US Women – She Believe’s Cup vs Brazil –Wed 7 pm HBO Max
Swanson scores her 6th in 4 games as Japan gave the US all it could handle on Sunday (highlights). Japan is a very organized side and we shouldn’t have too much concern that they had as much possession as they had overall. I thought GK Casey Murphy might have been player of the match with her clutch saves down the stretch preserving the clean sheet. The defense looked stagared at times especially Alana Cook as once again she gave away the ball which lead to the best shot of the game for Japan – (she simply can not be a player in central defense if the US wants to win the World Cup this summer. Its Girma and Becky in the middle PERIOD! I thought the midfield got overrun a little this game as Horan was horrific and Sanchez wasn’t much better. I thought Mewis had some good moments and should get a look instead of Horan this next game. I might even give Dunn a run at the #8 to see how she does after her complaints in GQ. If Lavelle is still hurt – sit Horan and give Dunn a run at the #8 slot dropping in some with Sullivan in a double pivot. Give Mewis a chance up top to create more maybe with Rodman along side? I would love to have the “issues” coach A has in the midfield. Tons of talent here –needs to get them to work together right however. Again you have to follow the USWNT on twitter Moms, Moms 2
Shane’s Starters vs Brazil Wed 7 pm HBO Max
Rapino, Morgan, Swanson
Fox, Sauerbrunn, Girma, Sonnet
Champions League Tues/Wed 3 pm CBS
This week gives us Liverpool hosting Cup holders Real Madrid on Tuesday at 3 pm on CBS and Wednesday’s Man City vs RB Leipzig game on CBS Wed. Again great to see these top games on network TV while the others are on Paramount + with a full 1/2 lead in show on CBS and post game coverage on Para+. The 2-2 Barcelona vs Man United game was all you could want on Thursday setting up the return to Ole Trafford on Thursday at 3 pm on Paramount plus must watch TV – again CBSSN will have the wrap-around coverage starting at 12:30-5 pm. (lots of stories below)
MLS Starts season Sat – on Apple TV Subscription
So the MLS season starts this Saturday and I should be excited but just 2 games are on network TV – and not the good ones. Oh and if you have Apple TV already like me and was thinking cool I can watch. NOPE you have to buy the subscription. So instead of talking all about how MLS is doing things right by giving us El Traffico in The ROSE BOWL for the first time ever – a sold out game with over 85K in attendance hopefully – I will tell you tough you can’t watch it. Between US soccer putting most games on HBO Max and now MLS going to Apple TV Subscription only, along with Paramount+ for Champions League and Peacock for EPL, and ESPN+ for Bundesliga and Spain – this might just be the final straw for me. Oh and they don’t have a new playoff format yet. Mickey Mouse crap right there. Sorry MLS I don’t care enough to pay to $80 a year to watch your semi-decent games. Good luck!! Oh there are 2 games on actual TV – Sat has Nashville and NYCFC Sat at 4 pm on FOX and Sunday has Seattle hosting Colorado on Fox Sports 1. I WON’T be Watching.
GAMES ON TV
(American’s names in Parenthesis)
Tues, Feb 21 Champions League
3 pm Para+ Liverpool vs Real Madrid
3 pm Para+ Frankfurt vs Napoli
5 pm FS2 U17 Mexico vs El Salvador
8 pm FS2 U17 Guautamala vs USA
Weds, Feb 22 Champions League
3 pm Para+ RB Leipzig vs Man City
3 pm Para+ Inter Milan vs Porto
4 pm FS2 U17 Puerta Rico vs Canada
7 pm HBO Max USWMNT vs Brazil
8 pm FS2 U17 Panama vs Honduras
Thurs, Feb 23 Europa League
12:30 pm Para+ Sevilla vs PSV
12:30 Para+ Nantes vs Juve
3 pm Para+ Man U vs Barcelona
3 pm Para+ Union Berlin (Pfuk) vs Ajax vs
3 pm Para+ Salzburg vs Roma
Fri, Feb 24
2:30 pm ESPN+ Mainz vs B Mgladbach (Scaly)
3 pm USA Fulham (Ream, Jedi) vs Wolverhampton
3 pm beIN Sport Lille (Weah) vs Brest
5pm FS2 U17 Semis
8 pm FS2 U17 Semis
8 pm FS2 Juerez vs Leon
Sat, Feb 25
7:30 am USA Aston Villa vs Arsenal
9:30 am ESPN+ Hoffenheim vs Dortmund (Reyna)
10 am USA Leeds United (Adams, Mckinney, Aaronson) vs Southampton
10 am Peacock Leicester City vs Aston Villa
12:30 pm ESPN+ Real Madrid vs Atletico MADRID DERBY
12:30 pm NBC Bournmouth vs Man City
2:45 pm ? Crystal Palace vs Liverpool
4:30 pm Fox Nashville vs NYCFC MLS
8 pm Univision Tigres vs Guadalajara
9:30 pm Apple TV LA Galaxy vs LAFC
10 pm Univision Atlas vs America
Sun, Feb 26
8:30 am USA Tottenham vs Brentford
11:30 am ESPN+ Man United vs New Castle League Cup
11:30 am ESPN+ Union Berlin (Pfuk) vs Bayern Munich
2:45 pm Para+ Milan vs Atalanta
5 pm FS2 U17 CONCACAF FINALS
8 pm Fox Sport 1 Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids
10 pm FS2 Tijuana vs Pachuca
Tues, Feb 28 Champions League
Weds, Mar 1 Champions League
Soccer Saturday’s are every Sat 9-10 am on 93.5 and 107.5 FM with Greg Rakestraw
US Ladies -She Believes Cup
Mallory Swanson’s brilliance overrides another worrying USWNT performance
USWNT proves finishing quality, but midfield worries linger in Japan win ESPNFC Jeff Carlisle
MAL SWANSON EXTENDS SCORING STREAK AS USWNT BEATS JAPAN
VLATKO ANDONOVSKI: USWNT IS IN ‘PRESEASON MODE’ AT SHEBELIEVES CUP
USWNT COACH: CRYSTAL DUNN WOULD FACE ‘STIFF COMPETITION’ IN MIDFIELD
THE CASE FOR MOVING CRYSTAL DUNN INTO THE USWNT MIDFIELD
Andonovski: No one’s forcing Dunn to play LB
USWNT survives vs. Japan in SheBelieves Cup with 1-0 win
Swanson strikes again as US women defeat Japan
ALEX MORGAN PRAISES NASHVILLE AS ‘GREAT CANDIDATE’ FOR NWSL EXPANSION
Australian women upset powerhouse Spain in World Cup warm-up
Earnie Stewart, U.S. Soccer’s outgoing sporting czar, is leaving behind a vision
U.S., Mexico, Canada get auto spots at ’26 WC 7dAssociated Press
U.S. women’s national team roster by position (Club; Caps/Goals) — 2023 SheBelieves Cup:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Adrianna Franch (Kansas City Current; 10), Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage; 12), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars; 87)
DEFENDERS (7): Alana Cook (OL Reign; 21/0), Emily Fox (North Carolina Courage; 24/0), Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC; 128/24), Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC; 12/0), Sofia Huerta (OL Reign; 27/0), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC; 212/0), Emily Sonnett (OL Reign; 70/1)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA; 123/26), Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC; 9/2), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign; 86/24), Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC; 47/7), Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit; 19/3), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit; 39/3)
FORWARDS (7): Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit; 15/5), Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave FC; 201/120), Midge Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC; 22/4), Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign; 197/63), Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit; 12/2), Mallory Swanson (Chicago Red Stars; 84/28), Lynn Williams (NJ/NY Gotham FC; 49/15)
Revenge helped Ancelotti get wins vs. Liverpool. What will their Champions League clashes bring? Graham Hunter
Why Brazil wants Liverpool to knock Real Madrid out of the Champions League Tim Vickery
Inter’s Inzaghi hoping to turn tide against Italy’s bogey team Porto
Leipzig’s ‘difference maker’ Nkunku returns for Man City showdown
Man City fighting fires ahead of Champions League test
Vinicius a joy to behold for Ancelotti in face of racism rows
Champions League: 11 things to look forward to in the knockout stages
clutch saves by US Casey Murphy
Great Saves Champions League last week
Takeaways from USWNT vs. Japan: SheBelieves Cup challenge delivers valuable lessons
By Steph Yang and Meg Linehaneb 20, 2023 The Athletic
Before the SheBelieves Cup, Megan Rapinoe said she hoped the U.S. women’s national team got metaphorically “punched in the face” by the competition from top-level challengers as the teams prepare for the 2023 World Cup. The tournament opener against Canada didn’t quite live up to the usual standards – understandably so, considering everything happening off the field with Canada’s dispute against its federation. But on Sunday, Japan limited the U.S. to only five shots, two of them on frame, and a single corner kick.USWNT forward Mallory Swanson, again, provided the game-winner against Japan. Teammate Alex Morgan set up the play in midfield, settling a pass with her chest before turning and sending a ball upfield. Swanson might have had the edge in speed over the sole Japanese defender trying to stop her, Shiori Miyake, but she also took two perfect touches with the ball still in the air at full speed to eventually shift to the dribble before using her right foot to shoot toward the far corner.Despite some late scares against Japan, the U.S. is heading to Texas with two wins. What lies ahead promises to be a fun, tasty match-up against Brazil for the SheBelieves Cup finale in Frisco. Before looking ahead, it’s worth digging into what head coach Vlatko Andonovski and the players said in Nashville following the most instructive look at the USWNT ahead of the World Cup yet.
