Lloyd, Brian prove crucial to United States’ turnaround at Women’s World Cup

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Three games, three different stadiums, three different tables propped up with microphones and, in Tuesday’s case, blinding lights shining down on Carli Lloyd after a United States victory.

Order has quickly been restored to a world where the U.S. midfielder is her world-class self once again after some early tournament struggles in a more constrained role. Re-writing this team’s Women’s World Cup script is been equal parts main character and supporting cast.

Lloyd has been named by FIFA as the player of the match for the United States’ past three games, all single-elimination knockout matches. She scored in all three matches – twice the game-winner – and her game has evolved from self-critically below her own high standards to MVP-like in a matter of a week. She is a finalist for the Golden Ball, given to the tournament’s best player, and likely the favorite for the award should the U.S. beat Japan on Sunday in the final.

That Lloyd is clutch in big moments is nothing new. She scored the past two gold-medal winning goals for the three-time defending Olympic champion United States.

She’s been asked so much about how and why she is so good on the biggest of stages that the question on Tuesday, after the U.S. beat Germany in the semifinal, drew a light chuckle and a smile from both player and the crowd of reporters.

“Well, I’ve just been training my butt off for the last 12 years,” she said. “These are the moments that I live for,” said Lloyd, a common and clearly accurate refrain.

[KASSOUF: Memories of 2011 World Cup final loss serve as Wambach’s motivation]

Llloyd is one of the United States’ all-time best midfielders and the most productive scorer from the position; Tuesday’s goal was her 66th internationally.

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“This is kind of where I roll my sleeves up and say to myself, ‘I have to step up,’” Lloyd said postgame. “I think that with Jill [Ellis, U.S. coach] and the coaching staff kind of giving me the flexibility to express myself out on the field, I just needed to deliver in any way possible. Tonight was stepping up for the PK. Mentally as well, I’ve just kind of been trained to be a fierce competitor, live for challenges and never quit, no matter what the scenario is.”

Ellis changed the team’s system of play – first by force due to suspensions for the quartefinal against China, and then by choice on Tuesday, having seen it work successfully – to free up Lloyd into a more attack-minded role

Megan Rapinoe described Lloyd figuratively as “a hunter,” a fitting word for a player who seems to always find the goal.

But behind Lloyd – literally on the field and figuratively in the spotlight – now sits 22-year-old Morgan Brian. She has liberated Lloyd, and also on Tuesday Brian did the same for fellow central midfielder Lauren Holiday.

Brian looked composed beyond her years as a defensive midfielder in the quarterfinal and semifinal. She sat in, clogged passing channels, won the ball and distributed to start the attack, all of which are not necessarily known to be her bread and butter after a standout career at the University of Virginia as an attacking midfielder.

“She’s been pivotal,” Ellis said.

It’s an ironic word choice, pun intended or not. Ellis went with a double pivot – “two number sixes” as she calls it – slotting Brian and Holiday behind Lloyd, who was allowed to freely foray toward goal and at times play as an out-and-out forward alongside Alex Morgan.

“I think she’s come in and she has, she’s kept possession for us, she’s stabilized us at times, allowing Lauren to get forward,” Ellis said of Brian. “It’s not a natural role for her, but she makes it look natural.

“I think she’s been critical,” Ellis added. “I thought she played tremendous today.”

Ellis’ tactics proved perfect on the night, but they were almost derailed 30 minutes into the game when Brian and Germany striker Alexandra Popp collided heads, causing Popp’s head to bleed and eventually be bandaged.

[LAULETTA: Rampone, other veterans met with Ellis at midway point]

Brian stayed on the ground much longer than Popp, lying face-up, looking a bit deliriously at the blue roof covering the 39-year-old Olympic Stadium. Both players re-entered the match almost immediately after going to the sidelines and following brief on-field check-ups. Brian said after the game that she was fine.

On Friday, Ellis said Brian was cleared to play.

“She’s been great, trained 100 percent today,” the U.S. coach said. “The medical staff has done their job.”

