United States begins three-match stretch with cruise past Australia (Video)

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Like the rest of her teammates, Australia’s Lisa De Vanna will see her efforts forgotten, the cruel nature of sports’ bottom lines likely to overshadow the multiple tests she gave Hope Solo. With the U.S. goalkeeper responding each time, finishing the match with five saves, the final looks like most other friendlies the U.S. has hosted through a still-undefeated 2013. The 4-0 final was an apt illustration of the divide between the world’s first- and eighth-ranked teams.

Expect more in the weeks to come. Today’s match in San Antonio was the first of a three-game stretch, the U.S. Women’s National Team closing October with friendlies against New Zealand (Oct. 27, 30). The Football Ferns, however, are unlikely to offer as much resistance as the still-overwhelmed Aussies.

Lauren Holiday got the U.S. on the board early, her shot from just inside the penalty area deflecting off an Australian defender on its way past Lydia Williams. Eight minutes later, a nice, controlled left-footed volley from Carli Lloyd saw Holiday’s midfield partner score from roughly the same range, giving the U.S. the 2-0 lead they’d carry through halftime.

Abby Wambach got on the board in the second half, the FIFA World Player of the Year registering her 162nd international goal in the 56th minute. In stoppage time, Christen Press scored her seventh goal in 10 games, giving the U.S. a controlling four-goal win.

That control wasn’t complete, however. The defense was caught out multiple times, occasions where the ever-working De Vanna was able to get on to direct balls from her teammates and past the States’ defense. The two goals the team had in the second half could have possibly been more if it weren’t for a handful of occasions where better execution and finishing would have made this into a truly overwhelming result.

But there are only so many qualms you can have about a four-goal win over quality opposition, and given the point of these matches is to continue improving ahead of 2015 World Cup qualifying, the performance (and its details) was more important than the final score.

And on that performance, here are five things that jumped out:

source: AP
Sky Blue FC forward Lisa De Vanna nearly broke through for Australia on Sunday, often stressing North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn – the U.S.’s starter at right back. (Photo: AP Photo.)

1. Defense gave Australia their chances

We covered De Vanna, somebody whose exceptional work rate can exploit problems in any defense. Thankfully, Lisa De Vanna isn’t the greatest finisher in the world; otherwise, the U.S. would have gotten themselves into a shootout.

In her post-game interview, Hope Solo mentioned how excited she was to be playing behind a defense that was playing more two-way soccer, but the cost of that is sometimes being caught out. Maybe a fullback (Crystal Dunn) finds herself out of position. Maybe your central defenders end up isolated. There are costs to any approach, and if the U.S. truly is changing theirs — moving away from a philosophy that saw a natural central defender deemed an acceptable left back at the last World Cup — they’ll be a period of adjustment. If this is the direction Tom Sermanni’s decided to go, the U.S. will be better off for it, but they may also need Solo to paper over the cracks in the short-term.

Then again, this may have just been a bad day. Maybe we’re reading too much into Hope Solo’s words. Regardless, if the U.S. had been playing Germany, Sweden, or even Canada, the scoreline wouldn’t have been as forgiving.

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Becky Sauerbrunn started in central defense for the U.S., going 90 minutes in their win at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Photo: Getty Images.)

2. Was this Becky Sauerbrunn’s best game of the Tom Sermanni era?

If the U.S. is going to play out of the back more, getting their defenders more involved in play, then Becky Sauerbrunn may become the central defender most likely to claim the spot next to Christie Rampone (who did not dress today). Though her range of passing was an issue under Pia Sundhage, Sauerbrunn is great playing the short passing game Sermanni may want. Out of all the people vying for the place next to Rampone, she is the most intelligent with the ball – somebody whose presence could allow both Holiday and Lloyd to push on, given Sauerbrunn and Rampone’s comfort with the ball.

All of this was in Sauerbrunn’s repertoire before today’s game, but today was the first time she really asserted herself. Starting next to Whitney Engen, Sauerbrunn was more aggressive in possession than we’re used to seeing her at the international level, flashing the type of game we’re accustomed to seeing with FC Kansas City. There she was voted NWSL Defender of the Year in part because of the command she had over games, using not only her defensive instincts but also her offensive awareness to make an impact.

If that awareness starts to exert itself for the U.S., Sauerbrunn will have an advantage Rachel Buehler and Whitney Engen do not. The player domestic soccer fans have wanted to see get more time since she blossomed in Women’s Professional Soccer? If today’s any indication, she may finally be coming through for the national team.

3. Sydney Leroux out wide, huh?

Sydney Leroux is the best athlete on the team. She can play anywhere, if she wants. Under Pia Sundhage, the natural striker even had a (very brief) spell at right back.

On Sunday, she started wide in a 4-4-2. It’s not her natural position, but it gave her a start she covets, and given the U.S. was extremely thin on wide midfielders coming into this game, a solution like this was necessary.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of an impact. At least, we didn’t see her have the kind of impact we often see the Boston Breakers star have in these types of games. Coming off a four-goal performance against Mexico on Sept. 3, Leroux was kept off the scoresheet on Sunday, and while 57 minutes in a role isn’t enough to draw any conclusions, it’s safe to say Leroux’s turn out wide produced mixed results.

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Alex Morgan didn’t get on the scoresheet on Sunday, but particularly in the second half, she was a constant threat against Australia. (Photo: Getty Images.)