Let’s keep talking about Mal
Swanson, in almost every game this calendar year, has been the main story when it comes to offensive output for the USWNT. Sunday’s goal was another display of the various tools at her disposal for striking at a moment’s notice.“Three times before that, I was offside. Vlatko told me to not be offside,” she said in the mixed zone, with a smile, waiting for a laugh. “So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not gonna be offside on this one.’”Andonovski was all smiles when he talked about Swanson after the game.“She certainly makes my life a little easier,” he said. “It’s not just the speed. Obviously, the speed that she has helps, but she controlled the ball and took two touches on a juggle in the air (at) full speed. That’s technicality. I mean, that’s a very skillful player.”
More critically, Swanson thought the limited looks against goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita and Japan’s backline were a good reminder for the entire team — not just the new kids — that creating chances in a World Cup will be just as tough, if not tougher. “I had one shot on goal today, and actually (Rapinoe) told me, ‘You’re only going to have so many chances in big games and you just need to put them away,’” Swanson said. “I think that is definitely a lesson that everyone needs to learn.”Before the summer tournament, the USWNT also learned it has a few more things to fine-tune, especially against a competitor like Japan.“There were a couple of times where, on throw-ins, I wasn’t in the right position,” Swanson said, “and it led us to have to defend more against a very good team that can keep the ball.”
The midfield (again) and the tactical battle against Japan
The U.S. continues to add to its toolbox with the implementation of its 4-2-3-1 formation, which at times struggled to handle Japan’s aggressive 3-4-3. “It was a tough game for the midfielders because they had to solve problems consistently,” Andonovski said. “And every time we saw the problem, there was a different challenge, different problem, and I think that Japan’s national team was superb. They’re such a good team and they’re so organized and so fluid in the way they interchange position and find the areas.”Andonovski credited forwards Ashely Sanchez and Morgan for handling a switch in formation at halftime to adjust to Japan, although he conceded that, as they added substitutes, “things started falling apart a little.”“When we started there was a slight adjustment in the build-up,” he said. “We lowered one of the fullbacks a little bit, but the main adjustment came in the second half. When we were in the mid-block in the first half we defended in 4-2-4, 4-4-2 with Sanchez and Alex (Morgan) on top. And in the second half, we defended in 4-2-3-1 with Sanchez behind.” Overall, Andonovski said the switch gave the staff a good picture of what to expect and how to adjust against opponents with similarly aggressive formations. He also recognized midfielder Kristie Mewis as one of the team’s problem solvers with how she adjusted and helped the team stay in possession (perhaps a clue to how the head coach is leaning when it comes to trimming his final World Cup roster).
“Clean, good touch on the ball,” Andonovski said of Mewis. “She connected very well with the players around and did bring a little calmness (to) the team.”
Mewis was part of a group of players that Andonovski said was an intentional construction to address Japan pressing the U.S. in specific areas. That group also included Lindsey Horan, Alana Cook, and Naomi Girma. The results were mixed.
“I don’t think that we did a good job on controlling and protecting the ball once we got a little bit higher up (the field),” Andonovski said. “But I was actually very happy with the composure of the center backs and composure of the midfielders, especially when they were under pressure.”
Clutch from Casey Murphy
Goalkeeper Casey Murphy had a much busier afternoon Sunday in Nashville than she did during the USWNT’s trip to New Zealand last month. (In the second match against the Ferns in January, Murphy was in goal for a 5-0 win and faced zero shots.) Against Japan, Murphy made two saves on two shots on target. It felt significant for preserving the win against Japan, keeping the U.S. on top of the SheBelieves table as well as a key marker for Murphy’s ongoing development ahead of the World Cup.“It’s those last 20 minutes that you’ve really got to hone in, especially when you’re holding onto a 1-0 lead. That ultra focus, making sure you’re just communicating, organizing, doing everything you can to help the team get the win,” Murphy said. The game provided meaningful minutes for Murphy to build her relationships with center back pairings she might encounter in World Cup matches. “It’s the most important thing for me,” she said. “Each game, each practice, is an opportunity to do that, so that’s always a focus of mine.” With as much rotation and movement that the U.S. played with on Sunday, none of it rattled Murphy despite her relatively recent run of appearance. “At the end of the day, we have a game plan,” she said. “The players do a really good job adapting to what’s given to us and what’s presented to us, and I’m so confident when I look up the field and see the other 10 players because they’re so good.”Murphy’s performance is also a reminder of the goalkeeping pool the U.S. has this summer. “On our team, we’re very happy we have three incredible goalkeepers who are competing for minutes on a daily basis, and we feel comfortable with all three of them,” Andonovski said. “And the fact that we can throw Alyssa (Naeher) in game one and she shows her world-class abilities, and then we have Casey in game two and then she shows that she’s capable of making big saves and being there for the team, it just shows what this team is all about.”
Rotation was the theme in Nashville. It’s important to remember that while player evaluation is still playing a role, so is a simple fact that it’s February.“We rotated a lot of players, and part of the reason was because we wanted to see certain players in the game like Kristie (Mewis) and Lynn (Williams),” Andonovski said. “But part of the reason was because of minute management. Our players are still in preseason mode, they’re not ready for three 90-minute games, and that’s why players like Alex (Morgan) or Mal (Swanson) are not finishing the games.”With a new-ish formation and players in varying states of readiness, the game against Japan was pretty clearly about continuing to answer roster questions as much as it was to prepare for the World Cup and simulate a group stage.Andonvoski seemed pleased overall with the result. The U.S. did look individually shaky in spots on the field, but even with players making mistakes, they never looked especially worried even when Japan pressured them hard in their half.
