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Looking back at Round 1 of the NWSL season

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It had the disjointed grace of a fawn nudged into its first walk. Cautious optimism from an uneven buildup provided support for a body that holds so much promise, the third crack at a women’s professional league stumbling beneath hopes a fervent U.S. national team fanbase can finally be converted to the club soccer world. And when a standing room only crowd turned up at Overland Park to see the league’s debut, the league finally took its first precarious steps.

But then the YouTube streams choked, and fields adorned with football grids and lacrosse circles reeked of 1990s anachronism. Multi-use pitches with terrible turf forced us to recoil (below, right).

No worries, Dilboy Stadium. That’s only Syndey Leroux. She’s just one of the U.S. national team’s most talented players. I mean, that’s only one game. Boston’s still got 10 more at home.

Even with its foibles, the NWSL got off to a strong start. A standout evening in Kansas City kicked off the season, and even with teams unsettled by international callups during the last weeks of preseason, the quality of play was promising. Though technical issues and facilities quirks drew dejected moans from those with unreasonably high expectations, the first week of the new women’s league was a successful one, one which left one team alone at the top of the table:

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

Sky Blue FC got the league’s only win, but they can chalk that up to an own goal from Western New York’s McCall Zerboni. The real surprise was the Seattle Reign, whose depleted roster led many to believe they’d stumble out of the gate. Without Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo (both out until June) as well as two of their best goal-scoring options (Tiffany Cameron and Lindsay Taylor), Seattle still went up early through rookie Christine Nairn. Chicago eventually equalized, but when the 1-1 score line held up through full time, the Reign began moving on from a terrible preseason.

MVP … OF THE ROUND

Everybody was high on Western New York’s Adrianna Franch, but FEW expected this kind of dominance in her first professional game. The only player that beat the Flash keeper was her teammate, with the rookie out of Oklahoma State injecting herself into Sky Blue attacker Lisa Da Vanna’s nightmares after stoning her on two clear second half chances. In all, Franch made seven stops on the night, allowing only what the soccer equivalent of an unearned run.

Rated as one of the best players in January’s draft, “A.D.” surprisingly fell to seven, where Western New York happily scooped her up. Though her Sunday efforts failed to get points for her team, the 22-year-old Kansan will cover a lot of Flash defensive ills if she can maintain this level.

Also of note: Washington’s Ashlyn Harris (big stops at Dilroy), Kansas City’s Kristie Mewis (skill-filled debut vs. Portland), good ol’ No Legs Leroux up there (game-tying goal for Boston), and our Unsung Hero, below.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Sat., Apr. 13 Kansas City 1-1 Portland
Sun., Apr. 14 Chicago 1-1 Seattle
Sun., Apr. 14 Sky Blue 1-0 W. New York
Sun., Apr. 14 Boston 1-1 Washington

ROUND’S BIG STORY

Some people were never going to be happy with the league’s modest start, so when non-soccer lines adored fields portrayed by inconsistent internet streams, the refrain was recycled: This is supposed to be a professional league?

Among fans who didn’t experience WPS or WUSA, perspective’s going to be difficult. Instead of seeing U.S. Soccer as providing something where there was nothing, eager followers ask why can’t you get an internet stream to work. Why are all the uniforms from the same template? Why isn’t there a national television deal?

The questions are positive ones, helping to make the league better. And there is an easy answer: The league’s five months old. But with each passing day – each 24 hours where the league could be addressing comes of these problems – the questions become louder. And more relevant.

UNSUNG HERO

The Portland Thorns didn’t look like favorites on Saturday. Blame Desiree Scott. The Canadian international won the battle in front of Kansas City’s defense, controlling an area Christine Sinclair usually calls her own. Portland didn’t start making serious headway until Cindy Parlow Cone’s second half substitutions dropped Sinclair in front of Scott.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. PST
Rank
1 Sky Blue 1 3 3
2 Seattle 1 1 5
2 Washington 1 1 7
2 Portland 1 1 1
2 Kansas City 1 1 2
2 Chicago 1 1 8
2 Boston 1 1 6
8 W. New York 1 0 4

In that sense, this was always going to be a bad matchup for Portland, something to keep in mind as these two favorites work their way through the season. Vlatko Andonovski has two quality players (Scott and Jen Buczkowski) he can deploy in front of the defense. Once in the lead, Lauren Cheney can reinforce their ranks.

