Draw against Germany provides mixed signals from USWNT

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It’s hard to know what to think after yesterday’s U.S. Women’s National Team performance in Chicago. Or if we should think anything. Without a coach and three years away from their next major tournament, the U.S. women are in this strange, competitive netherworld where nothing really matters. They drew 1-1 with the world’s No. 2 team (Germany) at Toyota Park, but they could just as well have lost 4-0. The effect would have been the same. They could have won 4-0, and whomever is hired by U.S. Soccer to replace Pia Sundhage could come in, plop a new plan on the table, and render anything accomplished on Saturday meaningless. This was game part of a celebration tour. No more. No less.

But if we were to indulge our reflexes and parse Saturday’s match for signs, there would be a few things to consider:

Top gear remains unmatched …

Bookending the match were two periods were the U.S. looked like the best team in the world. The first stretch produced a well-worked opener, Abby Wambach’s 147th goal putting the U.S. up 1-0 in the second minute. The last stretch nearly stole the match, rendering Germany’s control of the intervening time meaningless.

… but the other gears can still be worrisome.

And that’s the problem with the U.S., though this is hardly new. They’re unstoppable in spurts but otherwise too easily tamed.

In the period before the World Cup, their inability to control play looked like a major problem, particularly with performances against Mexico (a loss in World Cup qualifying) and Italy (the CONCACAF-UEFA playoff) hinting they were vulnerable to anyone and everyone.

That’s changes. The last year has assuaged fans’ worst fears, but the problem still surfaces against elite competition. Germany brought it out last night, but we’ve also seen it against France, Japan, Sweden and Canada.

Silver lining: The U.S. has won most of their games against those foes, though if the States continue to play 30, 40, 50-minute stretches on the back foot, they’ll continue to leave themselves open to …

  • losing a group-deciding game in a major tournament (Sweden, July 6, 2011);
  • needed a last gasp goal after giving up a lead in a quarterfinal (Brazil, July 10, 2011);
  • an upset in a major tournament final (Japan, July 17, 2011);
  • needing extra time and some questionable refereeing to avoid a historic upset (Canada, August 2, 2012).

Defense is priority number one post-Pia

The U.S. only allowed one goal, but the back line’s performance didn’t inspire confidence. Germany had too many chances to win. It’s hard to imagine what this unit would do if they lost Christie Rampone, though the captain’s postponed retirement doesn’t lessen the need to come up with a new idea. The back four is screaming to be revamped.

The midfield also needs answers

Lauren Cheney’s turned into a great utility knife – somebody who can play any of the six non-defense positions – but it’s unclear she is a good choice for a two-women midfield against the likes of Germany (particularly with Shannon Boxx having a sub-par evening). When Pia Sundhage briefly flirted with a three-women midfield post-World Cup, Cheney fit, but if the U.S. is going to remain a 4-4-2 team, the new coach will have to uncover some more midfield options. On Saturday, Cheney wasn’t a problem, but she also wasn’t a solution.

Wherefore Heather O’Reilly

Megan Rapinoe’s emergence has sent Heather O’Reilly to the bench, but the “HAO” remains one of the best wide players in the world. It’s appealing to use her as a late-match, change of pace option, but her ability to get down the right and provide service for Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach could be better-leveraged as the Abby-Alex partnership matures.

Not a bad place to be

For all my nit-picking, the U.S. still got a decent result. While they were at home and well-rested (Germany’s players are in the middle of their season), playing Germany to a draw is nothing to worry about, particularly three years out from the World Cup. High expectations (perhaps unreasonably high ones) leave mixed feelings after any home draw, but those are the incredible heights the U.S. women are navigating. There’s no need for excuses, but perspective is important.

Second game should be better

Against Australia (Sept. 16, 19), the U.S. opened with a 2-1, closed with a 6-2. Against Canada (Sept. 17, 22, 2011), a 1-1 draw was followed by a 3-0 win. In early 2011, Japan played the U.S. to a 2-1 last March at the Algarve Cup before dropping two 2-0s in the States in May.

The U.S. plays Germany again on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network). If the recent pattern holds, they should be much better.

Atletico Madrid roster for MLS All-Star Game includes Felix

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Major League Soccer fans will get a good luck at one of the hottest prospects in world soccer when the MLS All Stars take on Atletico Madrid in next week’s MLS All Star Game.

