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.”

FA Cup fourth round live! Scores, how to watch live, predictions

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The FA Cup always delivers shocks and plenty of Premier League clubs had tricky tasks facing them in the fourth round. One still has one, in fact.

After Aston Villa, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest, and Bournemouth were all knocked out by lower league opponents in round three, plus Everton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, and Brentford knocked out by fellow Premier League sides, there were only 10 top-flight teams left in the competition.

[ LIVE: Follow FA Cup scores, updates ]

Arsenal lost narrowly at Manchester City in a heavyweight clash, while Brighton won late on against Liverpool, and Manchester United beat Reading easily. West Ham will be on upset alert as they face a tough trip to third-tier Derby County.

And then there’s Wrexham AFC, who nearly sprung a big upset of Sheffield United but will have to settle for a replay.

Read on for FA Cup stream info, fixtures, and predictions.


FA Cup live scores, schedule, dates, how to watch

Dates: Fourth round (January 27-30)
Times: Below
Online: Live updates via NBCSports.com
How to watch: ESPN+


FA Cup fourth round schedule

All games 10am ET unless otherwise stated

Monday
Derby County vs West Ham – 2:45pm ET

Results

Friday
Man City 1-0 Arsenal – Recap/video highlights

Saturday
Accrington Stanley 1-3 Leeds United
Walsall 0-1 Leicester City
Fulham 1-1 Sunderland
Bristol City 3-0 West Brom
Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Fleetwood Town
Blackburn Rovers 2-2 Birmingham City
Luton Town 2-2 Grimsby Town
Ipswich Town 0-0 Burnley
Southampton 2-1 Blackpool
Preston North End 0-3 Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United 3-1 Reading

Sunday
Brighton 2-1 Liverpool
Stoke City 3-1 Stevenage
Wrexham 3-3 Sheffield United


FA Cup fourth round predictions – By Joe Prince-Wright

Friday
Man City 2-1 Arsenal

Saturday
Accrington Stanley 1-3 Leeds United
Walsall 1-2 Leicester City
Fulham 1-2 Sunderland
Bristol City 1-2 West Brom
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Fleetwood Town
Blackburn Rovers 1-1 Birmingham City
Luton Town 3-1 Grimsby Town
Ipswich Town 1-3 Burnley
Southampton 2-0 Blackpool
Preston North End 1-4 Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United 2-1 Reading

Sunday
Brighton 2-2 Liverpool
Stoke City 2-1 Stevenage
Wrexham 1-2 Sheffield United

Monday
Derby County 1-1 West Ham


FA Cup third round replays

Tuesday 

Swansea City 1-2 (AET) Bristol City
Forest Green Rovers 1-2 Birmingham City (original tie postponed due to waterlogged pitch)
Wigan 1-2 Luton
Wolves 0-1 Liverpool
West Brom 4-0 Chesterfield

Wednesday

Leeds United 5-2 Cardiff City

Tuesday, January 24

Accrington Stanley vs Boreham Wood


FA Cup third round results

Friday

Manchester United 3-1 Everton

Saturday

Preston North End 3-1 Huddersfield Town
Reading 2-0 Watford
Tottenham 1-0 Portsmouth
Gillingham 0-1 Leicester City
Forest Green Rovers vs Birmingham City — PPD
Crystal Palace 1-2 Southampton
Hull City 0-2 Fulham
Middlesbrough 1-5 Brighton
Fleetwood Town 2-1 QPR
Ipswich Town 4-1 Rotherham
Bournemouth 2-4 Burnley
Blackpool 4-1 Nottingham Forest
Chesterfield 3-3 West Brom
Millwall 0-2 Sheffield United
Boreham Wood 1-1 Accrington Stanley
Shrewsbury Town 1-2 Sunderland
Brentford 0-1 West Ham
Coventry City 3-4 Wrexham
Luton Town 1-1 Wigan
Grimsby Town 1-0 Burton Albion
Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Newcastle
Liverpool 2-2 Wolves

Sunday

Bristol City 1-1 Swansea City
Derby County 3-0 Barnsley
Cardiff City 2-2 Leeds
Stockport 1-2 Walsall
Hartlepool 0-3 Stoke City
Norwich 0-1 Blackpool
Aston Villa 1-2 Stevenage
Man City 4-0 Chelsea

Monday

Oxford United 0-3 Arsenal


Anthony Gordon sold to Newcastle by Everton for $49.5 million

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NEWCASTLE, England (AP) Newcastle signed Anthony Gordon from Everton reportedly for an initial 40 million pounds ($49.5 million) on Sunday after the 21-year-old winger submitted a formal transfer request.

Newcastle said Gordon has signed a long-term deal as the team bolsters its squad for its tilt at qualifying for the Champions League. It is currently in third place in the Premier League.

“I think the fan base and the city really suits me as a person, the way the team are playing under the (manager Eddie Howe) at the minute really suits me, and the club just look like they’re heading in the right direction,” Gordon said.

[ MORE: Complete list of Premier League transfers ]

“I feel like it’s a really big step. People haven’t seen what I’m capable of yet.”

