Women’s World Cup — what we learned on Day 11

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Comparing men’s and women’s soccer is obviously an apples and oranges thing, but one of the biggest reasons I’m writing this is a guy named Roger Milla.

If you’re too young to remember a time when soccer games were nearly impossible to find on television, like ever, then congratulations. Because in 1990, at least in the United States, there was nothing. MLS was still six years away and piping in matches from Europe was the realm of satellite dishes that took up a good part of the roof at sports bars and still brought in fuzzy pictures when they worked.

The exception, kind of, was the World Cup, at least in 1990 when cable television picked up most of the matches because the United States had qualified for the first time in four decades. In the opening match, African underdog Cameroon upset Argentina 1-0 (they hacked Diego Maradona throughout and finished on nine men, but whatever), and the next day in school, my soccer friends couldn’t stop talking about Cameroon.

They ended up winning their group and beat Colombia by scoring twice in extra time. Both goals were scored by 38-year-old Roger Milla (the second a hilarious goalkeeping error by another legend, Rene Higuita). Obviously his goal-scoring made him special, but what really created his iconic status was his celebrations, dancing with the corner flag. He played with such joy, it was impossible not to root for him, especially as the massive underdog he was.

[MORE: Wambach goal lifts United States to win match, Group D]

I still wonder what might have happened had Cameroon been called for not one, but two penalties (including one in extra time) in the quarterfinal, leading to a 4-3 loss to Gary Lineker and England. Other than Senegal in 2002, African men’s soccer has not been to such heights in the quarter-century since. To this day, I still own a Cameroon jersey or two and try to root for the African teams at the World Cup.

On Tuesday, I saw a little bit of Roger Milla in Gabrielle Onguene, even if she was just a 1-year-old in 1990. Gaelle Enganamouit wasn’t even born yet and veteran Madeleine Ngono-Mani (Cameroon’s all-time leading scorer), who scored the game-winner against Switzerland, was just six.

But that joy of playing, ability to make opponents look silly, and not really giving much of a hoot about history looked awfully familiar. Like the 1990 men’s team, Cameroon’s place in the second round is far from a fluke. They crushed Ecuador, out-shot world champion Japan 20-4 before falling 2-1, and were completely dominant Tuesday in the second half against a Switzerland team that almost everyone had tipped for the quarterfinals and a date with the United States.

That place may now belong to Cameroon. Of course, getting by a disciplined China defense Saturday won’t be easy and the Indomitable Lionesses would be a massive underdog against the United States, if it came to it in the quarterfinal.

Regardless of how they do the rest of the way, Cameroon has not only set the stage for a bright future, but they have given us entertainment that we just don’t see often anymore, in the men’s or women’s game at this level.

Somewhere Roger Milla must have been watching. And showing off his iconic grin.

– Ray Curren

What else did we learn from Groups C and D Tuesday?

Is Sweden the sleeping giant? Sweden has not had a strong World Cup, and it could end after Wednesday’s matches.  If it doesn’t, they will play Germany in the Round of 16 in a match that will see the loser almost certainly miss the Olympics.  The question is, if Sweden get a second life, will they be more dangerous than ever? They are still undefeated, easily could have beaten the United States, and also could have let go when Australia took an early lead on Tuesday.  But they didn’t.  If they survive, look for them to give Germany everything they can handle.

– Dan Lauletta

Here there Ecuador:  Japan never really pushed the gas pedal at all, but still, Ecuador has to be proud of its performance, particularly goalkeeper Shirley Berruz, who had a few good stops to keep the score 1-0. Ecuador avoided the worst goal differential in World Cup history, which looked like a shoe-in before kickoff Tuesday. Ecuador surely has seen what Colombia has done and knows they aren’t necessarily that far behind them in South America, so with four years more experience and hopefully a little help from their federation, they’ll look to return in France.

– Curren

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

Nigeria turning a cornerOn paper this World Cup will look much like Nigeria’s others.  Two losses and a draw leaves the Super Falcons 3-14-2 in World Cup play with a single trip out of the group stage (1999, when they earned two of their three wins).  Their Olympic record is 1-8-0.  But a deeper look says this go-round was different.  Talented young players like Asisat Oshoala and Francisca Ordega made Nigeria dangerous at every turn, and to some extent they eschewed the physical tactics and tried to actually outplay their opponents.  Tuesday began on the back foot, but just when it looked like they would implode, the Nigerians got hold of the match and made the United States work until the final whistle, even carrying possession at times after they were reduced to 10.  The two takeaways for me from their World Cup are that they are not far from being actual contenders, and that with some more like last December at the draw they could have easily been quarter-finalists.

– Lauletta

Is Japan in trouble? The defending champs will enter the knockout stage with a perfect 9 points and, on paper at least, in much better shape than it was at this time four years ago in Germany. But they’ve only scored four goals – one against hapless Ecuador – and were outplayed for long stretches in both the Switzerland and Cameroon matches. The Japanese media has made an issue out of the fact that Japan is the second-oldest team in Canada (wonder who the oldest is?). With Kozue Ando out for the tournament, will they be able to win every game 1-0? They might get the Netherlands in the second round, and if they get past that, Brazil. Can they survive both of those? Of course, we didn’t think so four years ago, either, did we?

