Christine Sinclair, Marian Dougherty, Emilee O'Neal

Looking back at Week 2 of the NWSL season

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When Women’s Professional Soccer began in 2009, the excitement around a new league slowly faded into concerns for the product. Beyond nebulous, qualitative concerns about aesthetics and quality, the league just wasn’t producing goals. During its first offseason, league officials came to openly discuss hopes the league would start producing higher scoring games. With a competition producing only 1.07 goals per game, the marketing battle was going to be that much harder.

The NWSL is having no such problems. Through six games, the league’s yet to have a 0-0. Only one match has failed to produce two goals, while this weekend’s game gave fans five scores in 180 minutes. Among the battles this league has to avoid their ancestors’ fate, lack of goals may not be one of them.

The bigger debate surrounds quality. Those who’ve covered WPS and its predecessor, Women’s United Soccer Association, have expressed reserved approval, while the league’s executive director, Cheryl Bailey, has continued to express satisfaction with the league’s standard of play. Newer fans have expressed concerns, perhaps hoping the NWSL’s clubs would replicate the wide-open style that’s endeared Pia Sundhage’s national teams to the masses, but that’s an unrealistic standard. On a more level playing field, coaches are going to be more risk averse.

With the teams’ low budgets preventing them from bringing in significant international talent, there was reason to expect a worse product than WPS. Yet to this point, that hasn’t happened. At time play has been open; at others, it’s combative. You know, like any other league. The absence of players like Marta and Kelly Smith may lower the league’s Q score, but those losses haven’t had an effect on the product.

With two more well-played games this weekend, NWSL looks to be transcending its self-imposed limitations. Where quality’s not an issue, the league can focus its energies elsewhere. For now.

Here’s what happened in Week 2:

TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

source:  Portland became the second team to win this season, but given the team’s expectations, it’s difficult to say they stood out. What has stood out (at least, compared to expectations) is the Washington Spirit‘s start. Through almost two weeks (four of the league’s teams didn’t play this weekend), the Spirit sit third.

On Saturday, Mike Jordan’s team got another draw – a second straight match decided by late fireworks. Whereas last week the Spirit were giving up a late equalizer to Sydney Leroux, this time Diana Matheson won them a point from the spot. From a team picked by many to finish last in the league, two early results are forcing some re-evaluation.

It’s too early to deem Washington’s youth movement a success story, but it is worth asking how they’ve taken points from the Flash and Boston. The obvious answer is Ashlyn Harris, whose stellar play in goal has allowed the Spirit to get full value out of their limited chances on goal. Coming off a Woman of the Match-level performance in Boston, the U.S. international gave another impressive performance, making a highlight reel save on Abby Wambach in Saturday’s first half.

Washington were the beneficiaries of some good fortune, that late penalty at the Maryland SoccerPlex allowing them to salvage a Saturday result, but if the play of Tiffany McCarty and Stephanie Ochs is any indication, the Spirit won’t need such fortune going forward. McCarty, used as Washington’s lead attacker, looks like one of the fastest players in the league, her ability to beat the defense creating more room for Ochs, who has consistently out-worked opposing defenders over the season’s first two weeks.

They may yet end up in eighth, but after two weeks, it’s time to consider a more positive scenario. On paper, the squad isn’t impressive, but in action, they have enough pieces to compete for the playoffs. Just like everybody else.

MVP … OF THE WEEK

Here’s the shortest possible case for Christine Sinclair, best women’s soccer player in the world (pictured, above): She does so much more than score goals (which she arguably does better than anybody else).

On Sunday, Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone dropped Sinclair into attacking midfield, deploying her below Seattle’s two holders – Keelin Winters and Kaylyn Kyle. It was an approach that worked in the last 30 minutes against Kansas City, when Portland looked much better after struggling for much of the match. At JELD-WEN, the move assured Portland’s most important player would more touches.

After 20 initial, contentious minutes, the effect was obvious. Sinclair was the key to a Thorns attack that relied as much on transitions as their favored possession-based play. At the top of midfield, Sinclair was able to secure possession on second balls created by Becky Edwards and Allie Long, her quick passing to Alex Morgan taking advantage of the few instances where Winters came forward, tried to win a battle, but failed.

Early in the second half, that defensive work paid off. “Sinc” forced a Reign turnover that led to Morgan’s game-winning goal, her pass across the Seattle penalty area creating an easy finish for Portland’s second goal.

Also of note: The Flash’s Abby Wambach and Samantha Kerr, the Spirit’s Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, as well as our unsung hero, below

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Sat., Apr. 20 Washington 1-1 W.New York
Sun., Apr. 21 Portland 2-1 Seattle

ROUND’S BIG STORY

We’ve already done one pass on Portland’s crowd – 16,479 people that created the league’s first must-see event (well, second, if you count last Saturday’s opening game). Effusive players after the game speculated how the intimidation factor could create an even bigger home field advantage, though the league should hope the crowd’s effects transcend mere wins and losses.

