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2013 NWSL preview: Picks, predictions, and blind prognostication

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We’re ready to wrap this up. With kickoff in Kansas City just over four hours away, it’s time to get ProSoccerTalk’s authors on record about the upcoming NWSL season: Who’ll win the games; who’ll score the goals; and which teams will make their inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season a fruitful one.

Having to pick a finishing order for eight teams you’ve never seen is an unenviable task, but the process is a good, quick way to provide some context for the upcoming season. See the same teams at the top of multiple lists, you know they’re probably favorites. If a team tends to land at the bottom, you know they have their work cut out for them.

Between those extremes, there’s conflict for Richard Farley and Jeff Kassouf. Here are their picks for the upcoming season: Order of finish and awards.

More links to preview content, below.

Pos. Kassouf Farley
1 Portland – We’ve seen this script before, and while there may be potential depth issues in the back, there’s no defense in this league or in the world that can handle Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair together. This has 2010 FC Gold Pride and 2011 WNY Flash written all over it, but perhaps a little less dominant. Portland – As we’ll see below, I have no problem with making a reach with preseason predictions, especially when we haven’t seen these teams play. Ever. But to have Portland below number one demands judging their few weaknesses more harshly than you would other teams’. Not that I begrudge somebody’s willingness to do so.
2 FC Kansas City – Solid throughout and should give every team trouble, especially if some of the yet-to-breakout players like Renae Cuellar (stellar preseason) come to life. FC Kansas City – The most well-rounded team in the league. They’ve done a great job with decent allocations, shrewd picks, and smart signings. A clear number two.
3 Western New York Flash – Composing a genuine back line a big question mark, but the midfield is spectacular and Abby Wambach and Adriana up top, with Veronica Perez sitting in behind, should do the Flash well. Boston Breakers – Huge problems in defense, but the Breakers have big upside in attack. Sydney Leroux will be one of the league’s best players, Heather O’Reilly’s one of the circuit’s few true threats from wide, and Australian Kyah Simon will also grab goals. At the back, they’re in really bad shape, but half the teams in this league may  be unable to take advantage.
4 Sky Blue FC – A good spine with Jill Loyden/Brittany Cameron in net, Christie Rampone leading in the back, Brittany Bock and Sophie Schmidt in the middle and Kelley O’Hara up top. Good coaching from Jim Gabarra could be the difference that gets SBFC into the playoffs. Seattle Reign – It will be at least eight games before Seattle gets Megain Rapinoe and Hope Solo back. If they can go 2-4-2 in that span, I think they grab the four seed. But for two months, I’m going to look like the irrational president of the Laura Harvey fanclub, though I’ll admit – the idea of changing GMs six days before kickoff made me reconsider what’s going on in Seattle.
5 Boston Breakers – Heather O’Reilly, Sydney Leroux and Kyah Simon should have this team scoring goals, but the Breakers failed to go out and get a starting goalkeeper and that will end up costing them. Chicago Red Stars – Good goalkeeping with Erin McLeod. Decent in defense. They have an above-average midfield thanks to Lori Chalupny. Rory Dames thinks he’ll find enough goals to make this work. I think they come up just short.
6 Chicago Red Stars – Just not enough firepower on this team, though Inka Grings’ arrival later in May could change that. Sky Blue FC – I could see this team finishing anywhere between three and six. So why am I picking them six? It’s a flaw in my analysis. I tend to find aspects I love or hate about teams and dwell on them. Sometimes that works, most of the time it doesn’t. This time, it has Sky Blue sixth. There’s just nothing about this team that I either hate or love.
7 Seattle Reign FC –  With Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo, this team suddenly looks a lot better. Unfortunately, both those players will miss at least the first couple months of the season. Western New York Flash – I think this blows up. I’m not confident Abby Wambach holds up (just a hunch). Carli Lloyd tends to be much better with the national team than at club level. The defense has issues, though if Adi Franch is as good as advertised, she’ll cover some cracks, (though it’s not like Hope Solo’s teams had huge WPS success). While I like Franch, I think it’s more likely Wambach and Lloyd fail to match their national team output.
8 Washington Spirit – The back is solid, sure – I regard Ali Krieger as one of the best right backs out there and Ashlyn Harris will do well. But I don’t see how this team is scoring many goals. Washington Spirit – Goalkeeping, some good defenders, but little else. Like anybody else in this league they prove much better once we see them play. Ultimately, we’re making picks based on teams we’ve never seen play.
Awards
MVP Alex Morgan or Christine Sinclair will probably get it, but I typically vote for the underappreciated players that hold teams together, like a Becky Edwards. I’ve got Christine Sinclair, but if national team absences prove decisive, a non-national teamer like Becky Edwards could take it. (Clearly, Jeff and I have known each other for too long.)
Golden Boot Christine Sinclair Alex Morgan
Best Defender Becky Sauerbrunn Becky Sauerbrunn – No Amy LePeilbet. No Whitney Engen. Sauerbrunn was a WPS warrior.
Goalkeeper of the Year Nicole Barnhart Adrianna Franch
Rookie of the Year Adrianna Franch Christine Nairn – Even if I don’t like her team’s chances, Franch wins the Keeper honor on talent and her competition missing so much time. Nairn gets the Rookie honor while helping Seattle survive the storm.