– Curren

Is it Australia time? Australia should be plenty pleased at finishing second in what many thought was the most difficult group at the World Cup.  They should be further pleased by outplaying the United States for an hour, dominating Nigeria, and playing a controlled match against a Sweden team that needed it more.  Next is a dicey match against Brazil, who will be waiting for them in Moncton, but Alen Stajcic’s side has to feel at this point that it can play with anyone in the world.

– Lauletta

Switzerland can sleep soundly:  Historically, three points and a plus-7 goal differential should be plenty for Switzerland to advance and while they walked off the pitch Tuesday in limbo, by the time Sweden were held, the Swiss were locked in. But at halftime Tuesday, they were looking at playing China with a real good shot at making the quarterfinals and a possible Olympic berth next summer. Now it looks like possibly host Canada.  They have shown the ability to play with the best in the world for short periods, but their confidence will not be high, and the massive crowd against them may be too much to overcome.

– Curren

Report: USMNT keeper Steffen to be Man City No. 2 next season

Zack Steffen Man City
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United States men’s national team starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen will not be loaned by Manchester City next season, according to ESPN.

Steffen, 25, is set to back up Ederson for Pep Guardiola’s side next season after a year on loan to Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga.

Steffen needed the loan because he had not yet qualified for a work permit in the United Kingdom. Instead, he starred in plenty of games for promoted Fortuna before suffering a nagging knee injury. Fortuna was relegated to 2.Bundesliga on the final day of the season.

[ MORE: Man City sets a very Pep record ]

There were rumors earlier this year that Claudio Bravo might head for New York City FC in MLS in order to make way for Steffen.

The 17-times capped USMNT bolted for Freiburg in Germany after making his name at the University of Maryland. He returned to the U.S. and became a star with savvy penalty-stopping ability with now-USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and the Columbus Crew.

Guardiola has usually given his No. 2 plenty of time to shines in cup matches, and City expects to compete for every trophy it can. If the club’s European ban is upheld, however, there will far fewer matches on the schedule for the serial Champions League qualifier.

Sheffield United – Chelsea preview: How to watch, start time, stream, prediction

Sheffield United - Chelsea preview
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Sheffield United – Chelsea preview: Frank Lampard’s Chelsea begins life defending third place on the Premier League table when it visits Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Saturday (Watch Live at 12:30 pm ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues’ 60 points are one more than Leicester City and two clear of old rivals Manchester United.

Also of interest to Chelsea and USMNT fans: The Blues have posted a 20-minute video of every Christian Pulisic touch since Project Restart began earlier this Summer.

Sheffield United beat Wolves at midweek to pull within a point of sixth-place. If Blades stumble, there are three teams within a win of pushing them back beneath the Europa League places.

STREAM SHEFFIELD UNITED – CHELSEA LIVE


Team news

Billy Gilmour is a doubt for Chelsea while Mateo Kovacic is back in training and could be available to Frank Lampard. N’Golo Kante remains out and Jorginho may get a Starting XI recall on Saturday.

John Fleck, Luke Freeman, and John Lundstram are out for Sheffield United while David McGoldrick is a question mark.

What they’re saying

Blades boss Wilder to our own JPW after a 1-0 win over Wolves: “We like to think we’ve brought something in terms of our attitude and our performances to get the results that we’ve got. We had a stretched squad and really had to dig in to get a result. I don’t think you get the result and the performance tonight if you haven’t got something with the ball and I think we did have something with the ball and out of it everybody did a job and tried to stop a very, very talented side from gaining momentum and dominating us. Second half, especially, we looked and it felt like we were really desperate to go and get a winner. Regardless of how late its come, we’ve been rewarded for that attitude.”

Chelsea’s Frank Lampard on Christian Pulisic earning Eden Hazard comparisons: “Having played with Eden, he had special talent straight away and draws players towards him to open up space to others. Christian is more direct. He has the ability to break a line and run forward which is a great trait in the modern game. Why I shy away from it the other night is because Eden has been here and done it over a period of time to an incredible level. Christian has it in his hands to make a real impact over time. It’s great to see him [doing well] but there’s a lot of development to come. Christian is taking responsibility to change games.”

Odds and ends (Full matchweek odds here)

The Blades are +575 underdogs according to DraftKings, with Chelsea -167.

A two-goal game for Tammy Abraham was only enough for a Chelsea point at Stamford Bridge when the sides met in a 2-2 draw earlier this season.

Prediction

Chelsea’s had one more days’ rest than the Blades and that seems plenty given the congestion this time of year. Give the Blues a 2-1 win.

