Three things learned: Slow start for US midfield, Sauerbrunn shines, Australia impresses

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The United States opened its 2015 Women’s World Cup campaign on Monday with a 3-1 victory over Australia in Winnipeg, sending the U.S. atop Group D.

Group D is already living up to the hype as the tournament’s best quartet. Here’s what we learned from USA-Australia.

U.S. midfield struggles, but gets by: Australia dominated much of the first 20 minutes of the match. The Matildas had an extra player in the midfield with the U.S. lining up in a 4-4-2. Carli Lloyd noted that with Australia’s extra player in the middle of the park, the directive was to play slightly more direct and try to find the flanks.

[MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup]

But the U.S. largely struggled on the flanks, where Australia drew its chances from in the opening 20 minutes. U.S. coach Jill Ellis cited nerves as the reason for the shaky start.

“We lacked a little bit of movement, especially in the first half,” said Megan Rapinoe, who scored twice.

Around the 40-minute mark the United States settled into the match and they looked better in the second half. Ellis said the message at halftime was to get the wide players more involved in the match.

Luckily for the U.S., Rapinoe came up big again. She seems to live for the big moments, as learned by her role in Abby Wambach’s famous 2011 World Cup quarterfinal goal against Brazil.

“Megan thrives in these big games, big moments,” said U.S. coach Jill Ellis. “She’s got ice running through her veins a lot of passion running inside of her.”

Becky Sauerbrunn quietly comes up big again: One of the game’s big moments that will be lost in Megan Rapinoe’s goals and Hope Solo’s saves is U.S. center back Becky Sauerbrunn chasing down Sam Kerr – one of the fastest players on the field – in the 51st minute. Kerr was in behind the U.S. defense and looked like she would go 1-v-1 with Solo in a 1-1 match.

[KASSOUF: Solo saves the day for U.S. against Australia]

But Sauerbrunn, who turned 30 years old on Saturday, chased down the 21-year-old and blocked her goal-bound shot for a corner kick. That could have been a 2-1 lead for Australia. Christen Press scored the game-winner for the U.S. 10 minutes later.

“Becky’s just grown and grown,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after the game. “I think she is one of the best center backs in the world, probably a little bit underrated by our opponents in terms of what she gives us and what she can do. Without Christie (Rampone) being there, she’s now settled into a leadership role. But her individual defending, here ability to read attacks and snuff things out and chase things down – she’s tough. And she’s good with the ball in front of her and she’s good tracking down the ball from behind. She’s really become a mainstay. I’m just really pleased with her growth.”

One of the several key elements to a deep run from the U.S. in this tournament could be the continued stellar play of Sauerbrunn. She doesn’t wear the armband, but she shoulders much of the on-field leadership in the back.

Australia still very much in the mix: There’s no denying from any parties – Australia, the U.S. or neutrals – that the Matildas controlled the start of the match. Had it not been for world-class saves by Hope Solo in the 5th and 13th minutes, the U.S. would have went down early and conceded an equalizer within a minute of Megan Rapinoe’s first goal.

[KASSOUF: Even on an off day, U.S. shows why it will contend]

Australia coach Alen Stajcic was encouraged by his team’s play.

“I said we’d come out and attack and not sit back, not let America dictate the game and I thought we did that,” Stajcic said. “The effort of the players and the spirit and the execution was there.

“I certainly thought we were well in the contest and for the first 15, 20 minutes I thought we were the way more dangerous team.”

Australia will face Nigeria on Friday in a matchup of two fast, athletic teams that like to attack. Nigeria gave Sweden fits in the first match of the night.

“You’ve got two very similar teams, haven’t you? You’ve got two teams that like to attack, two teams that like to go at each other.”

Expect Friday’s Nigeria-Australia match to be wide-open.

Ailing LA Galaxy could miss as many as 10 players this weekend

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We’re less than a month into the new Major League Soccer season, and one club is already left scrambling to find players for its next match.

[ MORE: A deeper look at the USMNT roster ]

Between injuries, international call ups and a suspension, the LA Galaxy could be without as many as 10 players this weekend.

Ola Kamara, Romain Alessandrini and Giovani dos Santos are among the notable names likely to be absent for Saturday’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, but seven more players could be left unavailable for Sigi Schmid’s squad.

Kamara was the latest player to be named to his respective national team, with the striker being called up to Norway on Monday.

Meanwhile, both Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos have earned call ups to Mexico, and Emrah Klimenta has been selected by Montenegro for its next friendlies against Cyprus and Turkey.

Both Dos Santos brothers are battling injuries of their own, so they may not feature for El Tri, but that won’t necessarily help the Galaxy either as they are kept sidelined.

Of the ten players possibly missing the Whitecaps match, five of them (Michael Ciani, Cole, Gio dos Santos, J. dos Santos and Kamara) started in the Galaxy’s last game — a 2-1 loss to New York City FC.

