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NWSL Game of the Week: Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign

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PORTLAND, Ore. — On Sunday, Portland Thorns FC host the first NWSL Cascadia derby when the Seattle Reign visit JELD-WEN field. With over 14,000 expected to witness Portland’s home opener, the new country’s new women’s league will see its first five-digit crowd. In their first of four meetings this season (one which will be streamed on the league’s YouTube channel), Portland versus Seattle is our NWSL Game of the Week.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Can you have a rivalry against a team you’ve never played?

It seems illogical two teams who’ve never played will automatically will be rivals, but this is Cascadia, and this is soccer. While a new NBA team in the Emerald City may not spark instant tension with the Trailblazers, Cascadian soccer culture mandates the Thorns and Reign be rivals.

“It’s articulated in the Sounders-Timbers rivalry going back decades,” Reign owner Bill Predmore said, alluding to the NASL legacy of the regions MLS teams. “I think there’s going to be a lot of crossover from fan perspective. You’re going to see Sounders fans who are Reign fans, Timbers fans who are Thorns fans … I think that’s a great fit.”

For the Thorns, the rivalry allows them to build on that Timbers-Sounders intensity, something that could help the city’s new team share support with its MLS brethren. For Predmore, the dynamic could prove an important part of his nascent club’s growth.

“It think [the rivalry is] pretty important,” Predmore said. “Right now, for instance, our best selling matches are the two we’re going to play in Seattle against the Thorns … we’re absolutely seeing the budding rivalry is driving fan interest.”

But is the rivalry really budding? It’s impossible to know until game time. As Seattle head coach and general manager Laura Harvey said, “all that matters is what happens Sunday at two o’clock.”

Until then the question lingers: Can you truly have a rivalry before playing a game. Here’s what seven principles said when asked:

Dignitary Response
Cindy Parlow Cone
Head Coach, Thorns FC
“I don’t know. Don’t you guys set up the rivalries more so than we do? (It’s) the fans and the media.”
Laura Harvey
Head Coach/General Manager, Reign FC
“All that matters is what happens Sunday at two o’clock … It’s something the fans look forward to, the players look forward to, the coaches look forward to.”
Alex Morgan
Forward, Thorns FC
“All of Portland knows that it doesn’t matter what it is. Seattle and Portland always have a great rivalry … It’s just the way it is, isn’t it?”
Bill Predmore
Owner, Reign FC
“I think there’s probably a deep-seated rivalry just between the cities … Hopefully it creates a great environment for the fans in both cities when we’re playing.”
Christine Sinclair
Forward, Thorns FC
“It’s hard to built a rivalry when it’s both team’s second game ever and we’ve never played against each other before.”
Keelin Winters
Midfielder, Reign FC
“I definitely think they can. I know a lot of players who play on Portland. Words have been exchanged. Not saying anything exciting, by any means, but obviously both teams want to win.”

source: Getty Images2. MLS venue means MLS atmosphere

Thorns FC had a number of advantages coming into the season, the biggest of which will be seen on Sunday. The crowd at JELD-WEN will eclipse the combined attendance of the league’s four Week 1 games, and while the club has been reluctant to boost the 14,000 projection that’s been floated this week, a crowd between 16,000 and 17,000 is possible.

Particularly for players who aren’t national team regulars, crowds that size are exceptionally rare.

“The last time I played in front of that amount of people was in 2008 at the Under-20 World Cup,” Seattle midfielder Keelin Winters said. “Emotions are going to be high, playing in front of a big crowd like that. It pumps the players up, maybe a little too excited at times. I think the atmosphere’s going to be awesome, especially because it’s like a Northwest derby.”

It’s the most common refrain among players during this week’s buildup. Yes, the rivalry’s big, and it’s going to be good to get another game until their belts, but the opportunity to play at a Major League Soccer venue in front of Major League Soccer-caliber support is Sunday’s big selling point.

“I think the crowd is going to be awesome,” Thorns defender Rachel Buehler said, excitedly. “I hope that really carries over for us.”

It’s guaranteed to, at least in proportion. Thorns FC have over 7,000 season ticket holders, more than the maximum attendance at all but one of the league’s other seven venues.

3. Two very different midfields

Though Cindy Parlow Cone said the entire team could improve on their Kansas City performance, midfield was a particular area of concerned. Thanks in large part to the play of FCKC’s Desiree Scott, Portland’s midfield four saw supply to Morgan and Sinclair completely cut off. The Thorns failed to score from open play, and until moving Sinclair into an attacking midfield role near the hour mark, the team couldn’t find an alternate route into attack.

“We had so many issues [against Kansas City],” Parlow Cone said. “We weren’t playing well together as a team. We weren’t playing well between our lines – the midfield linking up to the forward, and the defenders linking to the midfielders. Those are things we have to clean up.”

