2011 Women’s World Cup final loss still burns in Abby Wambach’s memory

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Abby Wambach knows the date by heart: July 17, 2011.

It’s the day that she came closest to but ultimately fell short of the one thing for which she most lusts: a World Cup title.

July 17, 2011 is the only specific date for a match that is etched in Wambach’s memory, she said. It is the date the United States lost the World Cup final to then underdog Japan, twice blowing the lead – including once in extra time – to eventually lose on penalty kicks. “For me, it’s a constant reminder,” she said Friday. “It’s been a constant reminder since July 17, 2011.”

On Sunday, Wambach and her U.S. teammates get a chance to flip the script on Japan in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final – The Rematch. The U.S. beat Japan in the 2012 Olympic gold-medal match, but the World Cup remains the crown jewel of soccer. It’s all that Wambach can think about. And winning the tournament for Wambach is part of United States players’ motivation.

“I love playing with her,” says US midfielder Carli Lloyd, who has very much grown up on this team alongside Wambach over the past decade. “It’s kind of one of those things where I can play with her with my eyes closed. I always know where she is going to be. I always know what she’s thinking, and she’s been a true leader of this team. We wouldn’t be where we are without her. She’s been tremendous over the years and I want nothing more than to help her legacy if we win the World Cup. Obviously I want to win it for myself as well and the team, but for her, this being her last one, I will do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

[LAULETTA: Rampone credits Ellis for meeting open-minded approach]

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Wambach says this final isn’t about avenging the 2011 World Cup final loss. Things are different this time – and she would know.

Wambach is the most decorated scorer in international soccer history – men’s or women’s – scoring 183 goals to date. She is still very much the face and the pulse of this United States team, even at 35 years old.

But after starting three of the first four matches at this World Cup, Wambach has played only 14 minutes combined in the past two games, which have by far been the team’s best matches of the tournament. She has become more of a leader from the bench, a new role famously captured by cameras in a not-so-G-rated halftime speech during last week’s quarterfinal against China.

“Abby in a lot of ways is the glue to this team,” says U.S. forward Alex Morgan, who turned 26 years old on Thursday and who is Wambach’s heir apparent. “No matter how much time she gets on the field this tournament, she’s irreplaceable. I’ve enjoyed my time with her, my time on the field and my time growing our friendship. But she’s a great leader for this team. She motivates us but she keeps us in check.”

[KASSOUF: Why Wambach needs this World Cup title more than anything]

Generational legends being benched isn’t something that always goes smoothly, but Wambach has taken a backseat knowing that it is the way to get to the thing that she wants most.

“We had early conversations and from day one,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “Abby, she wants to win a World Cup. She’s committed to doing whatever it takes.”

Of course the United States women want to win the World Cup; all 24 teams at this largest-ever Women’s World Cup wanted to. The Americans want to end the talk of a 16-year “drought.” They want to squash once and for all the idea that they live in the shadow of the 1999 title-winning team. And most of all, they just want the obvious: to be the best in the world.

But there is no denying that sending Wambach out on top (she has said for a while that this will be her last World Cup, but she hasn’t discussed her plans beyond Sunday) is part of the equation for this team. In many ways it is a similar feeling to Wambach’s early days with the U.S. national team, when she tried to help her mentor – Mia Hamm – and that generation of players exit the game as World Cup champions in 2003 (many of them would leave as Olympic gold-medalists in 2004). This time, however, Wambach is the legend on her way out, providing extra motivation for those around her.

Wambach is an extravert. She never shies away from a question and she loves to talk – about soccer, about teammates – about anything, really. Wambach is by all accounts the team’s best storyteller. “I’m the most obnoxious person on the bench,” she has said repetitively over the past week, as she has spent more time there during matches.

And Wambach is transparent about what this World Cup means to her.

“It’s all that I’m thinking about, all that’s on my mind,” she said recently. “It’s the thing that I haven’t been able to be a part of, I haven’t won yet. It’s something that I know that all of us have to be willing to be forever disappointed in not winning. Because that’s what it takes. You have to completely give in to it. You have to really allow yourself to be crushed by something. It’s like love. And if we give into it, if all of us give into it, then I think we could have a chance at this.”

But on Friday in a room full of press that quadrupled in size from the team’s previous matches – the way it always does on the eve of a major tournament final – Wambach appeared more locked-in and to the point in her answers. Sunday’s goal is simple.

“The truth is that I just want to be a world champion,” she said.

July 5, 2015 is likely to be the second and perhaps only other date of a match that Wambach will ever remember. This time, she hopes the feeling is a good one.

Premier League Preview: Man City v. West Ham

Premier League Preview: Man City v. West Ham
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Manchester City takes the pitch at the Etihad Stadium for the first time since UEFA hammered it with a two-year Champions League ban when it hosts West Ham United on Wednesday (Watch Live at 3 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Manager Pep Guardiola has reportedly stated his commitment to the club ahead of the match, which was rescheduled from last weekend after Storm Ciara hit England.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Second-place City opens the day 25 points back of leaders Liverpool, while West Ham is one point behind 17th place.

