Alex Morgan celebrates after scoring

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:

And more:

Manchester City confirm $22.5 million signing of Claudio Bravo

FOXBORO, MA - JUNE 10:  Claudio Bravo #1 of Chile passes the ball during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Group D match between Chile and Bolivia in the first half at Gillette Stadium on June 10, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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It’s done.

Claudio Bravo, 33, has signed a four-year contract at Manchester City as the club announced his $22.5 million transfer from Barcelona on Thursday.

[ MORE: Saints close to Boufal deal ]

Bravo flew in to Manchester earlier this week and Pep Guardiola finally has the goalkeeper he’s been craving as he revealed the Chilean international is someone “he’s admired for a number of years.”

With Joe Hart given the cold shoulder and veteran Willy Caballero handed the starting spot in goal for City’s first two Premier League games of the season, it always seemed likely that a goalkeeper was lined up.

[ MORE: Solo ban about much more ]

Speaking to the club website about his move to City after spending the last two seasons at Barcelona, Bravo is looking forward to the challenge ahead.

“I’m very proud to be joining Manchester City. I know the Club is building something very special and I hope I can be part of many successes in the coming years,” Bravo said. “I have followed City’s progress in recent years and obviously know some of my new team-mates from the Copa America.

“It is not easy to leave a club like Barcelona where I had two fantastic years, but the opportunity to work with Pep Guardiola was too good to refuse. Now I will challenge the other great goalkeepers the Club has and together I hope we can win many trophies.”

So, now the picture is even clearer for Hart as despite Bravo claiming he is at the Etihad Stadium to “challenge the other great goalkeepers” they have, we all know he is the new numero uno. Hart will have to find a move elsewhere if he wants to play regularly but his options are running out with Everton’s manager Ronald Koeman saying they are no interested in signing Hart.

Over the last two seasons Bravo has split time with Marc-Andre ter Stegen at Barca but the man who has already made 100 appearances for Chile and has won back-to-back Copa America titles is now ready to be a bonafide star as he enters the prime of his career.

Comfortable with the ball at his feet and a sublime shot-stopper, Bravo’s acquisition is another key moment in Guardiola’s masterplan at City.

The Spanish coach has now spent $260 million on John Stones, Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito, Marlos Moreno, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bravo this summer.

Four games into Pep’s tenure as City’s boss the Citizens are perfect with four wins as they’ve qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stages.

Drinkwater stays at champion Leicester, signs 5-year deal

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Danny Drinkwater of Leicester City is closed down by Bertrand Traore of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Leicester City at Stamford Bridge on May 15, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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LEICESTER, England (AP) Danny Drinkwater has become the latest Leicester player to commit his future to the English champions.

[ MORE: Solo ban about much more ]

Leicester said Thursday the midfielder has signed a new five-year contract. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have also penned new deals this summer.

Drinkwater, a former Manchester United player, was a regular for Leicester in its run to the Premier League title last season, helping him earn a call-up to the England squad.

Hope Solo’s ban from USWNT about much more than “coward” comments

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 5: Goal keeper Hope Solo #1 celebrates with Julie Johnston #8 of U.S. Women's National Team during the second half of a friendly match against Japan on June 5, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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On Wednesday the news broke that U.S. Soccer had banned Hope Solo for six months from the USWNT and had terminated her contract as a member of the national team.

In truth, we all saw this coming.

[ MORE: Boufal to Saints close ]

The official reason given by Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, was that Solo’s comments following the USA’s shock defeat on penalty kicks to Sweden in the quarterfinals at Rio 2016 were “unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our National Team players.”

Solo, 35, said that Sweden played like “a bunch of cowards” and argued that “the best team did not win.”

Were the comments out of line? Yes. Were they in the heat of the moment? Yes. Were they worthy of a six-month suspension from the USWNT? No.

Then again, this whole episode is about far more than Solo basically lambasting Sweden for being a long-ball team. This storm has been brewing for some time with multiple incidents of indiscretion leading to this inevitable outcome.

Gulati said as much.

“Taking into consideration the past incidents involving Hope, as well as the private conversations we’ve had requiring her to conduct herself in a manner befitting a U.S. National Team member, U.S. Soccer determined this is the appropriate disciplinary action,” Gulati added in the statement.

Solo is currently locked in a legal battle with a half-sister and nephew over alleged domestic violence — Solo continues to claims she is innocent — from 2014, while there was also the incident in 2015 involving Solo and her husband, Jerramy Stevens.

The latter was arrested and charged with a DUI after he and Solo took a team mini-van from the USWNT hotel in California and drove around the streets before being pulled over outside the team hotel by police with Solo reportedly dragged from the scene kicking and screaming. Solo was banned by U.S. Soccer for 30 days on Jan. 31, 2015 for that incident but was recalled by Jill Ellis for the 2015 World Cup and was a star during the USWNT’s World Cup win.

Those two unsavory incidents coupled with the huge wave of negativity from the people of Brazil at Rio 2016 — home fans booed Solo constantly and chanted “Zika” every time she kicked the ball after she posted several pictures on social media showing her preparing for the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil — were enough for U.S. Soccer to act in this manner when Solo gave them yet another reason to investigate her.

USWNT head coach Ellis flew to Seattle with Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer’s secretary general, to deliver the news of the suspension and although Solo will still be able to play for Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL (U.S. Soccer is reportedly handing her three months severance pay on the contract they terminated which also includes her salary for NWSL play) she will miss two upcoming games for the USWNT in 2016.

Will the USWNT be weaker without Solo? Of course they will. She has been one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history and probably the greatest-ever goalkeeper. Yet, Gulati and U.S. Soccer had to make a firm stance after giving Solo chance after chance to clean up her act.

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 03: Hope Solo #1 of United States looks on during the Women's Group G first round match between the United States and New Zealand during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Mineirao Stadium on August 3, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
(Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

 

It doesn’t take a master decoder to work out the subliminal message buried in Gulati’s comments in the statement released by U.S. Soccer.

In a nutshell it says: enough is enough. You were on your last chance and you blew it. It is highly likely than since January 2015 Solo has been repeatedly warned that if she steps out of line again there would be severe consequences.

Right now Solo will not be available to play for the U.S. until Feb. 2017 and even then it seems highly unlikely she will return. After a distinguished career on the pitch, Solo’s erratic behavior off it has finally caught up with her.

The lengthy ban for her outspoken rant against Sweden was undoubtedly excessive and there is a big question mark about the notion of free speech here. She spoke her mind vehemently about her distaste towards Sweden’s tactics but it wasn’t like Solo swore or used discriminatory language when speaking about Sweden. She just didn’t agree with their tactics.

Yet, that “coward” rant was likely the final straw in a long line of indiscretions which even Solo, perhaps one day, must admit have painted both herself and U.S. Soccer in a poor light over the past few years.

Enough is enough. The punishment for this specific outburst may seem harsh to many but it likely marks the end of Solo’s glittering, controversy filled, USWNT career.

Southampton agree club-record fee of $28 million for Sofiane Boufal

Sofiane Boufal
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Southampton look set to smash their transfer record as Moroccan international Sofiane Boufal is close to sealing a move to St Mary’s.

ProSoccerTalk understands that Saints have agreed a club-record fee of $28 million with Ligue 1 club Lille for Boufal and the attacker is now discussing personal terms with the side who finished sixth in the Premier League last season.

[ MORE: Solo suspended by USWNT

It is believed there is still some way to go in the deal before Boufal, 22, is unveiled at Saints — it could be early next week ahead of the summer transfer window slamming shut at 7 p.m. ET on Aug. 31. — with the player currently in the latter stages of recovering from a knee injury he suffered at the end of last season.

With Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool all linked with Boufal in the past, this signing would represent a major coup for manager Claude Puel (former manager of Lille from 2002-08) and also boost Southampton’s attacking options following the loss of Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle over the summer.

Boufal could be the latest in a long line of shrewd European pickups from Saints who have benefited greatly over the past three seasons from giving stars of other European leagues a chance in the PL (see: Mane, Sadio.) then selling them on to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United for huge profits.

The Paris-born attacker shone for Lille in France’s top-flight last season, scoring 11 goals and adding four assists following his move from second-tier Angers where he came through the youth system. Born and raised in France, Boufal chose to represent Morocco at international level and he has already placed twice for the Atlas Lions after making his debut in 2016.

If the deal does get over the line, as expected, then what type of player may Southampton be getting?

Boufal has skill and trickery similar to Riyad Mahrez and the directness of a Yannick Bolasie. He can play out wide or centrally and his creativity is his main trait. That is something Saints need as they’ve scored just once in their opening two games of the season and they look to be lacking a cutting edge in the final third heading into their first-ever appearance in the group stages of the UEFA Europa League.

This could well be another masterful signing from Saints’ now famed analysts in the “black box” room at their Staplewood training ground.