FIFA states among its list of “visible clues of suspected concussion”: “Lying motionless on ground/ Slow to get up,” “Grabbing/Clutching of head,” and “Dazed, blank or vacant look.” Any suspicion of a concussion requires a player to be “immediately removed from play,” FIFA writes in all capital letters in its concussion recognition tool.

Dr. Beth McQuiston, a board-certified neurologist and medical director for Abbott’s Diagnostics, calls a concussion a “silent injury,” noting that players are more susceptible to a second concussion within the first 10 days of sustaining one.

Brian and Popp did not suffer concussions, according to their teams.

“I have absolute faith and trust in our medical team to do the right thing,” Ellis said after Tuesday’s semifinal. “They [team Dr. Bojan Zoric] assessed [Brian] on the field, they assessed her at halftime. They go through a strict regimen of protocols that’s set forth by U.S. Soccer. She was fine, no symptoms. But no, I think I would never question our doctors. I think they do the right thing.”

Germany coach Silvia Neid said Popp, who was also briefly examined by Germany’s staff, told her and team doctors that she felt good.

“Our doctor knows our players very, very well,” Neid said.

Popp had her head wrapped and was still seen bleeding after the game once she removed the wrap.

Brian carried on seamlessly with her yeoman’s work, serving as a stopgap that held Germany to just one shot on goal (and a mis-hit cross at that). Germany entered the match as tournament leaders in goals (20) and shots (134), but produced nothing more than speculative efforts from distance. Celia Sasic even became the first German to miss a penalty kick at a Women’s World Cup, her attempt being the 13th in the team’s tournament history.

The U.S. defense remains historically great, having not allowed a goal in 513 minutes. That unit is particularly crucial with the United States’ forward line accounting for only two of the team’s nine goals at this World Cup.

It is the midfield that has changed the course of this United States team at this World Cup, which only 10 days ago looked ominous. If Lloyd is the hunter, Brian is the spotter, surveying the land to scope out any danger. Like USA super-fan Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Lloyd is the protagonist to this mid-tournament evolution of the United States national team. But the Oscar goes to Brian for best supporting actress. Like any great movie, both are essential to the plot.

VOTE: Premier League March Madness playoff final

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Our Premier League March Madness tournament began on Monday and we had some early drama in the relegation playoff semifinals.

The opening two games of our bracket produced two surprise winners, as #20 Norwich City edged out #17 Watford after winning 50.48 percent of the vote, while #19 Aston Villa comfortably beat #18 Bournemouth with 62.14 percent of votes.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub

That means Norwich will now face Aston Villa in the final, and Villa won both of their meetings in the Premier League this season. The first with a 5-1 win at Carrow Road, the second with a undeserved home win at Villa Park.

What do the winners get? If you win the relegation playoff final you are exempt from relegation and finish as the 2020 tournament as #17 seed, while the runner up will be relegated along with the two semifinal losers.

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final
Tuesday: Sweet 16
Wednesday: Elite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

Plus, our own Nick Mendola handicapped the field and here is who he thinks will be the favorites to win it all and which teams you should look out for as dark horses over the next few days. His predictions are wild and Arsenal fans will want to prove he is correct and they pick up a first piece of silverware under Mikel Arteta.

Okay, vote below (until 3 p.m. ET) for the two relegation playoff finalists as our Premier League March Madness tournament continues!

Report: Premier League prepares for June return

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The Premier League is reportedly preparing to return to action in June as the current season remains suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Multiple reports across the UK, including this one from the Daily Mirror, claim that the government has given the Premier League the green light to return to action from June, provided the situation has improved as expected by then.

Per the report, Premier League clubs have been told that they should prepare for games to be played from June 1 onwards behind closed doors and there is a ‘tentative agreement for the top flight to resume behind closed doors after the 20 clubs mapped out a plan with senior officials on a resumption of matches.’

The report adds that ‘in principle, with government health officials hopeful of a coronavirus peak in the UK in the next few weeks, they will sanction games under strict guidelines.’ 

Plans are in place for players to be isolated together and away from the public, as they could begin training in May so they can prepare for the current campaign resuming.

With the situation in the UK deteriorating over the last week and the country on lockdown, these tentative plans can of course change quickly.