Of course, the huge numbers mean big business for Portland, but other MLS teams with strong fanbases may see Sunday’s game, think about the wage subsidies provided by the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican federations, and conclude the obvious: We could actually make money off a women’s professional team. While it may be naive to assume Portland’s success can be replicated, executives in Vancouver and Toronto may look at Sunday’s game and see possibilities, not problems.

That doesn’t help the league’s current teams, many of which wil struggle to average one-fifth of Sunday’s crowd. The hope for those teams is in people turning on the YouTube streams (and come July, FOX Soccer), seeing Portland’s atmosphere, and wanting to  to give their local team a try. Though they can’t expect a Rose City Riveter presence for their team, they can hope to see one develop.

UNSUNG HERO

Western New York’s AD Franch was Week 1’s best player, and Christine Sinclair showed why she’s one of the world’s best in Week 2, but combine the weeks and choose the league’s best player and you’re likely to come up with Jessica Fishlock, the Welsh international that’s proved to be the best European import of the young season.

NWSL Standings

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

On Sunday, the energetic style of Seattle’s diminutive midfielder didn’t win her new friends among the highly-partisan crowd, but that couldn’t obscure the fact that she was clearly the game’s best non-Sinclair. Her disruptive presence at the top of Laura Harvey’s midfield three constantly presented problems for Portland’s four, often creating second balls that made life easier for the deeper Keelin Winters. Pressing holder Becky Edwards — forcing the Thorns pivot to play more balls to her defenders than she would have liked — Fishlock was also able to quickly jump into attack, positioning that paid off with her late goal.

“I think she was an unknown coming into this league, coming from Wales,” Winters said last week, the beginning of the explanation behind Fishlock’s surprise. The Welsh national team gets very little prime international exposure, and having played at Bristol Academy in England before coming to the States, she didn’t get attention should have received at clubs like Arsenal, Birmingham City, or Everton.

But Seattle head coach Laura Harvey, imported to the Pacific Northwest from Arsenal, clearly knew what she was getting in Fishlock – a player who can have an immediate, game-changing impact for the Reign. Through two weeks, she’s been one of the league’s best players.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

How will a week off affect Boston, Chicago, Kansas City and Sky Blue? … How quickly will Abby Wambach bounce back from her late-match concussion? … Will Sinclair have to stay in midfield until Tobin Heath returns? … When will McCarty and Ochs’ efforts start translating into goals? … Did preseason predictions underrate Seattle’s to-this-point solid defense?

LOOKING FORWARD

The league gets back to a four-game schedule this weekend, with Kansas City hosting Seattle in the league’s first Friday affair. On the east coast, two the the league’s best strikers will face-off in Rochester when Abby Wambach’s Flash host Syndey Leroux’s Boston Breakers. That will be PST’s Game of the Week.

Friday, April 26

FC Kansas City vs. Seattle Reign FC

Saturday, April 27

Chicago Red Stars vs. Portland Thorns FC
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC
Western New York Flash vs. Boston Breakers

LIVE – Europa League group stage finale: Saints, Man United in crucial deciders

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 03:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and FC Internazionale Milano at St Mary's Stadium on November 3, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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This is it, don’t get scared now.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores ]

Premier League duo Southampton and Manchester United both go into their final group game of the UEFA Europa League needing to avoid defeat if their going to make the knockout rounds.

For United, their task is simple. Jose Mourinho’s men need just a point from their trip to Ukraine to play Zorya Luhansk to advance to the Round of 32, while a win could see them finish top depending on the result of the Feyenoord vs. Fenerbache game.

As for Southampton, it’s a little bit more complicated.

A win for Claude Puel‘s side at home against Hapoel Be’er Sheva at a sold out St Mary’s would see them safely through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the first time in club history. A 0-0 draw would also do the trick but a score draw (1-1, 2-2, 3-3 etc) would send the reigning Israeli champions through instead as they’d have the advantage in head-to-head away goals after the duo drew 0-0 in Israel back in October. Making the knockout rounds of this competition would be a huge deal for Southampton and would keep their cup momentum going after they reached the semifinals of the EFL Cup last week.

[ MORE: Europa League standings ]   

Elsewhere there is plenty on the line across the 12 groups, with the standings page in the link above very handy to work out the permutations as the top two teams from each group (first place team is seeded, the second unseeded) advance to the Round of 32 and will be joined by the eight teams who finished third in their respective groups in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Below is the full schedule for Thursday’s game which kick off in three separate time slots, while you can follow live commentary and stats on the games by clicking on the link above.


Full Europa League schedule, Thursday Dec. 8

11 a.m. ET
Konyarspor vs. Gent
Qarabag vs. Fiorentina
Osmanlispor vs. Zurich
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Villarreal vs. Steaua Bucuresti
PAOK vs. Liberece

1 p.m. ET
Vikrotia Plzen vs. Austria Wien
Apoel Nicosia vs. Olympiacos
Sassuolo vs. Genk
Anderlecht vs. Saint-Etienne
Zorya Luhansk vs. Manchester United
Rapid Wien vs. Athletic Bilbao
Young Boys vs. Astana
AZ Alkmaar vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
Feyenoord vs. Fenerbahce
Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Dundalk
Mainz vs. Gabala
Astra Giurgiu vs. Roma

3:05 p.m. ET
Panathinaikos vs. Celta Vigo
Standard Liege vs. Ajax
Inter Milan vs. Sparta Prague
Southampton vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva
RB Salzburg vs. Schalke
Nice vs. Krasnodar

Bob Bradley will remain in charge, says Swansea chairman

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With reports circulating in the British press that American coach Bob Bradley could be fired after just seven games in charge of Swansea City, their chairman has publicly backed the former U.S. national team head coach.