“There were moments in the game that we got exposed, and we were forced inside — not necessarily forced — but we made some changes, and adjusted the system a little bit,” Andonovski said. “The players had to adjust on the fly, and I think that was a very good learning opportunity, a very good moment for us. We were able to solve some problems. I’m sure there’s still more that we need to solve, and we’re going to look at videos and figure out how to do that as well.”
USWNT proves finishing quality, but midfield problems linger after beating Japan in SheBelieves Cup
Feb 19, 2023 ESPNFC Jeff Carlisle U.S. soccer correspondent
The U.S. women’s national team defeated Japan 1-0 to claim its second victory in as many tries at the SheBelieves Cup.Mallory Swanson — who else? — claimed the game’s only goal on a breakaway late in the first half after being released by Alex Morgan. And while the U.S. was made to sweat at times in the face of Japan‘s technical ability, the defense held firm to secure the win.Brazil plays Canada later Sunday, and that result will determine what kind of result the USWNT needs to win the tournament for the fourth time in a row in their last game of the tournament Wednesday. However, winning the SheBelieves Cup is secondary to preparation for the World Cup, which begins in five months.
1. USWNT wins a different kind of game
The USWNT’s tournament-opening 2-0 win over Canada saw the U.S. start fast and furious, creating numerous turnovers off its press on its way to a two-goal lead by halftime. Sunday’s match against Japan was completely different and the Americans were pushed way out of their comfort zone at times.While the U.S. had the edge in possession during the first half (55%-45%), the match seemed to be played on the Nadeshiko‘s terms. Japan forced numerous turnovers, and made the U.S. look disjointed in attack.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
– Read on ESPN+: Why Man Utd won’t win the Prem
Then, in one swift move, the U.S. took the lead. Sofia Huerta hit a long ball to Alex Morgan in the center circle, and she immediately played forward to Swanson. At first it looked like Japan defender Shiori Miyake had the angle to get to the ball first. But Swanson’s speed proved decisive and she soon got herself in the clear and delivered a cool finish past Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita. Swanson’s five-game scoring streak is the longest by a USWNT player since Christen Press scored in six straight from November 2019 to February 2020, per ESPN Stats & Information.The U.S. looked a little sharper to start the second half, but Japan finished the match with flurry, and the USWNT had goalkeeper Casey Murphy to thank for preserving the win. Fuka Nagano went close in the 79th minute with a drive that went just over the bar. Yui Hasegawa then forced a sharp save from Murphy two minutes later. June Endo had another opportunity in second half stoppage time, but Murphy was on hand again to make the save.Overall, this will be precisely the kind of challenge that U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski wanted for his players in one of their final matches before the Women’s World Cup in July. But he’ll have some questions to ponder as he goes deeper in his pre-World Cup preparations, especially with regard to his midfield.
2. Finishing makes the difference for USWNT as Japan can’t do it
Japan has long played an aesthetically pleasing style, adept at keeping the ball while staying organized in the back. It is on the back of these traits that the Nadeshiko have been among the best teams in the world, including their triumph at the 2011 World Cup.But finding a high-scoring forward has historically been a challenge. The since-retired Homare Sawa was primarily a midfielder, and remains Japan’s all-time leading scorer with 83 goals in 205 appearances.The SheBelieves Cup has highlighted once again Japan’s lack of cutting edge from its forward line. Against Brazil the Nadeshiko had the edge in expected goals 1.40-1.19. In Sunday’s match against the U.S., Japan again had the edge in xG, or expected goals, (0.94-0.70) as well as more shots (15-5), but it couldn’t convert, despite some stellar chances late.Compare that with what the U.S. is experiencing at the moment, where Swanson simply cannot stop scoring. Afterward, Swanson spoke to reporters about refocusing her approach last year to make sure she could finish the easy chances she should. And even if Swanson’s form drops off at some point, the U.S. has the kind of depth that teams would give just about anything to have.This result showed once again that while midfielder play is important, games are often won and lost in the respective penalty areas.
3. The USWNT should be worried about the midfield
After hailing the performance of his midfield against Canada, Andonovski went with a different look against Japan. Kristie Mewis was deployed as the No. 6 in her first start in nearly a year, with Ashley Sanchez as the No. 10 and Lindsey Horan positioned further forward than she was against Canada.While Mewis did her bit in terms of helping out the back line, the trio seemed less than the sum of its parts.
- 5 World Cup questions the USWNT need answered at the SheBelieves Cup7dESPN
- Andonovski: No one’s forcing Dunn to play LB 3dJeff Carlisle
- USWNT stronger after pre-WC wake-up call – Lilly3dJoey Lynch
Horan in particular looked out of sorts, losing the ball nine times in her own half during her time on the field. Sanchez had no influence on the game and was deservedly taken off after 65 minutes. While generating chances is a team-wide responsibility, the fact that the U.S. attempted five shots Sunday — its fewest in a game since Aug. 6, 2016, vs. France in the Rio Olympics — it’s clear the midfield didn’t function as it should.
So what does Andonovski do now?
He mentioned after the Canada game that his midfield alignment oftentimes changes from game-to-game depending on the opponent. But the U.S. seems more solid when Horan drops down to form a double pivot.
What the U.S. manager does against Brazil will provide another data point as to his preferred approach as the World Cup beckons.
Best and worst performers
Best: Mallory Swanson, USWNT
What else is there to say at this point? Swanson is in the kind of form that forwards dream about, and doesn’t seem like giving up her spot in the starting XI anytime soon.
Best: Casey Murphy, USWNT
There have been plenty of questions about the goalkeeper spot behind presumed starter Alyssa Naeher. But Murphy delivered some sharp saves late to preserve the win for the USWNT.
Best: Fuka Nagano, Japan
The Japanese midfielder was at the heart of the Nadeshiko‘s best moves, was tidy on the ball and did plenty to put the U.S. midfield off its game.
Worst: Shiori Miyake, Japan
Yes, Swanson’s speed is a nightmare to deal with, but Miyake needed to do better in her duel that led to the game’s only goal.
Worst: Lindsey Horan, USWNT
Horan just didn’t look herself, as she lost the ball in uncharacteristically bad spots. Can she rebound against Brazil?
Worst: Ashley Sanchez, USWNT
Needed to get on the ball more than the 28 touches she had in 65 minutes.
Highlights and notable moments
It was a relatively lackluster first half for the USWNT as their press, which coach Vlatko Andonovski said beforehand he wanted to reach a higher level in this game, wasn’t pinning Japan back as hoped.But then the USWNT did some old-fashioned direct soccer, getting the ball upfield quickly for Mallory Swanson, who finished it well one-on-one with the goalkeeper.Japan had one of their better chances on goal in the 81st minute, but USWNT goalkeeper Casey Murphy made the block.
After the match: What the players and manager said
USWNT forward Mallory Swanson on takeaways from this game: “So, I feel like this game wasn’t the best performance, but it’s going to be like that sometimes. Japan’s a very good team, very technical, they move off the ball very well, so it’s good that we were able to play them and see that we need to be more disciplined in our defending, be patient. Also, we need to figure out, when we’re on the field, what can we do to break them down? I think we could’ve probably played a couple more balls in behind into seam three to stretch them, but I think overall it was a good test for us. Sometimes, games are just going to be like this, you’re going to have to grind them out.”Swanson on why she’s in such good form: “Honestly, this offseason I kind of reevaluated my game, and one thing was that I wasn’t finishing easy chances all of last calendar now. I just wanted to come into this year and finish easy chances and put them away.”
USWNT defender Naomi Girma on why Mallory Swanson keeps scoring when needed: “I think she’s just anticipating us winning the ball, making the run, and we’re giving her good balls in behind and when she’s out in front of a back line, we always know she’s going to finish that.”
USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski on the result: “We knew that we were gonna see different challenges and there were moments in the game that we got exposed and we were forced — not necessarily forced, but we made some changes and or adjust our system a little bit. The players had to adjust on the fly. And I think that was a very good, learning opportunity, a very good moment for us because we were able to solve some problems. I’m sure there’s still more that we need to solve. And we’re going to look at the videos and figure out how to do that as well.”
Andonovski on the midfield and Kristie Mewis starting there in a new role: “It was a tough, tough game for the midfielders because they had to solve problems consistently, and every time we solve a problem, there was a different challenge, a different problem, and I think that Japan’s national team, they were superb. They’re such a good team, and they’re so organized and so fluid, fluent in the way they interchange positions and find the areas. So for, for Kristie to come in this game and constantly solve problems really good for us to see how she’s gonna adjust in those moments, but also in possession. I thought she was really good, clean, good touch on the ball, she connected very well with the players around and did bring a little calm on the team, which I thought was very important at different times of the game.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
- Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) scored her team-leading sixth goal of the 2023 calendar year. It’s also Swanson’s fifth straight match with a goal, and her first time scoring in five straight games for the USWNT in her career.
- Swanson’s five-game scoring streak is the longest by a USWNT player since Christen Press scored in six straight from November 2019 to February 2020.
- The USWNT attempted five shots in this game, the team’s fewest in a game since Aug. 6, 2016, vs. France in the Rio Olympics (also a 1-0 win). By comparison, Japan had 15 shots.
- The expected goals, or xG, for this game, which is a measure of the quality of scoring games each team created: USA 0.70 xG, JPN 0.94 xG.
- Kristie Mewis made her first start for the USWNT since last year’s SheBelieves Cup on Feb. 23, 2022, against Iceland. She started as a No. 6 defensive midfielder with Lindsey Horan and Ashley Sanchez in the central midfield, the trio’s first time ever starting a match together.
United States: The USWNT continues the SheBelieves Cup when the Americans face Brazil on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.
Japan: The Japan WNT continues the SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday when it faces Canada at 4 p.m. ET.
USWNT COACH: CRYSTAL DUNN WOULD FACE ‘STIFF COMPETITION’ IN MIDFIELD
Crystal Dunn could compete for any position she chooses on the USWNT, according to Vlatko Andonovski.On Friday, an interview with GQ was published in which Dunn discussed the emotional toll it takes on her to step into the USWNT and play as a defender.“I think it’s hard because I’m the only one who has to do it,” she said. “I step into camp, and I feel like I lose a part of myself. I no longer get to be Crystal who scores goals, assists, is this attacking player.“I step into an environment where I have to be world-class in a position that I don’t think is my best position. But I’ve owned it. I’ve made it my own, and I’ve tried to create it in my most authentic way. But I don’t love it.”But Andonovski doesn’t view Dunn that way, calling her “world class” at left back on Saturday during media availability.“As a left back she is world-class and probably one of the best left backs in the world. As a midfielder she has a pretty stiff competition in that position. So everybody has a choice. And then we make the decisions,” he said, adding that Dunn has the freedom to also go out and play on the wing.“Any player can compete at any position and I would be open to anything,” he said. “But if I was a player on the national team right now, Mallory Swanson is probably the last player that I would want to compete against.“So, we don’t exclude anything at this moment. And we see Crystal even throughout the games, she has the liberty to go forward as a left-wing. We have seen her in the middle getting the ball and doing her thing, which she’s also special at in the midfield. But if we feel like at any point in time she’s going to be better suited in those positions and give us the best chance to be successful, then we can see her there.”Andonovski added that he had not yet read the article, and wasn’t fully familiar with what exactly Dunn said. Still, the conversation has come up about her switching positions, he said. But Dunn is still making her way back from maternity leave, and he says that putting her in at defender is the best way to get her back out on the field.“I actually think her playing in the position that she’s playing for us right now is the easiest thing that we can do or easiest for her to get back out,” he said. “Because once she comes in this environment it’s almost like a switch now, without even us trying to say anything, or before she even comes in, she’s already preparing: ‘Okay, this is where I feel most comfortable. This is where I want to be. And this is what I’m good at.’”But, as she continues to make her way back to a full 90 minutes, Andonovski says Dunn is always allowed to compete for a spot in the midfield.“Dunny, obviously she’s a world-class player. But she has a choice too,” he said. “Like she can compete as a midfielder, she has to compete with Rose Lavelle, and Lindsey Horan and Catarina Macario when she comes in as well, right. So if she doesn’t feel comfortable playing left back or she doesn’t want to be left back, nobody is forced to play in any position.”Still, it isn’t the first time Andonovski has heard about Dunn’s dissatisfaction at defender, and lately she hasn’t expressed further frustrations.“Nobody’s forced to play on the national team. Nobody’s forced to play in any position,” he said. “Every time I’ve talked to Crystal, she just shares how much she enjoys being on the team, and loves helping the team being successful.“Obviously as a coach, I’m happy to hear that and I’m happy to help her in the position, or the tasks that she has to do.”Speaking to The Athletic, Dunn said that she knows what her role is on the USWNT.“I step into this environment, I know exactly what my role is. I know my strengths. And it’s not at all to say like, ‘Hey, I am not happy.’ But I think it’s more so to say like, ‘This is how I feel internally at times,’ and it’s okay to express that,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m, you know, trying to cause havoc or a stir or anything like that. I think at the end of the day, it’s really just being authentic.”
Editor’s note: This piece was published in November 2022. The debate over Crystal Dunn’s best position with the U.S. women’s national team has resurfaced after she shared the difficulty of switching between midfield and defense in a profile for GQ Sports.
There’s no doubt about it: The U.S. women’s national team has missed Crystal Dunn. Off the field for most of 2022, the 30-year-old has been working her way back into soccer fitness after giving birth to her son, Marcel, in May. As Dunn gets closer to a full return, one big question has lingered: Where on the USWNT roster would she play?
Dunn began her USWNT career as a forward after winning the NWSL Golden Boot and MVP awards in 2015, but her versatility has been utilized heavily over the years. On the two U.S. rosters she’s made in 2022, she’s been listed as a defender, having carved out a role at outside back during the USWNT’s run to the 2019 World Cup title. For her club, however, she consistently plays in the midfield and has been very open about her preference to thrive in a position where she feels most comfortable.
All current signs point to Vlatko Andonovski’s intention to have Dunn return to outside back, but for the sake of the argument, let’s do a brainstorming exercise. What would it look like to play Crystal Dunn in the midfield? And could the USWNT use her there?
IT’S NOT A NEW ROLE
The idea of Dunn playing in the midfield doesn’t come out of nowhere; she’s assumed that role successfully for her club teams for years. After playing for the Washington Spirit and Chelsea as a forward early in her career, Dunn joined the North Carolina Courage’s box midfield in 2018. Paired in the attacking midfield with Debinha, and supported by defensive midfielders Sam Mewis and Denise O’Sullivan, Dunn helped North Carolina rise from a contender to a league-crushing super club.
