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.”

source: Getty Images
(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.”

Bologna draws 3-3 at Lazio to secure Serie A safety

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ROME (AP) Bologna secured Serie A football for another season after drawing at Lazio 3-3 in a thriller on Monday.

Bologna moved four points clear of the relegation zone with one match remaining.

Lazio was still celebrating winning the Italian Cup midweek and Joaquin Correa fired the capital side in front in the 13th minute.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

However, two goals in the space of a minute from Andrea Poli and Mattia Destro saw Bologna take the lead early in the second half.

Bastos curled in a stunning effort to level for Lazio in the 59th but Riccardo Orsolini restored Bologna’s lead shortly after.

Substitute Sergej Milinkovic-Savic secured a draw for Lazio with a sensational free kick 10 minutes from time.

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

Choosing a USMNT XI for the Gold Cup

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Noting that most positions on the international stage are up for grabs based on form, there are special opportunities on the wing, right back, and center back when it comes to the USMNT at the Gold Cup this summer.

That’s because of two related things, one fact and one close to it:

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

  1. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are missing from the lineup due to injury. Brooks is easily the Yanks’ No. 1 center back, and Yedlin is a right back when Tyler Adams is unavailable and good enough that Gregg Berhalter tries to shoehorn him in at right wing when Adams is manning that spot.
  2. Mexico’s the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament with more in-form club players in Europe than the U.S., including would-be Premier League Best XI forward Raul Jimenez of Wolves. And who’s going to have to deal with Raul? You guessed it, the big American center backs.

Presuming Berhalter is still wed to Adams as the part-fullback, part distributing midfielder role, that has our lineup for important Gold Cup matches with few sure things.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — XXXXX — XXXXX — XXXXX

McKennie — Bradley

XXXXX — Pulisic — XXXXX

Altidore

Now you may not like that I’ve assumed Bradley and Altidore’s places here, but there’s little doubt both are still quite capable against CONCACAF competition and also have the experience in this exact competition and against Mexico. Surely both are motivated for a bit of redemption as well.

Friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela will give Berhalter a chance to try out players like Tyler Boyd, Marlon Fossey, and Miles Robinson should they impress amongst a 40-player field (although the Jamaica match on June 5 in Washington, D.C. is a day before the final rosters are due for the Gold Cup).

Now what we are trying to solve here is who is the best bet to help the Yanks win the dang thing.

Defenders: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream are the favorites to start at the two center back spots and left back, but Daniel Lovitz will try to push Ream after a rough season at Fulham. Both Walker Zimmerman and Omar Gonzalez are in good form, and you can bet Berhalter will give Cameron Carter-Vickers a chance to earn some time. A flat back four role gives Antonee Robinson hope in place of Ream, and if Adams moves into the midfield, Nick Lima did alright in his right back role in January.

Midfielders/Wingers: The spots around Pulisic should be filled by those who can keep the width of the field but also serve somewhat as enforcers for the No. 10. Sebastian Lletget gives them a good shot on one side, and Paul Arriola provides a similar spot. While Joe Gyau, Josh Sargent, Duane Holmes, and Djordje Mihailovic can hope to challenge, the MLS vets with experience outside the country are good bets to get the gigs.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — Miazga — Long — Ream

McKennie — Bradley

Arriola — Pulisic — Lletget

Altidore

Does that get the job done against Mexico? Probably not, but it’ll give Tata Martino’s men a hassle.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).