Premier League players have had differing views on what should happen to the 2019-20 season and Luke Shaw is the latest to say games should not be played behind closed doors. But if teams play two games per week in empty stadiums or training grounds from June 1, there is the real possibility the season could be finished by the start of July and then FA Cup and Europe competitions could follow.

The overwhelming feeling from Premier League clubs, the league itself and many other individuals is that the 2019-20 season should be finished whenever it is safe to do so. Recent PL club meetings came to that agreement and that is the official stance.

However, the next big question is whether or not fans will be able to attend games for the rest of the season and this report seems to suggest that is totally off the table and if the current campaign is concluded, fans will not be present.

Luke Shaw: Scrap season and start again

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Man United and England defender Luke Shaw has said the 2019-20 season should be scrapped and started again if games cannot be completed.

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Shaw, 24, was speaking during a FIFA 20 competition which was streamed on Twitch to raise funds for UNICEF’s Combat Corona campaign.

“Scrap it and start again. Start it again, yeah,” Shaw said. “It’s got to be, you know. If we can’t carry it on, it’s got to be void.”

All 20 Premier League clubs remain committed to completing the 2019-20 season whenever ‘safe to do so’ but there’s no resumption date currently lined up.

One option is for games to played behind closed doors, when possible, but Shaw isn’t keen on that either.

“Fans are so important. You realise it even more (now),” Shaw said. “I think the sport is for fans really… I think if you don’t have fans, and you don’t play in front of fans, it just doesn’t feel right. Especially on matchday, the fans are always amazing and always help the team. Whether it’s home or even away, our fans are always brilliant and I feel like they’re always there with us.”

The view of Shaw differs slightly from other Premier League players who have discussed the current suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic but there is a general consensus that they want to move onto the next season as soon as possible. When it comes to Shaw, his views are very interesting as Man United had rallied to be three points off the top four and had plenty of momentum ahead of the final nine games of the current league campaign, as well as being in a great position in the latter stages of the Europa League and FA Cup.

Man City star Kevin de Bruyne wants to move on from the 2019-20 season as soon as possible as he doesn’t think the start of the 2020-21 campaign should be delayed and is concerned about players being injured if they are asked to resume the season quickly.

Other players are fine to wait to see what the Premier League plans but Tottenham forward Harry Kane has also expressed his desire to move on from the current campaign if games cannot be completed by the end of June.

It is intriguing to hear so many differing views from Premier League players on when the season should resume, if at all, but Kane, Shaw and De Bruyne are all saying something slightly different. Therein lies the problem. How will a consensus be reached between PL clubs with so many different ideas and opinions on what should happen next?

If you throw club affiliations and rivalries into the mix, why on earth would a Man United star want the current season to be deemed as ‘void’ when Liverpool are 25 points clear at the top of the table and just five points away from securing the Premier League title…

Son to complete military service in South Korea

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Tottenham have confirmed that forward Heung-min Son will complete his military service in South Korea this month and will return to London in May.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Son, 27, previously became exempt from the mandatory 21-month military service as he captained South Korea to gold medal glory at the 2018 Asian Games but there is also a four-week stint he needs to complete in the army.

A new rule which arrived in 2018 means that men in South Korea must enlist in the military by the age of 28 and Son turns 28 on July 8.

Spurs released the following statement on Son’s situation, as he recently returned to South Korea as he continues his rehabilitation from a broken arm he suffered in the 3-2 win at Aston Villa in February.

“The Club can confirm that Heung-Min Son will commence his mandatory military service in South Korea this month. The forward arrived back in his home country at the end of March where he is currently in quarantine. Our medical staff are in regular contact as he concludes his recovery after fracturing his arm in our 3-2 win against Aston Villa on 16 February and continues to train.

“Sonny had surgery on his arm in South Korea before returning to the UK at the end of February to continue his rehabilitation, prior to the initial announcement of the professional game in England being suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Premier League has since announced that the 2019/20 season will only return when it is ‘safe and appropriate to do so’ and is under constant review. Son will return to London following the conclusion of his military service in May.”