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:

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)

Andorra’s 11-year, 58-game losing streak is over

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Rarely has a scoreless stalemate in front of the home fans tasted so sweet.

But 11 years of nothing but losing will do that to a team.

Andorra’s 0-0 draw with fellow minnow Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Saturday ended its run of 58 competitive defeats.

It was the first point in qualifying for the Pyrenees mountain principality, population 80,000, since a scoreless draw with Finland in 2005.

Faroe Islands finished with 10 men after Joan Edmundsson was booked a second time with 15 minutes to play.

World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia