With friendlies over, USWNT begins search for a lot of what it already had

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With Thursday’s ill-timed friendly out of the way — a 3-0 victory over China in a result that was never in doubt — the focus of the United States women’s national team is now solely on finding a new coach.

Tom Sermanni’s abrupt firing on Sunday night shortly after the United States’ first victory over the week of China left the team in disarray. Sermanni, who was 18-2-4 as U.S. coach, said he was “completely blindsided” by the news. Midfielder Carli Lloyd said she and other players were “as shocked as everyone was.” And U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati only vaguely alluded to “underlying issues” being the reason for Sermanni’s demise, noting that it was a “style” issue.

Details remain elusive. But players will now quickly board flights to catch up with their National Women’s Soccer League teams for the opening of the 2014 season this weekend, and they won’t meet again as a U.S. team until the days ahead of their May 8 match against Canada in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That gives Gulati and U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, along with whomever may be assisting in the process, a month to dig in on the search without any distractions of on-field performances. Gulati admitted Monday that the process could stretch into the summertime.

What kind of coach the United States women really want remains about as vague as what went wrong for Sermanni. The candidate is almost certainly going to come from within the small group of coaches extremely familiar with the team and the player pool, given the short, 14-month buildup to the World Cup.

Lloyd told NBC Sports  as much on Tuesday, saying that the players have faith in U.S. Soccer bringing in someone ready for the job.

“I’m sure it’s not going to be somebody who has no idea about our team and the players. I think it would most definitely be somebody who has got to be familiar with the system, the pool to make that transition a little bit easy.”

Lloyd proceeded to tell NBC Sports postgame that “this team just needs somebody to steer us in the right direction.”

Heather O’Reilly said in Thursday’s pregame show that the U.S. women need a coach who can “that’s going to blend this team — blend the old, blend the new,” she said:

What’s ironic is that Sermanni did exactly that: He brought in and developed young talent while still evaluating how his squad could look in 2015, where anything short of a World Cup title will be a failure. The very objectives that U.S. Soccer officials and players seek are some of the core philosophies of Sermanni, which is why he was hired in the first place. An eye on winning now and an eye on development. A win, two losses and a draw at the Algarve Cup didn’t help Sermanni, but Gulati says it was about more than that week gone wrong in Portugal last month.

Sermanni was too laid back, it keeps being said, but laid back isn’t the right way to put it. His predecessor, Pia Sundhage, was laid back, just in a very different, more upbeat and care-free sort of way. But she was also very clear that her team was her team, and changes would be made only by necessity or extremely poor performance (which didn’t even really happen after the U.S. nearly failed to qualify for the World Cup).

So it seems that what U.S. Soccer really wants is someone to stamp some authority into a team that already has an overflow of talent. They want disciplinarian with a clear, firm message on what he or she envisions for the team. As NBCSN analyst Kate Markgraf says below, the shortlist at this point is likely current Tyresö boss and former U.S. assistant (under Sundhage) Tony Gustavsson, plus Portland Thorns FC coach Paul Riley and Houston Dash coach Randy Waldrum, both of whom said on Tuesday that they think it’s possible to coach club and country at the same time, effectively tossing their names into the hat. Both were finalists for the U.S. job in fall 2012.

And then there’s current interim coach Jill Ellis (pictured above), who improved to 6-0-2 as temporary U.S. boss with Thursday’s win after also guiding the team in fall 2012. Last time around, when Sermanni was ultimately hired, Ellis withdrew her name from consideration. Ex-U.S. assistant and Penn State coach Erica Walsh could also be in the mix.

At the end of the day, the basic ideals the U.S. Soccer officials and the women’s national team players are looking for were all right there with Sermanni. What’s really desired is a personality that fits with the squad, and an authority to manage the world’s No. 1 team for six years running.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday