Alex Morgan among 26 called for U.S. ahead of France friendlies

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From the outside, it’s difficult to be too critical of call ups, cuts, or omissions from national team squads. That goes for both the women and the men. We can (and do) complain all we want about situations like Landon Donovan’s, but ultimately, Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff know much more about the player than we do. All a reasonable person can do is sit back and say, “based on everything I know …”

It’s the universal caveat. That’s the assumed stance whenever anybody criticizes their national team. Given nobody will confuse an internet writer, commenter, or tweeter for a national team boss, it’s something that should also go unsaid. When it comes to the national team, few has the knowledge or authority of Jurgen Klinsamnn or Jill Ellis, even if they may, in fact, be wrong.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions to ask about today’s 26-woman squad, named for upcoming friendlies against France (June 14, 19). For example:

Goalkeepers: Nicole Barnhart, Ashlyn Harris , Hope Solo

Nicole Barnhart is back in the team after missing the last two call ups, taking the place of Sky Blue FC’s Jill Loyden. While Loyden’s club performance has made it clear she’s not among the U.S.’s best keepers, why is Barnhart back over, say, Boston’s Alyssa Naeher?

More importantly: Why was she ever out in the first place? Last year’s NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year is generally recognized as the second-best keeper in the pool, yet we still don’t have a clear explanation as to why, after being a regular call up for years, she was suddenly dropped this spring.

Defenders: Stephanie Cox, Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn

No surprises here, though it’s important to note three players listed at other positions (Julie Johnston, Kristie Mewis, and Kelley O’Hara) are also part of picture, one that continues to be murky after two-plus years of competition.

For instance, who are the center backs? With Rachel Van Hollebeke still out, this looks like a three-woman race, though it’s unclear if captain Christie Rampone really is behind Whitney Engen and Becky Sauerbrunn. Julie Johnston is playing in the middle for Chicago, but is she seen as a defender by a national team that may be newly willing to play a real defensive midfielder.

At fullback, Ali Krieger looks like a given at right back (even though she’s been playing in the middle for her club), but the left back position is still wide open. Kelley O’Hara, a starter at the end of the last cycle, is healthy and playing in attack for Sky Blue. Kristie Mewis has just returned for Boston. Crystal Dunn has been used on the left before but has stockpiled minutes elsewhere for Washington. Ultimately, Stephanie Cox may be the best pure left back in the squad.

source:  Midfielders: Shannon Boxx, Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Lauren Holiday, Julie Johnston, Carli Lloyd, Allie Long, Kristie Mewis, Heather O’Reilly

There are so many angles here, we have to go bullet point:

  • As expected, Shannon Boxx (right) is given a look post-pregnancy. Too bad she has zero NWSL minutes to her credit. Though another look in the national team may be obligatory, it’s still a small slap in the face to players like Keelin Winters, Becky Edwards, and Jen Buczkowski who’ve been excelling in defensive midfield.
  • Further to that point, Morgan Brian, an attacking midfielder at the University of Virginia, will presumably get another look out of position in deep midfield. Johnston may, too, even though she’s played almost exclusively in defense for Chicago. Allie Long has improved for Portland this year, but she’s not one of the U.S.’s nine best midfielders, let alone a go candidate for a holding role. Mewis has yet to have an impact at senior level despite 15 caps, yet she continues to get this call. It’s becoming evermore clear that club-level soccer, where players get most of their minutes, is not given the weight it should.
  • Having finished her season with Champions League-qualifying Paris Saint-Germain, Tobin Heath is back. Where she plays in a team that’s experimenting with a 4-3-3 is the question. Whether in the middle or on the flank, Heath has the talent to start. A formation change, however, may make it more difficult to claim a first XI role.
  • Megan Rapinoe continues to struggle with a foot injury for Seattle. Like Heath, it’s unclear whether she’s a starter or a super sub, at this point. Unlike Heath, she won’t get a chance to fight for her place this camp.

Forwards: Sarah Hagen, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez, Abby Wambach

I’ve long stopped worrying about sounding naive while pointing these things out, but my stubbornness won’t let me delete it: Alex Morgan has zero minutes for Portland this season. Stugglining with a foot injury all season, she seems unlikely to play against France. But who knows? National team play is clearly the priority, and while that make sense, it also make sense to use potential minutes as club-level to work back into shape. If players know they’ll go straight back into the national team, however, club duty presents more risks than rewards.

