Going down the checklist after the U.S.’s rout of Ireland

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PORTLAND, Ore. — It was the match you’d expect when the top-ranked team in the world faces one a that’s yet to come into their own internationally, but even by those standards, it was an impressive performance from the United States. After an initial feeling out period reminiscent of an undercard’s first rounds, the States woke up, putting a 5-0 pasting on Ireland at Jeld-Wen field.

More readily Alex Morgan woke up. With goals in the 24th, 34th, and 44th minute, 2012’s leading scorer staked the team to a 3-0 halftime. A perfunctory 45 final minutes featuring two goals from Sydney LeRoux, given the U.S. a decisive victory in front of 10,092.

Morgan’s goals pushed her to 27 on the year, the third-highest single-season total in national team history.

Leroux’s double give her 12 goals off the bench, a new record.

As much as the match seemed like a mere exhibition, there were a number of areas of focus for a team whose offensive firepower has often overshadowed areas of relative concern. Drawing from PST’s preview:

1. When will the Sermanni effect be felt?

The U.S.’s new permanent coach doesn’t take over until January, but Tom Sermanni’s new team is aware: A new boss is coming in, and with that comes a new need to earn a place in the team.

For Becky Sauerbrunn, who was making her first start at left back for the national team, a new position provides a possible route into the starting lineup. Although her movements often looked like a player moving from a more comfortable, central position, the former midfielder looked as viable any option Sermanni has at his disposal.

But none of Sermanni’s style was evident tonight. There was no increase in play out of the back. The link up play through midfield was less tactical than physical. The United States were using their talents to overcome inferior opposition, an formula that’s worked thus far.

2. Is the defense improving?

It was impossible to tell. Ireland is ranked 34th in the world and didn’t threaten to qualify for Euro 2013. They’ve won one match all year. This wasn’t the team to test the U.S.’s defense.

3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

As with the defense, Ireland wasn’t the team to test Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd. Most of the U.S. build up was through the wings, with the central midfielders’s chances to make an impact on late runs into the box.

Cheney played a crucial part in two of the goals, while Lloyd had little to do against an Ireland team that spent the match on their back foot.

4. Is Heath really a wide player?

Tonight she was. Before Morgan went on her scoring rampage, Tobin Heath was the States’ best player, creating a number of opportunities lined up against the opposition’s right back.

While most of her best efforts still suggested she’s more of a central playmaker than left winger, her defensive awareness supporting Sauerbrunn suggested she has important to offer whomever emerges as the team’s starting left back.

Taking turns with right wing Megan Rapinoe running into the space above Cheney and Lloyd, Heath provided a viable picture of her future as a starting left wing, and although Heather O’Reilly offered a counterpoint with a pinpoint cross for one of LeRoux’s goals, it’s hard to see Heath returning to a substitute’s role while playing at this level.

5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

There were a number of reasons for Portland to produce a small crowd. A late weekend night start in cold weather against a vastly inferior opponent was hard to sell, especially with an entry-level ticket price of $38. But the Portland faith produced a five-digit crowd, something you’d think replicable with when the prices drop and the team bares the city’s name.

Overall

In the end, it’s only Ireland, and it’s still two-and-a-half years away from the team’s next major competition, But for a team that traditionally come out slow in the first of these two match set games, it was an impressive performance, even if relatively so.

League Cup preview: North London Derby; Chelsea v. Cherries

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Three of the four clubs active in Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinals are from London, vying for semifinal spots next to Tuesday victors Manchester City and Burton Albion (!?!).

Things have gone in opposite directions for rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur since the Gunners humbled Spurs 4-2 at the Emirates Stadium on Dec. 2.

[ RECAP: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 PKs) Man City]

Spurs have only dropped points once, a dramatic draw with Barcelona, while Arsenal has failed to continue its form and is coming off a 3-2 loss to relegation-threatened Southampton.

But North London Derbies have a way of framing a season, and reasserting control with a League Cup quarterfinal win at the Emirates would sure be nice for Unai Emery‘s men.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll begin another 20-plus match unbeaten streak. From Arsenal.com:

“Sunday for us is a big reality check in our way,” Emery said. “We need to improve and also we need to continue doing our way in our process. It’s not a good result but this reality gives us more motivation to continue to work hard, finding a new thing to work on each day, and also it makes us demand a lot from ourselves in the way we work on this way.”

The other match sees Chelsea entertaining Bournemouth, and the two sides split results in their last two meetings at Stamford Bridge.

The Cherries lost to Chelsea in last season’s League Cup, but topped the Blues 3-0 in the Premier League.

Meanwhile Chelsea has reportedly confirmed their interest in Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson, so subplots? Yeah, we got ’em.

Eddie Howe‘s not having it. From The Bournemouth Echo:

“Callum getting linked with other clubs, I think in some respects I would almost want that with every player. It means they are performing at their highest level and doing very well in the league they are in, so I have no problem with it.

“From my perspective, Callum’s future is here. He is a massive part of what we are doing and I just want to see him continue to score goals for us.”

The “from my perspective” is a thing here, though, as the Cherries could get a fantastic offer from Chelsea or another big club for the non-Cup tied striker.

Burton Albion making League Cup semi “absolutely staggering”

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Burton Albion has never finished higher than 20th in the Championship, so getting to the League Cup semifinals followed a 1-0 defeat of Middlesbrough is pretty darn sweet to manager Nigel Clough and his men.

The Brewers were relegated to League One last season, finishing 23rd in the 24-team Championship.

[ MORE: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City]

Now, manager Nigel Clough has the club within a win of the League Cup Final. It’s their best major cup performance in a 68-year history.

From BurtonAlbionFC.co.uk:

“The scale of the achievement is absolutely staggering – for Burton Albion to get to the semi-final of a major cup competition. It’s very difficult to describe the feeling at this point.”

Sure the luck of the draw is involved — Burton has only drawn one Premier League team, and it was Burnley — but winning five cup matches is winning five cup matches.

Clough, the son of legendary manager Brian Clough, also sung the praises of Southampton loanee Jake Hesketh. The 22-year-old won the match with the game’s loan goal.

“We got the goal through Jake Hesketh. The most impressive thing was to win the tackle on the edge of the box and he was one of the few players tonight not to hit his shot over the bar, We bang on in training about hitting the bottom corners and he did.”

Whether or not Burton can hang with Premier League opposition in the final, this is a pretty monumental moment for the Brewers. Sitting 15th in league play, it will likely be the most memorable moment of the season.

River Plate loses on penalties to Al Ain at Club World Cup

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AL AIN CITY, United Arab Emirates (AP) South American champion River Plate was upset by Al Ain FC in the Club World Cup on Tuesday, losing in a penalty shootout after the semifinal finished 2-2 following extra time.

Al Ain’s players converted all five penalty kicks, before goalkeeper Khalid Eisa saved Enzo Perez’s fifth shot for River to seal a 5-4 victory in the shootout.

[ MORE: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City ]

River endured the humbling loss to the team from United Arab Emirates less than two weeks after thrilling its fans with a memorable win over fierce Argentine rival Boca Juniors in the final of the Copa Libertadores.

Real Madrid plays Kashima Antlers on Wednesday in the other semifinal.

Marcus Berg put Al Ain ahead in the third minute before Santos Borre scored twice to give River the lead in the 16th.

Brazilian forward Caio pulled Al Ain level at 2-2 in the 51st.

Gonzalo Martinez had an opportunity to put River back in front from the penalty spot after Mohamed Ahmad fouled Milton Casco in the area. But Martinez hit the 68th-minute spot kick against the crossbar.

The final is on Saturday.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Pep on Man City win, Sterling’s poor panenka, Mourinho sacking

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Pep Guardiola‘s Manchester City needed penalties to outlast hosts Leicester City in the quarterfinals of the League Cup, but got the job done thanks in no small part to some laughable efforts from the Foxes.

[ RECAP: Leicester 1-1 (1-3 pens) Man City ]

Kevin De Bruyne and Marc Albrighton scored good-looking goals in regulation, and Oleksandr Zinchenko converted City’s third penalty after Leicester missed three-consecutive offerings at the King Power Stadium.

Man City’s only miss was an awful missed panenka from Raheem Sterling, but Guardiola was mostly okay with the outcome given their lineup.

Eric Garcia started and made his first team debut at age 17. Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz also started the match. Young goalkeeper Arijanet Muric starred for Man City, stopping two penalties in the win. From the BBC:

“A tough game, it is always difficult at Leicester. We played with a guy who is 17 years old and some injured players, it was a good game. … Raheem took that decision [to chip his penalty], unfortunately he missed it but that is OK.”

Guardiola was also asked about fired Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho. He feels compassion for his longtime rival.

“I am always sad for the manager when that happens. We are alone in that situation. I am close to all of the managers. You are sacked when results are not good. He doesn’t need me, he is so strong. I wish him all the best and he will be back soon.”

Man City is one win from a third League Cup final in four years, and will face either Burton Albion, Arsenal, Spurs, Bournemouth, or Chelsea. Next up is a visit from Crystal Palace on Saturday and another trip to Leicester on Boxing Day.