Gordon joined Everton’s academy at the age of 11 and made his senior debut as a 16-year-old in a Europa League match in December 2017.

Everton announced the departure of Gordon in a brief statement.

Howe described Gordon as a “top, top talent.”

“I’m really excited to work with him, to develop him, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in a Newcastle shirt,” Howe added.

Premier League transfer news, live! Complete list of January transfers so far

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The January transfer window is again seeing big-name imports into the Premier League, and the final hours of the window are seeing a flurry of deals take place.

Chelsea’s signed Benoit Badiashile and Andrey Santos, Newcastle’s formally welcomed Garang Kuol, and Liverpool’s reinforced its forward ranks with Cody Gakpo joining the Anfield set.

[ TRANSFER NEWS: Liverpool | Chelsea | Tottenham | Man City | Man United | Arsenal ]

There’s plenty of discussion about Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur making additions to deepen their squads’ top-four pushes, but nothing complete yet for either big name side.

The same is true for title-fighters Arsenal and Manchester City, though their top-end footing is a lot more stable.


Latest transfer deals developing – January 29

Weston McKennie to Leeds United is a developing deal as the American midfielder is set to join on loan until the end of the season, with Leeds having an option to buy him for $36 million.

Arsenal are pushing hard to sign Moises Caicedo, with the Ecuadorian midfielder not playing for Brighton in the FA Cup against Liverpool amid a reported new $86 million bid from the Gunners. Anthony Gordon has signed for Newcastle from Everton for a fee believed to be around $60 million.


AFC Bournemouth

In
Dango Ouattara (Lorient)
Darren Randolph (West Ham)
Antoine Semenyo (Bristol City)

Out
Ferdinand Okoh (Dorchester) Loan
James Hill (Hearts) Loan
Will Dennis (Slough) Loan
Noa Boutin (Gosport) Loan


Arsenal

In
Leandro Trossard (Brighton)
Jakub Kiwior (Spezia Calcio)

Out
Brooke Norton-Cuffy (Coventry) Loan
Miguel Azeez (Wigan) Loan
Arthur Okonkwo (Sturm Graz) Loan
Ovie Ejeheri (SJK Seinajoki) Loan
Harry Clarke (Ipswich Town)


Aston Villa

In
Aaron Ramsey (loan recall)
Tyreik Wright (loan recall)
Alex Moreno (Real Betis)
Jhon Duran (Chicago Fire)

Out
Cameron Archer (Middlesbrough) Loan
Tyreik Wright (Plymouth Argyle)
Frederic Guilbert (RC Strasbourg)
Indiana Vassilev (St. Louis City SC)
Danny Ings (West Ham)
Jan Bednarek (loan recall)
Morgan Sanson (Strasbourg) Loan


Brentford

In
Byron Wilson (Coventry)
Conor McManus (Bray Wanderers)
Fin Stevens (loan recall)
Mads Bech (loan recall)
Beaux Booth (Dorking)
Kevin Schade (Freiburg) Loan
Paris Maghoma (loan recall)
Romeo Beckham (Inter Miami) Loan
Nathan Young-Coombes (loan recall)

Out
Myles Peart-Harris (Forest Green Rovers) Loan extension
Aaron Pressley (Accrington) Loan
Lachlan Brook (Crewe) Loan extension
Edon Pruti (Hartlepool)
Mads Bech (Groningen) Loan
Ellery Balcombe (Bristol Rovers) Loan
Tariqe Fosu (Rotherham) Loan
Paris Maghoma (MK Dons) Loan
Charlie Goode (Blackpool) Loan


Brighton & Hove Albion

In
Facundo Buonanotte (Rosario Central)
Jamie Mullins (Bohemians)
Mark O’Mahony (Cork)

Out
Aaron Connolly (Hull) Loan
Reda Khadra (Birmingham)
Ed Turns (Leyton Orient) Loan
James Beadle (Crewe Alexandra) Loan
Leandro Trossard (Arsenal)


Chelsea

In
David Datro Fofana (Molde)
Benoit Badiashile (Monaco)
Andrey Santos (Vasco da Gama)
Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid) Loan
Mykhailo Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Noni Madueke (PSV Eindhoven)
Malo Gusto (Lyon)

Out
Bashir Humphreys (Paderborn) Loan
Malo Gusto (Lyon) Loan

Chelsea transfer news
Benoit Badiashile (Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Crystal Palace

Out
Killian Phillips (Shrewsbury) Loan
Jack Butland (Man Utd) Loan
John-Kymani Gordon (Carlise) Loan
Malcolm Ebiowei (Hull) Loan
Ryan Bartley (Eastbourne Borough) Loan
David Boateng (Dover) Loan


Everton

In
Ellis Simms (loan recall)
Nathan Broadhead (loan recall)
Niels Nkounkou (loan recall)

Out
Salomon Rondon (released)
Nathan Broadhead (Ipswich)
Tom Cannon (Preston) Loan
Niels Nkounkou (Saint-Etienne) Loan
Sebastian Quirk (Accrington Stanley)
Tyler Onyango (Forest Green) Loan
Anthony Gordon (Newcastle)


Fulham

In
Anthony Knockaert (loan recall)