Defensive midfielder Becky Edwards eventually came on after a difficult start, but the rest of the midfield was ineffectual. Allie Long, on the left of a narrow line of three, was the most active midfielder, but she was never able to convert her touches into product. Angie Kerr was a non-factor trying to operate in front of Scott and Jen Buczkowski, while Nikki Washington failed to have a influence as play tended to build through the other side of midfield.

source: Getty ImagesUnfortunately for Portland, Seattle may present even greater problems than Kansas City. Whereas FCKC played a 4-2-3-1 that often saw attacking Lauren Cheney stay well above of the space in front of defense, Laura Harvey’s likely to use a 4-3-3 that will leverage Winters, defensive midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, and first week standout Jessica Fishlock (right, playing last December in Australia).

“Jess came up huge for us defensively (against Chicago),” Winters explained. “She made countless tackles. She didn’t just go into a tackle. She won the tackle.

“I think she was an unknown coming into this league, coming from Wales. Nobody knew what to expect from her. (After) that game against Chicago, people are going to be a little more wary of where she is on the field in relation to them, especially when they have the ball. She’s coming after you whether you like it or not.”

Fishlock will default to the highest, more pressing role in what seems to function as a traditional win-pass-go trio. Winters, known as a defensive midfielder, can hold or play box-to-box, while Kyle’s main responsibilities will be in front of the defense.

Yet Harvey doesn’t want to limit her versatile players to those roles.

“We can play any three of them in any of the three different positions in midfield,” Harvey says, explaining how she’d ideally like her midfield to function. “Defensive mid – all three of them can play it. [Box-to-box] – all three of them can play it. The No. 10 role, playing behind the forward – all three of them can play it. That’s how I like my midfield to be anyway.”

The system’s designed for a lot of interchangeability, a potentially daunting task for Portland considering the trouble they had breaking through Scott and Buczkowski. For Winters, the Reign can learn from Kansas City’s plans, even if the players aren’t identical.

“Desiree (Scott) did a really good job in the game against Portland,” Winter said, commenting on Kansas City’s ability to keep Portland’s midfield from connecting with Morgan and Sinclair. “I was definitely looking for what she did well and worked for her in the game. At the same time, I’m not Desiree Scott.”

“[Morgan and Sinclair] just didn’t have the ball at their feet as much as I’m sure they would have liked,” Winters noted. “One of the things that myself and my midfield and my backline will obviously try (to do is) to deny [those passes]. Whenever they have the ball at their feet, they’re a threat … I’ve seen Sinclair shoot from 30 yards out and score.”

Last week Portland lost the battle of midfields, and they were fortunate they didn’t lose the game. If Seattle can replicate Kansas City’s success in the middle — and improve on the quick transitions Harvey would like to see off turnovers — Portland’s home opener will prove more troublesome than expected.

QUICK HITS

Portland Thorns Seattle Reign
Star to Watch Alex Morgan – Portland’s No. 9 looked tired last week, understandable considering the hectic month she endured leading up to the season. On Sunday, Morgan will be well-rested. Jessica Fishlock – The Welsh international was Seattle’s Week 1 standout. If she can pressure Edwards at the based of midfield, Portland will have to find another person to organize play ahead of the middle third.
Still Important Angie Kerr – Just like last week, the linkup between Sinclair and Portland’s most attacking midfielder will dictate how the game is played. In Kansas City, where the linkup non-existent, the game was played on Kansas City’s terms. Michelle Betos – The 25-year-old came up huge in Chicago in place of Hope Solo. With Seattle’s back line devoid of any star defenders, Betos will have to continue providing stellar performances.
Win if … … they get Sinclair and Morgan more involved, which means solving the midfield problem. They can afford defensive mistakes if they’re scoring goals, but without service to their strikers, Portland can’t get into a shootout. … they win the midfield battle, transition like Harvey wants, and use Christine Nairn and Kiersten Dallstream to stretch Portland’s vulnerable defense. Tactically, Seattle appear to have a series of advantages that should give Portland problems.

Other games, Week 2

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York Flash (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – Aaran Lines’ team played better than their 1-0 loss hints, but they’ll face a more robust defense in Washington, who took a strong point from Boston last weekend. This one looks like a 0-0, with quick transition play sparked by Veronica Perez coming up short against Ashlyn Harris and a strong Spirit defense.

Others: FC Kansas City and Boston has been postponed, while Sky Blue FC, Chicago have the weekend off.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs Manchester United (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  Louis van Gaal of Manchester United waves to the crowd before the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on February 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Louis Van Gaal takes on the squad his potential successor built as Manchester United travels to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea, live on NBCSN at 11:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Should they fall, the Red Devils would be stuck on 40 points, their lowest-ever point total at this point in any Premier League season.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs Manchester United live online at NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Nothing is new on the injury front for either team. Chelsea’s striker problem remains as Loic Remy, Pedro, and Radamel Falcao are all out, leaving young Bertrand Traore on the bench backing up Diego Costa. For Manchester United, Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw are all out injured and not available for some time.