The Courage won the NWSL Shield and Championship in 2018 and 2019, with Dunn’s playmaking ability and defensive tenacity at the heart of that success. In 2019, she won every domestic trophy possible as an attacking midfielder while also playing as a starting outside back for the USWNT in the World Cup. The toll it took on her was noticeable at the time.
“I struggled mentally. I had to take some time off from this club,” Dunn told the media in 2019. “Because I was battling, trying to be the world’s best [No.] 10, the world’s best forward on this team, and then go into national team camp.”
In 2021, Dunn joined Portland’s midfield, working in a dual-No. 8 system with Lindsey Horan. She and Horan would drift off of each other’s movements, anchored by the stellar play of Angela Salem behind them. Dunn appeared comfortable moving into wide and central areas while coordinating with Horan for pressing triggers on defense.
That Thorns team won the NWSL Shield, but the Mark Parsons-led midfield project was cut short by Dunn’s pregnancy, Horan’s subsequent loan to Olympique Lyon and Parsons’ departure for the Netherlands head coaching job. Dunn returned to Rhian Wilkinson’s Thorns in the last couple of months of the 2022 NWSL season. Coming in late to games, Dunn replaced other connecting midfielders as the No. 8 and helped seal results, including this year’s NWSL Championship.
A DEFENSIVE-MINDED MIDFIELDER
The world was reminded of what Dunn can bring in the attack when she smashed the semifinal game-winner that sent Portland to the 2022 NWSL title game. There’s also the argument that the USWNT doesn’t lack attacking talent, and it’s difficult to carve out Dunn’s place as a forward-hybrid when a number of other qualified players can’t break into the player pool in the same position.Dunn’s experience as a wide defender, however, shouldn’t be used against her possible inclusion in the midfield; in fact, that versatility should be considered an asset. In her short time back with Portland in 2022, Dunn’s energy as a 1v1 defender from an advanced position made closing out games very difficult for her opponents.Dunn’s recovery speed could also be a big help in the middle of the pitch. The USWNT has struggled to shore up space in front of the center-backs against top competition, employing a lone defensive midfielder despite the prolonged absence of Julie Ertz. The USWNT’s No. 6 has been caught on an island at times, leaving other players unsupported in the middle of the pitch.In recent international games, every USWNT midfielder has had to decide whether to step up defensively or fall back into an off-the-ball position. Dunn’s decisiveness as a connecting midfielder could make a huge difference as the U.S. tries to control the middle of the pitch and support the No. 6. And the fact that she can spring attacks should be considered a bonus.
There are two key factors to moving Dunn into the USWNT’s midfield: room in the middle three and a successor at left-back.The USWNT’s commitment to a 4-3-3 formation doesn’t leave a ton of room for experimentation, with clear roles for the No. 6 (usually Andi Sullivan or Sam Coffey), a box-to-box No. 8 (Lindsey Horan) and a No. 10 who can also drift into wide spaces (Rose Lavelle). Against opponents that bunker down on defense, the U.S. will sometimes play with a more attacking-minded approach, bringing on Ashley Sanchez to connect with Lavelle.Against more possession-minded opponents, though, there’s room to give Dunn a look. She can help settle areas where the U.S. is often prone to turnovers with her dribbling, and as shown in Portland this year, teams have a hard time compensating for her as a super sub. Using Dunn as a 1-2 punch with Horan — not unlike the rotation of Horan and Sam Mewis in 2019 — could give the U.S. midfield some stability without fully overhauling the formation. As for what Dunn leaves behind her at outside back, the emergence of Emily Fox and development of Hailie Mace offer some relief to a position that was once considered a depth concern for the USWNT. Fox has struggled with injury and illness in 2022, but if she can stay healthy, the left-back rotation is more stable.There’s also the simple fact that no other current player in the USWNT pool plays such a starkly different role for country as they do for club. Sofia Huerta is the most recent example of a converted outside back, but she now plays the role consistently for OL Reign. Mace played as a wingback for the Kansas City Current this season, and Emily Sonnett is a center-back who can play wide when needed.“New coach coming in for the national team, wherever he sees me, I have to say, ‘If you want me playing in this position, I’m going to be the best in that position,’” Dunn said in 2019.Every national team manager has to give something up to get the best out of their team, but in a perfect world, the USWNT would have Crystal Dunn at her most comfortable rather than split into two positions, expending the mental energy to adapt.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.
MLS may use 18-team playoffs; U.S. Soccer exploring new training center/HQ
By Sam Stejskal and Paul TenorioFeb 6, 2023192
Fewer than four weeks remain until the start of the Major League Soccer season, but the league has still not finalized its playoff format for 2023. As reported by The Athletic early last month, all signs point to the league introducing a best-of-three series for the first round and transitioning to a single-elimination format for the conference semifinals and beyond.Sources said that the motivations behind the likely change are to increase the overall number of matches to provide more inventory for MLS Season Pass on Apple TV and to create more game-related revenue for owners. The league, sources said, also wants the format change because it would ensure that every playoff participant hosts at least one postseason match.MLS used a single-elimination format from 2019-2022, in which the top seven teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs. That setup provided plenty of drama, but involved just 13 total postseason matches and didn’t guarantee that every participant would host a game.Sources provided The Athletic with an additional update this week, saying that, as part of the proposed shift to a best-of-three first-round, MLS is also considering expanding the field to include nine teams from each conference. If adopted, the eighth and ninth seeds would contest a play-in match, with the winner advancing to face the first seed from their respective conference in the best-of-three conference quarterfinals. This format would include a minimum of 25 playoff matches.Beyond increasing inventory for Apple and generating additional revenue for owners, the thrust of the idea, the sources said, is to keep more teams in contention for playoff places later in the regular season. Allowing 18 total teams into the field would also mean that 62 percent of the league’s 29 teams would qualify for the postseason, which would certainly mean more teams in the running. But it could also dilute the overall quality of the playoff tournament and further decrease the stakes around regular season matches in the early and middle portions of the year, a long-standing problem for MLS.The sources said that the MLS product strategy committee, a powerful group of owners and executives that drives most of the competitive and roster-related decisions made by the league, is set to meet in the Palm Springs, Calif. area next week, wherethe group is expected to discuss and finalize the potential playoff changes.The MLS regular season kicks off on Feb. 25.
U.S. Soccer considering building national training center
Late in 2022, U.S. Soccer sent an email to select individuals letting them know that the federation was considering a capital campaign looking to raise up to $300 million to help build a new training center, headquarters and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) innovation lab.Sources familiar with the federation’s plans told The Athletic last week that Atlanta and Cary, N.C. are among the cities being considered for the training center and headquarters. The Atlanta-area site would be an entirely new development, while the site in Cary would leverage some of the existing infrastructure and facilities at WakeMed Soccer Park. In addition to being home of the NWSL team North Carolina Courage and USL League One side North Carolina FC, WakeMed Soccer Park has hosted numerous senior and youth national team matches and camps since it opened in 2002. It was also the setting for perhaps the most infamous photo shoot in team history.
According to the email, if completed, the national training center would include “14+ groomed fields” for the U.S. senior, youth and extended national teams as well as “cutting-edge training facilities, collaborative workspaces, high-tech sporting equipment (and) medical resources for injury prevention and recovery.” The site would also be a new headquarters for USSF staff, which is now housed in an office building in downtown Chicago after the federation left its longtime home in the city’s South Loop neighborhood last summer.
