What to watch for from U.S. Women’s National Team on Wednesday

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Tom Sermanni era of United States Women’s National Team soccer is still over a month away, even if the transition period begins tomorrow. At tenuous post-Tom, pre-Pia period means the match will be like most since the U.S. won gold: rich on star power but light on relevance.

A continuation of the States’ prolonged post-Olympic celebration tour, Wednesday’s match against the Republic of Ireland comes two-and-a-half years before the team’s next major competition. It also features an opponent that’s ranked 34th in the world (10 spots below Mexico) that never threatened to get out of their group in Euro 2013 qualifying. If last month’s matches against Germany were overlooked, Wednesday’s may barely be noticed.

The level of competition is a reminder of context. This is a celebration tour. The team’s not preparing for anything; rather, they’re taking this opportunity to leverage a successful Olympic campaign, selling a few tickets in the process.

The most important part of this year-ending, five-match stretch (two against Ireland, three against China) will be a veteran auditioning for their new coach. Even though Jillian Ellis will continue running the team, every player knows Tom Sermanni will be watching. How the team performs in this pre-tryout period will be the main reason to follow the next three weeks worth of games.

Here are some areas to watch, though for a team that’s gone 23-1-3 this year, they’re all relative concerns:

source: AP1. When will the Serrmani effect be felt?

The question is actually assumptive, on three levels. It presumes a new coach (a) who has still not officially taken over will (a) have an effect and (b) that effect’s impact is a matter of when, not if. It’s possible the 58-year-old Scot’s main influence will be on continuity – forcing a bridge between a highly successful Sundhage regime and his own. If that happens, we won’t be able to detect Sermanni’s influence.

Although there were small stylistic differences in how Sermanni’s Australia teams played, the approach was largely the same as a U.S. side that’s aspired to a more possession-sensitive approach in the wake of Germany 2011. When he arrives, Sermanni (right), who has already spoken positively about his new team’s technical qualities (hinting they may be underrated), will help this progression, though we’re unlikely to see much difference in the interim.

Still, as a Portland crowd who have been waiting for Caleb Porter know, an absentee coach’s effects can still be felt. If you see this U.S. team show a sudden disinclination toward playing long out of the back, credit Tom Sermanni.

MORE: More detail on the U.S.’s new head coach

source: AP2. Is the defense improving?

National team diehards have long expressed concerns about the team’s defending, with seven goals allowed in six World Cup matches underscoring the team’s problems against top competition. Those problems appeared on the wane when the U.S. gave up only three goals in this year’s first 10 games, but as the Olympic semifinal against Canada showed, the U.S. have to outgun too many teams. Over their last seven games, the U.S. have given up 10 goals.

A lot of that was Pia Sundhage’s willingness to play open games. With a new coach coming in, the defense may need to prove it can lock down opponents.

Christie Rampone (right), the team’s 37-year-old captain, appears to be sticking around to anchor the defense. She’s still among the best players in the world at her position, though the spot to her left – often occupied by Rachel Buehler – needs to be firmed up. That could be done by restoring Buehler’s confidence, though fan favorite Becky Sauerbrunn, who possesses the ball skills to help the U.S.’s stylistic shift, should be considered.

source: Getty Images3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

The States have a lot of depth in attack and on the wings, but in midfield, they’re sorely lacking for choice. Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney (right), and Carli Lloyd are Sermanni’s — uh, Ellis’s — current options, with Cheney and Lloyd the likely pairing as the team approaches Canada 2015. Cheney’s positional versatility and Lloyd’s flare for the dramatic make it a capable pair, but against teams like France, Germany, and Japan, the lack of speed, variety, and ball-winning leave the U.S. at a disadvantage.

In Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, Sermanni has wide players capable of playing attacking midfield positions, but it’s unclear whether that role would conflict with Abby Wambach, who (with the emergence of Alex Morgan) spends more time occupying that space, waiting for play to come to her feet.

The other idea would be to restore Sauerbrunn to the midfield, a role she playing in college. At the base of a triangle with Cheney and Lloyd, Sauerbrunn would allow the two more attacked-minded midfielders to venture forward without exposing the defense. Her skill on the ball can act as a fulcrum when the States have established their attack, while her time as a defender make her the best choice to protect (and possibly solve the problems of) a vulnerable defense.

Conceivably carrying many of the qualities of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Sauerbrunn’s a potential response to the midfield strength of the U.S.’s main rivals (Germany, France, Japan). While some have envisioned a similar role for Lauren Cheney, moving Sauerbrunn into midfield would allow one of the States’ goal scoring threats to stay higher up the field.