Joao Felix, the $142 million 19-year-old, is among the roster announced by Diego Simeone for the match.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

Felix scored 20 times with 11 assists in 40 matches for Benfica before moving to Atleti in the summer. Those numbers include a hat trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals first leg.

The other stars will be there, too, provided no transfers happen in the interim. Koke, Thomas Lemar, Diego Costa, and Saul Niguez are in the squad.

New Atleti defender Kieran Trippier and longtime El Tri hero Hector Herrera will also be sure to help drive attendance in Orlando City.

The full roster is here.

Leagues Cup preview: MLS gets its next shot at Liga MX

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It’s not a typo; The s is very real.

The Leagues Cup — not the League Cup — is the new competition pitting Major League Soccer sides against some of the top sides from Mexico’s Liga MX.

The tournament has been expanded before it’s even seen a ball kicked in competition, as the second edition with go from eight to 16 teams.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

For now, though, we’ve got four American and four Mexican sides meeting over the next two months in a bid for North American supremacy not unlike a CONCACAF Champions League stripped of all the minnows.

Much like the CCL, the Mexican sides will be expected to triumph, even with all of the quarterfinals being staged in the United States.

Chicago Fire hosts Cruz Azul on Tuesday, followed by the LA Galaxy’s visit from Club Tijuana.

Wednesday will see the Houston Dynamo host Club America, and Tigres UANL at Real Salt Lake.

The winners meet Aug. 20, while the final will be played Sept. 18 in Las Vegas.

There’s a lot of promise in this, and it gives MLS another chance to make some statements about the distance between it and Liga MX. The Mexican sides have flat out dominated the CCL, and it’s not difficult to make the same prediction for this tournament.

But, like many tournaments, it also gives success-starved clubs a chance to give their fans something big and their players a tonic. For Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s Chicago, for one, it’s a huge opportunity. And for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy, it’s a look toward another piece of silverware for one of the world’s biggest trophy cases.

USMNT prospect Ledezma earns praise from van Nistelrooy

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Even for talents of the highest levels with top soccer education, sometimes a kid’s gotta learn how to eat.

Richard “Richie” Ledezma, 18, is in the midst of his first year at Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, a spot which beckoned after a five-match, one-goal season in the USL with Real Monarchs of the USL.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Ledezma starred for U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup after his first half-season with PSV, which saw him play with the U-19s while trying to lose some weight.

From Goal.com:

“PSV help me with my nutrition, with my food and how I eat. It’s the quantity of food you eat, I guess,” he added. “Because I came a little chubby, when I got here, I guess. They all called me ‘fatty’ and stuff, so I was like, cool, you know? So no more McDonald’s.”

Goal’s James Westwood had a wide-ranging interview with Ledezma and also spoke with soccer royalty: longtime Real Madrid and Manchester United scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was Ledezma’s coach with the U-19s.

“He’s making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he’s creating chances for the whole team.”

That’s not just good praise from a legend, but a solid sign for fans of the United States men’s national team. A proper No. 10 or playmaking midfielder could allow Gregg Berhalter or another future USMNT coach to use Christian Pulisic on the wings.

Ledezma has some work to do before he breaks into the first team of the Dutch runners-up, who have signed former Stoke City man Ibrahim Afellay and has Gaston Pereiro in the fold as well.

Newcastle reportedly in for $28M mercurial Nice attacker

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L’Equipe says that Newcastle United have returned to Nice in the hopes of landing Allan Saint-Maximin.

The Ligue 1 outfit wants $28 million for the playmaker, who could team up with Miguel Almiron and (maybe) Joelinton to give the Magpies a much-improved attack.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Saint-Maximin, 22, has 10 goals and 10 assists across his last two seasons with Nice, and played everywhere in attack for Patrick Vieira: both wings, center forward, second striker, attacking mid… even some left and right midfield.

The player, however, has been a headache for Vieira at times, with the manager saying Saint-Maximin believes that he has enough talent to reach the highest level without the required amount of work.

That said, the youngster’s skill set is electric. He’s a March birth date, too, so a relatively young 22. That $28 million would be another transfer record broken for Newcastle, assuming it happens ahead of the Joelinton move.

Or… as Newcastle fan knows, neither could go through.