Johnston, Sauerbrunn anchor United States defense making all the difference at Women’s World Cup

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EDMONTON, Alberta – Defense wins championships, but it still hardly ever gets recognized.

Forwards score goals and goals win games, true of the past, present and future. Scoring is entertainment.

This defense, however, has been getting its dues.

Entering this 2015 Women’s World Cup, the attack was all anyone could talk about for this United States team. How could a team with Abby Wambach – the world’s all-time leading goal scorer – Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux and 2014 NWSL leading scorer Amy Rodriguez not run roughshod over opponents?

That’s what makes the story of the United States’ World Cup thus far even more incredible: all anyone can talk about is the defense.

[FOLLOW: Latest Women’s World Cup coverage from ProSoccerTalk]

Led by Becky Sauerbrunn, the back line overcame a shaky opening 20 minutes of the tournament against Australia to give up only one goal in the first three games. Sauerbrunn has been the team’s best player, with fellow center back Julie Johnston a close second. Left back Meghan Klingenberg saved the day in a 0-0 draw with Sweden last week, practically jumping out of her cleats to head a shot off the line, off the crossbar and away from danger. Ali Krieger has gotten forward into the attack to provide service offensively and goalkeeper Hope Solo has been clutch when called upon, no more so than in the opening minutes against Australia when she made two game-changing saves.

“Those four have been so cohesive with each other,” Morgan said. “They’re showing that they’re the best back line in the world right now.”

So it begged the question over the past few days, first in Vancouver and now in Edmonton: Can the United States win the Women’s World Cup with the defense as its main act?

“Well if you don’t give up any goals, I think you have a hell of a chance,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.

“There’s not a back line in the world that wouldn’t be tested in this group, with the pace and transition of these teams. So I’m just really pleased. We just talked about in the locker room how battle-tested we are coming out of that and how confident we should feel in our back line.”

[KASSOUF: US women look to stay loose despite pressure of knockout rounds]

The Americans defeated Australia in their opener, followed by the draw with Sweden and a narrow victory over Nigeria.

Sauerbrunn has taken over the leadership role in the absence of Christie Rampone, who battled injuries earlier in the year. By the time Rampone was healthy, Johnston looked like a shoe-in to start after scoring in three straight matches – including the Algarve Cup final against France – and seamlessly forming a partnership with the 30-year-old Sauerbrunn.

“They both read the game really well,” Ellis said of Johnston and Sauerbrunn. “They are both instinctual on when they need to go to ground. I think they are both good in the air. I think they are very, very good at reading the game and cutting off angles and timing.”

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(L-R) Johnston, Sauerbrunn and Kreiger at practice. (Getty Images)

Both Johnston and Sauerbrunn excel at reading the game, stepping to the ball at the right moment and slide-tackling when necessary. Their positioning has been nearly perfect thus far, and when it hasn’t been, they have compensated with athleticism.

Sauerbrunn said in a recent interview that her favorite player of all-time is the recently retired Paolo Maldini, a gritty force in defense for Italy and AC Milan in the 1990s and 2000s. But this World Cup thus far – for Sauerbrunn and her team – draws more similarities with the Italy team that won the 2006 men’s World Cup.

That year, the Azzurri were in the Group of Death, just as the United States women found themselves in at this World Cup. Like the U.S. women this year, that Italy team won the group (which featured the United States) with seven points, giving up only one goal.

Italy would only give up one more goal the entire tournament – in the final, which the Azzurri won over France in a penalty shootout – and Fabio Cannavaro finished second for the Golden Ball award, given to the tournament’s best player (defenders never win those). Later that year, Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or as the best player in the world, only the third defender to earn the honor (OK, defenders hardly ever win this award).

[MORE: Colombia’s Lady Andrade guarantees victory over United States]

Cannavaro had many of game-saving plays for Italy in 2006 and his form was consistently spectacular through all seven games at the World Cup. Sauerbrunn, through three games, is having a similar sort of tournament for the U.S. women. She twice tracked back to catch a player from behind and deny a clear goal-scoring opportunity, first chasing down speedy Sam Kerr on a breakaway in the opener against Australia and then sliding to intercept a pass on a 2-v-1 against Sweden.

Sauerbrunn calls that her “oh-crap speed,” an instinctual next gear that tells her something is wrong and needs to be corrected – and quickly. (Johnston has that speed too, as evidenced against Nigeria when she got a foot in to block Asisat Oshoala’s 1-v-1 opportunity.)

If the U.S. is going to win this World Cup, Sauerbrunn and Johnston will need to continue to stand on their heads, so to speak, which they make look quite easy.

Johnston wasn’t even supposed to be playing at this World Cup, remember. Not by the way the initial World Cup qualifying roster looked only eight months ago. Ellis left Johnston off the roster, thinking that Johnston, who only turned 23 years old in April, still needed to refine her game.

Mentally, Johnston wasn’t yet strong enough, she said in an interview with NBC Sports prior to the World Cup. And physically, she wasn’t as fit as she needed to be. So Johnston trained with midfielder Carli Lloyd and her trainer, James Galanis, in New Jersey in late September and early October while the national team was in between training camps. She eventually made the qualifying roster due to an injury to Crystal Dunn, but Johnston didn’t see the field during the tournament.

“At moments, I didn’t believe in myself as strongly as some others, including Jill,” Johnston said. “When I think back about it, [it] helped motivate me as well. I knew I could do it and it was just like at moments of time it got hard. But [Ellis] sat down and said, ‘I believe in you, I watched you at the [U-20 World Cup].’ All of this stuff that just sounded so confident in me.”

