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Rapinoe, Morgan, Ertz lift US past South Korea, 3-1

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Alex Morgan scored in a fourth straight game, Julie Ertz scored for the fourth time in five games, and the United States women beat South Korea 3-1 on Thursday night.

Megan Rapinoe added her 34th international goal and her 42nd assist.

Having assisted on Ertz’s diving header in the first half, Rapinoe scored on a penalty kick she drew in the 49th minute when pounced on a loose ball about 12 yards in front of the goal and was tripped by Ji Sohyun.

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Han Chaerin scored her first international goal in her South Korea debut to make it 2-1 just before the end of the first half.

U.S. forward Mallory Pugh had to leave the game late in the first half with a right hamstring injury. There was no immediate word on the severity of her injury after she was helped off the field by trainers.

Meanwhile, Carli Lloyd returned from a nine-week absence because of ankle injury, entering the game as a substitute in the 77th minute.

Midfielder Andi Sullivan started for the U.S. about 11 months after having reconstructive knee surgery. Her third minute shot narrowly missed the far post from about 18 yards. She was substituted out, as planned, at halftime.

South Korea began the game in a defensive posture and the U.S. maintained a decisive edge in possession, forcing Kang Gaae to make several sprawling saves before breaking though on Ertz goal in the 24th minute

Ertz dove in front of two defenders to redirect Rapinoe’s hard, low corner kick between the legs of Kang as the goal keeper tried to respond at the near post.

Morgan scored in the 40th minute, using her right foot to settle Kelley O’Hara’s bouncing pass from the end line, then pivoting and whipping her left foot through the ball from point-blank range. The goal was the 28-year-old Morgan’s 78th for the national squad.

Han scored against the run of play with a hard shot from about 25 yards that sailed beyond U.S. goal keeper Alyssa Naher’s reach before dipping under the cross bar.

Lloyd’s introduction drew an enthusiastic response from nearly 10,000 spectators in the Superdome. The two-time FIFA World Player of the Year missed a pair of U.S. exhibition wins over New Zealand last month because of an Aug. 13 ankle sprain in a National Women’s Soccer League match.

Forward Tobin Heath, who has an ankle injury, and defender Taylor Smith, who has an injured shoulder, were not in the lineup and are not expected to play in a second friendly scheduled between South Korea and the U.S. on Sunday in Cary, North Carolina.

Both women were hurt in the NWSL championship match.

Lionel Messi, Argentina continue wait for major title after heartbreaking loss vs. Chile

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UPDATE [1:30 a.m. ET]: Lionel Messi announces international retirement following Argentina’s Copa America loss to Chile.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –  Moments after Chile secured its defense of the Copa America title in a pressure-filled penalty shootout, Argentina’s star players including world-beater Lionel Messi stood in the middle of the field trying to come to terms with a third consecutive final defeat.

It didn’t matter that Copa America organizers were creating a concert just a few feet away. The players laid on the pitch, trying to move past letting yet another opportunity to end the country’s now 23-year wait for a major trophy slip out of their grasp. Considering how La Albiceleste had played throughout the tournament, it almost appeared as if it was destiny that they would win. That Messi would finally live up to his legacy as Diego Maradona’s successor and come home as a champion. Instead, the wait continues and the 29-year-old will have to face even more criticism.

After Arturo Vidal saw the opening penalty saved by Argentina’s Sergio Romero, Messi had a chance to give his side an early advantage but he messed up on his run up to the spot and sent his shot wide left. The miss was so heartbreaking that he couldn’t stand next to his teammates on shooting line and laid motionless next to them before being pulled up. But this loss, like the previous final losses in both last year’s Copa America and the 2014 World Cup again doesn’t fall on his shoulders.

Gonzalo Higuain appeared to receive a gift from the football gods when Gary Medel missed a backpass and the striker was left alone with a golden chance against Chile’s Claudio Bravo. Yet his shot went left just past the post instead of behind goal. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

Against Germany in 2014, Higuain had a very similar chance against Manuel Neuer and also missed. Then he followed suit in Copa America 2015 in both open play and penalties, where he completely missed target, skying above goal. It is questionable whether or not the Napoli striker should have started, considering his track record, with Sergio Aguero sitting on the bench.It’s the type of decision that has left managers like Tata Martino and his predecessor Alejandro Sabella having many sleepless nights. But Higuain wasn’t alone in missing chances.

[ MORE: Chile remain Copa America champions, defeating Argentina on PKs ]

Aguero and Angel Di Maria had their chances through the match but couldn’t find precision against a gutsy Chilean side that appears determined to prove that its success in 2015 wasn’t an aberration. La Roja now has two international titles in two years and one has to believe that bigger successes could be on the horizon. There’s the Confederations Cup next year and likely the the ambition to prove its quality in Russia in 2018. Considering that Vidal and fellow star Alexis Sanchez will still be in their primes, it isn’t a far-fetched expectation.

