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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

Premier League Preview: Burnley vs. Watford

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  • First-ever meeting in PL
  • Watford looking for third-straight win
  • Burnley haven’t won in last three
  • Clarets without suspended Gray

Burnley host Watford on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports) at Turf Moor in the first-ever Premier League meeting between these two teams.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

Watford is on a roll with Walter Mazzarri‘s side beating Manchester United 3-1 last time out and the Hornets are looking to make it three wins on the spin in the Premier League. Burnley have just one win to their name back in the PL which was at home in the second week of the season against Liverpool. In home games against Hull City and Swansea they’ve conceded goals late on which is a trend manager Sean Dyche (former captain and manager at Watford) will look to end on Monday with his side going three games without a win in the PL.

In team news Burnley are without Andre Gray as the striker was banned three games by the FA for homophobic comments he made on social media back in 2012. Ashley Barnes is out injured for Burnley, while Watford will be without right back Daryl Janmaat plus Younes Kaboul and Jose Holebas are both fitness doubts.

What they’re saying

Dyche on his time at Watford: “It’s well-documented I’ve always had respect for the club. The situation, the business changed etc etc but I mean every word when I say I had a fantastic time there as player, youth coach, assistant manager and manager. Because business changes and you lose your job it doesn’t mean I hold any baggage at all, I certainly don’t. It’s a lot of water under the bridge and they’ve gone on to become a Premier League club so their model of working has worked for them.”

Mazzarri on Troy Deeney: “Of course he is international level. I would be proud and really happy if Deeney went to the national team He has improved physically and he is much fitter now. He is a strong striker – he just needs to look after his fitness. I respect the England manager and his decision, and I am biased as he is one of my players.”

Prediction

Despite Gray’s absence being a big blow for Burnley, I fancy the home side to get all three points. On a chilly night in Lancashire, Burnley have a stacked midfield which can dig deep and frustrate Watford. With the Hornets playing a 3-5-2 formation, this game will be won in midfield and the creativity of Steven Defour and the bite of Jeff Hendrick may get them over the line for a big win. 2-1 to Burnley.

Bob Bradley to take over at Swansea City?

Bob Bradley, Stabaek Fotball
AP
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Bob Bradley is continuing to be linked with jobs in the Premier League.

[ MORE: Chelsea clear out? ]

After a poor start to the season Swansea City’s current manager Francesco Guidolin is under plenty of pressure with reports suggesting he could lose his job with Ryan Giggs the favorite to replace him.

However, a report in the Sun newspaper says Swansea’s U.S. owners want to speak with current Le Havre head coach Bradley, 58, about potentially replacing Guidolin at the Liberty Stadium.

The former U.S. men’s national team coach has carved out a wonderful resume since leaving the USMNT in 2011. From taking the Egyptian national team to the brink of World Cup qualification amidst some of the most difficult circumstances in world soccer, he then took tiny Stabaek in Norway to third-place in the top flight and European qualification.

Bradley was also one goal away from getting Le Havre  promoted to Ligue 1 last season as on the final day of the 2015-16 campaign they came agonizingly close to getting out of France’s second-tier.

With the Swans losing four of their six games in the Premier League so far this season, it is clear the fans and perhaps the board aren’t happy with the direction the club is going in under Guidolin’s guidance. The veteran Italian manager arrived in the second half of last season and despite keeping the struggling Swans up quite comfortably, losing the likes of Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew this summer hit him hard.

[ MORE: Donovan talks about Swansea role ]

When it comes to Bradley the reports says American investors Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan — who now own a majority share of the club after their takeover this summer — are concerned about the lack of experience Giggs has as a first team manager. They believe Bradley would be the perfect candidate to build something sustainable and it is hard to argue with that.

Wherever Bradley has been he’s worked miracles on a shoestring budget and often against all odds he has surpassed expectations. Swansea is a club which won’t spend big but will buy young players and hope to develop them while still being able to maintain their PL status, five years after they gained promotion to the top-flight.

Although Giggs still seems like the favorite if Guidolin does leave the Liberty Stadium, it will be intriguing to see if Bradley will finally get a job his abilities as a coach clearly deserves.

After reportedly coming close in the past for the main job at West Bromwich Albion and being linked to Aston Villa, Hull City, Fulham and countless other gigs in the Premier League, the New Jersey native has always been overlooked for whatever reason. He  That’s something he spoke about at length here as he doesn’t believe there’s much difference between himself and the managerial juggernauts such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

“I’ll tell you what, maybe I’m stupid but I think I am a manager in and around that level. I’m not saying I am better than those guys, I haven’t had those kind of opportunities,” Bradley said. “But I think that people who have played for me have always feel the experience in the team was different, that training was challenging, that there were a lot of things done to help them become better players and better people. I believe in my work. I don’t go around every day complaining, I just roll up my sleeves, try to show people what I’m all about and see what happens.”