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Player ratings from Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City: Who shone in title clash?

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It was pulsating. It was crazy. It could prove to be a decisive moment in the Premier League title race.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Arsenal’s last-gasp 2-1 win over 10-man Leicester City came after Jamie Vardy had controversially given the Foxes the lead, but subs Theo Walcott and then Danny Welbeck with the final attack of the game cut Leicester’s lead at the top of the PL to two points as the Gunners grabbed a huge win.

[ MORE: Welbeck reacts to heroics ]

Here’s a look at how each player fared on Sunday in what could prove to be a pivotal result as the title race has been blown wide open.


Arsenal

Petr Cech – 7 – Good stop down low from Vardy early on and commanded his box well. Hardly troubled in second half.

Hector Bellerin – 6 – Not as enterprising as usual in attack but very disciplined.

Per Mertesacker – 6 – Did okay. Fears about Vardy exposing his pace unfounded. Hardly tested when Leicester went down to 10.

Laurent Koscielny – 5 – Clattered into Kante in build up to Leicester’s goal. Came off at half time with an injury.

Nacho Monreal – 5 – Gave away the PK and although unlucky he got himself in a bad spot. Could’ve conceded another in second half too.

Francis Coquelin – 6 – Typical workmanlike display from the French midfielder. Tried his best to control Kante.

Aaron Ramsey – 6 -Missed several chances but kept on pouring forward. Needs to improve finishing. Big time.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 6 – Gave Leicester so many issues early on but faded as the game wore on.

Mesut Ozil – 6 – Yeah, he was going to get a 5 but that ball in for Welbeck’s equalizer was majestic. None of his flicks came off today.

Alexis Sanchez – 6 – Looked a little tired but kept on trucking. Leicester doubled up on him every time he got the ball. His pace got Simpson sent off.

Olivier Giroud – 8 – Didn’t score and had three or four half chances with headers but his knockdown for Walcott’s goal was sublime and not easy to negotiate Huth and Morgan on your own.

Subs: Calum Chambers (On for Koscielny, 45′ – 6 – Steady outing for the young center back), Theo Walcott (On for Coquelin, 61′ – 7 – Added pace which Leicester couldn’t handle. Good finish for the goal), Danny Welbeck (On for Oxlade-Chamberlain, 83′ – 7 – After nine months out, what a return. Glancing header won it for the Gunners)


Leicester City

Kasper Schmeichel – 7 – Made some tremendous saves, especially from Giroud in the second half.

Danny Simpson – 3 – Silly two yellows at the start of the second half as Simpson couldn’t handle Sanchez’s pace. Cost his team dear.

Robert Huth – 6 – Typically robust display. Cleared and blocked whatever he could.

Wes Morgan – 6 – See above. Will be disappointed the defense didn’t mark Welbeck tighter for the winner though.

Christian Fuchs – 5 – Had a bit of a nightmare early on and although he recovered the Gunners always looked dangerous down his flank.

N'Golo Kante – 9 – This guy was everywhere. Didn’t deserve to be on the losing team. Only Leicester man with energy to get up and support Vardy in second half.

Danny Drinkwater – 6 – Put in a shift but became overrun in second half.

Riyad Mahrez – 6 – Was causing problems and could have had a penalty kick in the second half. He was taken off but probably should have stayed on.

Marc Albrighton – 5 – Clipped in one good ball for Vardy early on and that was about it.

Shinji Okazaki – 5 – Plenty of running but didn’t get involved in the game. Had one chance in first half he fired over but flagged offside. He was onside by a yard though…

Jamie Vardy – 6 – Hmm. He scored the penalty kick which he won by dragging his leg into Monreal’s. No place for diving in the game. That said, forced Cech into a good save and looked sharp. Ran out of energy in the second half as the lone forward.

Subs: Marcin Wasilewski (On for Mahrez, 58′ – 4 – Did okay until he gave away a silly free kick right at the end which Arsenal scored from), Demarai Gray (On for OKazaki, 61′ – 5 – Added some pace on the break and one vital interception in defense), Andy King (On for Albrighton, 83′ – 5 – Didn’t have time to make a real impact)

Welbeck’s Arsenal heroics complete “roller coaster” ride; Walcott proud

during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium.
Michael Regan / Getty Images Sport
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Danny Welbeck hadn’t played for Arsenal in 10 months. It took him 12 minutes to score a goal that could live in Gunners’ history.

[ WATCH: The incredible late winner at the Emirates ]

Welbeck’s headed turn of a Mesut Ozil free kick deep into stoppage time lifted the Gunners to within two points of the Premier League’s first slot in a 2-1 win over Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

A September setback meant knee surgery for Welbeck, and an even longer spell on the sidelines for the embattled Englishman.

All that helped Sunday’s goal felt even more massive.

