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.

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)

Andorra’s 11-year, 58-game losing streak is over

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Rarely has a scoreless stalemate in front of the home fans tasted so sweet.

But 11 years of nothing but losing will do that to a team.

Andorra’s 0-0 draw with fellow minnow Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Saturday ended its run of 58 competitive defeats.

It was the first point in qualifying for the Pyrenees mountain principality, population 80,000, since a scoreless draw with Finland in 2005.

Faroe Islands finished with 10 men after Joan Edmundsson was booked a second time with 15 minutes to play.

World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia