Holiday, Tymrak leading FC Kansas City’s stylish surge

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Tucked away in the outskirts of Kansas City, the best team in the National Women’s Soccer League is led by a pair of names unfamiliar to the casual soccer fan.

One, Lauren Holiday, is better known as Lauren Cheney – the name under which she claimed two Olympic gold medals prior to her 25th birthday – before marrying NBA all-star Jrue Holiday earlier this month.

The other, Erika Tymrak, is a second round college draft pick who has burst onto the scene in her first few months as a professional.

Together the pair accounts for the most goals (16) of any two players from the same team, and they have Kansas City in first place after Wednesday night’s 3-0 thrashing of the Boston Breakers. Tymrak leads all rookies with six goals, and Holiday co-leads the league in goals (10) while leading the NWSL with eight assists.

“With Tymrak and (Holiday), it’s a different game,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “They are looking for each other – even in practices they are looking for each other. They try to think ahead. They enjoy it. They love the style; they believe in the style and they are the ones encouraging everyone else to maintain the style.”

Andonovski has cheekily dubbed Kansas City’s style of play as ‘Triple A’: Attractive, attacking and aggressive.

Kansas City has executed all three of those to perfection in its ascension to the top of the table, heading into Sunday’s road match against Sky Blue FC – previous league leaders since May 16 – on an eight-game unbeaten streak that has included as much possession-oriented play as it has highlight reel goals.

Holiday’s successes are not surprising. The likely leading candidate for inaugural MVP went from a 20-year-old who was a last-minute addition to the 2008 Olympic gold medal team to one of the best players at the 2011 World Cup. She’s a shoe-in midfielder for every United States women’s national team training camp.

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Erika Tymrak could be on the verge of a U.S. women’s national team callup. (Photo courtesy FC Kansas City/John Rieger)

Tymrak, on the other hand, entered the league as the No. 11-overall college draft pick following a good but not necessarily headline-grabbing college career at Florida. Her impact in Kansas City has been immediate.

“The special thing about this league is that I think it is definitely for players like an Erika Tymrak,” Holiday said. “Sometimes in college they get overlooked, and in a league like this they are able to really shine.

The connection between Holiday, 25, and the 21-year-old Tymrak isn’t forced; it’s natural and it comes with ease. Their styles mesh and they “have the same mindset,” Tymrak says.

Just look to the first goal in Wednesday’s win over Boston: Tymrak was fouled near midfield and before she was even fully back on both feet, Jen Buczkowski tapped the ball to Holiday in order to play quickly – attacking and aggressive, remember – and Holiday found Tymrak, who dribbled, played a give-and-go with Holiday and then played a through ball to Merrit Mathias, whose cross deflected off a Boston defender and into the net (watch the play from the start here).

The entire sequence was like a walk-though – a dance, even, as Tymrak draws from some of the skills she picked up as a child in ballet, figure skating and gymnastics.

“I’m still a student of the game,” Tymrak said. “I’m learning new things every practice from my coaches and the players around me, who obviously have a lot more experience than me.”

Holiday, who serves as chief role model to Tymrak, says her understudy “has some of the best feet that I have seen a U.S. player have.” The rookie’s technical ability is the kind that is still an anomaly on the U.S. national team, outside the likes of Holiday, Megan Rapinoe or Tobin Heath. That has more than a few people paying attention to Tymrak.

“I know coach Sermanni has been following her lately and has interest in her,” Andonovski said. “If she keeps playing the way that she is playing, I think it is almost a no-brainer.”

And for FC Kansas City, the play of the dynamic duo, along with a rock of a defensive unit that includes defensive midfielders Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott (who Holiday calls “their saviors”) have the Blues on track for a playoff run and arguably in the role of favorites, an unpredictable position for a franchise that nine months ago emerged from the unknown and whose coach is leading his first women’s professional team.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

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The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’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 – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE