FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns stalemate rings in NWSL

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It only took three minutes for the new National Women’s Soccer League to find its first goal scorer, with FC Kansas City’s Renae Cueller beating Karina LeBlanc in the third minute of Saturday’s opener. For over an hour, the lead held, but when a controversial whistle gave Thorns captain Christine Sinclair an opportunity from the spot, Portland had the chance they needed to secure a 1-1 draw in front of 6,784 at Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kan.

It was an strong start for a league that’s hoping the third time’s a charm for women’s professional soccer. Yes, the match was played on turf at a high school venue, and those people who waded through the choppy internet stream the NWSL offered on its YouTube channel saw high school football lines serve as a perpetual reminder of the league’s modest beginnings, but fans were also privy to a quality of play that WUSA and WPS — the two previous professional leagues — would have been hard pressed to match. While the talent in midfield for both teams meant that quality often cancelled out, long time fans of the women’s game could close their browser windows happy. The NWSL looks promising.

That promise started with Cuellar’s goal, a left-footed finish from 16 yards out that began 20 minutes of control for the hosts. The stretch gave NWSL fans every reason to believe a deep FCKC squad can compete with a star-laden Thorns team that’s been singled out as the league favorites.

Though play started to even out mid-way through the first half, the two sitting midfielders in Vlatko Andonovski’s 4-2-3-1 variant continued cutting off Portland’s access to their most dangerous weapons: Sinclair and strike partner Alex Morgan. A talent Thorns midfield was neutered by Desiree Scott and Jen Buczowski’s two-woman shield, the fast turf, and their own inability to effectively move the ball. Morgan, the league’s biggest star, was taken out of the game. Portland may have the most talented team in the league, but going into halftime, there was little doubt they’d been outplayed.

Why Thorns FC were able to recover in the second half is open to interpretation. Form Portland’s point of view, an increase in intensity, particularly with their forwards pressing Kansas City’s defenders, helped sway the game. But that may only tell part of the story. As the match bled on FCKC lost the abandon with which they were throwing attackers at Portland’s back line. Second half questions of the Thorns’ defense often left Cuellar isolated. The rest of her team played too reverential, and by the hour mark, Portland was convincingly controlling play.

It still took a beneficial whistle for the Thorns to pull even. In the 66th minute Danielle Foxhoven, recently brought on for Angie Kerr, appeared to be pulled down by Kansas City’s Lauren Sesselman near the edge of the six-yard box. It was the type of foul that may have looked more convincing to a trailing referee than a television audience, though Andonovski and defender Becky Sauerbrunn would later express their disagreement with the call. But those refrains had to wait until after the match, one left drawn after Sinclair buried the penalty kick.

For Portland, it was a fortuitous draw, though given how they’d come into the game, they very well could have created a goal over the match’s final 23 minutes. Their midfield was average, and a defense that was questioned during preseason was at fault for Kansas City’s only goal. Still, by the end of the match, Portland seemed to have evened the scales.

Kansas City played a big part in that. In the second half, they lacked the intensity that caused Portland to scramble over the first 45 minutes. Throwing Casey Loyd, Lauren Cheney, and Kristie Mewis forward to attack off of Cuellar in the first half, FCKC was able to constantly stress the Thorns with quick transitions out of their own end. That verve was absent over the last 45, allowing Portland to come back into the match.

Ultimately, this may be a result that suits both sides. Because of the quality of their team and the surface they play on, Kansas City may prove one of the more difficult teams to take points from on the road. And from FCKC’s point of view, they can take solace in earning a point from a full strength Thorns squad.

Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair spoke to OregonLive.com’s Geoffrey C. Arnold after Saturday’s match:

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.

Wenger called ref Dean “not honest,” “a disgrace” to earn ban

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LONDON (AP) Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger accused a referee of being “not honest” and called him “a disgrace” in a rant inside the match officials’ changing room that led to a three-match touchline ban for one of English soccer’s most experienced coaches.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

The English Football Association published Tuesday the written reasons behind its decision to ban Wenger for being abusive toward referee Mike Dean after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Dec. 31.

In his match report given to the FA, Dean said Wenger “was pointing aggressively at me saying, ‘You’re not honest’ on numerous occasions.” Dean then said Wenger said “you’ve done this to us many times before, you’re supposed to be professional, you’re a disgrace.”

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

Wenger had been incensed at Calum Chambers being penalized for a handball and West Brom converting the resulting penalty to equalize late in the game.

The FA said “there is simply no justification for this behavior” and considered a stadium ban for Wenger.

Wenger was also fined $54,200 for his conduct.

FA Cup: Leicester, West Ham survive replays to reach 4th round

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Two more Premier League sides reached the fourth round of the 2017-18 FA Cup on Tuesday, winning their respective replays and joining 10 other top-flight clubs already through to the next round…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town

Kelechi Iheanacho moved to Leicester from Manchester City for $33 million this summer and has, through his first half-season in the East Midlands, failed to live up to that price tag. In nine PL appearances, he is yet to score his first league goal. Tuesday, however, saw the 21-year-old Nigerian international put forth a bit production and performance more befitting a player of his promise and pedigree.

Manager Claude Puel picked a side consisting of first-team regulars and lesser-used squad players for the Foxes FA Cup third-round replay against League One side Fleetwood Town. It was Iheanacho, who started alongside/just behind target man Islam Slimani, who shown brightest with a pair of goals, in the 43rd and 77th minutes, to send Leicester into the fourth round. Iheanacho’s second, the one that put the game away for Leicester, was originally ruled out for offside, but was eventually after consultation of the video-assistant referee.

Leicester will travel to League One side Peterborough in the fourth round, on Sat. Jan. 27.

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town

It took far longer than Hammers fans would have liked — or expected — but West Ham, over the course of 120 minutes, survived the Cupset bid of third-division Shrewsbury Town. With eight minutes remaining before Tuesday’s replay went to penalty kicks at the London Stadium, 21-year-old defender Reece Burke fired home from inside the box to break the scoreless deadlock.

West Ham will be away to the winner of the replay between Bournemouth and Wigan Athletic (Wednesday), on Sat. Jan. 27.

Elsewhere in FA Cup replay action

Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Wednesday’s FA Cup replay schedule

Chelsea vs. Norwich City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Swansea City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 2:45 p.m. ET
Wigan Athletic vs. Bournemouth — 2:45 p.m. ET

Report: Newcastle sale talks between Ashley, Staveley collapse

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Talks between Mike Ashley and Amanda Staveley over the much-desired and -rumored sale of Newcastle United are off, according to a report from Sky Sports and various other UK news outlets.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Sky has quoted a source close to Ashley as having said: “Attempts to reach a deal (with Staveley) have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time.” (Full quote below)

Ashley, the club’s current and long-beleaguered owner, has been seeking a potential buyer since putting the club up for sale back in October. Staveley emerged as the front-runner (the only runner, perhaps) in the days following Ashley’s announcement, and reportedly tabled an offer of $335 million in early December before reportedly offering something closer to $400 million a couple weeks later.

Ashley selling the club — and doing so before the end of the January transfer window, which now appears nigh impossible — appeared to be one the few scenarios in which Rafa Benitez would remain the Magpies’ manager beyond the end of the current Premier League season (Newcastle currently sit 15th, just three points clear of relegation) after constant rumors of his discontent and lack of financial backing last summer.