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Bradley, 58, has just one win in his opening seven games in charge of the Swans who currently sit bottom of the Premier League table on nine points, three points off safety.

That poor form, coupled with many other issues at the club, has reportedly prompted new American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien (they took over as majority owners in July) to conduct an extensive review of every department at the club.

However, chairman Huw Jenkins has moved to quell rumors about Bradley becoming the second Swansea manager to be fired through the opening 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know where that story came from, but it’s natural in football that everyone wants and needs results. But the last thing we need at this moment of time is a continual change in manager. We need stability first and foremost,” Jenkins told talkSPORT. “Take a team like Fulham, they changed managers three times in the season they tried to stave off relegation and we’re in a similar position now.”

“Perhaps in the summer I could have made a better decision – from pre-season onwards I don’t think things were right, it was too flat at the club. That had a knock-on effect and obviously it’s taken us a while to work through it. But we’re with Bob now to try and turn that corner – that’s what we’re working towards. We look at the January window as a chance to reinforce things. There are players not hitting the form levels they have done in the past and we have to find out why that is and get that right as well.”

So, it seems that sense is prevailing after all.

Jenkins took the blame for Swansea’s poor start to the season in media interviews on Wednesday and now the long-time chairman is backing his manager.

The south Wales businessman was part of a consortium which saved Swansea in 2004 and then led them on an incredible journey up from the fourth-tier to the Premier League, plus winning the League Cup and getting to the group stages of the Europa League. He and other directors have come in for some serious stick from Swansea’s fans for selling their stake to the new American owners and Jenkins is believed to have made just over $10 million from selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club.

On the pitch, it’s difficult to blame Bradley for the current situation Swansea finds itself in.

After some woeful moves in the transfer window last summer (Jenkins has admitted they weren’t great with Ashley Williams and Andre Ayew allowed to leave for big profits but their replacements just haven’t been good enough) the American coach needs at least one transfer window to bring in better players and the Swans are only three points off safety with a pivotal stretch of six games to come in the Premier League.

Home games against Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth, plus trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace will see the Swans go up against direct relegation rivals between now and Jan. 3.

The next four weeks will be huge not only for Swansea’s future but also for Bradley and ahead of their crunch home game against Sunderland on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) the American coach is eager to cut out defensive mistakes as the Swans have now conceded 19 goals in his seven games in charge.

“When you are a manager it (the pressure) goes with the territory,” Bradley said. “It is work as usual, knowing from the beginning when I got here that it would be a big challenge, and it is. When you see a scoreline like that it is easy to jump on us. We are not going to survive if we keep on conceding goals like this.”

Man United’s Europa League clash in doubt over frozen pitch

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho may not play their UEFA Europa League game against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

[ MORE: Ozil, Sanchez leaving Arsenal? ]

Amid freezing conditions in the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Zorya cannot play their games at home due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine) the pitch underwent an inspection on Thursday and with covers and heaters on the playing surface overnight, there is hope the game should go ahead.

However, Jose Mourinho has already talked about the state of the pitch as not being ideal, while the likes of Daley Blind and Paul Pogba looked far from impressed when they went out for a training session on Wednesday in freezing conditions.

Remember, United only needs a point from the game against Zorya to qualify for the Europa League Round of 32 and Mourinho has selected a strong 19-man squad for the trip. 

A statement from Zorya said the following on Thursday morning, as they remain hopeful of the game going ahead.

“Everything depends on the weather. The pitch is not brilliant at the moment. We are expecting temperatures of two or three degrees and everything should be okay.”

Below was the scene in Odessa yesterday for United’s training session, via Simon Peach of the Press Association.


Yep, the pitch doesn’t look great.

Barcelona invites Chapecoense to play friendly

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 22: Supporters of Chapecoense cheer their team during the match between Chapecoense and Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Series A 2014 at Arena Conda on October 22, 2014 in Chapeco, Brazil. (Photo by Alan Pedro/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has extended an invitation to host a friendly match against the Brazilian soccer club involved in last week’s plane crash.

Chapecoense was on its way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, one of South America’s most prestigious club tournaments, when its flight went down in Colombia, killing all but six of the 77 players, officials and journalists on board.

The match would be played in August. The friendly, called the Joan Gamper trophy, is used as Barcelona’s traditional curtain raiser for the new season.

Barcelona says it sent a formal invitation to Chapecoense on Thursday.

Barcelona says it wants to “pay homage to the 71 people who died in the accident as well as their families.”