Alex Morgan, USWNT

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)

Report: Everton had bid rejected for Wayne Rooney in January

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 01: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United applauds supporters during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Hull City at Old Trafford on February 1, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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According to the Daily Mail, Everton submitted a bid for Wayne Rooney in January, which was rejected by Manchester United.

The report did not state an amount of the bid, but it did confirm that the club is now in discussions about returning for their former player in the summer.

Rooney came through the Everton youth system and played for the Merseyside club’s first team from 2002-2004 before his famous move to Manchester United for $37 million. Rooney has seen very limited time this season under Jose Mourinho, and at 31 years old, has looked to have lost the ability to keep up with the standards of the Premier League.

The Liverpool native was the subject of heavy speculation in recent weeks of a move to China, with the Chinese transfer window open until the end of February, but Rooney released a statement to confirm he will stay with Manchester United until the end of the season.

Key to these rumors are Everton manager Ronald Koeman‘s comments from Thursday, when he affirmed his respect for Rooney, claiming the former Toffee can still play at a Premier League standard. “Yeah I think Wayne Rooney is still on that high level to compete in a competition like the Premier League.”

Despite all this, it seems a deal for Rooney is unlikely. Everton is not known as a heavy-spending club, and they would likely need to compete with the money of the Chinese league on both the transfer fee and wage front. Rooney would be worth a heavy investment for a Chinese club due to his big name, while his performances on field would be less important there. In contrast, Everton’s justification for a bid would focus more on his ability to perform consistently on the field, an area of clear decline.

Santi Cazorla details his newest injury setback

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN - AUGUST 07: Santi Cazorla of Arsenal during the Pre-Season Friendly between Arsenal and Manchester City at Ullevi on August 7, 2016 in Gothenburg, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)
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Santi Cazorla hasn’t played since mid-October, and with just 619 minutes of first-team football in the last calendar year, the Spaniard has become more than a liability.

He’s also become increasingly frustrated.

After having ankle surgery in October, Cazorla has faced a multitude of challenges on the sidelines, with his body unwilling to cooperate. He went back under the knife in December, and has returned to the hospital again for yet another procedure, one that refuses to go away as he looks to keep himself as match fit as possible during his time on the sidelines.

Speaking to Spanish radio station Onda Cero, Cazorla gave them all the details – even the cringe-worthy ones – on his ankle problems.

“It was a small operation they just had to close a wound that had opened, so they reopened it and closed it again,” Cazorla said. “It wasn’t anything serious, but that’s why I’m in the hospital. They did a graft about a month and a half ago because the skin on my ankle was practically dead and had developed a wound that wouldn’t close, so they operated in Sweden. It was starting to feel better until I started to do a bit of cycling and other exercise and then the skin broke, opened and the stitches came out so they had to close the wound again. I’ve been injured about a year and a half now since the knee [problem] in November last season and now this year with the ankle injury.

And that’s not all. Aside from his ankle injury, Cazorla’s back has begun to flare up again, a problem he dealt with 2 months ago.

“It’s given me a lot of time to think, especially about the World Cup and how bad my back felt then,” Cazorla said. “My back is even worse now. Back then I was out for about six months and now it has been a year and I’m still not better. But that’s life. You gotta deal with it as best you can. I can’t do much, can’t walk, I have to use crutches and it’s frustrating day after day. But I don’t have any other option, just to deal with it as best I can and get better.”

With Cazorla at 32 years old and his contract set to expire this June, this most recent setback couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Gunners are known to be wary of giving contracts to players over 30 years old, even their most influential ones, and he will be desperate to prove his worth to Arsene Wenger ahead of the club’s decision. It has been reported that the club already activated its option for another year on Cazorla’s contract, but the team has not officially confirmed that.

Cazorla’s Arsenal future could be especially in doubt if Wenger were to leave this summer. A new incoming manager might not be so sentimental about Cazorla’s club status.

Southampton’s Puel puts the pressure on Man United

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: Claude Puel, Manager of Southampton looks on during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Southampton at Bet365 Stadium on December 14, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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SOUTHAMPTON — Calm. Quiet. Focused.

Those are the best words to sum up not only Southampton’s manager Claude Puel most of the time, but especially this week. Think of that famous Seinfeld episode where Kramer learns to relax: “Serenity now!”

[ MORE: Saints’ journey goes full circle

For Puel, his first season managing in England has been far from relaxing. His team have already played 39 games this season across the Europa League group stage, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Premier League. The former Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice boss has now led his Southampton side to just the fourth major final in their 131-year history, as he has the chance to become just the second Saints manager to win a major trophy after Lawrie McMenemy in 1976 when they beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup and became heroes.