If constructed, the DEIB lab would serve, according to the federation’s email, “as an incubator and funder for the best and most effective diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging projects to impact lives and fuel change across the soccer landscape.”
The federation wrote that it would allocate $250 million of the potential $300 million it was considering trying to raise to the national training center; the remaining $50 million would go to the DEIB lab.
The federation laid out its rationale for wanting to construct a national training center in its email, writing that “uniting U.S. Soccer resources into one high-impact space will ensure consistent world-class environments for our athletes while streamlining operations, eliminating logistical and travel challenges and saving costs for our staff — creating greater opportunity to focus on collaboration, success and growing the game.”
Atlanta is a major international travel hub and would be a relatively straightforward destination for players, coaches and administrators traveling to a new training facility and headquarters regardless of where they’re based. Cary, which is located just outside Raleigh, would be a more difficult city to travel to, particularly from overseas. Both offer relatively mild climates mostly suitable for year-round training.
The idea of a national training center has been entertained for years by U.S. Soccer. The federation partnered with LA Galaxy and AEG in the early-2000s to create a training center at what is now Dignity Health Sports Park, but USSF doesn’t control that site. U.S. Soccer entered into a similar arrangement with Sporting Kansas City to open the $75 million Compass Minerals Performance Center in 2018. That facility is the home of the federation’s coaching education programs, but it hasn’t been used particularly often by either the men’s or women’s senior national teams.
A source with knowledge of the plans warned that while Cary and Atlanta are both being considered as sites, the federation still needs to shore up financing and clear other hurdles before finalizing plans for a national training center in any market. That source, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the project, also said it’s possible other sites could emerge as candidates for the training center.
U.S. Soccer aiming for friendlies against Argentina, Brazil in fall
U.S. Soccer has had discussions with the federations of Argentina and Brazil about hosting the South American powers for friendlies during international windows in the fall, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the team’s scheduling.
The U.S. men’s team has international windows in September, October and November to close out 2023. One source warned that any discussions with opponents are in early stages and, as always, have several check marks that must be ticked in order for the game to be finalized, including appearance fees, venue decisions and potential other friendlies those nations may be scheduling for the fall windows.
Both opponents would be top-level games for the U.S. as they ramp up preparation ahead of the 2024 Copa América and 2026 World Cup. Argentina is the defending World Cup champion and Brazil went into the 2022 World Cup as the favorite before eventually losing to Croatia in penalties in the quarterfinals. The U.S. men last played Argentina in the Copa América Centenario semifinals in 2016, a 4-0 loss. Its last match against Brazil was a 2-0 loss in a friendly in 2018 at MetLife Stadium.
Why Liverpool keep failing to beat Real Madrid: ‘They were almost mocking us’
Andy Jones Feb 21, 2023
“It helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than the others, because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare.”As he basked in the glory of winning the Champions League last summer, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti’s reflections were telling. Their path to victory had included knockout ties with Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, yet the Italian deemed Jurgen Klopp’s side the easiest to prepare for tactically.Revenge had been on Liverpool’s mind after the Champions League final defeat to Madrid in 2018 but instead Vinicius Junior’s second-half goal secured a 1-0 victory and the club’s 14th Champions League trophy.The pair have faced each other four times during three Champions League campaigns between 2017-2018 and 2021-2022. On each occasion, Liverpool have been second best.If they have any hope of winning silverware this season, they need to change the narrative when the two meet in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League tonight.The Athletic rewatched the four previous matches to identify what’s been going wrong.
Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool
Champions League final, May 26, 2018
The final is remembered for Gareth Bale’s wondergoal and Loris Karius’ blunders. The goalkeeper was later diagnosed to have suffered a concussion, probably from a Sergio Ramos elbow before the goal.However, the game’s first momentum shift came much earlier. After 25 minutes, Ramos and Mohamed Salah tangled. The Egyptian’s shoulder was injured and he had to be substituted.Until that point, the final had been played on Liverpool’s terms. Their intense counter-pressing was effective, forcing numerous Real Madrid turnovers — within the opening 15 seconds…
… then at the edge of the Madrid box…
… and stepping up from defence.
Zinedine Zidane’s side could barely get out of their own half. When possession turned over, Liverpool’s front three ran beyond Madrid’s back line, while full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold pushed forward.Casemiro had been dropping deep to cut off Roberto Firmino’s influence, and a chipped pass to left-back Marcelo was Madrid’s only reliable out-ball.
After Salah went off, his replacement Adam Lallana could not provide the same attacking focal point. Liverpool had nine shots before Salah departed but failed to register another for the rest of the half.They struggled to dominate territory or sustain attacks and possession. Lallana and Sadio Mane swapped flanks, and Liverpool dropped deeper into more of a 4-5-1.
Real took control. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos dictated tempo while Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, before he was replaced by Nacho Fernandez, bombed forward.Isco’s free role allowed him to create overloads on either flank, which led to Real’s offside goal in the first half.
Then, any half-time plans were thrown out the window when Benzema’s outstretched leg blocked Karius’ throw six minutes into the second half.
Liverpool equalised five minutes later, but there was very little they could do tactically about Bale’s goal, which came three minutes after he came off the bench.
Gareth Bale leaves grass and gravity behind to score in 2018 (Photo: Shaun Botterill via Getty Images)
Liverpool tried to pick their moments to press as they searched for a second equaliser, but Modric and Kroos, flanked by Casemiro, took over, tiring their midfield counterparts in the process. They finished with 65 per cent possession and nearly twice as many passes (685 to 366).“It felt as though they were just toying with us,” Alexander-Arnold later reflected. “We couldn’t get the ball. We weren’t creating chances. They were almost mocking us, the way they were keeping the ball.”Karius’ second error, when Bale’s routine long-range effort went through his hands, summed up a horrific night for Liverpool when circumstances rather than tactics defeated them.
Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool
Champions League quarter-final first leg, April 6, 2021
A starting centre-back partnership of Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak away to Real Madrid was asking for trouble, but that was Liverpool’s best option with Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez injured.
Madrid identified and targeted the right channel between Alexander-Arnold and Phillips, exploiting it in the first half via a Kroos passing masterclass.For the first goal, Kroos was given an abnormal amount of time to lift his head up and play the ball. The midfielder used it to his advantage, producing an inch-perfect pass to find the chest of Vinicius Jr as he darted between Liverpool’s defenders.
The Brazilian then finished past Alisson.For Madrid’s second, Kroos was again given time to get his head up and pick out a long pass behind the Liverpool defence. This time, it was Ferland Mendy who had darted beyond the back line.
Alexander-Arnold attempted to cut the pass out but headed it to Marco Asensio, who scored.
Problems stemmed much further up the pitch than the right defensive channel and Klopp pointed that out after the match. In possession, his side were sloppy and the German was increasingly animated on the touchline.When possession turned over, they were too slow to press Kroos and Modric, who dropped deeper, with Casemiro more advanced, allowing them the space to pick their passes.
It is very rare that Klopp makes a tactical change before half-time but Naby Keita was replaced by Thiago on 42 minutes to offer more security in possession.Liverpool’s first shot of the game was a blocked Diogo Jota effort, which fell perfectly for Salah to finish their second shot in the 50th minute. They had barely got near Madrid’s goal in the opening 45 minutes.Klopp’s side controlled the game better in the second half, but Liverpool’s lack of proactiveness allowed Vinicius Jr’s second goal. From there, Madrid could manage the game.