Chelsea will be looking to maintain a nine-match unbeaten streak alive against Manchester United across all competitions, having won five and drawn four against the Red Devils in that span.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry, Azpi; Mikel, Matic; Willian, Fabregas, Oscar; Diego Costa.
Subs: Begovic, Baba Rahman, Cahill, Loftus-Cheek, Pedro, Traore, Hazard.

Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson; Fellaini, Carrick; Lingard, Mata, Martial; Rooney.
Subs: 
Romero, McNair, Varela, Schneiderlin, Herrera, Pereira, Memphis

Pato eager to make his mark with Chelsea

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Brazilian attacker Alexandre Pato has joined Chelsea on loan until the end of the season and the former AC Milan star is looking to make his mark in Europe once again.

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In an exclusive partnership with Chelsea Football Club, NBCSports.com provides even more access to life at Stamford Bridge.

Sign up to the Chelsea Fan Club Plus now to read the full edition of this month’s Chelsea magazine. Members also gain access to Chelsea TV featuring behind-the-scenes action from the Chelsea training ground and exclusive interviews with Guus Hiddink and his players.

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Below is the feature article on Pato from Chelsea’s magazine.


The chances are you will have known Pato’s name long before he signed for the Blues. After all, he was a teenage sensation for club and country, impressing in Serie A with

AC Milan and joining the long line of thrilling forwards to have graced the Brazilian national team.

There is also a chance that, until his arrival here, you hadn’t heard his name too much lately. That’s because Pato has been back in his homeland, playing for Corinthians and Sao Paulo, before making his return to Europe with a loan deal at Stamford Bridge until the end of this season.

Still only 26, he is visibly excited about the move and the prospect of playing Premier League football, and as we sit down to talk to him during his first week at Chelsea, his famous boyish grin is pretty much a permanent fixture.

“I am very eager to play,” he says enthusiastically. “I am eager to train with my team-mates and to incorporate myself into the group here. I know it’s a fight against time because there is not so long until the end of the season, but I am very keen to get started.

“The first few days have been very important. To be back in Europe again at a big club like Chelsea is a dream come true. I’m very happy to be here because I have worked very hard for the last three years in Brazil.”

He arrives with the team looking to push itself back to the more familiar upper echelons of the league table and with crunch FA Cup and Champions League fixtures against top opposition fast approaching. In short, it’s an exciting period and Pato knows he will have to hit the ground running.

“The season is not over,” he states. “There is a lot to play for and a lot of things Chelsea can achieve. This sequence of better results we are having now is just the beginning of something the team can continue to build on. Since I arrived I have been made to feel very welcome, not just by the Brazilian players but everyone. The coach met me here at Cobham and introduced me to all the staff from all the different departments. He has given me the support to have a great rest of the season at Chelsea.”

Pato is a versatile and mobile player. He is always on the lookout for gaps to exploit, holes in the defence or a swift change of direction which might open up the pitch. A great many of his goals involve a sudden burst from deep, his acceleration taking him away from defenders.

Then there is the footwork in tight spaces, the body swerves and the tricks that allow him to slalom in and out of players. The Brazilian domestic season finished in early December but Pato has been keeping himself fit in preparation for a possible move during the January transfer window, and believes he just needs to get himself up to speed.

“I feel very good physically,” he tells us. “Obviously as a player you need game-time to be at your best but I feel prepared, I have been training well, and hopefully with games and time I can adapt.
“I know I only have a few months until the end of the season but what I can promise is that I am prepared to play to the best of my ability to help during the few months left of the campaign.”

Alexandre Pato, Sao Paulo FC
Alexandre Pato at Sao Paulo FC

He adds that, after injuries hampered his last two seasons with Milan, he has changed a few thingscand learned “what to do before training, during training, after training, even after the match.

“I learned a lot about myself and how to look after myself, and now Chelsea have opened the doors to me for this opportunity I am very happy to be back in Europe.”

As for English football, Patois well aware of the different challenges the Premier League is likely to present to him, but more than anything he is excited to test himself here. He has experience of
playing English clubs in European competition and pre-season friendly tournaments, and in the dressing room here he has plenty of friends who have been filling him in on the intricacies.

“I already knew Willian, OscarKenedy and Diego Costa,” he says. “There are some players I know from friendship and others I have once played against. It’s a big thing that they can help me settle down at Chelsea. They will help me express myself with freedom and to be incorporated into the team. The players all helped me to settle in my first few days.

