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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.

UEFA Champions League roundup: Stanciu’s stunner, five draws, more

BUCHAREST,ROMANIA - AUGUST 19: Nicolae Stanciu of FC Steaua Bucuresti  in action during the UEFA Champions League first leg play-off match against between FC Steaua Bucuresti  and PFC Ludogorets Razgrad on August 19, 2014 in Bucharest,Romania . (Photo by Daniel Mihailescu/EuroFootball/Getty Images)
Photo by Daniel Mihailescu/EuroFootball/Getty Images
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We were treated to a pair of very different but still aesthetically pleasing goals as the first legs of the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League kicked off on Tuesday.

Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk and Monaco are three of the biggest teams playing at this stage of the tournament, with the first two playing today and one featuring in the goals in question.

[ MORE: Everton to land Gueye? ]

That was Ajax, as PAOK’s Djalma Campos took a walk around wandering Ajax goalkeeper Jesper Cilleseen and cut a goal home from a tricky, tricky angle.

The Dutch legends came back to draw 1-1, but gave up a quality road goal to its Greek visitors.

Romanian powers Steaua Bucharest found themselves a thrilling free kick goal in a 1-1 draw at Sparta Prague.

Nicolae Stanciu is the goal scorer in question, the 23-year-old who’s scored four goals in 7 appearances for the Romania national team since breaking through this season.

This is how he did it today:

Tuesday’s first legs
BATE Borisov 1-0 Dundalk
Ludogorets Razgrad 2-2 Red Star Belgrade
Sparta Prague 1-1 Steaua Bucharest
Partizani Tirana 0-1 Red Bull Salzburg
Viktoria Plzen 0-0 Qarabag
Rostov 2-2 Anderlecht
Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 Young Boys
Ajax 1-1 PAOK
Dinamo Zagreb 2-0 Dinamo Tbilisi

PSG signs Argentine midfielder Giovani Lo Celso from Rosario

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PARIS (AP) French champion Paris Saint-Germain has signed attacking midfielder Giovani Lo Celso from Argentine club Rosario Central on a five-year deal, making him new coach Unai Emery’s fourth signing since replacing Laurent Blanc last month.

The 20-year-old Lo Celso, who operates best as a probing playmaker behind the strikers, scored twice for Rosario last season.

No financial details of the deal were given.

[ MORE: Everton to land Gueye? ]

In recent weeks, PSG has signed France winger Hatem Ben Arfa, Poland midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak and Belgium right back Thomas Meunier.

Lo Celso says he hopes to “follow in the footsteps” of countrymen Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore – who are key players for PSG.

Before joining up with his new teammates, however, Lo Celso will play for Argentina at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next month.

Coup for Koeman? Everton agrees to Gueye’s release clause

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Idrissa Gueye of Aston Villa controls the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea at Villa Park on April 2, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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If you’ve read this space at all, you’ll know PST is very high on Aston Villa box-to-box midfielder Idrissa Gueye.

Only N'Golo Kante registered more successful tackles than Gueye in last season’s Premier League, and that came on a Villa side which endured its first PL relegation.

[ MORE: Sounders, Schmid part ways ]

Gueye, 26, has a release clause of $9.3 million, and according to Sky Sports it’s now been met by two teams: Marseille and Everton. Reports say Gueye prefers to stay in England, so Ronald Koeman could have a huge addition to his squad.

It’s not overstating it to say Gueye could revolutionize the Everton squad, allowing players like Ross Barkley even more freedom and giving terrific cover. Gueye has a better offensive acumen than we saw with Villa, and is an invaluable part of Senegal’s set-up.

Sounders part ways with MLS all-time wins leader Sigi Schmid

SANDY, UT - MARCH 12: Head coach Sigi Schmid of Seattle Sounders FC gestures from the sidelines in the game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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The underachieving Seattle Sounders have cost their legendary coach his job.

Sigi Schmid and the Sounders have agreed to part ways, the team announced on Tuesday, ending an eight-year run as the only coach in franchise’s MLS history.

Schmid, 63, is one of the most decorated coaches in MLS history, and has four U.S. Open Cup titles with Seattle after a pair of MLS Cup wins between Columbus and Los Angeles.

[ MORE: How did Yedlin, CCV play vs Juventus? ]

He also won three College Cup titles at UCLA between 1980-99.

Here’s Schmid, from SoundersFC.com:

“I want to thank Seattle Sounders FC for the opportunity to lead this club over the past eight years, with particular gratitude to Adrian Hanauer, Joe Roth and the rest of the club’s ownership group. I’d also like to thank my coaches and technical staff for the support they’ve given me, and most importantly I want to thank my players for their tremendous effort throughout the years,” Schmid said.

“I’m proud of the success we’ve achieved in winning five major trophies in Seattle, qualifying for the postseason for seven-straight seasons. My only disappointment is that we were unable to bring home an MLS Cup to our tremendous fans, who have always been supportive through good times and bad. In closing, I want to thank the Sounders FC organization, the club’s fans and the city of Seattle for this amazing run.”

Longtime assistant Brian Schmetzer takes over in the interim, tasked with finding a way to improve on the uninspiring Sounders’ 6-12-2 record.

The Sounders are 10 points out of the final playoff spot and haven’t won since June 22 (2L-4T). They’ve scored the third-fewest goals in MLS. Without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, the players’ performances over the last few weeks raised serious character concerns. Hopefully a coaching change somehow eases those, as it did for Chelsea.