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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

Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during a training session ahead of their La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on December 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) There couldn’t be a better time for Lionel Messi to end his scoring drought than in the clasico against Real Madrid.

With Barcelona struggling and desperately needing a victory to stay close to its rival in the Spanish league, Messi could help turn things around on Saturday if he can find the net again after five scoreless games against Madrid.

Barcelona enters the home game at Camp Nou six points behind Madrid, and another setback could leave it in a difficult position to fight for a third straight league title.

[ MORE: Chapecoense crash survivor could play again ]

Messi hasn’t played badly in recent clasicos, but his last goal against Madrid came almost three years ago when he had a hat trick in a 4-3 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

He hasn’t scored in the four games since, not even in the stunning 4-0 win at the Bernabeu last season, when Messi came off the bench in the second half after a long injury layoff. Barcelona has won two of the last five games against Madrid, but it’s been 400 minutes since Messi last scored.

Since that hat trick in March 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo has attracted most of the headlines in the clasico, having scored three times, including the late game-winner at Camp Nou last season that ended Barcelona’s record 39-game unbeaten streak.

“They’re two exceptional players,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Cristiano is doing exceptional, incredible things, I hope he carries on like this.”

Messi remains the all-time leading scorer in the clasico with 21 in 32 matches, but at Camp Nou it’s been Ronaldo who has thrived the most.

He has 10 goals in 12 games in Barcelona, including five in the last five matches and eight in the last nine. He failed to find the net only in four of those 12 games. Messi netted only five times in those same 12 encounters in Catalonia.

Ronaldo has scored in each of the last two league games between them at the Camp Nou. He has 16 goals in 25 clasicos, behind only Messi (21) and Alfredo Di Stefano (18).

[ MORE: Birnbaum spurns Europe for DC United ]

Messi has 15 goals in the 25 clasicos in which he and Ronaldo faced each other.

Ronaldo, who recently netted a hat trick in the Madrid derby against Atletico, is the Spanish league leading scorer with 10, one more than Messi. Ronaldo has eight goals in his last four league matches.

Messi also has been playing well recently, having scored five goals in his last four games. He has netted 16 in his last 11 matches.

Barcelona is coming off three consecutive draws, two in the league and one in the Copa del Rey.

Madrid is enjoying a 32-game unbeaten streak under Zidane.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Premier League Preview: West Ham United vs. Arsenal

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Francis Coquelin of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at the Boleyn Ground on April 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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  • Arsenal unbeaten at WH since 2006
  • Irons took four of six points last season
  • Arsenal leads all-time 60W-39D-34L

Arsenal continues its chase of a Premier League title with a tricky visit to West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT on NBC, and online at NBCSports.com).

Arsene Wenger‘s bunch opens the weekend three points behind first-place Chelsea, two back of Liverpool and Manchester City. A win could push them a space or two up the table with Chelsea hosting Man City.

[ MORE: Guardiola, Conte talk match-up ]

The Olympic Stadium hasn’t been kind to West Ham this year, but perhaps this is just the game to flip the script on both their season and rivalry with Arsenal. The Irons had a good run versus the Gunners last season, but it’s been a while since they trumped Arsenal at home.

There are questions as to who will start up top. Perhaps it’ll be Simone Zaza, with Andy Carroll and Andre Ayew both facing fitness concerns.

Arsenal have injuries, too, with Santi Cazorla now lost for three months and Mathieu Debuchy suffering a setback as well.

What they’re saying

Arsene Wenger on the Olympic Stadium: “Before, we knew exactly what was expected of us at West Ham. I preferred the first version of the West Ham stadium, when it was very tight. When they built a new stand the distances were a bit bigger and that probably made the first one the most intimidating stadium I knew. It’s a bit like when we moved to the Emirates. You feel a bit like you’re playing on neutral ground for a while. After that, the best way to prepare is just to focus on what we do and focus in a very strong way.”

