NWSL Game of the Week: FC Kansas City vs. Portland Thorns FC

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FC Kansas City hosts the opening match of the NWSL’s inaugural season on Saturday when the star-laden Thorns FC visit Shawnee Mission North High School Stadium. The 8:35 p.m. ET kickoff, which will be streamed on YouTube, is the first PST NWSL Game of the Week.

Three things you need to know

1. Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan may as well be Lebron James and Dwyane Wade

The Miami Heat may not win the NBA title every year, but they’re going to be the favorites. Sure, a team like the Dallas Mavericks can upset them, but when they do, expect a lot of people to ask what went wrong. With Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat not only have two of the NBA’s singularly brilliant talents, they have two unselfish players who complement each other exquisitely – the reason why they’ll be title favorites for the next three years.

Now if you can forgive the patronizing metaphor, the NWSL have their own Miami Heat. In Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan, Portland Thorns FC — the Paulson family’s sister organization to Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers — may have the two best players in the league. Canada’s captain and the U.S.’s main goal scorer form as good an attacking tandem as you could imagine, a partnership whose members perfectly complement each other. In general, Morgan will push the line and threaten in more advanced areas while Sinclair drops into space to take the ball from midfield, often turning to try and craft a final ball.

“Having two players of that caliber on a team, you find that happen on all professional levels,” FC Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn said when asked about the potential competitive issues of allocating Sinclair and Morgan to the same team. “Our backline has been working on playing against players who are athletic and quick and good at finishing.

“We just have to train the way you want to play. We’ve trained against boys, and we talk tactically about how you want to play defensively. I think [Portland’s strikers are just] something you have to deal with.”

Both Morgan and “Sinc” will score goals. They’ll also get their far share of assists, though we can’t take it for granted they’ll duplicate the Heat’s success. While some tandems end up being Dwyane and Lebron, others end up being Kobe and Dwight. This may be one time Merritt Paulson won’t his team compared with the Lakers.

2. Expect mistakes

Over the last 10 days, U.S. and Canadian internationals have barely been with their teams. Canadians returned to practice on Tuesday, while the U.S.’s stars just returned to training on Thursday. Over four weeks of NWSL preseason, top internationals were only with their teams for eight-to-ten days.

In this league, that’s huge. With exception of one or two teams, the four-to-five U.S. and Canadian internationals allocated to each team form the cornerstones of each club’s lineup. Thanks to various international commitments that pulled stars away from their clubs though preseason, coaches will spend the season’s first weeks trying to fit their best players into systems formed from speculation: What will my best team when I actually get all my players?

Portland head coach Cindy Parlow Cone:

“There [are] going to be some mishaps and some miscommunications. There’s no way around [the mistakes] because we been playing together for four weeks, not six months, which is what you’d like to have for a preseason.

But every team’s in the same situation. [Kansas City are] just getting their national team players back. We’ve got to over-communicate everything and be ready for anything.”

Sinclair was more blunt in her assessment: “There are going to be some things that go so wrong, it’s not even funny.”

source: Getty Images3. One versus two

If there was an Associated Press, college sports-style poll of soccer writers before the season, Portland would be the preseason number one. They’d get about 75 percent of the vote while a handful of skeptics would look at Kansas City’s less star-struck, more well-rounded squad and cast their vote with the Blues.

And as with any poll for a sport that has a playoff, the rankings wouldn’t mean a thing. They would, however, provide some context for Saturday’s opener, a matchup that could very well be repeated in Aug. 31’s final.

What makes Saturday’s game so interesting are not just the talents but how they match up. With one of the best spines in the league, Kansas City is particularly threatening to Portland is through the middle, a problem considering how narrow Parlow Cone looks to be setting up her team. Against the University of Portland, she used a 4-4-2/4-1-3-2 formation with its wide midfielders pulled in.

That could play to the strengths of a team that may feature Cheney (pictured), Mewis, Canadian destroyer Desiree Scott, talented attacker Casey Loyd, and all-arounder Sinead Farrelly in midfield.

Quick hits – Kansas City

Star to Watch: Lauren Cheney is FCKC’s best player. The question is where Vlatko Andonovski will use her. It looks like Andonovski plans to leverage her versatility, moving her between the midfield role she plays with the national team and her natural striker’s position.

Still important: Desiree Scott will be tasked with cutting off access Sinclair and Morgan. Here’s Sinclair’s scouting report on her Canada teammate:

“Des is a player on the national team that has really come into her own over the last two years. Our coach sort of threw her in to defensive mid one game, and I think she’s started every game there since. I think of her in the Olympics and she was just incredible and did so much for our team.

She’s a difficult player to play against. She’s quick. She’s feisty. She always seems to be in the right spots. As a holding midfielder her job is to cut off the supply into Alex and I. Hopefully she doesn’t do too good of a job at that this weekend.”

Wins if ,.. They win the midfield battle and can take advantage of a Portland central defense likely to feature tryout success Emilee O’Neil next to her former Stanford teammate (Buehler).

