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SheBelievesCup Preview: Olympic hopefuls look to make impact

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New U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski would no doubt like to win the SheBelievesCup, getting the title back after losing it to England last year.

But more importantly is getting to test his players in a competitive tournament, just a few months before he has to select his best 18 for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. The U.S. kicks off the SheBelievesCup on Thursday with a match against England at Emporia Stadium in Orlando. The U.S. next faces Spain on Sunday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. before finishing against Japan on March 11 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Versatility is the name of the game, with five fewer players available for the Olympics than at the World Cup, so some of the fringe USWNT players will be looking to use this tournament to show that they’re more than just a left back, for example.

Tierna Davidson, an up and coming outside back for the USWNT and the Chicago Red Stars – and the youngest player in the squad – is looking to prove she can play all across the backline. Mal Pugh, a striker who’s rise to fame coincided with her starting at the last Olympics, has seen her star fall far from the sky. Now back in contention, can she push her way into the 18 to Tokyo?

On the other end, Andonovski has some huge decisions to make this summer about his veterans. Carli Lloyd is 37 and slowing down, though still scoring goals like she’s 10 years younger. In all, 10 players in Andonovski’s 23-player squad for the SheBelievesCup are 30-years old or older, including captain Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, and starting goalkeeper Ashlynn Harris.

For those three, their sports – presuming they’re fit – are probably safe for the Olympics. But we’ll have to see what Jessica McDonald, Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Ali Krieger all do this tournament and into the summer to cement their places in the 18-player squad. It’s also important for players who aren’t here, like Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan. Morgan is due to give birth this month, but plans on being back on the field by the start of the Olympic tournament.

This U.S. team will face good tests in England and Japan, as well as the up and coming Spain. England is without some of its World Cup stars from last year, including Lucy Bronze, but there’s plenty of talent on the field. Phil Neville will get to use Georgia Stanway, Ellen White, and Nikita Parris, among many others.

For Japan, it’s a veteran squad sprinkled in with some youngsters. 14 of the 23-player squad have at least 15 caps or more, and Japan captain Saki Kumagai of Lyon will look to anchor the backline. Spain’s star striker, Jenni Hermoso, is a former club teammate of Krieger, Harris and Press, so each side will have a decent idea of what the other brings.

So on top of the overall results, there’s plenty to watch for at the 2020 SheBelievesCup. How this USWNT squad plays, if it can carry over the momentum from the fall victory tour into now, and who makes a name for themselves are just a few topics to keep an eye on.

Henderson, Bronze recognized as England Players of the Year

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Jordan Henderson and Lucy Bronze were named men’s and women’s England Players of the Year for 2019 on Tuesday.

Liverpool midfielder Henderson surpassed the 50-cap mark during the year, playing a critical role in England’s qualification for Euro 2020. He assisted a goal in the 5-1 victory over Montenegro in March, the same game in which he earned his 50th cap. Henderson also came off the bench for the Nations League semifinals loss to the Netherlands, arriving in the 77th minute and playing all of extra time.

It likely didn’t hurt Henderson’s case that he has captained Liverpool during the club’s most successful run in decades. The Reds won the Champions League final last summer and are on track to blitzkrieg their way to the Premier League title as it stands. Raheem Sterling finished second for the international award, while Harry Kane came in third.

Bronze was a critical figure for the Lionesses as they competed at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, reaching the semifinals. The full-back was constantly a dangerous threat up the flank, scoring against Norway in a 3-0 win and eventually earning the Silver Ball award as the tournament’s second-best player, finishing behind Megan Rapinoe of the United States.

Her success made her well-known, something she says has been difficult but also enjoyable. “We were successful [at the SheBelieves Cup] and I scored a couple of goals and I think my football life changed overnight,” Bronze said last summer before the World Cup began. “People knew my name and who I was, and I had a target on my back when I was playing, but it was something I enjoyed and always wanted.”

Since the World Cup, England manager Phil Neville has experimented with Bronze in midfield, likening her to Philipp Lahm who made a similar move under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. The award the second of her career, also winning England Women’s Player of the Year back in 2015.

English women attract record crowd but lose to Germany

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LONDON — A record crowd of 77,768 for English women’s soccer saw fresh struggles for Phil Neville‘s side in a 2-1 loss to Germany at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

England has now lost five of its last seven games, starting with the World Cup semifinal loss to the United States in July.

“I’m really sorry we couldn’t get the result,” England forward Ellen White addressed fans on the field.

White did turn things around for England just before halftime, canceling out Alexandra Popp’s ninth-minute header.

But just when the Lionesses were preparing to celebrate claiming a draw against the world’s second-ranked team, Klara Buhl struck in stoppage time.