A bigger surprise than Morgan’s inclusion is the sure number of players listed a the position. O’Hara is here, not in defense. Hagen, just showing up for FC Kansas City, is getting another look. Rodriguez continues to show she’s the form striker in the pool. At a position where the U.S. already had Leroux, Morgan, Press and, Wambach, does the senior team need to keep calling in forwards? Particularly when Rodriguez may actually be capable of challenging for a spot?

Overall

There’s a lot of room to nitpick, but ultimately, there were no real surprises in the squad. Boxx’s return is the biggest one, but another shot in the team was always inevitable. With Ellis calling in all the healthy, big-time players, we’re arguing at the fringes of a successful core.

Though it would be nice to see the U.S. start recognizing the development that’s happening in the league it’s funding, the program’s preference for more familiar faces is nothing new. And there’s no indication that will change this cycle.

From U.S. Soccer:

U.S. Women’s National Team Roster by Position
GOALKEEPERS (3): Nicole Barnhart (FC Kansas City), Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
DEFENDERS (7): Stephanie Cox (Seattle Reign FC), Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Whitney Engen (Houston Dash), Meghan Klingenberg (Houston Dash), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), Morgan Brian (Virginia), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Carli Lloyd (WNY Flash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Kristie Mewis (Boston Breakers), Heather O’Reilly (Boston Breakers)
FORWARDS (7): Sarah Hagen (FC Kansas City), Sydney Leroux (Seattle Reign FC), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Abby Wambach (WNY Flash)

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

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A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

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However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Top Premier League story lines – Week 2

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The Premier League hits its second match day on Saturday, beginning with Manchester United’s trip to the Liberty Stadium to face Swansea City.

That match isn’t even in our top five as a pair of Top Four battles await Sunday and Monday.

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Can heated rivalry help Chelsea find its form?
Tottenham – Chelsea (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) [ STREAM ] 

The Blues took a long time to recover from Gary Cahill‘s early red card as Chelsea lost 3-2 to Burnley on Opening Day, and know they could find themselves six points behind Tottenham after just two weeks of the Premier League season. The rivalry between Spurs and Chelsea has risen several notches in the past couple years, and Chelsea will also be hampered by suspensions to Cahill and Cesc Fabregas.

Everton starts murderer’s row of fixtures at the Etihad
Manchester City – Everton (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) STREAM ] 

Man City, Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester United: Those are Everton’s next three matches following a win over Stoke and Thursday’s Europa League win over Hajduk Split (The Toffees head to Croatia on Aug. 24). The good news, if there is any, is that Man City didn’t look terrific in its win over Brighton and Hove Albion. The bad news? Everton’s top men, aside from new boy Gylfi Sigurdsson, almost all played in the win over Hajduk.

Arsenal’s beleaguered defense heads to the road
Stoke City – Arsenal (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

The Gunners may boast wins over Chelsea and Leicester City this month, but Arsenal conceded thrice to the Foxes and needed drama to boost three points from Opening Day. Stoke fell 1-0 at Everton but was far from a pushover.

Can Town make it 2-for-2 versus the Toon?
Huddersfield Town vs. Newcastle United (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – STREAM ]

Rafa Benitez’s Opening Day plans were shuttered by Jonjo Shelvey‘s poor red card, and the Spaniard won’t have his best midfielder at The John Smith’s Stadium when Newcastle faces a Town team that won 3-0 at Crystal Palace. The road sides won when these two met in the Championship last season.

Liverpool’s stumbling defense meets old pal Benteke
Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – STREAM ] 

Jurgen Klopp‘s men stumbled out of the gates, even if their last minute concession against Watford in a 3-3 draw arguably shouldn’t have stood up to the linesman’s view. Benteke scored twice as the Eagles won at Anfield last season, and will certainly be up for irking his old boss once more.

VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna stars for USYNT with goal, assists

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Seldom is a U-15 match truly worth national attention, but it certainly deserves eyes when the player who stars in the Stars and Stripes happens to be the son of USMNT royalty.

Giovanni Reyna is going to be known as Claudio Reyna’s son for some time, but if he keeps up starring roles like his goal and two assist performance against Panama in the CONCACAF U-15 Championship, Claudio will move into “Giovanni Reyna’s dad” status at some point.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

That’s way down the line considering “Dad” is an American pioneer with 112 caps, eight goals and a career with Manchester City, Rangers, Sunderland, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, and New York Red Bulls, but worth noting nonetheless.

Reyna’s goal was an absolute stunner:

And here are his two assists, putting Mexico on notice for Saturday morning’s final.