From Sky Sports:

“Dying seconds, we kept pushing, had chance after chance. I missed the first opportunity and tried to make amends. It is important and the most important thing is to get the win. It has been a roller-coaster for me, a difficult moment and my family and friends know what I have been through.

Welbeck’s Arsenal and England teammate Theo Walcott, who scored the Gunners’ other goal, was pretty happy for his striker.

“This man hasn’t played for nine months and to get into the mix like that, special players come into into big games. That could be massive.”

He said it. Could Arsenal’s Manchester United import be the man who scored the biggest goal of a title run?

VIDEO: Watch Welbeck score incredible late winner for Arsenal

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Danny Welbeck is now an Arsenal legend.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

The England international hasn’t featured in a Premier League game since last April due to injury and came on for the final stages with Arsenal and Leicester drawing 1-1.

Then, this happened.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 2-1 Leicester – Gunners snatch win ]

In the 95th minute Mesut Ozil whipped in an inch-perfect cross and Welbeck glanced home to sent the Emirates wild.

Click play on the video above to relive what will go down as perhaps the moment of the season so far with Leicester’s lead at the top of the Premier League now cut to just two points and Arsenal breathing down their necks.

Scenes at the Emirates. Scenes.

Three things we learned from Arsenal’s dramatic late win vs. Leicester City

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On Sunday Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium with Danny Welbeck‘s stunning stoppage time winner sealing a massive win for the Gunners and reducing Leicester’s lead at the top to just two points.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

After Jamie Vardy had given Leicester a controversial lead via a penalty kick he won, a red card for Danny Simpson early in the second half turned the tide of this match and Theo Walcott‘s equalizer set up the dramatic finale Welbeck delivered.

Stunning. Here’s what we learned from a sensational clash in north London.

GUNNERS GRIND OUT

They did it. They actually did it. So many times in the past Arsenal have been in this situation at a crucial time of the season and they’ve blown it. Not on Sunday.

On Valentine’s Day the Gunners broke the hearts of Leicester’s fans with Welbeck glancing a header into the far corner with the final attack of the game. It was what Arsenal deserved as they forced the issue from the start and were unlucky to go behind after Vardy’s skulduggery to win and then score a penalty kick. Wenger made the right subs at the right time with both Walcott and Welbeck jumping off the bench to net huge goals in what is a pivotal 10-day spell. Heading into a two-week break in the Premier League calendar, the momentum is now with Arsenal and Leicester’s hearts will be heavy instead of fluttering. Moments like Welbeck’s 95th minute are exactly why you end up winning the PL title. True champions have a never say die attitude and despite missing chances and coming up against an in-form Kasper Schmeichel, the Gunners dug deep and ground what could be a season defining win. They still remain two points off first-place Leicester but it is surely now advantage Arsenal in the title race.


DIVING VARDY SUCKS ARSENAL IN

The major moment which shaped this game arrived in the 44th minute. It all started on the edge of Leicester’s own box — as does most of their best attacking play — as Ozil looked to be clearly fouled by Wes Morgan but referee Martin Atkinson waved played on and Arsenal’s player hesitated for a second too long. The brilliant N'Golo Kante (more on him below) broke free down the right and Laurent Koscielny fouled him but Atkinson waved play on. Jamie Vardy then latched onto the ball and suckered both Nacho Monreal and Atkinson in as he flicked the ball past the Arsenal left back and dragged his left leg into Monreal’s body. Call it what you want: clever, cheating. Vardy knew what he was doing and it’s not the first time he’s done it this season.

He slammed home the spot kick to make it 1-0 and although you could fault Monreal for initially sticking his leg out, Vardy looked to go over. The crux of this debate should revolve around why no free kick was given for Morgan clambering over Ozil. That would have stopped the trademark lightning-quick counter that has become the lifeblood of Leciester’s remarkable rise to the top of the PL this season. Riyad Mahrez went down in the opening five minutes of the second half in a similar fashion as he bamboozled Monreal with his slick moves and felt a clip on his knee so went down. Atkinson didn’t fall for it this time.

Walcott equalized and Welbeck grabbed the dagger in Leicester’s heart at the end and perhaps it was what the Foxes deserved after the way they took the lead. Vardy dived. Justice prevailed.


KANTE MAKES FOXES TICK

N’Golo Kante didn’t deserve to be on the losing team. He is not a holding midfielder. He is a machine. Kante had 47 touches in the first half and was absolutely all over the pitch. He broke down Arsenal’s attacks and after Christian Fuchs struggled to cope with the pace of both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin early on, Kante shuffled over and shut down the left flank. He is the undisputed heartbeat of Leicester’s team. Sure, Vardy provides the pace and Mahrez the trickery but the industry and grit comes from the tiny midfielder signed from Caen in the summer for what now looks like a paltry $8 million. Even when Leicester were reduced to 10-men he was the driving force, the only man who could had the energy to get on the ball and drive forward in support of Vardy. It was a monumental display from the man who was plying his trade in the lower tiers of French soccer until recently. Now, he looks like one of the most complete central midfielders in the PL.