Quick hits – Portland

Star to Watch: Christine Sinclair may need to be the game-breaker, especially with the former Portland Pilot having two more days at practice than Morgan.

Still important: Angie Kerr will be the most attacking of Portland’s four midfielders and the player whose relationship with Sinclair will be most important. If Scott puts in a strong performance, Kerr’s presence in the space in front of the defense could help tilt the battle back in Portland’s favor.

Wins if … Sinclair or Morgan have a big day. That will be true most days this season, but in Kansas City, that may be all Thorns FC have. This is going to be one of their toughest tests of the year.

Other Games, Week 1

Sunday, 5 p.m. Eastern – Chicago Red Stars vs. Seattle Reign – Two midfield-heavy teams with potential problems in attack, this could end up 0-0 if Seattle’s midfield can protect their defense. Laura Harvey would take that result. (Link to stream.)

Sunday, 6 p.m. Eastern – Sky Blue FC vs. Western New York Flash – Abby Wambach and her home town team go to New Jersey to face Sky Blue, a team hoping U.S. national team defender Kelley O’Hara still has the attacker’s instincts she showed before her conversion to left back. If O’Hara and Lisa De Vanna have good days, Sky Blue wins. (Link to stream.)

Sunday, 6 p.m. Eastern – Boston Breakers vs. Washington Spirit – Boston’s all attack with problems in defense. Washington’s the opposite: Strong at the back with questions going forward. Boston’s the safe bet here, but if Stephanie Ochs can capitalize on the promise she showed coming out of San Diego two years ago, the Spirit could surprise their hosts. (Link to pay stream.)

More NWSL previews:

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Chile bests Portugal on penalty kicks to reach Confed Cup final

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Chile is on its way to the Confederations Cup final after a thrilling battle with Portugal on Wednesday afternoon.

The Chileans edged their European opposition, 0-0 (3-0 on penalty kicks), at Kazan Arena in Russia after goalkeeper Claudio Bravo made a trio of saves during the penalty shootout.

Arturo Vidal hit the post in the 119th minute from close range, before Martin Rodriguez’s rebound smashed off the crossbar and stayed out of goal to the dismay of the Chileans.

Chile had a legitimate claim for a penalty kick in the second half of extra time as Jose Fonte stepped on the foot of Francisco Silva inside the Portuguese area, but the referee opted to play on.

The South Americans thought they had picked out the lead just a few minutes into extra time when Alexis Sanchez’s header glanced just wide of goal.

Cristiano Ronaldo had several quality chances to break the deadlock during regulation, but none better than in the 72nd minute when the Real Madrid star had his deflected effort narrowly miss the top corner.

Chile began to find more of a rhythm during the second stanza, and Eduardo Vargas nearly gave his side the lead in the 59th minute when he acrobatically shot on goal, forcing a reaction save out of Rui Patricio.

Vargas had the first big chance for the South Americans in the sixth minute when he found himself in on goal against Patricio, but the Portuguese goalkeeper stood tall and made the save.

Meanwhile, Claudio Bravo found himself in a similar situation on the other end just a minute later, when the Manchester City keeper kept Portugal off the scoreboard.

Chile will meet the winner of Thursday’s contest between Mexico and Germany, while the Portuguese will await the loser of the match to decide third place.

Tite: Brazil would have benefited from playing Confed Cup

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KAZAN, Russia (AP) Coach Tite says it would have been good for Brazil to be playing in the Confederations Cup to give himself and his players more experience going into the World Cup.

[ MORE: Joachim Low wants clarity on Russia doping claims ]

Tite made the comments before watching Portugal play Chile in Kazan in the semifinals of the eight-nation World Cup warm-up event on Wednesday. He is in Russia to watch the tournament’s final stages and scout possible training bases for Brazil during next year’s tournament.

“I would have wanted to play in the tournament because it would have allowed me to have more time to work with the team, to get to know the adversities, the different situations that we will have to face,” Tite said. “It would have been important to be here.”

Tite has only coached Brazil for 11 games as coach, with 10 wins and a loss to Argentina in a friendly this year.

Brazil was the first team other than host Russia to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

He said he sees the Confederations Cup as a valid tournament, although it might need some changes to its format in the future.

“It’s an important competition in its broad context,” Tite said, adding that he would choose to play in the competition even if he couldn’t bring his top players.

Brazil intends to set up its World Cup base in Sochi, but details have not been finalized yet.

“The priority will be quality and privacy so we can do our work,” Tite said.

The coach said he supports the video review system because it brings “justice” to the game.

“It looks to me a little bit old-fashioned to be talking about technology,” he said. “It seems so natural to me. What will have to be done? Adjustments, yes. In the end (of the tournament), to have a situation analyzed more quickly. ”

Tite said he has been “following the news” about doping allegations in soccer, but won’t be reaching any conclusions until “there’s any evidence” about what really happened. He said that anyone found guilty must be heavily sanctioned to guarantee the game’s integrity.

Tite also said Brazil is considering a friendly against Russia.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

A leader at 23, Draxler mentors inexperienced Germany squad

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The youngest captain to lead Germany into a tournament in 105 years, Julian Draxler has effortlessly taken on the task of mentoring an inexperienced squad.