Slaven Bilic on whether West Ham needs to be worried: “It depends how you look at it. We’re in a position we don’t want to be in. OK, it’s not after 26 games but it’s not after two or three. It’s a considerable amount, so it makes us think about it. On the other hand, with three points that are there week in, week out, we can climb up the table a lot. It’s that kind of a league – even a point can help. It’s very, very tight from mid-table to the position that we are. There’s no time to panic. But we can’t be relaxed and say it’s going to come, because it won’t just come like that.”

Prediction

Arsenal hasn’t lost a Premier League match since August, though its weakened lineup did suffer an EFL Cup setback to Southampton at midweek. West Ham’s been improving but went with a strong cast in its EFL Cup loss at Manchester United. The edge goes to the Gunners, especially given West Ham’s home uncertainty. Arsenal, 3-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Top 5 Premier League Storylines for a big weekend

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09: Andy Carroll of West Ham United scores his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at the Boleyn Ground on April 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Time flies when you’re having fun. So goes the old maxim, but time may rocket when you’re facing a relegation fight, too.

The Premier League is more than one-third of the way through its season, and this weekend finds its clubs critical match-ups up-and-down the table.

[ MORE: New Spurs deal for Kane ]

Man City and Chelsea jockey for position at the top of the table, while Everton and Manchester United could dash each other’s Top Four hopes.

As for the relegation scraps, one involves last season’s champs. All make our top storylines for this PL weekend.

Pep vs. Conte, Round 1

Manchester City vs. Chelsea — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

We’ll know before the mid-morning matches kickoff whether there will be a new Premier League leader after this weekend. Chelsea hopes the answer is no, that their boss Antonio Conte will win his first tete-a-tete with fellow tactical wizard Pep Guardiola. City has had a tough go of it, relatively speaking, at home this season. Three wins and three draws give City a lesser share of the points at home than away from the Etihad Stadium.

Can a London rivalry help West Ham’s home woes?

West Ham United vs. Arsenal — 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, NBC and NBCSports.com.

Fits and starts was not supposed to be the way for West Ham this season, but the presumed contenders remain just a point ahead of the drop zone. The Irons have just two wins from six home PL matches this season, but could there possibly be a better way to create good vibes at the Olympic Stadium than a triumph over the Gooners? West Ham can’t make its way into the Top Four mix, but it can dent Arsenal’s title hopes.

Separation day for Toffees, Red Devils

Everton vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. EDT Sunday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

One point separates Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, and it’d be fair to say both thought this battle would be higher up the table as recently as one month ago. United has a one point edge on Everton for sixth, and the loser could find itself as far as 7 or 8 points off the Top Five pace.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Leighton Baines of Everton competes with Juan Mata of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on October 5, 2014 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Juan Mata and Leighton Baines (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images).

Relegation scrap at the Riverside Stadium

Middlesbrough vs. Hull City — 3 p.m. EDT Monday, NBCSN and NBCSports.com.

The Tigers have managed just 4 of their 11 points away from the KC Stadium, but can guarantee a trip out of the drop zone by managing a win (though a draw could do the trick if Palace falls to Southampton). Aitor Karanka‘s hosts had much higher aims than a relegation battle, perhaps naively, and will be feeling the heat of the drop with anything but three points on Saturday. A large part of their struggles have come at home, which will be music to Hull’s ears; Boro is 1W-1D-4L at home.

Sunderland aims to make relegation fears deeper for champions

Sunderland vs. Leicester City — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday, Premier League Xtra Time and NBCSports.com.

The Premier League champions have one point away from home this season. That’s bad, as is their awful standing in 14th. The Foxes are two points clear of the drop, five points ahead of the last-place Black Cats. David Moyes‘ hosts have been playing much better as of late, beating Hull and Bournemouth before falling to Liverpool. That Hull win is their lone victory at the Stadium of Light this season, but Sunderland can take comfort in the fact that Leicester has four losses and a draw in matches preceding a Champions League fixture.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 14

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Week 14 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 14 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Stoke City 2-0 Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 3-1 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 0-2 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Man City 1-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

West Ham 2-3 Arsenal – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

West Brom 1-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-2 Liverpool – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Everton 2-2 Man United – (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]