Liverpool 0-0 Real Madrid
Champions League quarter-final second leg, April 14, 2021
If the first leg was about defensive lapses, the second was about composure at the other end.
The best chance came within two minutes of kick-off when Kabak’s ball over the Madrid defence allowed Mane to square for Salah.
Salah was faced with the goal.
But he hit it straight at Thibaut Courtois.
Mohamed Salah reacts as he realises he forgot to bring his shooting boots (Photo: Michael Regan via Getty Images)
Tactical plans will shift in two-legged European ties based on the first result and Madrid’s was apparent quickly. They knew Liverpool would start quickly, underpinned by James Milner’s strong challenge on Benzema, so they scrapped trying to play out from the back almost immediately as Liverpool pressed well.Kroos dropped deeper alongside Casemiro when they had possession to draw Liverpool out and expose the right channel, but Liverpool managed that much better than in the first leg.Out of possession, Madrid were a solid 4-1-4-1…
… or 4-5-1 with Asensio dropping into a wing-back role on occasion to help stand-in right-back Federico Valverde and prevent Liverpool from running in behind as the game wore on.
Liverpool were on the front foot and they created chances. Courtois had to spring to his left to palm away a Milner curler during the fast start. The big chance fell to Georginio Wijnaldum, but he blazed over.
“It was uncomfortable for Madrid. We were good, aggressive, had chances. We didn’t score and then the experience of Real Madrid played the tie down,” Klopp said afterwards.
Madrid seized some control in the last 30 minutes. Liverpool changed to a 4-2-3-1 shape following the introductions of Thiago and Jota, and the game became more open.Zidane’s side defended deep, similar to how they would set up a year later. They looked to hit the flanks, with Vinicius Jr getting in behind from a long pass for virtually the first time all game on 66 minutes and forcing Alisson into action.“We were up against it and we knew we had to suffer tonight, but in the end, we got what we wanted, which was to go through. We handled the game well, we rode the storm,” Zidane said.
Firmino had the best second-half chance, saved well by Courtois, but that attacking onslaught Liverpool needed never occurred. They had just two shots in the final 20 minutes.
Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
Champions League final, May 28, 2022
“We knew what strategy to take: don’t give them space behind the defence to run into.”
As Ancelotti went into more detail on Madrid’s plan, there were hallmarks of the previous games under Zidane. Ancelotti’s Napoli sides had also proven a tough nut for Liverpool to crack in previous Champions League campaigns when they used similar methods.
Liverpool looked to get in behind the defence early on, but instead, Madrid allowed the midfield three of Jordan Henderson, Thiago and Fabinho to have the ball while dropping deep.
There was another problem for Liverpool too. Look no further than Salah’s chance in the 82nd minute, one of the few times Madrid left themselves exposed to a ball in behind.
The Egyptian did everything right…
… but was thwarted by a stunning Courtois save.
Mane, Luis Diaz and Salah all found pockets of space in and around the Madrid area. It was the risk Madrid took…
… but they had Courtois in goal — here, he tips Mane’s shot onto the post in the 20th minute.
Courtois refused to be caught out in the final last year, including this save from Mane (Photo: Matthias Hangst via Getty Images)
Where Liverpool had lost the final via a goalkeeping disaster-class four years earlier, Madrid won it because of a masterclass.Ancelotti’s side, in an attacking sense, were essentially playing dead throughout the game. Liverpool had 10 shots in the opening 40 minutes until Madrid had their first in the 43rd minute.To prevent Liverpool’s pressing, the Spanish side opted to play long balls more frequently than usual, relying on Vinicius Jr and Benzema to produce moments of quality. Ibrahima Konate read those passes and was excellent.In the second half, as Liverpool’s press became less intense and less frequent, Madrid passed through midfield. Modric and Kroos became more involved, dropping deeper like they had the previous year, with Carvajal more advanced.They were prepared to wait for one mistake from their opponents. They got it in the 60th minute when they played through Liverpool’s press.Robertson stepped out from left-back to press but gave Modric sufficient time to play a reverse pass to Carvajal.
It left Liverpool scrambling. The right-back quickly passed it to Casemiro while drawing Fabinho and Thiago towards him.
It opened up the left channel and Madrid, with Robertson out of position, were able to create an overload with Valverde and Carvajal.
Valverde fired the ball low across the box and Vinicius Jr had a simple tap-in at the back post after peeling off Alexander-Arnold.
Once in the lead, Madrid reverted to their counter-attacking game, leaving most of their team back to retain a compact structure, crowding the box and limiting big opportunities.
After 80 minutes, Madrid had only registered two shots to Liverpool’s 19. Liverpool had switched to a 4-2-4 shape with the introduction of Jota and Firmino. Both injected energy and the Brazilian found threatening pockets of space. It proved to be in vain.This was not the perfect performance from Liverpool, but they carried a threat and largely limited Madrid, registering 23 shots to three. However, they were denied by a goalkeeper resembling a brick wall.
This week’s game will present new problems for Liverpool, but they will not have to deal with Kroos, who was not included in the Madrid squad.The two clubs are in vastly different places from where they were at the end of last season but the memory of last year, and of Ancelotti’s words about the ease of working Liverpool out, have remained.Klopp was asked yesterday what he thought about Ancelotti’s comments. He replied: “Somebody told me — I don’t know if it’s true — that after the final, Carlo said with Liverpool it’s cool because they know exactly what they will face. I watched the game back now and even knowing exactly what we will do, we have to win this game. We didn’t, for the one reason that we didn’t score and conceded, but apart from that we should have won this game.”Liverpool will be hoping that confidence from back-to-back victories over Everton and Newcastle, as well as the power of Anfield on a European night, will help them win it this time.(Top image: designed by Samuel Richardson; photos by Julian Finney and Michael Regan via Getty Images)
Liverpool-Real Madrid: Our writers debate Carlo Ancelotti’s selection headache
By Guillermo Rai and Mario CorteganaFeb 20, 202316
Real Madrid’s Champions League last-16 clash with Liverpool will go some way to deciding the Spanish champions’ season after a difficult start to 2023.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team have won their last four games in all competitions and claimed the Club World Cup earlier this month, but they are eight points behind Barcelona in La Liga and have lost several players to injury as matches come thick and fast.
With Toni Kroos and Aurelien Tchouameni both ruled out with illness for the first leg of the Liverpool tie at Anfield, how should the 14-time European champions line up? The Athletic’s Real Madrid writers, Guillermo Rai and Mario Cortegana, discuss it all below.
Mario: Tchouameni and Kroos are both big losses for Madrid in terms of their defensive system as well as their passing. The most worrying thing is that Madrid will miss the security and precise distribution Kroos brings. He is fundamental to Madrid’s style of play, but on a less tangible level, he’s used to playing in huge games like this. He has played the sixth-most minutes for Madrid this season (2,226).
Most minutes this season (Transfermarkt)
Guillermo: Madrid are going to have to adapt in the absence of three of their first-choice players, including Ferland Mendy.
Mario: It has also been difficult to replace those players in previous games. In the case of Camavinga, Ancelotti has tried to deploy him as a replacement for Mendy at left-back but neither the club nor the player have much interest in the Frenchman developing in that position.