Maybe, just maybe, Bradley will finally get to show what he’s all about in the Premier League.

Report: Chelsea set to overhaul defense with clear out

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At times during Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday, Antonio Conte looked like he was going to cry.

The defending was that bad.

[ MORE: Conte bemoans defending ]

Chelsea gave up three first half goals, the first in calamitous fashion as Gary Cahill was inexplicably caught on the ball to let Alexis Sanchez in to score, and Conte was seething in his post-match press conference about the level of defending and the fact that Chelsea has now conceded at least twice in each of their last four games.

The Daily Mail reports that the Italian manager has seen enough from both Cahill and struggling right back Branislav Ivanovic and he will “phase them out” in the coming weeks at Stamford Bridge.

With captain John Terry set to come back from injury, plus Kurt Zouma close to a return too, Conte has other options and it seems likely he will now use those.

Per the report, Conte is also looking elsewhere to bolster his defensive options with Burnley’s Michael Keane and Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson both linked with a January move to the Blues with the west London said to be scouting both players closely.

It will be intriguing to see how Conte changes things up in the games to come, especially as the Blues face tough tests against Hull City, Leicester City and Manchester United in their next three Premier League games.

Chelsea played the final 35 minutes at the Emirates in a 3-5-2 formation which is one Conte mastered at Juventus and with the Italian national team in the past. That formation may well get the best out of Terry, the erratic David Luiz and perhaps Zouma alongside them. Truth be told, Ivanovic and Cahill have both struggled for the last 12 months and it is about time they were held accountable for some of the defensive mistakes they’ve made.

Whatever Conte does, it has to be something drastic because the way he sets his team’s up they won’t win games 5-0. As long as Chelsea keep things tight, they’ll do well under the Italian manager. But right now that’s a big ‘if’ for the Blues.

As I wrote from the Emirates this weekend, Conte knows he has a huge job on his hands to transform their defense.

FIFA disbands racism task force ahead of World Cup in Russia

PRATO, ITALY - APRIL 13: General view during the FIFA Futsal playoff match between Italy and Hungary on April 13, 2016 in Prato, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) FIFA has disbanded its anti-racism task force, declaring the work complete despite ongoing concerns about discriminatory behavior in 2018 World Cup host Russia.

FIFA wrote to members of the task force to say that it has “completely fulfilled its temporary mission” and “is hereby dissolved and no longer in operation.”

“I wish I could say that I am shocked by the decision, but unfortunately I am not,” task force member Osasu Obayiuwana told The Associated Press on Sunday. “The problem of racism in football remains a burning, very serious and topical one, which need continuous attention.

“I personally think there remained a lot of very serious work for the task force to have done – the 2018 World Cup in Russia being one such matter. But it is evident the FIFA administration takes a different position.”

The task force was established in 2013 by then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter and headed by Jeffrey Webb, a vice president of world soccer’s governing body until he was arrested in 2015 as part of the American investigation into soccer corruption.

Webb, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, was replaced exactly a year ago as task force chairman by Congolese federation president Constant Omari, who also sits on FIFA’s ruling council.

“We never had a single meeting under his chairmanship,” Obayiuwana said. “I wrote him, more than once, asking for when a meeting would be held. But I never received a reply from him.”

Obayiuwana, a journalist, broadcaster and qualified lawyer, received the letter from FIFA on Friday announcing the end of the task force.

“The FIFA Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination was set up with your help on a temporary basis to develop recommendations for FIFA,” wrote Gerd Dembowski, FIFA’s diversity and anti-discrimination manager.

“We are therefore delighted to inform you that all of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented and all resulting projects are ongoing.”

FIFA pointed to the introduction of an anti-discrimination monitoring system at matches, the launch of a “Good Practice Guide ,” starting a team of footballing legends and a new diversity award. Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first female and non-European secretary general, will present the award on Monday at the SoccerEx convention in Manchester.

FIFA also told task force members that its own initiatives “actually exceed the working group’s recommendations” – trumpeting its “Say No to Racism” campaign, women’s leadership conferences and programs in Russia. There are less than nine months until Russia stages the Confederations Cup, the warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup.

The most recent research from the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the UEFA-affiliated FARE Network reported a surge in the number of racist displays by Russian soccer fans, with most cases going unpunished. Researchers logged 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums in the 2014-15 season, against a total of 83 for the previous two seasons put together.

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports