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)

Kaka hoping to stay in Orlando beyond 2017

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC dribbles the ball during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Kaka is enjoying life in Florida.

The former Ballon d’Or winner is hoping to stay with Orlando City SC beyond the end of his contract, which runs its course after the 2017 season.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

Kaka has been very good for the Lions, scoring 19 goals and 15 assists in 53 total matches. Reports had said he’s skip town after the third year of the deal, but Kaka refutes that idea.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

Kaka turns 35 in April, but has been consistently good even if injuries kept him to 24 MLS contests last season. If he puts forth a similar season, there’s little reason for Orlando — or another team — not to take a chance on Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.

Gabriel Jesus cleared, could make Man City debut

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 20:  Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras runs with the ball during the match between Palmeiras and Botafogo for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on November 20, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images
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Gabriel Jesus could go straight into Manchester City’s starting lineup.

The 19-year-old Brazilian has finally been cleared to suit up for the English side after finishing a title-winning campaign with Palmeiras.

With four goals in six caps for the Brazil national team and an Olympic gold medal with their U-23 side, Jesus is among the hottest prospects in the world.

[ MORE: City fifth in “Money League” ]

City is struggling, and the fresh injection of attacking talent could be music to the ears of boss Pep Guardiola (who, fun fact, celebrates his 46th birthday today).

From the Manchester Evening News:

“He’s a great player. Going to Europe is a good thing for a player. He will grow quicker, he will start to understand football in another way and also be respected inside the football scene.

“I guess that for Gabriel Jesus it was a good thing to leave Brazilian soccer, he did everything he had could in [Brazil]. He’s going to a very difficult, competitive [type of football] but I think that he can be successful.”

Jesus had 21 goals in 46 matches this season with Palmeiras.

Casemiro: “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose”

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 18:  Henrique Casemiro of Real Madrid heads the ball against Daniel Wass of Celta de Vigo during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final, First Leg match between Real Madrid CF and  Celta Vigo at Bernabeu on January 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The pressure at Real Madrid can be overwhelming, and the players who thrive there generally have thick skin and short memories.

They also take losses pretty seriously.

That goes for the manager as well, as both Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane and Casemiro have reacted to Real’s third-straight non-win in serious fashion.

[ MORE: Real no longer No. 1 in money ]

Remember, this is coming after the first match of the “slump” — a 3-3 draw with Sevilla — was the final match of a world record 40-match unbeaten run.

Casemiro, whose record in the Real Madrid lineup is as good as anyone’s, said this (via Marca):

“Yes, it’s worrying to lose again,” he said just after the full-time whistle. “Real Madrid aren’t ever allowed to lose. The defeat against Sevilla has hurt us.”

And if you want to tell Casemiro to relax, that only one of those matches was in league play and the club still leads the table by a point with a match-in-hand on nearly everyone… well… enter Zidane.

“I’m the one responsible and I must find the solution,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I wasn’t surprised by the way Celta played, as we knew that they’re a team that can really hurt you. I’m not worried, although it’s a bad moment. We know that we can overcome it and we are going to overcome it.”

I’m far from a Real Madrid fan, and you can credit Florentino Perez’s ideas and the hanky-waving fans for a lot of that, but it’s impossible not admire how seriously Real takes the business of winning. And maybe, just maybe, the fan and board expectations occasionally help the squad.

Run-up shootouts, per-player match limits on FIFA’s agenda

Marco van Basten, Dutch football manager and former football player, poses for a photo on the green carpet while arriving prior to the The Best - FIFA Football Awards 2016 ceremony held at the Swiss TV studio in Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.  (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP
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Restricting players to 60 games a year. Replacing penalty shootouts with eight-second run-ups. Introducing orange cards to send players off for 10 minutes. Scrapping offside.

Former AC Milan and Netherlands forward Marco van Basten is using his role as technical director at FIFA to propose a series of changes to soccer to stir a debate.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

Rather than using his job to meddle, Van Basten highlights the need to preserve soccer as the world’s most popular sport.

“I have spoken to a lot of coaches and players,” Van Basten said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have to promote quality instead of quantity. We are playing too much football now. We have to defend players because they have to play so much and are not fresh or fit anymore.

“That’s bad for the quality of the game. Even in June when the big tournaments are played players cannot perform to their maximum because now if players are really successful they can play up to 75 official games in the year. I think that’s a bit too much and maybe they should stop at 55 or 60.”

Although FIFA will expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from 2026, that won’t burden players with any additional games. Instead, clubs sides would have to explore reducing the number of fixtures, potentially by reducing the number of lucrative friendly games played on tours.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

“That’s all for money but we have to think about football and not money,” said Van Basten, who was hired by FIFA in September. “For a lot of clubs that’s not easy. But there is enough money in football.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi are earning so much money. If they are earning a little bit less but performing better that’s good for football.”

Asked about countries like England or France no longer playing two cup competitions alongside their league fixtures, Van Basten said: “In my opinion that should be an interesting discussion.”

Van Basten knows some of radical changes he proposed to the AP could make traditionalists uneasy. But the 1992 FIFA world player of the year wants to ensure the global game has a say on its future.

“We should not just let the game be organized by those with the money,” he said from FIFA HQ in Zurich. “The big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Real Madrid who have everything.”

“In football you need opponents, competition because if you are alone with two or three clubs controlling everything you don’t have any competition.”

Here are some potential changes to soccer proposed by Van Basten:

PENALTY SHOOTOUTS

Rather than burdening players with an additional 30 minutes of action when cup games are level after 90 minutes, Van Basten is suggesting going straight to penalties.

“I think everybody is pretty tired after 120 minutes,” Van Basten said.

Now penalties are a test of nerves with players having one chance to beat the goalkeeper from the penalty spot.

“Maybe the player should start 25 meters from goal and then you can dribble the goalkeeper or shoot early,” he said. “But you have to make a goal within eight seconds. It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.”

NO OFFSIDE

Scrapping the offside rule could make soccer more visually appealing, Van Basten advises.

“I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside,” he said. “Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or ten defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you.

“So if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”

FOUR QUARTERS

Soccer is increasingly intense and grueling, with a single 15-minute break between 45-minute halves.

“We are trying to help the game, to let the game develop in a good way,” Van Basten said. “We want to have a game which is honest, which is dynamic, a nice spectacle so we should try to do everything to help that process.”

Introducing four quarters could be advantageous.

“The coach can have three times with his players during the game,” Van Basten said.

SINBINS

Now there is no middle ground between players being shown a yellow card and receiving a red card and then being removed for the rest of the game.

“Maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card,” Van Basten said.

Such an instance could be when a player commits repeat fouls that didn’t warrant yellow cards or obstruct opponents. Five misdemeanors could earn a player a place in a sin bin for 10 minutes, Van Basten said.

NEXT STEPS

Any changes to the laws of the game cannot be forced through by Van Basten, however close he is to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. He said he wants to listen to the views of world before any proposals are taken to the game’s law-making body, The International Football Association Board. FIFA controls half of the eight votes on IFAB, with the other four retained by the British associations.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports