US women expecting Nigeria to ‘fight for their lives’ with everything to play for in Group D

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – For Nigeria coach Edwin Okon, it’s new opponent but same tune.

Okon said, as he did for Nigeria’s first two group games against Sweden and Australia, that he isn’t concerned with what his opponent does.

The only problem is that this time, his opponents are the No. 2-ranked Americans.

“I have not watched any of it yet,” Okon said of the United States’ last match against Sweden, a 0-0 draw (disingenuously, it would seem, since Nigeria was in the stands Friday for some of that game). “I have not watched. I only concentrate on my team.”

Nigeria finds itself in a must-win situation. It is the only result that would see the Super Falcons out of the daunting group. And that will likely mean a hungry Nigeria team.

“I expect them to fight for their lives,” U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. “This isn’t a lesser Nigeria team. I think that this team has shown extremely well and we’ve watched them and I think they’re a great team.”

[ KASSOUF: Wambach says she, US would score more goals on grass instead of turf ]

Must-win has a different meaning for the Americans. Winning Group D and advancing to play a third-place finisher from another group in Edmonton next week looks to be the most favorable path to the final. A second-place finish means a cross-country trip to Moncton, New Brunswick, for a Round of 16 match against mighty Brazil, winners of Group E.

There are too many variables to yet predict the United States’ next opponent, so coach Jill Ellis is worrying about one game at a time.

“I’m prepared for this, so it’s not necessarily that anything has changed,” Ellis said. “If you were to say that, hey, you’re in a Group of Death and in your last game you have an opportunity to win it, I’d take that.”

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Women’s World Cup coverage | EqualizerSoccer.com ]

Even an unexpected loss for the United States would likely see the Americans advance, either in second or third place.

Asked about the stakes of the match, Okon danced around the topic. “I leave it to the team,” he said.

Both teams scored three goals in their respective opening matches before the well dried up on Friday, for Nigeria in a 2-0 loss to Australia and for the United States in a scoreless draw against Sweden.

The Americans spoke openly all week about their need to get their forwards scoring. All five forwards played in Friday’s match, which only saw the U.S. put two shots on goal. Most concerning for the U.S. was the lack of chances created, rather than unlucky finishing.

“We have to be patient,” Wambach said after Saturday’s training session. “We can’t force goals to happen. We have to work for them.”

Nigeria’s issues aren’t dissimilar. Forward Asisat Oshoala entered the tournament as a star to watch, having recently been named BBC Women’s World Footballer of the Year and won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at last year’s U-20 World Cup. Oshoala scored against Sweden but was largely kept in check on Friday against Australia, although she squandered one golden opportunity, missing an open net at the back post.

“The speed of play is quite different from the junior level,” Oshoala said Monday.

“This is the senior level and it’s not different, I would just say that the pace of the game is quite different from that of the junior level. But I think talking about the football generally, there’s not much difference. Football is being played the same way. When you go to the higher level, you see a few different things at the higher level.

Now Oshoala will need to prove her mettle on the senior stage against what has been the group’s toughest defense thus far. Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston have anchored a U.S. defense that opened the tournament with a shaky 20 minutes – and got bailed out by Hope Solo – but only conceded once to Australia.

[ KASSOUF: Defense the difference thus far for USWNT as Sauerbrunn shines ]

Okon prefers to remain mysterious about his tactics and his lineup. Before Nigeria’s opening match against the U.S., Okon said he knew “nothing” about Sweden.

On Monday at BC Place, Nigerian players only stretched and worked on basic passing drills in the 15 minutes of practice that were open to the media.

“If you’re fit you will be in the game, if you are not fit you will be on the bench,” Okon said Monday.

Ellis is thankful to be playing Nigeria last, since she’ll have two full games of tape to use to scout the Super Falcons. Australia coach Alen Stajcic best described Nigeria last week before playing the African champions: “They’re predictable in that they are unpredictable.”

A fitting summary for a team that could do just about anything on Tuesday.

Barcelona sign Neto in goalkeeper swap with Valencia

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Brazilian goalkeeper Neto will sign a four-year contract with the Spanish champions.

The transfer completes a swap a day after Barcelona sold Jasper Cillessen to Valencia.

Barcelona says it is paying 26 million euros ($29.5 million) plus possibly another 9 million euros ($10.2 million) in variables for Neto. Valencia paid Barcelona 35 million euros ($40 million) for Cillessen.

Neto will replace Cillessen, who played as a backup for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Champions League and the Spanish league and only regularly started in the Copa del Rey.

The 29-year-old Neto helped Valencia qualify for the Champions League with a fourth-place finish for the past two seasons in Spain. He also played in Italy at Juventus as a backup to Gianluigi Buffon and at Fiorentina after starting at Brazilian club Paranaense.

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

USMNT v. Panama: Three things we learned

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It wasn’t always pretty, but the U.S. Men’s National Team eked out a 1-0 win over Panama in Kansas City, Kan. on Wednesday night to win its group. Jozy Altidore scored the game’s only goal in stunning fashion, finishing an overhead kick to put Panama away and set up a quarterfinal bout with Curacao on Sunday evening.

Here are three of the biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s win:

[READ: All the latest USMNT news here]


Jozy Altidore is still the best we’ve got

Many U.S. Men’s National Team fans have called for the forced retirements of Altidore and Michael Bradley, among many others, after the debacle that was the last World Cup cycle.

Until tonight, Altidore wasn’t in the USMNT picture, in part due to Dave Sarachan using younger players and Altidore continuing to suffer a series of muscle injuries since October 2017. And yet, if tonight’s game showed anything in Altidore’s 83 minutes on the pitch, it’s that he’s still the best option for the USMNT up top. While Gregg Berhalter clearly prefers Gyasi Zardes right now based on their previous work history together in Columbus, Zardes doesn’t have the strength or skill that Altidore does. It’s hard to imagine Zardes executing an overhead kick and it going in as sweetly as Altidore did.

What does this mean going forward? Regardless of if Zardes starts the rest of the way, Berhalter knows that he has Altidore always around who can give the U.S. a goal, especially on home soil and when fit. But it also lays the marker down for Zardes, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent and the other up and coming strikers that this is the level they need to meet, and beat, if they want to break into the starting lineup under Berhalter.

There’s speed to burn on the wings

It may not have had a huge impact on Wednesday, but in bringing Tyler Boyd and Christian Pulisic off the bench, Berhalter showed exactly why he’s brought so many speedy skill players along the wings.

While Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis couldn’t figure out the final pass or final touch in the box to score a goal, just their presence for 65-70 minutes tired out the backline, and the introductions of Pulisic and Boyd could have really unlocked the Panama defense. While it didn’t totally work on Wednesday, it could in the later stages of the tournament, especially in a potential rematch with either Panama or Jamaica in the semifinals and Mexico in the finals.

With Lewis and Morris likely available off the bench, that adds a new piece opponents have to worry about, both in terms of speed and dribbling ability.

Few impressed in a chance to earn a starting spot

It’s been nearly two years since the debacle in Trinidad and Tobago, and yet aside from maybe Matt Miazga or Nick Lima, there have been very few players who have done much to impress and prove they’re better than the previous cycle’s players. That continued on Wednesday with an MLS-heavy lineup. Wil Trapp, a midfielder with so much promise a few years ago, appears to have stalled. He had multiple turnovers and certainly didn’t look as sharp as Michael Bradley.

While Lewis and Morris have plenty of pace, their final pass was woeful and they didn’t do themselves any favors. Djordje Mihailovic was never going to push Pulisic out of the starting lineup, but Mihailovic didn’t exactly do enough to say that he should be the first man off the bench either, or to push Pulisic into a wing role with Mihailovic in the middle.

Aside from Matt Miazga and Omar Gonzalez in the middle, along with Altidore up top, no one in the lineup really did enough through the first 65 minutes to warrant another start in the tournament. It’s yet another disappointment as young players get chance after chance to prove they belong as starters, only to waste the opportunity, enabling the veterans to keep their role. More players need to keep pushing for those spots, whether through club form or national team performances. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the same situation as before.

 

USMNT remains perfect, tops Panama to win group (video)

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In his first start since the U.S. Men’s National Team’s infamous defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, Jozy Altidore showcased his strength, speed and technical ability to help lead the U.S. to victory.

Altidore’s outstanding bicycle kick goal proved to be the difference in a sometimes dour game as the USMNT topped Panama, 1-0, Wednesday evening at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. The win kept the U.S. perfect through the Gold Cup group stage with no goals allowed, and it has somewhat erased the memory of the USMNT’s horrible run-up to the tournament, with defeats to Jamaica and Venezuela now firmly in the rear-view mirror.

[MUST-SEE GOAL: Jozy Altidore]

With the win, both teams head to Philadelphia for the quarterfinals this Sunday. Panama plays the undercard matchup against Jamaica while the USMNT faces Curacao.

Coming off two wins to open the Gold Cup, Berhalter decided to use a completely changed starting lineup, featuring ten players from MLS teams along with Chelsea loanee Matt Miazga. Although there was some familiarity of the players on the field, it was at times a very poor match, with the USMNT struggling badly in the final third and even turning the ball over at midfield or leading the attack.

Despite winning the possession battle, 62-38, the USMNT didn’t do much with it. Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis, both of whom were subbed out, struggled on their crosses after beating a defender. The pair provided energy and hard running defensively but it didn’t lead to many chances. Altidore had the best of the first half when he was played into the box, but his strike from the right just went wide of the net.

In the 65th minute, Berhalter tried to inject some life in the game with the introduction of Christian Pulisic. It turned out a goal could come just after, but without the intervention of Pulisic.

Djordje Mihailovic drilled the corner kick to the far post where it was met by the head of Matt Miazga who sent it back towards goal. A missed clearance from Panama popped the ball up in the air above the back post, allowing Altidore the time he needed to lift off the ground and bicycle kick it in for the game’s only goal.

Berhalter later brought on both Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes off the bench to try and score an insurance goal, but Panama’s defense held strong and the U.S. failed to threaten the rest of the way. However, the U.S. backline kept a third-consecutive clean sheet and key players such as Michael Bradley got the entire game off to rest before likely returning to the lineup this weekend.

 

 

Must-See Goal: Jozy Altidore puts USMNT in front with Bicycle Kick

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Jozy Altidore put his stamp on the game and gave U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter more to speak about with one fell swing.

Altidore finished off a corner kick in spectacular fashion, executing a perfect bicycle kick to put the USMNT up 1-0 in the 66th minute. The goal came one minute after the entrance of Christian Pulisic, which perhaps was on the mind of the Panama defense.

It was Altidore’s second-straight game vs. Panama with a goal. His last two were in October 2017, when the U.S. pummeled Panama, 4-0. Of course, a few days later, a tired USMNT failed to win at Trinidad and Tobago.