Women's soccer advances in stunning fashion

837561.jpg

Women's soccer advances in stunning fashion

From Comcast SportsNet
MANCHESTER, England (AP) -- The U.S. women's soccer team has another come-from-behind, last-minute thriller to add to its legacy. The Americans won't have much time to celebrate it: It's time to focus on winning it all. This is the moment the U.S. players have been eyeing for more than a year, a rematch with Japan on Thursday at Wembley Stadium with gold on the line. The top-ranked Americans lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the World Cup final last summer, a stunning blow that became a source of motivation as the players prepared for the Olympics. "This is redemption for us," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "We know how hard it was for us after that game. It hurt us for a really long time." The U.S. team was ten minutes away from another devastating loss in the Olympic semifinals Monday night when it caught a break. Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod was whistled for holding the ball too long, a violation often committed but rarely enforced. The dominoes fell in quick succession: an indirect kick, a hand ball, a penalty kick. Score tied. "We feel like it was taken away from us," Canada forward Christine Sinclair said. "It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started." The Americans then put together a final winning surge. In the third and final minute of injury time that had been added on to extra time -- with goalkeeper Hope Solo mentally preparing for a penalty kick shootout -- Alex Morgan looped in a 6-yard header on a long cross from Heather O'Reilly, giving the U.S. a 4-3 win in the Olympic semifinals at Old Trafford. "I don't have much to say because I need to wrap my head around what just happened," Solo said. "And that's the truth of the matter. We tend to keep things interesting." Canada, seeking the country's first Summer Games medal in a traditional team sport since 1936, will play France for the bronze on Thursday at Coventry, but it will take a while to get over this one. Canada's coach felt cheated, and lashed out with criticism of Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen. "The ref, she will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays," said Canada coach John Herdman, who also felt that Pedersen missed a hand ball in front of the U.S. goal. "She's gonna have to live with that. We will move on from this. I wonder if she will be able to." Pedersen cited McLeod was for holding the ball more than six seconds. McLeod said she did not receive the customary warning from the referee beforehand, although she did say the linesman had told her at the start of the second half not to slow down play. The violation gave the Americans an indirect free kick inside the area. Rapinoe took the kick and rammed it into the Canadian wall, the ball glancing off the arm of Marie-Eve Nault. Pedersen then awarded the U.S. a penalty kick, which co-captain Abby Wambach converted off the left post. "I think the referee was very one-sided," McLeod said. "It was an interesting sequence of events. I think we outplayed the Americans the entire game. I think it's unfortunate the calls went the way that they did. Of course, the Americans are a great soccer team, and today we were better, and the luck went their way." The Americans had little sympathy for McLeod's complaints. "There were a few other times throughout the game that she held it for 18 seconds, for 10 seconds," Wambach said. "You can't blame something on the referee." The Americans overcame three one-goal deficits, all due to goals from Sinclair in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes. Megan Rapinoe scored in the 54th and 70th minutes, and Wambach converted the penalty kick in the 80th for the U.S. Sinclair and Wambach are now tied for second all-time with 143 international goals apiece, both chasing Mia Hamm's world record of 158. In many ways this match was reminiscent of the comeback against Brazil in last year's World Cup, when Wambach scored in the waning seconds of extra time in a shootout win in the quarterfinals. The result maintains the Americans' dominance of their neighbor to the north, extending their unbeaten streak against Canada to 27 games (23-0-4). The U.S. leads the series 44-3-5, the last loss coming at the Algarve Cup in 2001. Herdman said before the game that the run of futility against the Americans was on the minds of his players, and he addressed it with them in the run-up to the match. He also injected some pregame intrigue by accusing the Americans of using "highly illegal," overly physical tactics on free kicks and corner kicks. "Their coach prepared them very well," Wambach said. "He had a very good tactic yesterday, by making it a media (event) to say that we do illegal stuff. I give him credit for that because it's something that he was trying to do to rally his team around him." But the Americans had the final word, with Morgan's goal avoiding the penalty kick shootout no one wanted to see. "The team refuses to lose," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "There is something where they have an extra gear."

Canadiens agree to six-year deal with former Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw

Canadiens agree to six-year deal with former Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw

The Blackhawks probably would've liked to be the ones to sign Andrew Shaw to a long-term deal. Instead, it was the Montreal Canadiens.

The Habs announced Monday they agreed to terms on a six-year contract with Shaw, who according to reports will take home an annual average salary of $3.9 million.

"We are very pleased to have agreed to a long-term deal with Andrew Shaw," Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said in the announcement. "As I mentioned last Friday following his acquisition, we are adding a solid character player to our team, a reliable player who plays with grit and a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks over the past five seasons. Andrew will add more leadership to our team. I had the opportunity to discuss with him over the past few days, and I sense his determination and excitement in joining the Canadiens’ organization for many years to come."

The Blackhawks, in another salary-cap squeeze this offseason, traded Shaw to the Canadiens last week in exchange for a pair of draft picks.

In five seasons with the Blackhawks, Shaw totaled 137 points, scoring 70 goals and tallying 67 assists. He was a key member of a pair of Stanley Cup winners in 2013 and 2015. In 67 playoff games, he registered 35 points.

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

No need for Cubs to overreact when best years should be in front of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell

There’s no need to overreact when the injuries pile up and the Cubs lose 6-of-7 games in June, because Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are still possibly years away from their best seasons in an organization loaded with young talent.
 
Bryant and Russell have been such integral parts since debuting in April 2015 that it's hard to remember they're still around three-to-five years away from their prime. They're also in a perfect situation to keep developing, not having to worry about carrying the weight of the franchise on their shoulders, the way Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro used to feel those responsibilities.
 
The pressure is spread out among a young core, a battle-tested group of veterans and a manager that loves the spotlight. All of that can help explain why each player has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump" that sometimes plagues second-year players in the big leagues.
 
"Last year, I thought both of them fought through some really different moments their first year up," Joe Maddon said. "And that's what it's really all about. The sophomore slump, for me, is where the league adjusts to you, and then you adjust back to the league. That's the definition."
 
Bryant currently has an OPS that’s 19 points higher than his 2015 numbers, while Russell's OPS is 23 points higher entering play Monday, and both second-year players have seen major improvement in important areas.
 
Bryant led the league with 199 strikeouts last season, but has seen his strikeout percentage drop from 30.6 percent to 23 percent this season. He's on track for about 162 strikeouts in 2016.
 
Russell, meanwhile, has experienced just an incremental decrease in strikeout percentage (from 28.5 to 27.2 percent), but he has seen a nice jump in walk rate (from 8 percent in 2015 to 11.2 percent this season). Despite drawing only one free pass in his last eight games, Russell is on track for 68 walks, which would've ranked 12th in the National League overall last season and first among shortstops. 
 
"The guys that don't adjust back quickly enough really have an extended period of negative moments," Maddon said. "I think they learned a lot last year. They made a lot of adjustments. Both of them made swing adjustments last year. And that, I think, is permitting their success this year.
 
"Addison's propensity to get big hits is unbelievable, and now he's using the whole field. He's not chasing balls out of the strike zone. Those are the adjustments he had to learn how to do last year when he was going badly, and now he's doing them.
 
"They're both going to hit a bad stretch, there's no question. But I think they're better able to handle that based on their experience from last year."
 
Bryant has settled in as one of the premier offensive threats in the game by following up his 2015 campaign (26 homers, 99 RBI) with a pace for 39 homers and 112 RBI.
 
In spring training, he said he considered 2016 an extension of his rookie season, just with a three-month break off in between. But as the regular season hit, he took that sort of thinking to another gear.
 
"I feel a lot more focused this whole year," Bryant said. "I don't know why. I don't know if it's a whole other level or just extra determination or the fact that I know we have a good team and we really want to win.
 
"I just feel really good up there. I feel like I'm having some quality at-bats. I'm doing all I can to help. I'm in a good spot."
 
Russell, meanwhile, has developed a reputation as a clutch hitter, posting a .429 average, 1.237 OPS and 23 RBI in 54 plate appearances in high-leverage situations. 
 
He's taken his game to another level at the biggest moments, not something often said about a 22-year-old with only 210 big-league games under his belt.
 
"Just a slow heart beat," Maddon said. "If you talk to the kid any time, he's always 'suavecito.' There's nothing really hurried about him. He's just got a great way about him.
 
"Again, he's going to keep getting better. Everybody's liking it when he's doing good. I'm here to tell you: He's going to get better."
 
However, Russell also just went through one of those bad stretches at the end of May/beginning of June where he hit .161 with a .569 OPS through 18 games, striking out 23 times. He felt he had gotten too passive during that span.
 
When the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last week, Russell stared at strike three right down the middle during his first trip to the plate. He instantly made a mental adjustment to be more aggressive and responded with three straight hits to close out that first game.
 
"I've been feeling good," he said. "I've been seeing the ball well. Just taking an opportunity of swinging the bat at the right moment. I felt like early on in that game, watching two balls go by that I would normally do some damage with, I kind of took it hard and realized maybe I'm letting these pitches go too frequently. 
 
"I still feel more comfortable [overall this season]. It's just a daily grind, man. You're going to go through these funks. You're going to hit balls day-to-day that don't tend to fall. You normally don't want to change anything, so my approach is just to stay the same, and I want to take my walks as well."
 
The Cubs understand this is a long season filled with adversity, injuries and losing streaks. But if Bryant and Russell cannot be considered sophomores anymore, would their maturity and advanced approaches put them at a junior level?
 
"I think so. Favorite year in high school, by far," Maddon said. "You're totally free your junior year. SATs don't matter. PSATs are OK. I got my license, among other things. It was a really good time."

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Cubs ace Jake Arrieta nominated for two ESPY Awards

Jake Arrieta had a 2015 season for the ages, and was rewarded for it by winning the National League Cy Young Award, becoming the fifth player in Cubs history to accomplish that feat.

He's also been nominated for a pair of ESPY awards because of it: best breakthrough athlete and best MLB player.

After struggling to find his groove in four seasons with the Baltimore Orioles (20-25, 5.46 ERA), Arrieta turned it around in Chicago, particularly in 2015 when he erupted for a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA. 

The Cubs ace followed that up in 2016 by jumping out to a 9-0 start, and went nearly a calendar year without a loss.

He's also one of 26 pitchers in MLB history to have thrown more than one no-hitter, and did so 11 starts apart from each other.

The voting ends at 7 p.m. CT on July 13, when the ESPY Awards will take place. Cast your vote here.