Guillermo: That’s exactly what Camavinga’s entourage said when they described it as a “waste” for the midfielder to play at left-back. But his performances there have also been poor recently — particularly in the Club World Cup final. Camavinga struggled in defence against Al Hilal, who scored three goals and caused a lot of problems down his left-hand side. So, despite Camavinga’s potential and some good performances in La Liga, Madrid know they can’t experiment at this decisive moment of the season.
Eduardo Camavinga is likely to play in midfield for Real Madrid after Carlo Ancelotti experimented by playing him at left-back (Photo: Ricardo Larreina/Europa Press via Getty Images).
Mario: In any case, it’s clear that David Alaba will play as a replacement for Mendy on the left flank.
Guillermo: There were reports Antonio Rudiger could play at left-back. But I’d be surprised if Ancelotti did that at a key time like this given he is a coach who doesn’t usually try risky experiments.
Mario: But with Ancelotti’s doubts and given the fact nobody is performing spectacularly in defence…
Guillermo: Except for Eder Militao.
Mario: That’s right, except for Militao.
Liverpool were fearful of Real Madrid a fortnight ago – but not now
Guillermo: Madrid don’t have many alternatives in midfield tomorrow either.
Mario: Who do you think he’ll play in midfield?
Guillermo: If Ancelotti is faithful to his style, Valverde has to play along with three other midfielders; Ceballos, Camavinga and Modric.
Mario: Ancelotti could perhaps play Camavinga with Modric and Valverde and combine Rodrygo with Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior up top, leaving Ceballos on the bench as a wild card.
Guillermo: Ancelotti has a lot of confidence in Valverde, who is in his best form.
Federico Valverde is in fine form but one of Ancelotti’s headaches is whether to play him on the wing or in midfield (Photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images).
Mario: But Ceballos would be the one to be sacrificed if Valverde played in midfield.
Guillermo: I know, but if Ancelotti wants an alternative he could move Valverde from the wing to midfield because of his ability to play the full 90 minutes. Then the Italian could take off a midfielder and bring on Rodrygo, who provides a significant threat from the bench.
Mario: And he has done it on more than one occasion. If I had to bet, I’d say Camavinga is going to play as a defensive pivot in midfield, with Modric and Ceballos either side of him and with Valverde on the wing. Valverde plays as a winger for Ancelotti in the important games and the possibility of having an all-purpose player like him gives you a lot of depth.
Guillermo: Obviously it also depends on Madrid’s opponents. Liverpool could play Cody Gakpo in attack and he could also drop back into midfield at times.
Mario: Valverde has also combined well recently with Carvajal, as we saw in the Club World Cup, where they were both involved in several goals. Valverde is the ideal wild card without having too much of an impact on the attack.
In a week that Real Madrid could only lose, at least they won
Guillermo: So you think the same as me — that even if Madrid start with a 4-3-3, they should play with four midfielders?
Guillermo: That’s important in defence, too. Ancelotti said in the press conference before the game against Osasuna (which Madrid won 2-0) that it was difficult for Madrid to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 because Vinicius Jr doesn’t defend. How can he try to make up for that? By having Valverde as a third forward when Madrid are attacking and having him as a midfielder when they are defending. That would work best for Ancelotti’s system in my opinion.
Mario: I think it’s going to be 4-3-3, both in attack and defence.
Mario: Because Valverde is very important in terms of pressing. Of course, he can play a big role in midfield when Madrid are tracking back, but Ancelotti will play with a 4-3-3 in both attack and defence.
Karim Benzema may not be at full fitness after recent injury struggles (Photo: Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images).
Guillermo: There are lots of phases in a game, so Valverde could be important as a right-winger in the first 20 minutes but then drop back into midfield if Madrid set up deeper for the rest of the match. That’s what they did last year with the same players in all the big games and they were comfortable. If that is the case, then 4-4-2 makes more sense, with Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema given free roles up front.
Mario: Of course, but I don’t think Benzema will be at full strength. You don’t miss a game as important as the one against Osasuna if you’re not a serious risk or you’ve picked up a succession of injuries. I wouldn’t say he’s going to be at 100 per cent.
Guillermo: With Benzema, the club told us they were “not aware that he had any problems, nor that he had relapsed or had a new injury, but he knows himself better than anyone and he will decide”. I’m with you in that if it was just a rest for Benzema, he would have still travelled to Pamplona to give Madrid an option if his side had gone behind — they would have fallen 11 points behind Barcelona at the top of La Liga if they hadn’t won. Even so, I think Benzema will start and so will Vinicius Jr.
Mario: I remember the first serious warning in Europe Vinicius Jr gave of his potential was in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Liverpool in 2021 (which Madrid won 3-1, with Vinicius Jr scoring twice). That brilliant pass from Kroos, Vinicius Jr’s spectacular control and his goal.
Goal involvements (Transfermarkt)
The Brazilian leads the way for Madrid this season with 16 goals and eight assists in all competitions — the joint-most goals along with Benzema and the most assists of any player in the team. He is Madrid’s greatest certainty but also a double-edged sword because Madrid can’t always rely on giving him the ball and letting him invent things. He can be kicked out of the game. But Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold may give him more opportunities given the right-back’s positioning is not the best.
Guillermo: Between last season and this one we’ve got used to seeing Vinicius Jr as the main man. It might not always be the best idea to go down the left given how much he is fouled, but on Tuesday It makes most sense to stick to that approach. Think back to the final in Paris nine months ago and the first thing that comes to mind is Vinicius Jr beating the right-back to score the winner.
Vinicius Jr gave Trent Alexander-Arnold a torrid time in last year’s Champions League final (Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images).
Mario: We’re pretty clear about the starting XI then?
Guillermo: So clear that we’ve forgotten to say that Thibaut Courtois is going to play in goal after recently returning from injury. Ancelotti will play his favoured 4-3-3 formation. He’s not going to change that basic system. Apart from Courtois, I think Alaba, Rudiger, Militao and Carvajal will play in defence; Ceballos, Camavinga and Modric will be in the middle; and Ancelotti will play Vinicius Jr, Benzema and Valverde in attack. Camavinga could struggle as a defensive pivot in midfield, but I don’t see what other option there is.
Mario: Then another important point is the bench. As much as he would like a regular starting role, Rodrygo could change the game — he has scored some crucial Champions League goals, including in the semi-final comeback against Manchester City last season. There’s also Alvaro Rodriguez, the youth player who put on a show in the seven minutes he was given against Osasuna.
Real Madrid’s versatile ‘wild card’ Rodrygo is targeting a regular starting spot
Guillermo: So for the bench Madrid can choose from reserve keeper Andriy Lunin, Luis Lopez, Alvaro Odriozola, Lucas Vazquez (who is returning from injury), Nacho Fernandez, Jesus Vallejo, Mario Martin, Marco Asensio, Sergio Arribas, Alvaro Rodriguez and Rodrygo…
Mario: And Eden Hazard! It may come as a surprise to readers that we haven’t mentioned the former Chelsea forward until now, but the reality is he has barely featured for a while and that is not expected to change here.
Guillermo: So what’s your starting XI?
Mario: The same as yours: Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Rudiger, Alaba; Modric, Camavinga, Ceballos; Valverde, Benzema and Vinicius Jr in a 4-3-3 system.
Guillermo: Now we have to see if we get all of them right or none at all.
Mario: Let’s see if Ancelotti thinks the same. Readers can leave their thoughts, too, and we’ll check back when the line-ups are announced to see if we were right.
(Top photo: David Ramos – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)