Three things learned: O’Hara steps up as United States’ high pressure sees off China

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OTTAWA, Ontario – The United States is through to the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup for the seventh time in seven editions of the tournament after defeating China, 1-0 on Friday at Lansdowne Stadium.

Carli Lloyd scored the game’s lone goal in the 51st minute in the first truly convincing performance from the U.S. at this World Cup.

Here are three things we learned:

High-pressure worked – and so did Ellis’ choice to start Kelley O’Hara: Knowing China would sit in and be defensively compact and organized, the United States was always going to have to take the initiative in this match. It may have been an ugly road getting to the quarterfinals, but Friday was finally a performance from the U.S. that displayed the confidence of a team that actually believes it can beat anyone.

The Americans pressed out China’s typically concrete back-four and created opportunities aplenty (finishing those remains both imperative and elusive). Within about 60 seconds, the U.S. was in 1-v-1 against China goalkeeper Wang Fei. Initiative was there from the start, which has been rare for this team all year as its gotten off to slow starts in matches both at and before the World Cup.

“The history of this team, we want to make other teams nervous, and not vice versa,” Lloyd said after the match.

Kelley O’Hara was the catalyst of that electric energy the U.S. brought, a breath of fresh air to a team that was looking for a kick-start. She brought flair and hustle to the field in her first World Cup start, leaving the field after 61 minutes with the battle scar of a bloody, black and blue nose with cotton balls stuffed in her nostrils (she doesn’t think her nose is broken, but hadn’t yet gotten it checked before speaking to reporters).

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

After the match, Ellis lauded O’Hara’s for both her performance on the night and for the work she put in all month.

“Kelley has been phenomenal in practice and I felt that her energy and her willingness to take on [players] and her engine was something that we needed out there,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.

O’Hara’s play was particularly impressive given that she not only hasn’t been playing – she hardly ever plays in that wide midfield position. She was named college soccer’s best player in 2009 while playing forward for Stanford, tallying 26 goals and 13 assists that senior season for one of the best scoring seasons in NCAA history.

But she was asked to play fullback for the United States and played every minute in that position at the 2012 Olympics, where the U.S. won a third-straight gold medal. So with Megan Rapinoe suspended for Friday’s quarterfinal, O’Hara got the nod to start – but as a wide midfielder.

Ellis met with O’Hara on Thursday night, when the 26-year-old O’Hara got word that she would start in a slightly unexpected position. O’Hara’s response? “I was like, sweet, let’s do it.”

O’Hara did acknowledge postgame that the wait for playing time isn’t easy, but she’s remained patient.

“You just have to show up for practice, be professional, work your ass off – sorry, butt – and be ready,” O’Hara said postgame. “Be the best teammate you can be, be the best player you can be and just be as supportive and encouraging for the people who are playing.”

On Friday, it was her teammates encouraging her as she executed everything from nutmegs to diving headers.

Defense still can’t be beaten: The United States’ shutout streak is now at a staggering 423 minutes. The only goal the Americans have given up this tournament came in the 27th minute of the opening game against Australia. The back line is quick to point out that team defending is the key, but those four defenders and goalkeeper Hope Solo have been the reason the U.S. is where it is today.

There was, however, a new addition to that defensive prowess on Friday: 22-year-old Morgan Brian. Filling in for suspended Lauren Holiday, Brian was asked to play a more defensive role to let Lloyd roam higher up the field. Quietly, Brian was superb in clamping down any fleeting attempt China made to come through the middle of the park.

“I thought Morgan was fantastic tonight,” Ellis said. “I thought her touches were good, her rhythm was good, her choices on the ball, her decisions were all very, very good.

“For such a big game and a young player, I thought she did a great job,” Ellis added.

Ellis now has a good problem to figure out: What do you do now that Brian and Lloyd played so well together? First off, Germany is not China. Ellis speaks often of executing a gameplan that is tailored to a given opponent – as every coach should – and that will be true come Tuesday in the semifinals. China sat in and absorbed pressure; Germany won’t do that at all – although the French showed for at least 45 minutes that the Germans are vulnerable. Holiday and Rapinoe are realistically likely to slide right back into the lineup, but there are now options.