The Irons have not won a Premier League match since New Year’s Day, David Moyes‘ first match in charge.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 


Injuries/suspensions

Man City: OUT —  Oleksandr Zinchenko, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane. QUESTIONABLE — Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy

West Ham: OUT — Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko. QUESTIONABLE — Felipe Anderson


Probable lineups

Man City: Ederson; Cancelo, Otamendi, Fernandinho, Walker, Rodri, Gundogan, De Bruyne, D. Silva, Aguero, Mahrez.

West Ham: Fabianski; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Diop, Zabaleta, Rice, Soucek, Noble, Snodgrass, Haller, Antonio.


What they’re saying

West Ham’s David Moyes on the relegation fight: “I’m more than confident we will climb the table. I think the players here are more than capable. I think we have got a good group. I think they are all fully aware of the situation we’re in and the improvement we need to make to make sure we’re not in the bottom three, and I’m sure come the end we will do.”


Prediction

A blowout. While West Ham has the urgency to get out of the drop zone, City will be pouring its full focus into finding form for next week’s Champions League tie with Real Madrid. City, 4-1.

Champions League preview: Spurs host Leipzig, Valencia visits Atalanta

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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties kickoff Wednesday, including one being labeled as the biggest in a club’s existence.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

That would be Serie A side Atalanta, which hosts Valencia at 3 p.m. at Gewiss Stadium.

Atalanta had played in two consecutive Europa Leagues, but this is their first move into the Champions League. To make the knockout rounds is exceptional, and club president Antonio Percassi is fired up.

“We must be honest, this is the most important game in the history of this club,” Percassi told Sky Sport Italia. “It doesn’t seem real. It’s exciting just thinking that tomorrow we’ll be in a Champions League Round of 16. It’s wonderful for our fans too. … This is going to be a unique experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Atalanta finished second in its group to Manchester City, and is fourth in Serie A. Valencia won its group.

There’s a Premier League side in action on Wednesday, too, as Spurs begin life without Heung-Min Son.

Jose Mourinho spun a tale about how badly Tottenham will need its fans against RB Leipzig, comparing the home-field advantage to an emergency rescue crew of sorts.

Leipzig is led by Julian Nagelsmann, who was once referred to as “Baby Mourinho” by his players.

The 32-year-old was quick to distance himself from the story.

“Tomorrow it is Leipzig against Tottenham, not Mourinho v. Baby Mourinho,” he said. “I have great respect for Mourinho. He has won lots of titles with big clubs, the Champions League twice. He has made his mark on European football at some big European clubs. I think it his 59th knockout game in the CL and it is my first so there is obviously respect there.”

Liverpool’s Robertson not a fan of Atletico Madrid theatrics

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Liverpool fullback Andy Robertson was not impressed with Atletico Madrid’s display as his side fell 1-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Reds fell behind on a fourth-minute Saul Niguez goal and couldn’t get a shot on target despite 73 percent possession in Spain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Atleti executed its plan to near-perfection, slowing restarts and taking advantage of counterattacking opportunities to assuage the constant pressure of Liverpool.

At times it was reminiscent of early-century Italian national team play, and both neutrals and Liverpool knew what they were in for once Atleti took the lead.

“We gave them the best possible start to get the fans behind them and then they can start falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin a bit which I think we handled quite well to be honest,” Robertson told BT Sport. “We know we are better than (how they played). We put in a decent performance and we can be better than that. Luckily we have got a second leg to put it right.”

Given the performance and the reputation, you’d still fancy the Reds to “put it right” at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp thinks Atleti will feel plenty of pressure at Anfield, and he will certainly feel the officiating will be more to his liking.

Liverpool’s Klopp: ‘Our people will be ready’ for second leg at Anfield

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Jurgen Klopp didn’t have any issue with Diego Simeone’s defense-first Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Spanish side flummoxed Liverpool’s attack and the Reds didn’t manage a shot on target despite eight attempts and 73 percent possession at the Wanda Metropolitano.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

What Klopp didn’t appreciate was the referee’s work, though, implying that Polish official Szymon Marciniak was overwhelmed by the occasion. Marciniak has worked UCL matches for six seasons, twice overseeing quarterfinal ties.

Klopp was shown a yellow card in the second half, and the Liverpool boss felt Sadio Mane was harassed by Atleti. Klopp removed yellow-carrying Mane at halftime.

“He was targeted obviously,” Klopp said after the game. “The only thing they wanted was to make sure he got a yellow card. The score is 1-0, that’s all but you need to be really strong as a ref in this atmosphere. So many things happened, after 30 minutes already three players were on the ground. The first yellow card was a striker from us. I’m not sure they even got a yellow card, which is funny.”

Atleti’s Angel Correa was shown a yellow, while Klopp, Mane, and Joe Gomez were cautioned for Liverpool.

The Liverpool boss found himself laughing a few times, especially when he was asked about Simeone’s touchline personality.

Klopp said before the game that if the German was a four in intensity, then Simeone was a 12. Simeone followed suit by constantly urging the crowd to get behind the home side on Tuesday.

That didn’t bother Klopp, but he issued a public relations officer’s dream in reacting to it.

“Wow, wow,” he laughed. “That’s energy. I don’t think I have to do it that much (at Anfield). Our people will be ready. Welcome to Anfield. It’s not over yet.”

Klopp finished his remarks by saying of Jordan Henderson‘s removal from the game with a hamstring injury, “I hope it was a precaution, but I’m not 100 percent sure”