It was a good road point for Portland, though ultimately, it was also a shot across their bow.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Will Seattle’s defense hold up against a team with better striking options? … And are fears about Chicago’s attack set to come to fruition? … Is Portland’s midfield as bad, or was that the travel and turf? … And how did they fail to find Alex Morgan? … How does Abby Wambach miss an open net from the middle of the area at the end of the match? … And is this the week we hear about the league’s big sponsorship and television deals?

LOOKING FORWARD

Portland and Kansas City get a chance to flash their favorites’ credentials. FCKC gets the defense-depleted Breakers in Overland Park, while Thorns FC spark their Cascadian rivalry with the Seattle Reign.

Saturday, April 20

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York Flash
FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breaks

Sunday, April 21

Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign FC

LA Galaxy newcomer Ashley Cole takes responsibility for previous MLS quote

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 5: Ashley Cole #3 of the Los Angeles Galaxy speaks after he was introduced during a news conference at StubHub Center February 5, 2016, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Wireimage)
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During Ashley Cole‘s introductory press conference today, where the former Chelsea legend was officially unveiled by the LA Galaxy to the media alongside Belgian defender Jelle Van Damme, a predictable question came his way.

Cole was asked about comments he made a year and a half ago when he joined AS Roma, where he said he turned down offers from Major League Soccer because he didn’t want to go “relax on the beach.”

The 35-year-old took responsibility for the quote, saying, “Of course, I hold my hands up, it was said.” However, he defended himself saying he was baited into the comments by the Italian reporter.

“I’m not going to come here and try to defend myself,” Cole said. “It was said, but it was for sure taken out of content. I was talking to the reporter, and he kind of said it to me, ‘We’re glad to have you at Roma. We didn’t expect you to be here, we thought you would go and relax on the beach.'”

“Of course you have to understand, I was at a new team, I have to tell the fans at Roma I was here to fight, I was there to win things and play in the Champions League.”

Cole said he spoke to Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Robbie Keane about the league before deciding to join Major League Soccer. “I know it’s going to be hard for me for sure, but I’m happy to be here, I’m going to work as hard as I can, change a few views on me being here, and we’ll see. I’m a winner, I always want to win, I didn’t come here to sit on the beach – to rest – I’m here to play football and work hard. I’m not a diva, I’m not this egotistical guy that comes and thinks he’s bigger than anyone.”

3 key battles for USMNT against Canada

CARSON, CA - JANUARY 31:  Jozy Altidore #17 of the United States chases down a pass against Iceland during the first half at StubHub Center on January 31, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The United States takes on Canada in the second of two matches throughout January camp to test those brought in and see who stands out.

They took out Iceland in the first match, and now the Canadians stand in the way at the Stubhub Center in Carson, CA at 10:30 on Friday night.

[ PREVIEW: Get the full look at US vs Canada ]

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann no doubt has already run through is list of positives and negatives in the win over Iceland. While the win is nice, the overriding purpose here is to both evaluate certain players and determine the best formula for success moving forward into World Cup qualifying, the Copa America, and the Olympics.

So, with that in mind, here are three key matchups to keep an eye on as the USMNT players battle both Canada and each other for spots on the roster in future meaningful games.

1) United States attack vs Canada’s organization

The US was solid in possession against Iceland, but it came against an opponent that showed a more attacking intent and also appeared to have limited motivation. Canada would not be what you call a “defensive” team, but they are very organized under Benito Floro, and it shows. They’ve conceded 1 or 0 goals in each of their last 13 matches, losing just once across that time. Their goalscoring numbers have suffered, but it’s translated into marginal success.

To hold the ball against Iceland, the US used a slow build-up process beginning with Jermaine Jones (who stayed surprisingly composed and centralized during his time on the field) who fed Michael Bradley and Lee Nguyen further up the pitch. That tactic may not be as effective against a less erratic opponent, but it will be interesting to see how Klinsmann decides to break down the Canadian defensive unit. The wide areas may be vital.

The 0-0 scoreline has been a fixture in this matchup, finishing goalless the last two times and in four of the last eight, so the US will no doubt be looking to break that deadlock early lest they get frustrated as time progresses.

2) USMNT full-backs vs wide play

Michael Orozco and Brad Evans were sent back to their clubs, leaving the United States incredibly thin at a position the nation has already been weak at for years. Jurgen Klinsmann has been searching far and wide for an answer to this question, and with young Kellyn Acosta slightly out of his depth or potentially star-struck in his debut against Iceland, there are a few other question marks.