Let Lloyd be free: Carli Lloyd got her freedom.

And then she got her goal.

Lloyd struggled all tournament alongside Holiday as the two were asked to play deeper than either of them are ideally comfortable playing. But on Friday, Lloyd had the freedom to get forward that she so desperately desired, and she delivered at a big moment, just as she so consistently does.

The execution was picture-perfect. Lloyd had this to say earlier in the week: “For me, I love to attack. I had a decent shot last game. I need more of that. I need to get the ball and I need to run at players, I need to create stuff. I need to find a way to impact the game, no matter how it’s going.”

After Friday’s victory and her goal, Lloyd was asked what the difference was this time out compared to previous four, more disjointed performances.

“Freedom,” Lloyd said.” Freedom to play. Do what I do best, go at players. As a team we wanted to come out fast and put them under pressure.”

It’s a freedom the U.S. needs to give Lloyd again on Tuesday against Germany, and one that really should never be taken away.

USMNT youngster Vassilev praised by Villa boss

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18-year-old USMNT youngster Indiana Vassilev has been praised by Aston Villa boss Dean Smith after making his Premier League debut at the weekend.

Vasillev came on for the final 25 minutes at Brighton and Hove Albion with Villa 1-0 down and helped them rescue a point as his run opened up the chance for Jack Grealish to score a late equalizer.

The lively attacking midfielder/forward has excelled in Villa’s reserve side after his arrival in England in the summer of 2018 following impressive displays for the U.S. youth national teams.

With Villa struggling with injuries up top after main striker Wesley went down with a season-ending injury early this month, Smith is clearly ready to put his faith in Vassilev.

“He is definitely ready to start,” Smith said. “The kid’s a bright spark, and we’ve seen that when he’s come on so far. He gave them (Brighton) problems on Saturday when he came on. It was a super ball from Douglas but, unless Indi makes that run down the side, he doesn’t drag Webster across, and Jack get in for the goal. He knows what he’s doing up there, he’s got a lot of pace, and he can run all day as well.”

Villa’s boss didn’t stop there though, as he also revealed that the young striker born in Savannah, Georgia has the backing of the senior players around him to go on and become a regular contributor in the Premier League.

“I’ve never been afraid to go and put young kids in if I feel they’re ready. I congratulated him after the game and said, ‘You’re a Premier League player now.’ He’s surprised me in a good way,” Smith added. “Sometimes when you give an opportunity to a young player they can sink or swim. He is certainly a swimmer. He has looked really good so far. You can always tell how the reaction is through the other players, in their relationships with them. You can see them all behind him. He goes in and puts a shift in for them. If you do that and have quality to add to it you will do alright in the dressing room. He’s got a goalscoring ability, he knows where the back of the net is, he knows what runs to make. Tactically he’s intelligent. Physically he’s impressive as well.”

Vassilev comes from a long line of soccer players and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all played in Bulgaria and he was born and raised in the USA after his parents emigrated from the eastern European country in the early 1990s.

It looks like the USMNT have another top talent breaking through in Europe which is great news for Gregg Berhalter and potentially even better news for Villa as they badly need a forward to deliver goals in their fight against relegation from the Premier League.

Expect to see more cameos, and maybe even starts, from Vassilev in the final months of the Premier League season.

Chicharito on LA Galaxy arrival: ‘Right place, right time’

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Javier ‘Chicharito‘ Hernandez has made a living out of being in the right place at the right time.

The LA Galaxy’s newest Designated Player believes he is now in the “right place at the right time” in his career as Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer confirmed his move to Major League Soccer.

Hernandez, 31, joins the Galaxy from Sevilla in La Liga and the former Chivas Guadalajara, Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and West Ham United striker is ready to take MLS by storm.

“Like when people describe me playing. You know, that he’s always in the right place at the right time,” Hernandez said in his first interview as a Galaxy player, with the LA Times.

After a few years battling for minutes at West Ham in the Premier League and Sevilla in Spain after a successful spell at Leverkusen, Hernandez is heading closer to home as the Mexico star is ready to play week in, week out for the most-successful franchise in MLS history.