As the rain fell in north London, there won’t have seemed much to celebrate for the hosts.

But the English attracted what appears to be the biggest-ever crowd for a women’s friendly, anywhere.

The previous best-attended women’s game was in 1999 when more than 90,000 watched the U.S. beat China in the World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in California.

The next biggest crowd came at Wembley in the 2012 London Olympics when just over 80,000 saw the U.S. beat Japan.

The increased interest in the Lionesses is highlighted by the fact Wembley has added around 30,000 fans to the attendance that saw England lose to Germany at the stadium five years ago.

Absurd Paul Scholes pass has Premier League fans all nostalgic

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Vincent Kompany‘s testimonial on Wednesday featured some big names from the former Manchester City defender’s time in the Premier League, and one in particular put jaws on the floor.

Paul Scholes, whose time at City’s cross-town rivals Manchester United overlapped Kompany’s Premier League journey by four years, produced a moment of brilliance that brought fans back to his time in midfield for the Red Devils. The 44-year-old donned a dark blue shirt for the Premier League All-Stars side at Kompany’s testimonial and wow’d the crowd.

With Robin Van Persie and Robbie Keane breaking forward, Scholes took a square pass from Cesc Fabregas and produced a stunning flick with the outside of his boot that fell perfectly in line for the two strikers on a run. Unfortunately, both Keane and van Persie went for the ball, and they ran into each other allowing Jolean Lescott to recover and end the chance.

The match ended in a 2-2 draw as Benjani Mwaruwari scored a last-minute equalizer for the Manchester City Legends. Martin Petrov opened the scoring for Man City Legends, but the Premier League All-Stars took the lead through goals by van Persie and Keane before the late goal left things all square.

Current Manchester City players David Silva and Sergio Aguero were on hand to participate, as were former City players Samir Nasri, Joe Hart, Kolo Toure, Mario Balotelli, and Pablo Zabaleta. The likes of Edwin van der Sar, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, and Thierry Henry suited up for the opponents.

Kompany himself was unfortunately sidelined for the match by a hamstring injury – a cruel homage to the rampant injury history of his long 11-year playing career at the Etihad. He picked up the injury while playing for his new club Anderlecht where he serves as player/manager. The club has started the Jupiler Pro League season on a terrible run of form, without victory through its first five games, but picked up its first win of the season against rivals Standard Liege with Kompany out injured.

Proceeds from the match went to benefit A Bed Every Night, a charity in Manchester dedicated to helping aid the homeless in the city.

Roebuck says Man City culture allows ‘good working relationship’ with men’s squad

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Manchester City women’s goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck has detailed how a culture of togetherness at Manchester City has allowed for a confluence of expertise between herself, men’s goalkeeper Ederson, and the coaching staff that has helped her quest to earn the starting role for her country.

The 19-year-old England international says she feels a connection to her Brazilian counterpart due to their similar upbringing as outfield players transitioning to goalkeepers, allowing them to share similarities on how to play with the ball at their feet. Ederson has thrived under Pep Guardiola at Man City in a critical role helping build attacks from the back, and Roebuck is happy to have someone to bounce ideas off and learn from.

“I’ve grown up playing outfield and it comes a bit more naturally to me to play with my feet,” Roebuck said in the aftermath of a 1-0 derby win over Manchester United. “I think it’s the philosophy throughout the club and I’ve been here since I was 15 so for the past four years, it’s really been embedded in me so it obviously helps and I’ve got great players around me to help that.”

Roebuck added that while her and Ederson don’t exactly meet to discuss game tactics and skills, they do have contact throughout the day, and that his occasional advice for the teen comes “in passing,” a pun which she insists was not intended.

“We train outside in the same area. Their goalkeeper coach Xabi [Mancisidor] is always coming across and contributing, giving us ideas. So it’s a really good working relationship and that reflects well on the club in general.”

Roebuck earned the Manchester derby start with teammate Karen Bardsley injured, and made a critical save on United forward Jane Ross with the game still scoreless. Ross was free on goal from point-blank range, and with Roebuck moving to her left to get in position, she somehow threw herself against the grain up and to her right to keep Ross’s poke out.

She says she’s gunning for the top job with her national team, one that is highly coveted. “Obviously the aim for me is to be England’s No 1,” Roebuck said. “That’s obviously a really difficult task because there’s other top-quality goalkeepers in England.”

Roebuck was left off the England World Cup squad this past summer in favor of current starter Bardsley and backup Carly Telford, but was one of four goalkeepers called into the most recent squad by Phil Neville for a friendly against Norway last week, along with Telford, Manchester United’s Mary Earps, and Clemson senior Sandy MacIver.