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.”

Man United held at Club Brugge (video)

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Man United were held to a 1-1 draw away at Club Brugge in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League Round of 32 tie as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side battled back from a sloppy start to stretch their unbeaten run to five games in all competitions.

Emmanuel Bonaventure (commonly known as Dennis) scored a beautiful opener to put Brugge ahead but United equalized through Anthony Martial and he also hit the post as the Red Devils looked more dangerous as both teams had chances in a tight, tense encounter.

The two teams met for the second leg at Old Trafford next Thursday, Feb. 27.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule

Brugge almost scored with their first attack as Dennis caused havoc behind Luke Shaw and a combination of Victor Lindelof and Nemanja Matic cleared the ball from danger from close range.

Andreas Pereira fired in a low shot which Simon Mignolet saved well but moments later Brugge were ahead.

Nemanja Matic thought he had won a corner kick but a goal kick was given and former Liverpool goalkeeper Mignolet caught out the entire Man United defense with a long ball over the top to find Dennis who lobbed the ball over a stranded Sergio Romero and in.

Hans Vanaken, Mats Rits and Dennis then all went close to doubling Brugge’s lead as United’s defense was all over the place.

United did draw level before half time as a loose throw-in from Brugge caused their own problems and Martial powered towards goal and calmly slotted home to make it 1-1.

Brandon Williams missed a good chance and Mignolet then pushed Martial’s shot onto the post as United came alive after their opening goal.

In the second half Man United continued to improve as Diogo Dalot‘s cross found Jesse Lingard who flicked wide, while Martial and Juan Mata then combined but Brugge managed to block the danger at the last moment.

At the other end Dennis was denied as Romero saved well down low at the near post and late on Dennis bamboozled Harry Maguire before crossing for Odilon Kossounou who somehow scuffed his shot wide.

Man United finished with a flourish as new signings Odion Ighalo and Bruno Fernandes came on off the bench to try and help the Red Devils grab a winner and although they both looked lively, United couldn’t find a late goal.

VIDEO: Martial scores for Man United v. Club Brugge

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Anthony Martial scored once again for Man United and his goal in the Europa League Round of 32 first leg against Club Brugge was a beauty.

The Frenchman is standing tall in the absence of Marcus Rashford through injury as he has now scored in back-to-back games away from home.

Martial, 24, made the most of a slight defensive mistake from Club Brugge as he powered towards goal and kept his cool to slot home, while he also hit the post in the first half after Simon Mignolet got a slight touch on his curling effort.

When he’s on form he’s a joy to watch and after his towering header against Chelsea on Monday, Martial has done it again a few days later in Belgium. It is the third time this season he has scored in back-to-back games and he has now scored 14 goals in 30 appearances for the Red Devils, his best return since he scored 17 in his opening season at United in 2015-16.

Here is Martial’s goal at Club Brugge, as United need him to kick on and take this tally for the season to at least 20 goals if they are going to be successful.

LIVE, Europa League: Arsenal, Man United, Wolves in action

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The knockout rounds of the 2019-20 UEFA Europa League campaign is here and three Premier League teams are in action on Thursday.

Everything is set up for an epic day of first legs in the Round of 32.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Arsenal travel to Olympiakos who dropped down from the Champions League, while Wolves host La Liga strugglers Espanyol and Man United travel to Club Brugge who exited the UCL at the group stage after some impressive displays.

With a Champions League spot for next season up for grabs for the Europa League winners, there is always a little extra spice in this tournament from here on out, especially as plenty of giants have dropped out of the Champions League and joined the Europa League for the Round of 32.

Glasgow Celtic and Rangers both face tricky tests as Steven Gerrard‘s side face Braga and Neil Lennon’s Celtic head to Copenhagen.

Elsewhere there are plenty of mouthwatering ties at Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg drop into the Europa League and travel to Eintracht Frankfurt. Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan head to Ludogorets, while Ajax travel to Getafe after narrowly missing out on reaching the Champions League last 16.

Below is the schedule in full for Thursday’s games, while you can click on the link above to follow all the action as it happens.


Full Europa League schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Manchester United
Ludogorets v. Inter Milan
Copenhagen v. Celtic
Eintracht Frankfurt v. RB Salzburg
CFR Cluj v. Sevilla
Sporting Lisbon v. Istanbul Basaksehir
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Benfica
Getafe v. Ajax

3 p.m. ET
Rangers v. Braga
Wolves v. Espanyol
Olympiacos v. Arsenal
Bayer Leverkusen v. FC Porto
AZ Alkmaar v. LASK
Roma v. Gent
APOEL Nicosia v. FC Basel
Wolfsburg v. Malmo

VIDEO: Henry’s Montreal debut ends with dramatic collapse

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Thierry Henry’s first game in charge of the Montreal Impact started well but ended in a dramatic collapse. The legendary Frenchman probably has CCL fever right about now.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Montreal drew 2-2 at Deportivo Saprissa in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League last 16 game on Wednesday as Orji Okwonkwo and Romell Quioto put them 2-0 up inside the first 22 minutes but Saprissa struck twice in the final 10 minutes to draw level. Both of Montreal’s goalscorers went off injured and after a tough preseason a late collapse

Johan Venegas pulled one back for the Costa Rican side in the 80th minute and Ariel Rodriguez equalized in the 90th minute to set up an intriguing second leg at the Olympic Stadium next Wednesday as the winner will face the Seattle Sounders or C.D. Olimpia in the quarterfinals.

Henry’s first official game in charge of the Major League Soccer franchise will have taught him a lot about his team and in truth they were pretty lucky to grab a draw as Saprissa outshot them 22-7 and had 72 percent of the possession.

Via MLSsoccer.com, the Arsenal and France legend was happy with the spirit his young side showed after a tough offseason which saw them lose four of their five preseason games amid plenty of turnover in the squad.

“We tried to compete, it was always going to be a difficult second half, but overall, I cannot say anything to my team,” Henry said. “Obviously there are some things that we need to work on, on how we conceded the goals, but you could see how it was difficult at times to cover each other. But at the end of the day, as a coach, when you see your team fighting like that up until the end you can only be proud. Obviously there’s some stuff that we can work on, don’t get it twisted, but I have to be proud about how they played. Especially how we arrived there in the situation that we are in.”

Going away to Costa Rica to play an experience team like Saprissa was never going to be easy and Henry’s side are at least level for the return game but Montreal’s squad is looking pretty young and replacing the creativity and goals of Ignacio Piatti is going to be tough.

Check out the highlights of the dramatic Saprissa comeback in the video above.