How to watch Sheffield United – Chelsea

Kickoff: 12:30 pm ET Saturday
TV Channel: NBC
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Man United’s fear factor, title hopes return

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Manchester United have regained their fear factor since ‘Project Restart’ arrived.

The Red Devils beat Aston Villa 3-0 to become the first team in Premier League history to win four consecutive games by a margin of three of more goals.

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

Manchester United is an attacking juggernaut once again with Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford firing on all cylinders.

They are 17 games unbeaten in all competitions and this run means they are two points off third place and one point off fourth-place Leicester (who they play on the final day) as their quest for the Champions League looks likely to be successful.

Speaking after the game, Paul Pogba told Sky Sports that challenging for the Premier League has to be the standard Manchester United sets for itself.

After the win at Villa, ProSoccerTalk asked Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for his reaction to those comments.

“I’m sure Man United will mount a challenge and get back to winning the league. When that is going to happen, that is up to every single person here and how quickly we can make this process go. We are definitely improving as a team, developing but we have to remember we’ve come a long way in one season. Let’s just take Paul’s words into the dressing room and expect and demand more from each other every single day,” Solskjaer said.

This team is brimming with confidence and hunger, as they’ve scored 100 goals in all competitions this season and have playmakers and forwards who are creating 10 or 15 chances every game and have a largely sturdy defense.

When Manchester United turn up to play an opponent, there is now an inevitability they will win. Solskjaer knows all about that fear factor from his playing days, but does he feel other teams now fear them again?

“I don’t know about how teams feel when they want to play us but we scored three today and talking about goal difference, the defenders have done their job. We created chances and could have scored three, four or five more. Of course, you are happy with the way we create chances but we need to be more clinical though,” Solskjaer told ProSoccerTalk.

“Coming into half time 2-0 up, I don’t think our performance warranted a 2-0 lead but I thought second half we played really well. Of course we had the game where we wanted. They had to press and leave gaps and space but it is not easy, there is game after game  after game. We have to keep doing the right things on the pitch and off the pitch.”

Manchester United could easily finish this season by winning eight of their final nine games and it is these results against teams they ‘should’ be beating that will make the difference. Yes, they have a long way to go to reach the levels of Liverpool and Manchester City but they are on that path and making progress.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired the fear factor around Man United disappeared. Almost overnight teams felt like they could beat them, and did, under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

There have been shock defeats under Solskjaer too, but this feels different now. This feels different to brief winning spells and FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League trophies won under LVG and Mourinho.

This Man United side is relentless and Solskjaer not only wants to keep winning, but keep scoring goals too.

“We could have scored many, many more goals and we keep keeping clean sheets. We go into every game wanting to win. If you win 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0, it doesn’t matter, you get the points. Hopefully the goal difference won’t be the deciding factor in the end because we should have had 10 more goals the last few games,” Solskjaer said.

With Leicester City to come on the final day of the season in what could be the pivotal clash in deciding whether or not the qualify for the Champions League, the hunger and belief is evident among the Manchester United squad based on Pogba’s reaction.

“We are really pleased with ourselves but know we have to carry on. We talked before the game, we talked in training that we have to carry on. That’s what Manchester [United] is it is a big club. We want to keep the level up, always, and the performance today and the past few weeks, they are very good and they are the standards of Manchester United,” Pogba said. “We didn’t win the Premier League and that is the goal. We didn’t win anything this year. We have to keep working and there is a lot to do. A lot.”

Pogba: Manchester United hoping to win FA Cup, Europa League

Aston Villa - Manchester United recap
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Paul Pogba and Manchester United are cruising through matches and sending a message to the Premier League.

The Red Devils won by three-or-more goals for the fourth-straight match, something that hasn’t been done in the history of the PL, and moved within a point of fourth place thanks to a 3-0 demolition of Aston Villa at Villa Park on Thursday.

[ RECAP: Aston Villa 0-3 Man Utd ]

Injured for most of the year, Pogba scored his first goal of the season in the win. He’s been looking tremendous in the midfield since returning from the coronavirus pause, and has even triggered hope that he’ll sign a new long-term deal with United.

Pogba was asked how he’s feeling about his time at Old Trafford and where it may run:

“Right now I’ve been injured for a very long time,” Pogba said. “I focused on myself to get back and help the team as much as I can. This year I have two goals, to go for the Europa League and the FA Cup so we focus on that.”

United faces Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal and has one foot, well, most of its body in the Europa League quarterfinals.

The Frenchman says it’s good that the Red Devils are playing as well as they have been, but he’s not getting carried away with accolades.

ASTON VILLA – MANCHESTER UNITED FULL MATCH REPLAY

“We didn’t win the Premier League,” he said. “That’s the goal. We didn’t win anything this year so obviously we have to keep working. There’s a lot to do.”

Pogba thinks United can achieve all of their season goals regardless of what the top four chasers do, but cautioned that the Red Devils cannot ignore their poor start to Thursday’s win.

“We are our own enemy. We have to play not like we did the first 15 minutes but how we finished the game.”