United States’ defense the difference thus far at Women’s World Cup

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba – United States women’s national team defender Becky Sauerbrunn describes it as her “oh-crap speed,” but it hardly looks like there is any panic involved.

Sauerbrunn used the phrase to detail her sliding tackle in the 63rd minute of a scoreless draw with Sweden on Friday. Sauerbrunn had recovered from a misstep that she blamed herself for, tracking back to help out fellow center back Julie Johnston, who was in a 2-v-1 situation against one of the world’s best strikers, Lotta Schelin.

It was the second time in as many games that Sauerbrunn found within herself that blistering speed that she describes with such a humanizing adjective. On Monday, she closed ground from behind on Sam Kerr, one of the tournament’s fastest players, to turn a one-on-one with goalkeeper Hope Solo into a shot blocked by Sauerbrunn, saving a potential goal in a 3-1 win over Australia.

Sauerbrunn has been the United States’ best player through two games at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and a microcosm of the story of the Americans’ tournament thus far.

For all the talk about the United States’ depth at the forward position and all the wondering of what Abby Wambach’s role would be and all the questioning about Alex Morgan’s health, it is the defensive unit that has stood out through two games of what the Americans hope will be seven in Canada.

[ KASSOUF: Three things learned from USA-Sweden scoreless draw ]

Meghan Klingenberg’s game-saving, goal-line clearance in the 77th minute of a scoreless draw with Sweden on Friday epitomized exactly that. So too did Solo’s world-class saves in Monday’s win against Australia (“freaking huge” saves, as Megan Rapinoe called them).

But the small nuances of defending aren’t lost on this United States team, anchored by 30-year-old Sauerbrunn and 23-year-old Julie Johnston, who went from initially being cut from the World Cup qualifying roster in October to being a crucial piece of the United States’ quest for its first World Cup title in 16 years.

Johnston’s emergence out of almost nowhere gives the United States a defensive anchor to build around for the foreseeable future, especially with 40-year-old Christie Rampone – the last active player from that 1999 team – likely playing in her last major tournament.

[ MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup ]

But more importantly and more incredibly, Johnston – not Rampone – is the player next to Sauerbrunn that U.S. coach Jill Ellis feels can lead the U.S. to the Promised Land.

“I said to both of them after the game, I thought they did very, very well and I said this is going to pay dividends for us, because we need that,” Ellis said of Johnston and Sauerbrunn. “A lot of teams aren’t getting tested as much, but we’re getting tested and it’s good for us. It’s good for our younger players to gain that experience. It was good for Morgan Brian to start a game today in a World Cup. Those are things that you hope will pay off longer on.”

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(Getty Images)

Johnston’s quick rise through the ranks came initially at the expense of injuries to Rampone and Whitney Engen, but the young-gun Johnston never looked back, exuding confidence from the start and scoring in three straight matches, including in the Algarve Cup final win over France.

Ellis spoke frequently this week and throughout the spring about the Catch-22 that Johnston previously faced. The only thing Johnston lacked, Ellis maintains, was experience. The only way to gain experience was to play, which Johnston wasn’t doing regularly for the United States until March.

Johnston showed signs of nerves in the World Cup opener against Australia on Monday, but on Friday she proved again that she plays beyond her years and caps (Friday was only her 14th match with the national team). These few months were no baptism by fire.

“I thought she was excellent,” Sauerbrunn said of her fellow center back. “I thought they gave us a lot to deal with and I thought she handled herself really well. She showed a lot of confidence on the ball and I think she is going to get more and more comfortable as the tournament goes on.”

Sauerbrunn has seamlessly stepped into a leadership role in defense with Rampone on the bench. Sauerbrunn, who turned 30 last Saturday, had only played one World Cup game – albeit a semifinal in 2011 – prior to this tournament. But she’s as savvy and well-positioned as she is athletic, a similar mold to Rampone and a player who has taken on a similar role to the one the team’s longtime captain held.

Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg and Ali Krieger make up the defensive unit in front of Solo. They don’t often get much credit, especially with the star-power the United States boasts up top.

But through two games at this World Cup, players lining up at forward are yet to score. It’s defense (and some magic from Megan Rapinoe on Monday) that has earned the United States 4 points from two games. The U.S. will hope that the old adage that defense wins championships will hold true.

“I was just doing my job,” said Klingenberg of her goal-line save.

Spoken like a true defender.

Transfer rumor roundup: Willian Jose to Spurs, Bournemouth after Croatian CB

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London could get itself another Willian.

Willian Jose, 28, was left out of Real Sociedad’s squad at his request on Wednesday, with the club Tweeting that he’d prefer not to play until his situation is resolved.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Jose Mourinho said he would not comment on another team’s players, but Willian Jose could help Spurs bridge the gap to Harry Kane‘s return.

Willian Jose has been a double-digit scorer for Real Sociedad in La Liga for the previous three seasons, and is well on his way to another 10-goal campaign. He’s got eight goals in 20 matches this season.

Bournemouth needs defensive help, and is reportedly rivaling Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers for Portuguese giant Toni Borevkovic.

The 22-year-old Croatian has one goal in just over 3000 minutes with the side since arriving from domestic side NK Rudes.

He’s averaging 1.3 interceptions, .9 tackles, and 3.3 clearances per game in league play.

Rio Ave sits seventh in Portugal’s top flight and is managed by former Premier League boss Carlos Carvalhal.

Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Mourinho doesn’t have attacking options, but he does have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.

Solskjaer: Manchester United ‘looked mentally tired’ versus Burnley

Solskjaer reacts to Manchester United loss
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OIe Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t have the answers to what ails Manchester United without Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, and he can’t even fake it.

The United boss could only hang his side’s 2-0 loss to Burnley on sharpness, as the Red Devils out-attempted the visitors by a 24-5 margin.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

United also had 72 percent of the ball, but Burnley’s whole philosophy is cool with you having the ball if you don’t have the lead.

The Red Devils never looked quite ready to grab that, either, from the moment an early Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross sailed through the six absent receiver. From the BBC:

“The boys looked mentally tired towards the end, we didn’t find that creativity,” Solskjaer said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. When you are at Man United you are privileged because you are playing for the best club in the world.

“Sometimes you go through periods like that and it is a test I am sure they are going to come through.”

It’s all formulaic from the Norwegian manager. “The we’re United and it’s a special place” struck all the right chords when he first took the reins at Old Trafford, but the club hasn’t bought much quality since then and it’s ringing hollow as the depth fails to bail them out.

Spoiler alert: He did.

You can accept that Solskjaer is going nowhere and also accept that the whole thing is not going to improve any time soon. United should absolutely be in the Top Four given the failings of Chelsea, but cannot stop tripping over its own feet.