4. Alex Morgan looks healthy

The last time we saw Alex Morgan, she had a near-hip-to-ankle leg brace, trying to protect some injured knee ligaments. It wasn’t anything major, but it was enough to slow her down over the last month of the NWSL season. The last time we saw a healthy Alex Morgan was mid-summer.

At least, until today. Morgan looked back to her normal self, constantly sprinting past the Australian defense to get onto balls lofted down the left side. It’s the U.S.’s stock way to get Morgan involved. Thankfully, she’s back to the point where she can pull it off.

The game also served as a reminder of how much Morgan benefits from playing with Abby Wambach. For Portland in the NWSL, those long balls would often see defenses collapse on her, close own all her options, leaving her with low percentage chances. She led the league in shots and shots on goal but didn’t challenge for the scoring title, largely because, for much of the year, she was stranded up top.

Wambach, however, demands a defense only give so much attention to Morgan, and while that’s not breaking news, it’s interesting to note in light of what happened this past NWSL season. Though Thorns FC has Canadian international Christine Sinclair as a potential partner, for much of the year she was relegated to midfield. Was this game a reminder of how best to use Alex Morgan? If so, 2014 could be a big year for both her and her captain at club level.

5. So does Hope Solo

It seemed like she rushed back from wrist surgery. With the Seattle Reign off to a disastrous start in the NWSL, Hope Solo may have hurried back for a club that desperately needed one of their stars to show up. Between that and persisting questions about the flexibility of her surgically repaired shoulder (from which she hastily returned off to take part in the World Cup), Solo’s health remains an issue.

Today, however, Solo looked fine. Actually, she looked more than fine. As De Vanna streaked through the U.S. defense on multiple occasions, she was left on her own to come up big. Just as she did before her surgeries, just as she’s likely to do through the rest of this cycle, Solo stepped up.

She didn’t hesitate to act. If there was any uncertain about what she could and could not do, it didn’t show. Solo didn’t hesitate to get down on that Alamodome turf.

Maybe it was a confidence thing, Solo looking shy upon returning for Seattle. Maybe there was rust. Or maybe there really were (are) lingering issues. Athletes break down.

Solo, however, looked like the player who’d claimed the title of world’s best goalkeeper. When called upon on Sunday, she was back on that pedestal.

Chairman Mubarak: Other clubs are ‘jealous’ of Man City’s success

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Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak believes that other clubs — namely those who have fallen miles back of the back-to-back Premier League champions — are “jealous” of the club’s success.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante to miss Europa League final with new injury ]

The root of the perceived jealousy is, of course, Man City’s seemingly unlimited spending power which dwarves that of just about — if not — every other club in the PL. There’s a growing sense around the league — and around the world — that clubs like City, just to name one, are doing the game a disservice by distorting the transfer market and building an infallible super-team with the aid of unprecedented financial resources.

Mubarak believes that these feelings also stem from other clubs’ failed dealings in the transfer market: spending comparable — if not more — money on players who don’t justify that price tag the same way some of City’s big-money buys have done — quotes from the BBC:

“With success, there is a certain level of jealousy, envy, whatever you call it. That’s part of the game.

“It’s not easy for our competition, we know that. But the reality is, we didn’t buy the most expensive player in the Premier League [Paul Pogba], we didn’t buy the most expensive goalkeeper [Kepa Arrizabalaga], we didn’t buy the most expensive midfielder, we didn’t buy the most expensive striker [Romelu Lukaku].

“People make decisions, they’ve got to live by them. This is a well-run club.”

City’s financial dealings have regularly been in the headlines of late, as they are believed to have circumvented FFP rules by lying about sponsorship deals so as to balance a larger expenditure on transfer fees and player wages with revenue generated by the club.

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Suarez defends surgery decision after Barca lose Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez has defended himself from criticism for undergoing knee surgery that prevented him from playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

The Uruguayan released a statement Sunday saying he had no option despite the timing of the final, which Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia on Saturday.

Suarez said he had to undergo surgery “against my will” after rupturing his meniscus against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

He said the surgery earlier this month had nothing to do with a cartilage issue that he had been nursing since the beginning of the season.

Barcelona won the Spanish league but finished the season on a low after being eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League and losing the Copa final to Valencia.

Suarez scored 25 goals in 49 matches this season, second only to Lionel Messi on the scoring charts for Barcelona.

U-20 WC roundup: Mexico hammered by Japan; Italy top Ecuador

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

Mexico 0-3 Japan

Mexico’s heavy defeat at the hands of Japan means El Tri‘s stars of tomorrow, who have zero points from their first two games, cannot finish top-two in Group B and can only advance to the knockout rounds as one of four third-place teams.

Taisei Miyashiro (21st and 77th minutes) and Kyosuke Tagawa (52nd) bagged the goals on Sunday, as Japan picked up its first victory and set up an all-important finale with Italy to decide who finishes top of the group on Wednesday.

Ecuador 0-1 Italy

Andrea Pinamonti scored the only goal in Italy’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Ecuador to reach the six-point mark and guarantee themselves a top-two finish and a place in the round of 16.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Senegal 2-0 Colombia [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Poland 5-0 Tahiti [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Monday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Honduras v. Uruguay — 12 p.m. ET
Qatar v. Ukraine — 12 p.m. ET
USA v. Nigeria — 2:30 p.m. ET
Norway v. New Zealand — 2:30 p.m. ET