“I know how hard the Premier League is. Diego, Willian and the boys have been telling me that it is very hard here, but I feel I have to improvise so I can find the space on the pitch, get my timing right and get myself into spaces. I have heard a lot about the Premier League and I also had the chance to play against English opposition when I was at AC Milan. For example, I played against Chelsea in a friendly match in the USA. It’s a different league – very hard, very physical, with a lot of contact, and hopefully with my pace and ability I will be able to help the team. I’m hoping to contribute a lot and have a great time here.”

Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal: Ozil, Ox strike quick for Gunners win

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Mesut Oezil of Arsenal celebrates as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Arsenal at the Vitality Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit goals just 88 seconds apart, enough to knock Bournemouth off its feat and give Arsenal a 2-0 win at Vitality Stadium.

The Cherries seemed up to the task, challenging Arsenal in every facet of the game except finishing, where the Gunners proved far superior.

The first big moment of the game came in the middle of the pitch eight minutes in. Mathieu Flamini slid through the feet of Dan Gosling on a challenge just into the Arsenal defensive half, a foul which referee Kevin Friend deemed fit for a yellow card, although it certainly looked dangerous enough for worse.

As the two battled ferociously back and forth, there were thumping challenges that kept the quality of the game down early. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. On 23 minutes, Aaron Ramsey floated a pinpoint ball to the back post. It met the head of Olivier Grioud who sent it back in front of net where Ozil roofed it on the volley, breaking a streak of 328 minutes without a league goal for Arsenal.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Gunners continue to charge forward, and they bagged another just a minute later. Ramsey again outside the top of the box found Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain streaking down the right, and the England international beat Charlie Daniels at full speed, firing low to the far post where it struck the woodwork and pinged in for a 2-0 lead. The goal is Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first ever league goal away from home, ending a streak of 37 Premier League games for the 22-year-old without scoring.

Bournemouth wouldn’t capitulate immediately. Harry Arter struck a powerful left-footed shot from the left corner of the penalty area on 27 minutes, but Petr Cech matched it by acrobatically tipping the weaving shot over the bar.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

That was all the major action for the first half, but the second half started with a flurry of moments around each goal. Ozil sent in a cross for Ramsey just three minutes after the break that sailed just over the Welshman’s head, and down the other end Matt Richie skied one just over the Gunners’ goal.

Bournemouth brought on Junior Stanislas and Josh King, and they maintained an attacking intent throughout much of the second half, but it wasn’t enough to break down the Gunners defense that was comfortable absorbing pressure as the game went on. Every time the hosts moved into a dangerous position, the ball would end up miles over the bar.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Cherries had one last opportunity to get on the board early in added time as a brilliant chance fell to Steve Cook right on the penalty spot but Petr Cech made an outstanding save down to his left before also keeping out the rebound.

Arsenal’s win moves the Gunners into third position, even with Tottenham on 28 points, which puts them five back of the leaders Leicester City. Bournemouth remains six points above the relegation zone, and also sit that distance off the top half of the table.

Barcelona tops Levante, ties club record with 28 unbeaten

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Jordi Alba of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his teammate Andres Iniesta during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Sir Alex Ferguson described the 2010/11 Barcelona team as the best team he ever faced.

This year’s Barcelona side has matched them.

With a 2-0 victory over La Liga basement-dwellers Levante on an own-goal forced by Jordi Alba plus a late score from Luis Suarez, Barcelona has gone 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions, without a loss since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on October 28.

Manager Luis Enrique, though, is unmoved. “What matters to me are the team’s objectives,” said Enrique after the win. “These are nice numbers, if they help us win titles at the end of the season, fantastic. We are in good position, but there is still a lot left.”

The Levante victory marked Luis Enrique’s 100th game in charge of Barcelona.

That 2010/11 season, led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona came a Copa del Rey finals loss to Real Madrid from a quadruple, winning the league, Champions League, and Supercopa de Espana. This time around, they’ve already secured the Supercopa, sit atop the league table by three points over Atletico Madrid and seven above Real Madrid, have yet to lose a game in the Champions League, and the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia is a complete formality. What’s more, the numbers from this streak are eerily similar to that wildly successful squad five years ago.

That campaign, Lionel Messi scored 31 league goals and 53 overall. An injury sapped him of time in this go around, but Suarez and Neymar have picked up the slack. There has been just one league game in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez has been held scoreless this season, and to find it you have to travel all the way back to the second game of the year, a 1-0 win over Malaga that saw Thomas Vermaelen score the winner. Those three have combined for 48 league goals this year, more than every team in the Spanish top flight save Real Madrid.

Paris Saint-Germain has a similar streak going at the moment, currently unbeaten in league play throughout the entire season, but their 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on November 3 means their streak across all competitions sits at 19 games.