Serenity, now. The steely, soft spoken Frenchman is not getting distracted.

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news ]

Puel has kept the focus on this game and he doesn’t want to talk about what it would be like to lead the team out at Wembley, even though he recognize the importance of the occasion.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk on a gloriously sunny late winter afternoon in Southern England, he has called for his team to write a new chapter in Southampton’s rather barren history book when it comes to trophies.

“It is an exciting game, I know the last win in the cup was 1976… it is time, perhaps to finally win another trophy,” Puel smiled. “I would like to, and all the players are with me, to give our fans a fantastic pleasure and enjoyment. It has been fantastic to see them always since the start of the season in every competition. To see 8,000 fans away at Inter Milan, it was fantastic. It will be a big reward and always our fans deserve a good result.

“For the moment it is important to keep our calm, a good concentration, good focus about our game. Just to think about the consequence of the result it would not be a good thing. It is important to play a strong game against this great team and to put in place a good collective, to defend together and also to take any opportunity to score and to go forward with danger.”

This week none of Southampton players have been permitted to speak with media outlets, with all of their pre-final interviews completed last week before they jetted off to Spain to enjoy a few days of intensive training in the sun. Saints are ready, prepared and focused.

Puel admitted his side are the underdogs against Jose Mourinho’s red-hot Manchester United this Sunday.

With United losing just one of their last 25 games in all competitions the pressure is is off Southampton, just like it was at Arsenal in the quarterfinal and especially in the semifinal victory against Liverpool.

“Yes, I think there is a big pressure for Manchester [United]” Puel said. “People expect a win for Manchester. We respect them but don’t fear team. In football all is possible. We saw this in the last game, the semifinal against Liverpool. We are the underdogs. I think it is important to respect them but to keep the good attitude and positive spirit and to believe in us. That’s the most important.”

The 55-year-old Frenchman won three French cups with Monaco as a player, while lost in the French League Cup final as a manager with Monaco in 2001. He hopes his experiences of playing and coaching in finals will help, even though it doesn’t stack up to Mourinho’s supreme trophy-wining ability.

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Over the two-legged semifinal against Liverpool, Saints had countless quality chances on the counter and although they beat Jurgen Klopp‘s side 1-0 home and away, they could’ve won more convincingly. The problem for Puel and Saints all season long has been being clinical. That create good chances but haven’t been finishing. New club-record signing Manolo Gabbiadini could be the difference on Sunday with the Italian international scoring three goals in two games since arriving in January from Napoli.

But Puel wants his team to be prepared to win anyway they can.

“All the games are different, sometimes we can have good possession and good set pieces, good possibilities,” Puel said. “Other games it is difficult, like against Liverpool because perhaps in the set pieces they were better than us. It is important for my players and my team to play with possibilities and the abilities with set pieces, possession and to counter-attack. I like that my players can have a good adaptation against any opponent. For me it is important to have the ability and capacity to play against any opponent, it is a good thing for the future.”

[ MORE: Latest EFL Cup final news

For the future, the prospect of Saints getting back into Europe is at the forefront of Puel’s mind. This season, their first in the Europa League group stage, they endured a disappointing exit on the total number of away goals scorer between themselves and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Reaching Europe for a third-straight season only appears possible through winning the EFL Cup as Southampton plod along in 11th place in the Premier League table. That’s something Puel wants, badly.

“For me it’s not just the opportunity to win a trophy, of course it is most important because a trophy is history and special. But for me the first thing in my mind is the opportunity to perhaps find again the European games next season, Puel explained. “It is most important to continue this work because we can play in different competitions this season, European games with young players and it was the first time they can play all these games. It will be interesting, very important to continue this work for next season and to find again possibilities to play these important games with change of teams and to have game time and to learn and improve with game time and maturity. All of this, for me, is this the most important to develop all of the squad.”

Can the Premier League form pick up if they win the EFL Cup?

“For the moment the Premier League has been frustrating,” Puel said. “Since the beginning of the season we can do good quality, good work without a good reward and without finding the good clinical without and with a lot of opportunities to score without conceding a lot of chances against us. Just before Boxing Day we were seventh place in the table, just two or three points off Manchester United. It is important to react and give a good answer. This final is an opportunity to give the season a good atmosphere, good spirit and a good reward for our fans and for our players also. In January and at the beginning of February we lost too many games. Which is is unusual for us.”

What is unusual for Puel is his current surroundings.

For a man who spent his entire 17-year playing career at Monaco, then 15 more years managing some of France’s top clubs, living on England’s South Coast is a little bit of a different proposition.