While Jorge Sampaoli, the manager who led Chile to its first-ever tournament win, is longer around, his successor Juan Antonio Pizzi continues Chile’s disruptive style of play that makes its competitors uncomfortable and at times even agitated. On paper, Argentina appeared to have a stronger squad but its frustration was evident, with several cards handed out to both teams throughout the match. Once La Roja gained a bit of control, it seemed as if they gained the psychological edge on their competitors and that’s ultimately what sealed them the title.

It is a shame to the winners that the focus will fall back on Messi, but that’s what happens when you have a five-time Ballon D’Or winner participating in a tournament. And there were definitely times where he showed that he was finally clicking with an Argentina side where he usually struggles to replicate his outer-worldly Barcelona form. Given a free role, the freedom enabled him to crush most sides in this tournament, even with limited minutes early on. But in the final, Chile managed to contain that threat.

Yet, there was one moment that in the final that struck as symbolic of Messi’s time with Argentina. Late on in the game, Messi dribbled from the halfway mark, trying to find a teammate to pass to. Seeing an opening he continued to drive ahead, cutting past four defenders to finally take a shot that skied above a goal. It was a moment that was brilliant and reminded you of Messi’s magic. But it almost seems like he’ll have to even better than his best just to finally get Argentina its long coveted trophy. At least until his teammates finally decide to lessen the burden.

Carmelo Anthony on NASL over MLS; thoughts on Promotion/Relegation

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When Carmelo Anthony decided to buy NASL club Puerto Rico FC in 2015, many wondered why the New York Knicks star didn’t invest in Major League Soccer — the top league in the U.S. and Canada.

[ MORE: Melo on USMNT, Copa America ]

The small forward, who is a nine-time NBA All-Star, admitted that he did consider partially investing in an MLS club, but ultimately decided to go with NASL because he wanted full control of a club. Anthony subtlety hinted that MLS’ single-entity structure factored in his decision making.

“Well I like the actual business plan. I like that in the NASL, everyone runs their own business,” Anthony told NBCSports.com in an interview last Thursday. “You build your business up in the way you want to. Not being told by someone else how to build it. That was one of the keys that kind of intrigued me when I was thinking about NASL or MLS.”

He added, “It was just an opportunity from a business side, and being able to make my own rules and my own team. Run my own club and build it the way that I want to. Having 100 percent ownership of it. Whether that’s marketing or sponsors, the kicks [that players wear], concessions. Whatever it might be, I own all of it.”

Anthony’s comments suggest that MLS’s single-entity structure deterred him from deciding to join the league.

MLS declined to comment but the league is similar to other major American leagues like the NFL, NBA or MLB that the league ultimately has the final say in matters ranging from apparel makers to trades and transfers.

That is different from England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, where all 20 clubs are independent businesses who can make their own decisions on those issues.  For example, all MLS clubs use Adidas as their kit makers, whereas Premiership clubs constantly negotiate for deals independently on jerseys, warm-up outfits, etc.

The NASL is similar to the England’s top flight in that sense. Anthony’s Puerto Rico FC wears Nike, the same brand that he has a sneaker deal with for the NBA whereas the New York Cosmos’ kits are made by Under Armour.  There is also no salary cap in NASL, whereas MLS has a small salary cap of $3.66 million with exceptions against that number in the form of Designated Players and Targeted Allocation Money.

While NASL’s setup may allow owners more liberties, there are some drawbacks.

Spanish soccer star Raul (R holding trophy) celebrates with his teammates after the NASL Championship Final match between the NY Cosmos and the Ottawa Fury November 15, 2015 in Hempstead, NY. Raul has planned to retire after the match. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

For one, MLS’s single-entity structure has made the league more financially stable as clubs have revenue sharing and better sponsorship options. NASL famously folded in the 1980s due to the financial imbalance of the league. MLS is also recognized by U.S. Soccer as the top division of soccer in America, an issue that NASL has publicly criticized

It is the combination of those factors have made MLS clubs significantly worth more than NASL’s clubs, with the Seattle Sounders being the most valuable soccer club in the U.S. at $245 million. MLS franchise fees recently peaked at $100 million with NYCFC and continue to rise, whereas NASL’s fees are in single-digit millions. 

Anthony even hinted that he would be open to one day seeing his club in MLS.

“I just want to put something great together, a great product,” he said. “Not be labeled as just a NASL team, MLS team or whatever. I think if in the future or something, if that conversion were to start…and I think that may happen at some point soon….Right now, I’m trying to build this up with NASL and I see so much growth there.”

Anthony also weighed in on another big debate in the American soccer landscape; should there be a promotion/relegation system in the U.S.?

The 32-year-old, who is friends with European soccer stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Thierry Henry among others, admits he’d love to see the system come stateside – as long as it’s done in a way that works for all involved.

“I’m not against Pro/Rel, and in some instances, I’m all for it…if it’s done right. If it’s planned out right, I’m all for it. If it’s all one big division one, I’m all for it. I’m not against at all, but it has to make sense…If it helps the sport for the whole country, I’m all for it and I support it.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber has repeatedly said that his league doesn’t need Promotion/Relegation to be considered a real soccer competition. 

