With five games to go before the World Cup rolls around, you can’t say that the USA looks like the favorites. There’s only one real test left on the team’s pre-World Cup schedule, a game against Australia. The five games the team has played so far have been the real test, and the team’s 2-2-1 record in those games is not impressive.

Mostly, the problem has been the defense, which was the USA’s big strength in 2015. Center back Becky Sauerbrunn returned from injury for the 1-0 victory over Brazil and the defense immediately improved. It also helps when coach Jill Ellis doesn’t overload the team’s midfield with offense-focused playmakers, and instead plays a lineup that can be defensively responsible.

Goals will come, for the USA, so the team has room to play a more defense-focused central midfield. And there is still time for improvement. As many commentators have pointed out, it wasn’t until this point in the 2015 cycle that the USA identified Julie Ertz as its answer at center back, and she was a key part of that title-winning team.

Short takes

– crashing out of the Champions League, the Copa del Rey. Lacking even an outside shot at the La Liga title race, it feels like the end of an era for Madrid.

• Any optimism about American chances in this year’s CONCACAF Champions League is officially gone. New York and Houston both lost 2-0 at home in the first legs of their quarterfinal matchups, while Atlanta lost 3-0 on the road. Kansas City, which also lost on the road against Independiente (Panama) — but only 2-1 — might now be the only MLS team left with a reasonable chance of making the semifinals.


Bundesliga: Stuttgart at Borussia Dortmund, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Dortmund captain Marco Reus was hurt in a DFB Cup game on Feb. 5. Dortmund lost that day. Since then, it’s also blown its once-nine-point lead in the Bundesliga table, and is now tied with Bayern Munich at the top. Even Reus’s return last week wasn’t enough to prevent another BVB loss. Stuttgart should be easy pickings for Reus and company, but can they stop the slide?

Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. E-mail: jmarthaler@gmail.com