MORE: Coach Sermanni’s to-do list ahead of Canada 2015

source: Getty Images4. Is Heath really a wide player?

For most of her career at North Carolina, Heath played left midfield for teams that won three national titles, a position that allowed her to take on defenders with her elite one-on-one skills. Three years after playing her last game at Chapel Hill, Heath has started to establish herself in the same position with the national team, though with mixed results.

She still shows the ability to break down a defender one-on-one, but against a higher level of competition, it happens less often. When she does beat her mark, her opposition’s increased athleticism means quicker recovery. Even when Heath’s skills prove a plus, they aren’t enough of an advantage to justify forgoing opportunities to work through Wambach and Morgan, particularly since Heath’s yet to prove a strong crosser of the ball.

Her skill, however, is undeniable, and it’s not difficult to imagine her passing, vision, and quickness being effective in the middle, given the right teammates around her. In the middle, her shot from 18-24 yards can be a real weapon. It all begs a question Serrmani must eventually answer: Is Heath a wide player – somebody who should be taking time away from Heather O’Reilly – or somebody who can help a thin midfield? Her latest audition begins Wednesday.

source: Getty Images5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

When U.S. Soccer announced the new women’s professional league last week, president Sunil Gulati noted that for the time there would be a direct link between Major League Soccer and one of the top-flight women’s teams. The Paulson family, backers of MLS’s Portland Timbers, had signed on to support a women’s team, one that will likely make Jeld-Wen Field its home.

It’s tempting to see Wednesday night’s game as a test of women’s soccer in Portland, but for a number of reasons, we’re unlikely to see the amped atmosphere that accompanies Timbers games. As of Monday, thanks to little citywide buzz and a $38 entry-level ticket price, only 8,600 tickets had been sold for Wednesday’s match, a number trailing ticket sales for upcoming games in Phoenix, Detroit, and Houston. Add in the late weekday start and the bite of a fall northwest night, and the game won’t threaten Jeld-Wen’s 20,438 capacity.

Perversely, all those circumstances could make Wednesday’s match a good litmus test for women’s professional soccer in Portland. Even though the new team won’t be playing in late fall, there are a number of other obstacles it will have to overcome. Creating buzz will always be a problem (especially in a city that’s fallen for its MLS product), but ticket prices will be much more reasonable.

Given the circumstances that are keeping many away, getting a crowd of over 10,000 for Wednesday’s game against Ireland would be a great sign for the new professional team, especially if two or three of the night’s stars are playing for Portland come March.

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 7 — Spain, Portugal aim for wins

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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Spain and Portugal got through the toughest match on their Group B dockets, against each other, but now need to stack some W’s.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s EURO champs open Wednesday’s World Cup action with a match against Morocco, and manager Fernando Hierro leads Spain against Iran to close out the day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

In the middle, Uruguay looks to suck the drama out of Group A by joining Russia as 2-0 sides.

Below is Wednesday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group A
Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia: Rostov, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group B
Portugal vs. Morocco: Moscow, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Iran vs. Spain: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Fortunes up or down? 32 thoughts after first 17 World Cup games

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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All it took was one round of games for some favorites to be doubted, others to verify their status, and some underdogs to earn dark horse status.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

While there are valid reasons to make early judgments, it’s important to note that some perceived setbacks don’t change much while others put a serious crimp in tournament hopes.

Group A

Russia (2 games played) — Fortunes way up — Two resounding wins combined with early tumult in Group B could help Russia consider a quarterfinal spot.

Uruguay — Fortunes level — Jose Gimenez’s 89th minute winner may allow the CONMEBOL side to render its group finale moot by hammering Saudi Arabia.

Egypt (2 games played) — Fortunes way down — Could be out of the tournament should Uruguay get a point against lowly Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia — Fortunes down — Unsure anyone figured the Green Falcons as anything other than an obstacle, but their performance against host Russia was miserable.

Group B

Iran — Fortunes up — Carlos Queiroz would’ve circled the Morocco opener as a must-win. Mission accomplished, however it was done.

Portugal — Fortunes level — Needed a PK, goalie error, and wonder free kick to get a point from Spain. Still, got the point.

Spain — Fortunes down — Still look capable of imposing themselves on the tournament, but too many errors in their first outing.

Morocco — Fortunes down — Probably should’ve had a point against Iran, but would’ve wanted three anyway. Very disappointing and now a mountain ahead.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 15: Karim Ansarifard of Iran is challenged by Noureddine Amrabat of Morocco (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Group C

France — Fortunes level — Clearly the better side against Australia, didn’t inspire title confidence but could’ve easily nabbed a three- or four-goal win.