Rampone could see Johnston’s future, too. Rampone, the longtime U.S. captain, watched that 2012 U-20 World Cup, which the U.S. won. Johnston captained that team. She even wrote letters of encouragement to the team ahead of the tournament.

Later that year, Johnston sat on the bench to watch the senior U.S. team practice ahead of a game in Arizona, where Johnston grew up.

“You’re going to be here some day and it’s not going to be long,” Rampone said then to Johnston.

Little did Rampone or anyone else know that Johnston would arrive this quickly. Even only a few months ago, Rampone and Sauerbrunn were the expected starters at center back for the United States. But Rampone and Whitney Engen both carried injuries in May, forcing Johnston into the lineup. She never looked back from there.

“Opportunity presented itself with two injuries,” Ellis said. “So now she’s getting the starting nod in big games and she’s risen to the level. She’s good both sides of the ball as well, certainly on attacking set pieces as well as defending.”

Johnston embraced the opportunity, taking it head-on.

“At the end of the day, when the team asks you to do something and everyone else is busting their butt, you want to do whatever the teams asks of you,” she said.

Doing what the team asks: another way of finding that “oh-crap speed” of which Sauerbrunn speaks.

“Luckily I found it because I was not going to be the reason why we went down,” she said after the Sweden match.

Those are the attitudes that have made a world of difference thus far, and they will need to continue for the United States to succeed. The credit may not always go to the defense – although it certainly has for the U.S. thus far at this World Cup —

“For us, I think we give them that credit they deserve,” says U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath, noting that she plays against the defense every day in practice. “They are incredible and we need them for these next games moving forward, because I think that’s what’s going to win this thing.”

Arsenal overruns West Ham with 3 second half goals

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Who saw that coming?

With three goals in a nine-minute span in the second half, Arsenal overcame a one-goal halftime deficit to comfortably beat West Ham, 3-1, on Monday night at the Olympic Stadium. It was a complete reversal after a second half where Arsenal didn’t attempt a single shot on target in the first half and were second-best in winning duals and second balls.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

But it was the Arsenal stars who helped the club when it was effectively on its knee, facing a tenth-straight match without a win. Goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and youngster Gabriel Martinelli secured all three points for Arsenal.

On the other side, West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini is in a whole host of trouble. West Ham sits just one point above the relegation zone after 16 league matches, and Pellegrini was expected to take the Hammers to the next level.


Three things we learned

1. Arsenal stars finally step up: With Arsenal on the verge of another demoralizing defeat, the club’s expensive strike force helped turn the tide in the second half. Martinelli, Aubameyang, and Pepe all played a huge role, and their goals, arguably against the run of play, were more than enough to inject some excitement into the club.

2. No Luiz, No Problem: Arsenal may have found its new starting centerback combination. After multiple error-prone performances with Sokratis playing alongside David Luiz, Arsenal boss Freddy Ljunberg went with Calum Chambers to partner Sokratis. The end result was a much more organized backline, and fewer mistakes, leading to fewer allowed goals.

3. Pellegrini on the hot seat: Pellegrini will have a nervous few days ahead of him. Despite a rare win over Chelsea last week, West Ham has now dropped successive defeats, first to Wolves and now Arsenal, leaving West Ham on the edge of relegation. Could Pellegrini last until January?

Man of the Match: Arsenal’s defense deserves credit, but goals win games, so Man of the Match has to go to Nicolas Pepe. The Ivory Coast international absolutely earned his massive transfer fee on Monday, scoring a beautiful curler and then setting up Aubameyang with a chip into the box.


This story will be updated.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

 

 

At the half: West Ham lead struggling Arsenal

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They say in derbies that form goes out the window, but it didn’t seem that apparent for Arsenal on Monday evening.

West Ham United is 45 minutes away from a second major win in three Premier League games as the Hammers hold a 1-0 halftime lead over Arsenal. Angelo Ogbonna’s headed goal off a Pablo Fornals cross is the difference so far.

After two straight poor performances for Arsenal, manager Freddie Ljungberg must have hoped for a better reaction in a London derby. Instead, Arsenal has been slow in passing, slow to second balls and not as determined as West Ham to win. Every possession gained is giving West Ham confidence, which led to the goal. The goal came after a couple of pinball rebounds following a corner kick, but the Hammers’ determination to score helped them go in front.

To make matters worse for Arsenal, Kieran Tierney suffered another injury, forcing him off the field in the first half and compelling Ljunberg to bring on Sead Kolasinac, despite him being short on fitness too.

Arsenal has a massive 45 minutes ahead. Should West Ham win, it would go level with Arsenal. If the Gunners lose, it’s their 10th straight match in all competitions without a win and it drops them into the bottom half of the league table.

Watch Live: West Ham United v. Arsenal

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Arsenal will be searching for their first win since firing Unai Emery as manager when they visit West Ham United, who could use a win in the worst possibly way themselves, at the London Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Gunners have drawn one — coming back from a goal down, twice, against Norwich City — and lost at home to Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday. It’s hardly been an ideal start to life under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg. As a result, they enter Monday’s game sitting 11th in the Premier League table.

As for the Hammers, Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to feel the pressure after winning just one of his side’s last nine games (1W-2D-6L). Following that exceedingly poor run of results, West Ham sit 16th in the PL table, just one point clear of the relegation zone.

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Messi’s hometown offers emotional trip to his childhood

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ROSARIO, Argentina — Soccer wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favorite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighborhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time bicycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbor to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 10 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighborhood in the city that is 186 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings. There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbors aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colorful paintings dedicated to the soccer star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks colored in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbors and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy soccer field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played soccer.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first soccer moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials say the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasize is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and soccer.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for soccer.” Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverría. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia.

One of items on display is a small red coat with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its soccer academy. It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy.

Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said.

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.