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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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.

PL Sunday preview: Leicester, Newcastle, Sheffield Utd, Wolves in action

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There will be no shortage of action and subplots during Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures, as Aston Villa host in-form Leicester City; Newcastle look to continue their winning ways against an improving Southampton side; Norwich City look for a way out of the relegation zone as they take on Sheffield United; and Wolverhampton Wanderers aim to continue their spectacular, unbeaten run against Brighton.

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Aston Villa vs. Leicester City — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN

December is upon us, and the team putting some form of pressure on top-of-the-table Liverpool is second-best Leicester City. Who would have thought?

In similar fashion to what the masses thought of the Foxes prior to the start of the 2015/16 season, the answer is that not many were sold on the notion that Brendan Rodgers and his team were going to be a flat-out success this season, especially after dealing out Harry Maguire to Manchester United.

Whether the onlookers believed or didn’t believe is a conversation that surely doesn’t bother the majority associated with the once-Premier League champions. The Foxes are on a seven-game winning streak and Rodgers was rewarded for his accomplishments thus far, signing a new contract on Friday that keeps him at the helm until 2025.

Aston Villa’s Dean Smith recognized that his opponents on Sunday are in stellar shape but also cautioned that playing his team at Villa Park will not be a walk in the park, despite only being a point above the red line.

“They are on a fantastic run of form but there aren’t many teams who will come away from Villa Park and think they’ve had an easy game,” Dean Smith said.

It’s not the blockbuster game that will freeze the soccer community, but from the sounds of it, Leicester’s visit to Birmingham will be an authentic battle between two teams that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum.

INJURIES: Aston Villa — OUT: Keinan Davis (hamstring), Jed Steer (achilles)| Leicester City — OUT: Matty James (calf) 

Newcastle vs. Southampton — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Southampton haven’t won three consecutive league matches since May of 2016.

That can change on Sunday at St. James Park, mostly if Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s gamble of starting the same lineup for a third straight game over the span of eight days pays off. But just as it can pay off, it can certainly backfire at the hands of a slowly-but-surely improving Newcastle side.

“It’s a huge month for us,” Steve Bruce said about his Magpies ahead of the match. “It’s season defining, I think it is for every team because there are so many games.

“I have always said that a few results along the way helps everybody, so we’ve given ourselves a nice platform going into the busy Christmas period.

“The spirit among the players, and their attitude and the way they are playing has delighted me.”

That said, as expected, Hasenhuttl likes his side’s chances after demonstrating to him that they’re more than willing to follow order and fight for the crest at all costs.

“In the last three games… the team [has been] playing much more committed,” he said. “When we play like this we create chances, we don’t give the opponents chances, we are defending higher and then keep the opponent far away from our goal and this is more our style we want to play.”

INJURIES: Newcastle — OUT: Lascelles (Knee), Ritchie (ankle) | Southampton — OUT: Armstrong (calf)

Norwich City vs. Sheffield United — 9:00 a.m ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Just a couple of months ago, Daniel Farke and his players were touching the clouds.

A 3-2 win against the defending champions Manchester City was the root cause of that state of hysteria that is now nowhere to be found. With one win in their last 10 matches, the Canaries have been grounded and more. In fact, Farke’s rhetoric on his team and their future in the league says it all.

“We are a newly-promoted side who have not spent any money, so in each and every second at this level we must be at our best,” he said leading up to Sunday’s match. “We told everyone before the season this would be a difficult challenge.”

Promoted with them last season, Sheffield United, too, didn’t let lavish spendings over the summer do the talking. But even then, Chris Wilder‘s men have done a lot with a little, putting together formidable, team-oriented performances. The Blades have surprised many with their 19 points after 15 matches.

Sunday presents itself as a game in which Sheffield has the upper hand, but Wilder knows Norwich far too well. In fact, it’s a team they were constantly chasing in England’s second division this time last year.

“They were the outstanding team in the Championship last season,” he said. “I was delighted to get as close as we did to them.”

INJURIES: Norwich City — OUT: Hanley (groin), Drmic (hamstring), Timm Klose (knee) | Sheffield United — OUT: None

Brighton Hove and Albion vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers  — 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN

Very few teams in the league have overcome adversity this season like Wolves.

A team that surprised many last season, started the season off in a way that was unlike anything Nuno Espirito Santo had put forward before: a sluggish, disjointed brand of play. Wolves have been participating in European competition for the first time since 1980, however, and have 28 games under their belts this season.

Riding a 10-game unbeaten streak (the best active streak in the league), Espirito Santo decided to give his players a rare Thursday off from all training ahead of Sunday’s showdown against a hungry Brighton.

“I hope [the players] enjoyed their day off [on Thursday],” the Portuguese manager said. “It was well deserved and they needed it. It was important they understand it’s a day to rest, recover, stay at home and be with family and join us today to be ready for Sunday.”

Coming off an emphatic win at the Emirates, Brighton are aware of the tough task that will be defeating a red-hot Wolves. But as Graham Potter says and just experienced against Arsenal, anything and everything goes in the Premier League.

“Anything is possible in this league, that’s the way you have to think or else it becomes boring,” Potter said. “We have to keep working towards what we’re trying to achieve and maintain the spirit around the group.”

INJURIES: Brighton  OUT: Izquierdo (knee) | Wolves  OUT: Boly (leg), Gibbs-White (back), Shabani (knee)

Serie A roundup: Lazio hand 10-man Juventus first loss (video)

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Lazio’s triumphant victory over league favorites Juventus highlights Saturday’s Serie A action.

 [ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

Lazio 3-1 Juventus

Juventus are no longer unbeaten in Serie A play under Maurizio Sarri, losing 3-1 to Simone Inzaghi’s inspired Lazio.

Luiz Felipe, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Felipe Caicedo scored for the home side, who are now three points behind second-place Juventus and five behind top-of-the-table Inter Milan.

Scoreless from open play since October, Cristiano Ronaldo found the back of the net in the 25th minute to put the Old Lady in front after tapping in Federico Bernardeschi’s well-placed pass inside the box.

It was Juventus’ game to lose, which they went on to do after a series of defensive and cognitive mishaps.

Tied after Felipe’s goal right before the break, Milinkovic-Savic scored in the 74th minute. The Serbian’s goal came after Juan Cuadrado was sent off for his reckless tackle on last-man Manuel Lazzari in the 69th. Milinkovic-Savic was set up by Luis Alberto‘s assist over the Juventus defense and scored with a low shot past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Ciro Immobile had a clear-cut chance to widen his red-hot goalscoring form, but the striker was denied by Szczesny from the spot. Juventus’ goalkeeper saved Immobile’s initial blistering strike, and his following second chance.

In stoppage time, however, Felipe Caicedo’s second-chance strike was too much for the Polish ‘keeper.

Juventus will have to quickly turn the page as they face Bayer Leverkusen midweek in their final match of the Champions League group stage, while Lazio travel to France to take on Rennes in their Europa League group stage finale.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Atalanta 3-2 Hellas Verona

Udinese 1-1 Napoli

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

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