Denmark — Fortunes up — Despite being the second-best side against Peru, now can expect the knockout rounds by beating the Socceroos.

Australia — Fortunes down — France first was always going to be a struggle, but to fight so valiantly and fall to an own goal will be a mental hurdle ahead of Peru.

Peru — Fortunes down — Terrific energy and performance would’ve led to a win with any finishing luck, but getting a result from Denmark was very important. A loss presents a major challenge.

Group D

Croatia — Fortunes up — Its tactical options for the second match against Argentina are wide open after securing three points against Nigeria.

Argentina — Fortunes down — Forget control of the game and Lionel Messi’s 11 shots on target; Not getting full points against Iceland is a significant setback. A group stage without Messi is possible.

Iceland — Fortunes up — It remains hard to picture Iceland getting out of the group, but the UEFA side has now flummoxed Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in successive tournaments. Can they find a win against Nigeria to set up a wild final day?

Nigeria — Fortunes down — Group D was always going to be tough, but a 2-0 loss to Croatia means the margin of error is almost zero.

Group E

Serbia — Fortunes up — Forget how Serbia won, their fortunes have leapt due to Brazil drawing Switzerland.

Brazil — Fortunes down — Drawing their second-trickiest game could see Neymar and Co. in position to finish second in the group instead of first. The only silver lining is that Germany may also fail to claim its group and make runner-up a good thing for the Round of 16.

Switzerland — Fortunes up — Maybe Swiss supporters were expecting it, but a result against Brazil is a positive step for a team that took Argentina to extra time at the 2014 tournament but underwhelmed at EURO 2016.

Costa Rica — Fortunes down — Now needs to beat Brazil to have much hope of anything going into the final group match vs. Switzerland.

Group F

Sweden  — Fortunes level — Beating South Korea was nice and we understand the chemistry argument, but a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic would’ve feasted on the spoils offered in the opener.

Mexico  — Fortunes way up — El Tri is a very good tournament team, but if you had them beating Germany 1-0 in the opener you’re a better prognosticator than me.

Germany  — Fortunes down — Still favored to come out of the group and deep enough to repeat as champions, being unable to get a result from Mexico will only raise more questions about leaving Leroy Sane home (fair or not).

South Korea — Fortunes down — Would’ve wanted no less than four points from the Sweden and Mexico encounters, and has zero heading into the second against El Tri.

NIZHNIY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA – JUNE 18: Andreas Granqvist of Sweden. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Group G

Belgium  — Fortunes up — Delivered expected dominance against Panama and could have a spot in the knockout rounds sewn up by the end of Day Two versus Tunisia.

England  — Fortunes up — There will not be Wayne Rooney questions about this tournament’s captain, as Harry Kane scored twice on a day he perhaps wasn’t at his best. Will clinch a berth in the knockout rounds by beating Panama next, you’d have to think.

Tunisia  — Fortunes slightly down — Needed to surprise England or Belgium to get out of the group, and still has a second opportunity after losing late to the Three Lions.

Panama  — Fortunes slightly down — Not sure anyone was expecting a Cinderella story, but even those will feel it more unlikely after a big loss to Belgium.

Group H

Japan  — Fortunes up — Not a bad team at all, but prospects were dim given the talent of the group. After beating Colombia in match one, there’s a house money feel to this one.

Senegal  — Fortunes up — Controversy aside, the Lions of Teranga deserved all three points against Poland and are in pole position to win the group.

Poland  — Fortunes down — Disappointing is an understatement leading into a match versus Colombia which could leave both on the outskirts with a match to go.

Colombia  — Fortunes down — Carlos Sanchez’s third minute red card didn’t ultimately doom them, but the task is tall with equally desperate Poland up next.

Arsenal seals transfer of German goalkeeper Leno

Arsenal.com
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Arsenal unveiled German goalkeeper Bernd Leno on Tuesday as the latest member of Unai Emery’s unit.

The longtime Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper, 26, has six caps for Germany but is not on the World Cup roster.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Leno had appeared in 304 matches for Bayer before the move, which will reportedly cost the Gunners approximately $25 million.

Head coach Unai Emery said: “We are very pleased that Bernd Leno will be joining us. Bernd is a goalkeeper of high quality and experience. He has been a top performer and regular number one goalkeeper with Leverkusen in the Bundesliga for the past seven years. We are all excited that Bernd has chosen Arsenal Football Club and look forward to start working with him in pre-season.”

The Gunners have Petr Cech and David Ospina at goalkeeper, but it’s reasonable to expect at least one to leave town. Emery has already added Stephan Lichtsteiner from Juventus to help shore up his defense.