth, while the groups’ last place teams will face teams from Group C.

The competition: The reigning Olympic champions face fellow London finalists Japan in Wednesday’s opening match, with games against Sweden and Denmark following on Friday and Monday.  Next Thursday, the U.S. will face their final round opponent, with pre-tournament expectations casting European champions Germany against the Americans in the first place match.

source: Getty ImagesWhich players are there: FIFA Player of the Year finalist Abby Wambach is, as are Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, captain Christie Rampone, and this little known goalkeeper: Hope Solo (she’s supposed to be very good). NWSL stalwarts Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke, and Heather O’Reilly are in the team, as is Christen Press, whose three goals in 2014 lead the team.

Morgan Brian, Sarah Killion, and Samantha Mewis make up the college contingent, while Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Tobin Heath, and Sarah Hagen are all European-based stars (with the first three bound for the NWSL later this year).

Also in the squad: Alyssa Naeher, Jill Loyden, Stephanie Cox, Kristie Mewis, Kelley O’Hara, and Amy Rodriguez.

Which players are missing: Lauren Holiday, the NWSL Most Valuable Player in 2013, was excused from the tournament for personal reasons, while Alex Morgan continues to recover from an ankle injury that has kept her out thus far in 2014

Outlook: Any doubt the 2011 World Cup cast on the U.S.’s status as the world’s best team is a distant memory. Ahead of Wednesday’s kickoff against Japan, Sermanni’s group is riding a 42-match unbeaten streak. But that last loss came to Japan in this tournament two years ago. If the U.S. needs a reminder of how fragile their hegemony can be, that 1-0 defeat in Mar. 5, 2012 could serve as motivation.

Even if the U.S. lost to Japan (or Germany), it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Algarve Cup is a very particular kind of beast, forcing teams to play four games in eight days. Even though pride is on the line (and any loss will inject doubt), this isn’t the World Cup. This isn’t the Olympics. How the team builds towards those events is more important than where it end up Mar. 12.

Report: FIFA president Infantino in hot water

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The more things at FIFA change, the more they stay the same.

According to a bombshell report from The Guardian, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was under investigation by the FIFA Ethics Committee before the president disbanded the committee in May. The report states that Infantino spent around $1.16 million on his election campaign, despite declaring publicly he had only spent around $583,000 on flights around the world to meet with national FA presidents.

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The report claims Infantino was also being investigated by then committee chairman Cornel Borbely over whether he influenced the election of a new president in the Confederation of African Federations, or CAF.

FIFA rules state that presidential candidates must declare campaign expenditures publicly.

The latest bad press on FIFA follows the arrest of Spanish Football Federation president and UEFA vice president Angel Maria Villar and his son among other national and regional officials on charges of corruption and improper management.

Villar appeared in court on Thursday, and a judge denied he and his son bail.

Transfer Rumor Wrap: Liverpool rejects Barca bid for Coutinho, Roma offer for Mahrez turned down

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Liverpool isn’t planning on cashing in on one of the Premier League’s stars this summer.

Jurgen Klopp and Co. gave Barcelona a resolute “no” after Barcelona submitted a transfer bid of more than $93 million for Philippe Coutinho. Coutinho signed a new five-year contract with the club in January.

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“The main thing I think about is how we can make the next step with the players we had last season,” Klopp told reporters in Hong Kong earlier this week. “The good news is that actually we didn’t lose – and we will not lose – a player we want to keep this summer. That’s the best news actually and then we’ll see who can bring into the squad.”

Coutinho signed for Liverpool in 2013 but had a breakout year in 2015-2016, earning the PFA Young Player of the Year. Last year Coutinho became an even more consistent goal-scorer and playmaker, scoring 13 goals with seven assists in 34 Premier League appearances.

Keeping Coutinho is of supreme importance for Liverpool, which is back in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.

(more…)

La Liga releases schedule: First El Clasico coming in December

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It’s Christmas in July for fans of La Liga Friday as the Spanish league published its schedule for the upcoming season.

Defending champions Real Madrid travel to Deportivo La Caruña on August 20, the opening match of the season while its rival Barcelona hosts Real Betis.

As it’s La Liga, the first date most fans searched for was the first El Clasico of the season, and the biennial battles between Real Madrid and Barcelona will take place on December 20 and May 6, with Real Madrid hosting the first match.

The first match comes just ahead of the Spanish winter break, while the second match comes at a busy period at the end of the season, where both teams will be hoping to still be competing in the UEFA Champions League.

Other interesting matches to keep an eye on in the first few weeks of the season include Real Madrid hosting Valencia in week two, the Barcelona derby between Barca and Espanyol in week three and Atletico Madrid taking on Sevilla in week six.

Here’s a look at this year’s La Liga schedule.

Conte: Costa “situation was very clear” in January

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At this point, there is no doubt Diego Costa‘s future lies away from London and Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte broke his silence on the Brazilian-born Spain international striker, saying he’s been ready to move on from Costa since January, when Costa and Conte had a disagreement following a big-money offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian during the winter transfer window.

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“I don’t like to talk about players who are not here but the only thing I can tell you [is that] in January, the Costa situation was very clear, for the club for him and his agent,” Conte told reporters Friday. “For me the situation is closed.”

It’s an amazing turn of events after Costa scored 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-2017 season, including 14 goals through the end of December. But after falling out with Jose Mourinho a year earlier, the same issue happened again under Conte, with Costa proving much less effective down the stretch.

But Conte and Costa were able to put their differences aside on the field, photographed multiple times hugging after wins, as well as after winning the title.

Costa is reportedly now agitating for a move back to his former club Atletico Madrid, but the Spanish club’s transfer ban until the next window complicates matters. In a World Cup year, would Costa be willing to sit out half a season just to leave Chelsea?

If Costa’s time in the Premier League is up, he’ll go down as one of the league’s best pound-for-pound goalscorers. He scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances, with seven more cup goals in his three-year spell at Chelsea.

And if he is gone, defenders across the Premier League will sure be happy to wave goodbye.