Despite advancement to quarterfinals, US women yet to reach their peak

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EDMONTON, Alberta – The exposition has been extensive.

For the past six months, United States players said that they were looking to peak in June.

There was the 3-2 loss to Brazil in December, the 2-0 loss to France in February when Les Bleues ran the U.S. off the park in Lorient and even the scoreless draw with Iceland at the Algarve Cup in March.

All the while, as alarm bells went off from fans and media – Where is the midfield? Why is the shape so narrow? Is the U.S. creative enough to break down a bunker? – U.S. players kept their cool. The best is yet to come, they said.

But June’s arrival hasn’t yet brought the United States’ best soccer, despite an unbeaten mark at this Women’s World Cup.

[KASSOUF: Morgan relieved to get back on scoresheet]

On Monday, the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals for the seventh time in seven World Cups with a 2-0 win over Colombia, a team that played with the heart and ferocity with which they promised in the days leading into the match. It was an ugly first half from the Americans – “impatient” is the word goal-scorer Alex Morgan used to describe the play – but they were able to overcome another slow start to ultimately prevail.

But is the soccer – the style, the combination play, the finishing – satisfying?

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“This is the World Cup. I’m really satisfied with advancing,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis bristled when asked. “Most goals in World Cup tournaments, the majority of them come on set pieces. We’ve been brilliant. So it’s about finding a way. I thought we stroked the ball around pretty well at times. I’m pleased with where we are.”

There’s a consensus among players that their play is getting better, but that it hasn’t yet reached its peak. But with the U.S. now into the quarterfinals, there’s only so much time left to find that groove. The World Cup final, should the U.S. get there, is less than two weeks away. First up is a tricky test against a very organized China team on Friday, with the winner getting either Germany or France – the world’s two best teams on form right now – in the semifinals.

After a group stage that didn’t see any of the world’s best teams put forth overly convincing performances, world No. 1 Germany came out and smacked Sweden on Saturday, 4-1. France made quick work of a highly organized Korea Republic team in a 3-0 win on Sunday, the same Korea Republic team that held the U.S. scoreless earlier in the month in the Americans’ sendoff team.

With their potential semifinal opponents finally firing on all cylinders, the U.S. is still waiting to do exactly that.

“We all want to play better,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “We want to play better football. We want to create more consistent chances. But we also know that the better teams we play, the fewer the chances you are going to create. Those chances that you create, you have to bury.”

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

Wambach’s missed penalty kick three minutes after hafltime only exacerbated the tension in the air of the decidedly pro-Colombian crowd at Commonwealth Stadium on Monday, but Morgan took advantage of third-string goalkeeper Stefany Castano and Megan Rapinoe, as she has done all tournament, made something out of nothing to draw the United States’ second penalty kick, which Carli Lloyd buried for the two-goal advantage.

Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday will miss the quarterfinal match due to suspension, an added caveat of concern. Each player received a second respective yellow card of the tournament on Monday. Rapinoe has been the United States’ best offensive player at the World Cup, scoring twice in the opening win against Australia and causing trouble for opponents throughout the tournament.

“She’s a tremendous player, but I think we’ve got players with tremendous technical skills,” Ellis said of replacing Rapinoe. “We’ve got good pace in certain positions and I know that we will step up.

“I have the utmost confidence in the players that we have,” she added. Ellis later said that 22-year-old Morgan Brian will likely start in place of Holiday. Rapinoe indicated that Christen Press could be her replacement against China.

Teams playing with numbers advantages in the middle of the park – Australia, Colombia and, next up, China – have had a distinct advantage against the U.S. at this World Cup.

It is unanimously stated by U.S. players that they aren’t at their best right now. But when will they be? Friday is a quick turnaround to face China, and it’s presumptuous to think that this U.S. team will roll through the Steel Roses, even if China looked less than impressive against Cameroon on Saturday.

“I don’t feel like time’s running out at all,” Holiday said when asked about the team’s urgency to play better. “I feel like it’s completely in our control. I believe in all the girls in my team so much that I know that they’ll show up in big games and I’ll know that we’ll put our best soccer together in those games.”

In the end, as Ellis said, a win’s a win. But the Americans haven’t yet put together a fully convincing 90 minutes at this World Cup, often coming alive in the second halves of games. And against Germany and France – especially the Germany and France which finally showed up in the Round of 16 – flat starts just aren’t going to cut it.

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.