There are obvious reasons for that. Imagine if a team like the LA Galaxy got relegated and replaced by NASL team that’s worth $3-7 million. Less owners would be inclined to spend the huge amounts needed for franchise fees in MLS. Anthony understands those concerns, which is why despite the fact that his own club would stand to benefit financially if there was a MLS/NASL promotion setup, he thinks the system should first be experimented with the NASL and USL leagues.

“Imagine if NASL was Division 1, and USL was Division 2? Like you told teams from USL, hey you have a shot of playing in the NASL next year…So I think it what it comes to is things like stadium size and fan bases,” He said. “Because it’s like you can’t take like a big team, I don’t want to name cities, and see them get relegated to a division where they are playing teams that have like 2,000 fans a game. And obviously, you’ve got to think about that as well.”

Considering that in the NBA, there are several teams that are accused of tanking to get high draft picks, would the concept work in basketball?

“You can’t use it in a basketball sense, it only works in soccer,” Anthony quickly replied.

Carmelo Anthony amazed by soccer’s growth in USA

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It may not be a well-known fact but New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony is a big follower of the beautiful game.

The nine-time NBA All-Star made headlines last year when he purchased a soccer club, NASL side Puerto Rico FC, a team that will launch its inaugural season on July 2.

Anthony hopes that his investment will be a positive addition to the already major strides that the sport has made and believes that it will be competing with all major American sports very soon…including his NBA.

“I think in the next 15 years, soccer will be as big as any other sport here in the U.S.” Anthony told NBCSports.com exclusively in phone interview to promote his team’s friendly match against the Puerto Rican national team in New York. 

“It’s growing at a pace that no one could have ever imagined.”

Like most soccer fans in this country, he wants to see the U.S. national take the next step on the global stage and compete with the biggest teams in the world.

He believes that by opening up a team in the American commonwealth, with a heavy emphasis on academies and homegrown players, he will be able to help in his own way.

“The point is, we want our U.S. national team to compete with the Germanys and all those other countries,” he said. “But we have to start with our youth and we need to have more emphasis on our academies.”

So yes, Anthony has been following the U.S. national team to see if its will progress out of the group stage in the Copa America Centario. He recently traveled to Chicago to see the tournament hosts rebound from a 2-0 opening loss to Colombia, as the Yanks routed Costa Rica 4-0. It was a result that he said he thoroughly enjoyed and one that he believes should raise the expectations on the team.

“Well this is the time for them to show that. Show that we have the talent as a country. We can play at a high level as well. I think this is a pivotal time for the U.S. and its national team.”

Anthony is scheduled to attend the Copa America Final at MetLife Stadium on June 26, if his schedule permits. He hopes he’ll be watching the U.S. in that match.

“Yeah, I have to [want them to win]. I’m American. Go U.S.A.!”

You can bet if the team makes it that far, Melo will be there.

Belgium tragedy affects NY Red Bulls star Sacha Kljestan closely

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NEW YORK — Sacha Kljestan spent four years in Brussels playing for one of the country’s biggest clubs in Anderlecht – a team that he helped win seven domestic trophies, including three league titles.

During his time there, he was welcome with open arms in the streets of Belgium’s capital and fan in the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium constantly made the U.S. international feel at home by chanting USA, USA, whenever he made an impact. So when news broke that about the bombings at the metro station and airport at Brussels, it hit Kljestan very closely.

“It hits close to home. I’m sure some of my former teammates or friends know somebody, a friend of friend or a family member, who was affected this morning,” Kljestan told NBCSports.com at an Adidas event that promoted the company’s new ACE 16 boot on Tuesday. “It’s terrible, there’s not much positive to say about it. It’s sad and I just hope that everyone over there is OK.”

Kljestan while playing at Anderlecht
Kljestan while playing at Anderlecht

Fortunately for Kljestan, none of his friends or former teammates at Anderlecht were harmed by Tuesday’s tragedy which saw at least 30 people lose their lives. However, the incident did have its impact on them. The metro bombing happened nearby the neighborhood from where the 30-year-old current New York Red Bulls midfielder used to live. Several of his teammates and friends also live in that area.

“It’s just scary to think about. It was just 14 months ago that I was living there. The metro station that was hit this morning [Tuesday] is less than a mile from my apartment.

“I never felt unsafe when I lived there but it’s scary for everyone who is there now. I hope that they stay strong and that they know that we’re all thinking about them. I’m praying for them.”

During his time at Anderlecht, Kljestan was fortunate enough to play with several notable stars including Romelu Lukaku, who now is an elite striker for Everton, and emerging young midfield talent Youri Tielemans, the teen who is drawing interest from Real Madrid. Kljestan didn’t mention which teammates he spoke to but he emphasized that they all mentioned the same thing.

“The message I kept on getting is that it could happen to anyone. You never think it could happen to you until something does. We’re here in New York City and we all remember what happened in 2001…When it does, it changes your life forever.”