Report: Chelsea, Real Madrid could make sensational swap

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Real Madrid’s interest in a certain Chelsea star has been well-noted for some time, and with the World Cup nearing this summer, Los Blancos may finally be able to get their man.

[ MORE: Brazil to play Austria in final World Cup tune-up ]

Eden Hazard has long been a Madrid target, and with the Belgium international seemingly more and more interested by a move away from Stamford Bridge, the veteran attacker could see himself join Real after the World Cup in Russia.

According to Spanish outlet Diario Gol, Real could secure a move for Hazard this summer, while sending young attacker Marco Asensio to Chelsea.

While hypothetical at this point, the move makes sense for both clubs, particularly from a Blues perspective as they look for young attacking players.

The 22-year-old Asensio has been seeking regular minutes at Madrid, and with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale regularly included in the starting squad, that has been nearly impossible for the Spanish international.

Meanwhile, Real would be gaining another incredibly talented attacking piece to go along with Ronaldo and Bale, although the latter has been linked with a move away from the Santiago Bernabeu for some time.

Real has also been strongly linked with a move for Paris Saint-Germain winger Neymar, who has spent less than a season in France.

It’s a ways away from happening, but a front three of Hazard, Ronaldo and Neymar would certainly make El Clasico even more intriguing than usual, with Real facing off against a Barcelona squad that currently boasts Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho.

Andrija Novakovich: “It’s a good feeling” to earn USMNT call up

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As the U.S. Men’s National Team continues its transition towards qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, a new face has emerged for the Stars and Stripes ahead of its upcoming friendly against Paraguay.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Kekuta Manneh to roster ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

Striker Andrija Novakovich earned his first call up on Sunday when U.S. manager Dave Sarachan named the Telstar player in his squad, which will play the South American side on March 27 in Cary, North Carolina.

The 21-year-old forward has been nothing short of brilliant in his first season with the Dutch second-division club, scoring 18 league goals for Telstar — who sit fourth in the Eerste Divisie.

“It’s a good feeling to get the call-up and hopefully it will be a very good experience,” Novakovich said. “They [the U.S. national team] sent the club and myself an email saying that I was on the preliminary roster and we were just waiting, and then this week I got another email saying I was on the final roster.

“I called my Mum right away and she’s proud, she’s happy.

“I’m just there for the experience — of course I want to play, of course I want to get the opportunity and hopefully that will happen, It’s an honour to be called up and I’m very proud and very happy.”

Novakovich, a Wisconsin native, is currently on loan at Telstar from English Championship side Reading.

The young USMNT player moved to England back in 2014 to join Reading’s academy, despite originally planning on playing for Marquette University following high school.

Despite this being his first senior-team call up, Novakovich is familiar with the U.S. national team setup. Novakovich has previously represented the Under-17, U-18 and U-20 national teams.

Lionel Messi suggests 2018 will be his final World Cup

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Lionel Messi’s track record as a professional has encompassed just about every imaginable accolade, but one that has eluded he and his Argentina national teammates is winning the World Cup.

[ MORE: Kekuta Manneh added to USMNT squad ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

The Barcelona star has played a significant role for the Albiceleste since debuting for Argentina back in 2005, and even helped guide the South American power to the 2014 World Cup final, however, harsh criticism from local media could push Messi and many of his teammates towards not returning to the national team.

This wouldn’t be the first time Messi has contemplated international retirement, though.

Following the 2016 Copa America Centenario final — which resulted in a Chilean victory over Messi’s Argentina — the Blaugrana attacker announced his retirement from the Albiceleste. While he has since returned to the international scene, it appears Messi is once again considering a halt from representing Argentina.

“It’s just the feeling that this group of players has. It seems that having reached three straight finals didn’t mean anything,” Messi told La Cornisa TV. “Obviously, we depend on results and unfortunately, we reached three finals and we didn’t win them.

“A lot was said about us. The criticisms hurt back then. But the demand is going to be there for this group to get it done. We think that if we don’t do it, we are going to get a lot more [criticism] and we are not going to have another possibility.”

Argentina has fallen in three consecutive major finals dating back to 2014, including two Copa America competitions and the World Cup.

Messi says these shortcomings have weighed heavily on him, and that winning a World Cup is still the one goal that has left him hungry.

“I’ve cried many times for lost finals,” the Barca forward said. “I cried for not being able to fulfill the dream of our nation. My desire is the same as every Argentine, which is to lift the World Cup.”

He continued: “To win a World Cup is not easy. It doesn’t happen often. The last time we did things well but due to minor details we didn’t get it done. We are very enthusiastic and eager to lift the cup for our country. I hope God helps us and it happens.”

Messi has scored 61 international goals in his international career for Argentina, the most of any player from his native country.