Still, Puel feels at home and enjoys being by the water in Hampshire and, most importantly, around knowledgeable fans who love their club passionately. Even if he can’t stroll down to the pub too often…

“It is difficult for me, like a lot of trainers I stay just focused about football. I read what Guardiola said, that it wasn’t possible for him to do anything else for 32 minutes. Perhaps for me it is 35 minutes,” Puel laughed. “It is a nice city, very interesting and I like the sea, it is the same as Monaco, for me.

“The weather is good, I was surprised because there is a lot of sun. Often I am surprised about this. I like this. I also like the atmosphere of the fans and people around the team, around the football, because I find that the fans know the football. They’re not just spectators. I like this. They give strong and fantastic opinions of the team and the players. I like this because it is a football country.”

Puel admitted that when he does get some free time, he’s been reminded by many how he and his players will become legends in the City of Southampton if they manage to upset United and joined the famous team of 1976 in the history books.

“We will see the result after this game. The most important thing is to focus about our game. The attitude of my players. It is important,” Puel said. “It is not me. That’s a shame, that I cannot play. It is fantastic for the fans and for the players to play in an exciting game. It is important to play this game with all the possibilities, attitude and a good spirit. To give their quality it is important they will stay focused.”

Focus is the buzzword around Southampton.

As a player at Monaco, Puel was (this will come as a huge shock) known for his focus, dedication and commitment. He was nicknamed “the dog” for his ferocious work as a midfield enforcer in Arsene Wenger‘s teams — to this day he is still good friends with the Arsenal manager — and tales of him flying into tackles in training with his players during his time at Lille, plus keeping up with them fitness-wise in drills, are commonplace around the French game.

Does he still join in with training now? Puel, somewhat begrudgingly, admitted he only fills in now and then when they need an extra man in games.

“Sometimes when I go to play on the pitch, sometimes the feeling of the player comes back,” Puel smiled. “It is difficult because now I have to be calm, I am a trainer… It is finished now, my playing. It is better.”

When you see him celebrate and jump up and down on the touchline during games as a manager, you get to understand a little more about his personality and his past as a player. Even if he isn’t box-office with quotes in his press conferences and is still mastering the English language, Puel is making his mark.

With Saints fans traveling from all over the world and snapping up tickets wherever they can to see their team in a major final at Wembley, Puel has a simple message for them.

All of the focus and hard work, it’s for them, and he is clearly blown away by the global reach of the Premier League.

“It is fantastic to have all of these fans all over the world,” Puel said. “The Premier League, before I came I knew it was a great championship with many fans in the world but when I see all this atmosphere, the positive atmosphere around the club with all the fans, I can just tell them thank you. I hope we can give them all the pleasure and enjoyment for this game.”

If Southampton win on Sunday, the quiet, calm Frenchman will be revered by every Southampton for the rest of his life and beyond. Perhaps that’s why he is so reluctant to think about leading the Saints to yet another famous upset in a final at Wembley against Manchester United.

Premier League Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Middlesbrough

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Scott Dan (L3) of Crystal Palace in action during the Premier League match between Middlesbrough FC and Crystal Palace FC at Riverside Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images) *** Local Caption **** Scott Dan
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  • Palace leads all-time 18W-12D-17L
  • Palace won 2-1 on Sept. 16
  • Second PL meeting since 2005

Two relegation-battling sides just three points apart meet Saturday at Selhurst Park when Middlesbrough visits Crystal Palace (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Wins have been hard to come by for both sides, and Boro enters the day in 16th place with 22 points. That’s three ahead of the 19th place Eagles.

Palace boss Sam Allardyce made more waves this week when he ripped into his players for not following his directions. The Eagles have a single PL win since a 3-0 home win over Southampton on Dec. 3.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won a Premier League match since Dec. 17, its only 2017 victories coming in three FA Cup wins. Still, Boro has proven stingy in engineering four draws. Aitor Karanka‘s side just needs more goals.

What they’re saying

Boro’s Karanka on not overdramatizing the match: “I can’t forget how well the team is doing so far, and we need to keep going in the same way. It is the biggest game because it is the next game. It is against a direct opponent but we will not be taking this game as a final. We can take heart from our previous games and performances. With our consistency and intensity we always have a chance.”

Palace boss Sam Allardyce rips his players“My experience and my qualifications are far greater than theirs. They can talk about tactics and systems, that’s fine, but they’re players are they’re paid to play. I’m the manager, and the system and tactics are my expertise, not theirs.”

Prediction

Boro’s defense has been strong, and Palace’s strength comes from its attack. We bet Alvaro Negredo will find his way to the score sheet, but that the Eagles find a way through as well. 1-1.