[ MORE: Aubameyang to China? And more transfer rumors ]

All while displaying the versatility linking up attacks that has helped to steer Germany into the Confederations Cup semifinals.

If Germany coach Joachim Loew learns one thing from the World Cup dress rehearsal, it’s that the 23-year-old Draxler is a strong contender to one day assume the armband from injured goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

“The way he is coordinating the young team is very good,” Loew said Wednesday. “He is turning into a personality who is in a position to assume responsibilities. He’s taking care of younger players and trying to integrate them into the team.

“He is always keeping his mind on what matters on the pitch but also off the pitch he is very sociable with other players as well.”

Draxler is far from the youngest player in the squad, but he’s the most experienced on the international stage. The semifinal against Mexico on Thursday will be Draxler’s 34th appearance for Germany. He is also one of only three members of the World Cup winning squad from 2014 who were included in the experimental group in Russia.

Shkodran Mustafi is another, and the defender is delighted to see Draxler’s progress from being a bit-part squad member in Brazil to an integral member of the team in Russia three years on.

“He has got a really bright future in front of him,” Mustafi said on the sidelines before training in the southern Russian coastal resort of Sochi. “Talent sometimes is not enough but I think he has the character and the talent, the head, to be the next superstar for sure.”

Don’t take Germany’s word for it. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio spoke Wednesday of his admiration for Draxler’s role as Germany’s “connector” and the way he finds space in midfield to be the link-man to the forwards.

What Draxler offers Loew is variety. The Paris Saint-Germain player is comfortable on both feet and he is given the freedom to roam across the pitch.

“Julian is a very fast, technically refined player with the ball,” Loew said through a translator in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. “He can travel through longer distances with no problem while keeping the ball and he has very good scoring capabilities.”

In the opening win over Australia at the Confederations Cup, Draxler netted his fifth international goal from the penalty spot. In the final group match on Sunday, Draxler’s slick back-heel set up Kerem Demirbay for Germany’s opener in a 3-2 victory over Cameroon.

Not since the 1912 Olympics there been a younger German captain at a FIFA or UEFA tournament.

“He’s not the loudest guy but on the pitch you could see his quality in the three games now and he’s talking to the players,” midfielder Emre Can said. “He wants to help. He has a lot of experience and he’s doing it very well.

“You can see he wants always the ball, he wants always to create something on the pitch and he wants to always score always. You can see that in every game.”

Draxler has traveled to Russia after finding some stability in his club career after leaving Wolfsburg for PSG in January for 47 million euros (then about $50 million).

“He is very ambitious,” Loew said. “He is a very classy player.”

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

Germany coach wants clarity on Russia doping claims

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Germany football coach Joachim Loew wants more clarity from sports leaders following speculation that doping of Russia’s 2014 World Cup squad was covered up.

[ MORE: 2017 Confederations Cup news ]

The World Cup-winning coach urged the World Anti-Doping Agency and FIFA to be transparent and identify players implicated.

“If there really are names there, they shouldn’t be hidden at all,” Loew said Wednesday at a news conference in Sochi, where his team plays a Confederations Cup semifinal.

“I can’t prove it and no one apparently can if we are not having the facts here on the table,” Loew said through a translator. “And if players have been doped, well, they have to be removed, they have to be suspended.”

Loew was asked by German broadcaster ARD about the World Cup claim and other new allegations that state-backed Russian doping went deeper into football than was previously suspected.

Earlier Wednesday, the broadcaster released an interview with WADA investigator Richard McLaren who said FIFA is aware of 155 potentially suspect samples given by football players in Russia that await analysis.

McLaren told ARD he suspected Russian authorities kept a bank of clean urine samples from footballers to replace tainted ones – a similar system to evade positive doping tests as was used at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

FIFA declined to comment Wednesday on ARD’s report.

The Canadian lawyer’s sprawling investigation of the Olympic doping conspiracy implicated more than 1,000 athletes across many sports. It included evidence in emails and documents of at least 35 football cases for FIFA to prosecute.

The evidence had few details, though included a June 2014 document apparently linked to the squad Russia sent to the World Cup in Brazil. FIFA acknowledged being aware of the document this week after a report by a British Sunday newspaper.

FIFA has not formally identified any players under suspicion, nor imposed provisional suspensions.

“We have the report from WADA but we are not supposed to be disclosing any names,” FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura said Wednesday, in Kazan for the Portugal vs. Chile semifinal. “Until we got the final decision from the laboratory we cannot elaborate.”

Football leaders in the 2018 World Cup host nation consistently dismiss suggestions of a problem.

“There hasn’t been a single doping incident in Russian football in many recent years,” Alexei Sorokin, CEO of the World Cup organizing committee, said this week of the British report. “We do not regard this as any serious matter.”

Germany’s Loew was speaking in the Sochi stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the much-criticized Winter Games.

He urged WADA and FIFA to “just call a spade a spade, and then we know what is going to happen from there.”

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report