“I’m going to be playing. That’s what I want in my life,” Hernandez said. “People are going to say it was because I couldn’t make it [in Europe], but sometimes in football there are things that are not in your hands. The last two years, the managers decided on giving confidence to other players rather than me. And now, the LA Galaxy, the manager of the club and the league, are telling me, ‘Look, Javier, we want to give you all the trust, all the confidence to help us,’ and that’s why I’m taking this opportunity.”

He will link up with Mexico teammate Jonathan dos Santos in the Galaxy’s team as they try and wrestle back the City of Angels from MLS new boys and reigning Supporters’ Shield champions LAFC.

Hernandez was always destined to play in MLS before he retired and now that day has arrived. Following in the footsteps of Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be easy but if anyone can score goals, it is Hernandez.

Get ready for his jersey to be the fastest-selling in history as Mexico’s favorite son is ready to become an even bigger star in MLS in the final years of his career.

Mbappe lavishes praise on Liverpool

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The calls are growing for Kylian Mbappe to join Liverpool and these comments will add further fuel to the fire.

Mbappe, 21, has called Liverpool a ‘machine’ as the Paris Saint-German and France star continues to be linked with a move to Anfield in 2020. That’s right, this summer, and that is why #Mbappe2020 is trending pretty much every day.

Speaking to the BBC, Mbappe was asked about Liverpool’s incredible season as they sit 16 points clear atop the Premier League with a game in hand.

“What Liverpool do in this moment is amazing,” Mbappe said. “They’re like a machine, they’ve found a rhythm and are like ‘we play again, we play again’. They’ve lost zero games. When you watch you think everything’s easy but that’s not easy. The guys are focused, they play games every three days and they win, they win, they win. Now the problem is that everybody watches Liverpool, and everybody watches what we can do against them, so now they have to show they are strong again but it’s a very good team with a very good manager.”

Could Liverpool afford Mbappe? It will likely cost them a world-record fee of over $250 million and it would be unlike Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff to spend that amount on a player who already looks the finished article.

Instead their recruitment policy is mostly about buyng players who they can improve into top talents. See: Mane, Sadio. Robertson, Andrew. Wijnaldum, Georginio, to name just a few. However, Liverpool have shown they will spend big if the right players comes along as Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson proved.

Signing Mbappe would be on another level altogether and PSG would not want to lose the French superstar as Real Madrid also push hard to sign him.

Mbappe 2020 may not happen but he is clearly a fan of Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool.

That sound you can hear is Liverpool fans rushing out to get Mbappe’s name printed on the back of their jersey.

Man United charged after Liverpool game

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Manchester United have been charged by the FA for failing to control their players in the 2-0 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side surrounded referee Craig Pawson angrily after Roberto Firmino looked to have put Liverpool 2-0 up in the first half following a foul on David De Gea by Virgil Van Dijk. However, VAR then intervened and ruled out the goal.

Below is the statement from the FA, as United have until Thursday to respond to the charge.

“Manchester United FC has been charged with a breach of FA Rule E20(a). It is alleged that the club failed to ensure its players conducted themselves in an orderly fashion during the 26th minute of the Premier League fixture against Liverpool FC on Sunday (19/1/20).”

Speaking about the charge, Solskjaer had to bite his lip.

“Maybe I shouldn’t talk too much about that,” Solskjaer said. “Let’s get that decision done. It’s overturned [the decision]. I reacted myself because it was a foul.”

United’s players reacted angrily as Pawson had the whistle in his mouth and appeared to be ready to blow it after Virgil van Dijk jumped into De Gea, but then allowed played to continue, as several United players stopped and Firmino whipped the ball into the far top corner.

It seemed like Pawson was going to call it a foul but decided he would let play continue and if a goal was scored, VAR would check the incident anyway.

That is the VAR world we now live in as referees know they have a back-up and as they were told at the start of the season, they are allowing situations to unfold where they previously would have made a quick decision, then waiting for a VAR review to make the decision for them.

Could you blame United’s players for being angry about the delay which almost cost them a goal? Probably not. The reaction of some of their players crowding around Pawson and getting in his face was too much and will likely see a fine handed their way if it isn’t overturned.

VAR was supposed to take the pressure off officials on the pitch for big calls but this incident shows how they are still at the center of any controversy, even if they aren’t making the ultimate decision.