Out
Idris Odutayo (Maidenhead) Loan extension
Anthony Knockaert (Huddersfield) Loan
Ibane Bowat (Den Bosch) Loan


Leeds United

In
Max Wober (RB Salzburg)
Georginio Rutter (Hoffenheim)

Out
Mateusz Klich (MLS pending)
Alfie McCalmont (Carlisle) Loan
Leo Hjelde (Rotherham) Loan
Max Dean (MK Dons)
Cody Drameh (Luton) Loan
Joe Gelhardt (Sunderland) Loan


Leicester City

In
George Hirst (loan recall)
Victor Kristiansen (Copenhagen)
Tete (Lyon)

Out
George Hirst (Ipswich) Loan
Ben Nelson (Doncaster) Loan
Jakub Stolarczyk (Hartlepool) Loan


Liverpool

In
Cody Gakpo (PSV)
Billy Koumetio (Austria Vienna) Loan recall
Max Woltman (loan recall)
Jakub Ojrzynski (loan recall)
James Balagizi (loan recall)
Fidel O’Rourke (loan recall)
Rhys Williams (loan recall)

Out
Jake Cain (Swindon Town)
Jarell Quansah (Bristol Rovers) Loan

Liverpool transfer news
Cody Gakpo photo vis twitter.com/LFC

Manchester City

In
Liam Delap (loan recall)
Maximo Perrone (Velez Sarsfield)

Out
Josh Wilson-Esbrand (Coventry) Loan
Liam Delap (Preston) Loan
Kayky (Bahia) Loan


Manchester United

In
Jack Butland (Crystal Palace) Loan
Wout Weghorst (Burnley) Loan

Out
Martin Dubravka (loan recall)
Shola Shoretire Loan (Bolton Wanderers)
Charlie Savage (Forest Green) Loan


Newcastle United

In
Amadou Diallo (free) 
Garang Kuol (Central Coast Mariners)
Martin Dubravka (loan recall)
Anthony Gordon (Everton)

Out
Garang Kuol (Hearts) Loan
Chris Wood (Nott’m Forest) Loan
Dylan Stephenson (Hamilton) Loan


Nottingham Forest

In
Gustavo Scarpa (Palmeiras)
Danilo (Palmeiras)
Alex Mighten (loan recall)
Chris Wood (Newcastle United) Loan

Out
Loic Bade (loan recall)
Dale Taylor (Burton Albion) Loan
Aaron Donnelly (Port Vale) Loan


Southampton

In
Mislav Orsic (Dinamo Zagreb)
Carlos Alcaraz (Racing Club)
Jan Bednarek (loan recall)
James Bree (Luton)

Out
Dynel Simeu (Morecambe) Loan
Dan Nlundulu (Bolton) Loan
Nico Lawrence (Torquay) Loan


Tottenham

In
Arnaut Danjuma (Villarreal) Loan


West Ham United

In
Luizao (Sao Paulo)
Armstrong Okoflex (loan recall)
Danny Ings (Aston Villa)

Out
Thierry Nevers (Bradford) Loan
Craig Dawson (Wolves)
Pierre Ekwah (Sunderland)
Darren Randolph (AFC Bournemouth)
Will Greenidge (Colchester) Loan


Wolverhampton Wanderers

In
Matheus Cunha (Atletico Madrid) Loan
Joe Young (loan recall)
Louie Moulden (loan recall)
Theo Corbeanu (loan recall)
Christian Marques (loan recall)
Lewis Richards (loan recall)
Mario Lemina (Nice)
Pablo Sarabia (Paris Saint-Germain)
Craig Dawson (West Ham)
Dan Bentley (Bristol City)
Ki-Jana Hoever (loan recall)

Out
Leo Bonatini (released)
Joe Young (Telford) Loan
Goncalo Guedes (Benfica) Loan
Theo Corbeanu (Arminia Bielefeld) Loan
Leonardo Campana (Inter Miami)
Connor Ronan (Colorado Rapids)
Fabio Silva (PSV) Loan
Matija Sarkic (Stoke) Loan
Ki-Jana Hoever (Stoke) Loan
Jackson Smith (Walsall) Loan

Premier League transfers
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Matheus Cunha  (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Transfer Deadline Day, live! Join our show, send questions, analysis

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Transfer deadline day is almost here for January 2023, as the winter window shuts at 6pm ET on Jan. 31 for Premier League clubs.

[ LIVE: Every Premier League transfer deal as it happens ]

The clock is ticking late in the window and we will have all angles covered for you here at Pro Soccer Talk.

[ TRANSFER NEWS: Liverpool | Chelsea | Tottenham | Man City | Man United | Arsenal ]

From clicking on the links above to read the latest reports and analysis, having Sky Sports News live on Peacock all day long and to our own Pro Soccer Talk live deadline day show which starts at 5:30pm ET on Jan. 31, you won’t miss a thing.

WATCH: Sky Sports News live on Transfer deadline day on Peacock

Click on the video below to send in your questions for the PST crew for our deadline day chat where we will round up all of the deals happening late in the window, dish out grades to Premier League teams based on their business and give our analysis on the best signings of the January window.