The options are limited. Acosta could get another shot if Klinsmann likes what he sees in training, or he could move to the likes of Brandon Vincent or Matt Polster. The latter logged 30 matches for Chicago last year as a rookie, while Vincent was just drafted by FC Dallas and has yet to even make a professional appearance. Either way, it’s likely Canada targets the wide areas as a point of weakness for the US, so whoever plays will be in the spotlight.

[ VIDEO: Bobby Wood scores skillful goal for club ]

3) Central defenders vs Akindele and Larin

Whether Floro decides to play Larin centrally by himself, or partner him with Akindele, the striker(s) will be the main target for Canada’s attack. Larin and Akindele both have not seen the scoresheet since a 4-0 win over the Dominican Republic in World Cup qualifying last June, so they will be itching to get back on board. Should one be deployed centrally, look for the lone wolf to split the central defenders and receive service from wide areas where Canada may exploit the aforementioned weaknesses along the outside of the US back line.

How do you see the US matching up against Canada, and visa-versa?

VIDEO: Bobby Wood splits defenders, scores beautiful solo goal for Union Berlin

DUBLIN, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 18:  Bobby Wood of USA during the International Friendly match between the Republic of Ireland and USA at the Aviva Stadium on November 18, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Bobby Wood may not be in January camp, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t able to catch the eye of USMNT supporters, and more importantly head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

All he has to do is channel his inner Lionel Messi, split a couple of hapless “defenders” with a stunning display of ball control, and bag an 86th-minute equalizer by beating a goalkeeper at his near post.

Funny, because that’s exactly what he did today as Union Berlin drew 2-2 with Kaiserslautern in 2.Bundesliga league play.

Should you set this defensive display to Yakety Sax? It would fit. Is the goalkeeper’s positioning laughable? Absolutely. Nonetheless, the 23-year-old Hawaii native shows he is building his skill set in Germany and is becoming a useful piece of the puzzle for Klinsmann’s talent pool.

The goal is the eighth of Wood’s 2.Bundesliga season in 20 appearances. The club has lost just one match in its last eight, pulling away from the drop zone into a virtual 3-way tie for 11th position. They sit seven points above the relegation zone and nine off a promotion slot.

African confederation backs Shiekh Salman, not Sexwale, for FIFA presidency

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MAY 02:  Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain poses after he was elected as the 11th President of the Asian Football Confederation during the 2013 AFC Congress at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on May 2, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
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The African confederation (CAF) announced today in a statement following a meeting in Kigali, Rwanda that they would be unanimously backing Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa for the FIFA presidency.

The AFC has unrivaled power in the vote for the FIFA presidency, and with 54 votes, decided to push all their support into one bloc. The choice to back Salman comes at somewhat of a surprise, given that Tokyo Sexwale was a favorite in the region as he is a South African native, and the CAF has long campaigned for one of its own to be put into office.

Sheikh Salman is the current head of the Asian confederation (AFC), serving in that position since he was voted into office in May of 2013. The AFC signed a cooperative agreement with the CAF just last month

“I am humbled by the support of CAF’s Executive Committee and tremendously encouraged by the unanimous decision to support my bid for the office of FIFA president,” Sheikh Salman said in a statement following the announcement. “I am deeply honored to have earned the trust of many of our African friends at this crucial stage of the campaigning effort.  The two endorsements only mean that there is a strong groundswell in favor of my candidacy. What they don’t mean, is that I can sit back and relax. This campaign will be decided on the day of the vote, not before. Naturally, I am confident that I now have a reasonably strong position to work from with such support.”

In a twist, just hours after the announcement by the CAF, fellow presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein revealed on Twitter that he had the backing of the Egyptian Football Federation, which is a member of the CAF. The original tweet came from an account created to support his presidential bid, but it was retweeted by Prince Ali’s personal verified account.

No word has been announced on whether the CAF had accepted Egypt’s apparent rogue nature. The initial statement by the CAF announcing support for Sheikh Salman read, “While respecting the principle of democracy, the sovereignty, and latitude of each member association to vote for the candidate of its choice, the Executive Committee urges all the 54 member associations of the Confédération Africaine de Football to reserve their votes for Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa during the 26 February 2016 elections for the presidency of FIFA in Zurich.”

The CAF is headquartered just outside Cairo, Egypt.