Weekend preview: Talking through NWSL’s Week 3 action

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Richard Farley: Mr. Kassouf,

By now most will have read about the Game of the Week. The big issue there is Abby Wambach. What’s your read on this one? Does her being unavailable change whether you think they’ll beat Boston?

Jeff Kassouf: Mr. Kassouf? I’m honored, Sir Farley.

Any time a team is without Abby Wambach, it changes the game plan. Her absence Saturday will certainly be felt on and off the field as she has to sit out a second much-anticipated homecoming in as many years. Sky Blue FC really kept Wambach in check on opening weekend, but she found plenty of opportunities versus the Washington Spirit last week. The Flash are versatile enough to deal with this, but the questions are, ‘How? And how effectively?’

Spanish forward Adriana could become the target forward Saturday instead of drifting wide as she has in the two opening games. Attacking midfielders Veronica Perez and captain McCall Zerboni can also play up front. But this could be another opportunity for 19-year-old Australian Samantha Kerr to shine. She got my Player of the Week vote last week for owning that right flank against Washington (and scoring).

RF: I talked to Aaran Lines on Wednesday. He was non-committal as to how they’d adjust. Regardless, they will need to make some major changes. Just like with the U.S. national team, Wambach becomes a focal point whenever she’s on the field – a type of perfunctory turnstyle that play goes through before moving on to bigger and better things (like a Wambach header as she trails the play).

It’s difficult for me to pick Western New York without knowing how they’ll play. They have Estelle Johnson, Brittany Taylor and Adrianna Franch as a solid core at the back, but can they contain Sydney Leroux and Kyah Simon for 90 minutes?

I say that, but keep in mind: The only goals scored on Western New York this year? McCall Zerboni’s own goal and a controversially awarded penalty kick.

Still, I think if Boston get one, they’ll have enough. You?

JK: Good point about what the Flash have conceded. Chalk a lot of that up to Franch coming up big, though. How much can she endure?

Despite the low-scoring theme of the league thus far, it’s tough for me to say one will be enough in this game. Eventually these teams will start clicking and finding the net. There’s just too much attacking talent, like Leroux and Simon on Boston or the aforementioned Flash attack.

Speaking of clicking, Boston has had an impromptu two-week break after having last week’s game versus Kansas City postponed due to the tragedy that struck in Boston. What’s your read on how the Breakers will come out in this game? Sport has a way of bringing people (and teams) together, but it has to be tough to get back to soccer after everything that has happened.

RF: Agreed, but I think they’ll come out strong. My read on Boston is that the team’s eager to move on. I expect that to manifest in focus on Saturday. It’s a bit of a rivalry game for them, and as long as they can contain those quick transitions orchestrated by Perez, I think they’re good for an upset.

Staying in the East, we have Sky Blue visiting the Spirit. Sky Blue’s coming off a planned two-week break. For a young Spirit team, it’s probably best that they’ve kept played.

I’m becoming sold on the Spirit’s potential, especially with Tiffany McCarty and Stephanie Ochs in attack. And although Sky Blue has the only 100 percent record in the league, I wasn’t impressed when they hosted Western New York two weeks ago. Am I crazy for seeing a Washignton breakthrough here?

JK: The Spirit have exceeded expectations through two weeks, but I am far from being sold on them. There’s a long way to go in this season and long haul, I still see them struggling to score.

Sky Blue FC’s gameplan in their opening weekend win was perfect and kept Wambach in check all night. Now instead of size, that backline will have to deal with speed up top from Washington. But they’re perfectly fine with that.

Kelley O’Hara is about is speedy as it gets, Caitlin Foord is young and agile and Christie Rampone is still one of the best defenders in the league. Whichever team comes out victorious (unless we get another 1-1 draw!) will be sitting in a far better position through three weeks than I would have expected.

How about the other two games — Seattle at Kansas City and Portland at Chicago? They are both trap games in a sense, to me. Portland and Kansas City are two early favorites, but Seattle showed last week it has some potential in the middle of the park and, likewise, Chicago is still very much an unknown. I think, from watching on video, that the Red Stars’ home pitch is clearly different than most others (a seemingly smallish football turf). I’ve got this strange feeling the Thorns might be unprepared for some of those nuances in Chicago and have a case of, ‘You’re not in Portland anymore.’

RF: Portland has to be getting tired of playing against teams who use two holders. Kansas City did (Desiree Scott, Jen Buczkowski). Seattle did (Keelin Winters, Kaylyn Kyle). Chicago will (Shannon Boxx, Leslie Osborne). For all the talk of Portland’s midfield being bad, there needs to be a little more talk about what they’re up against.

Regardless, I agree with you, though I think the divide between Portland and Chicago is too much. I can see a tie, but I can also see a combative match where the Thorns create the only real chances.

As for Seattle, Mr. Kassouf: Are you starting to come around to my view on the Reign? I do believe you and I drastically disagreed on them two weeks ago. And did I got roundly dogged on your illustrious podcast for going against the grain on this (and Western New York)?

JK: Haha, we did disagree considerably. It’s too early for me to to come around on Seattle being a playoff team, but the midfield is a clear strength. I’m still trying to figure out how this team will score goals, particularly after last week against Portland when they may as well have been in a 4-6-0 formation. This weekend against Kansas City is a big test for Reign FC.

And the Flash? Too early to panic as well, but they certainly are not used to looking up in the table. Abby Wambach’s absence this weekend will hurt, but give it time, my friend. We’ll know a lot more about this team by this time next week, with games on Saturday vs. Boston and Wednesday vs. Sky Blue FC.

Juventus bumped by Atalanta at the death

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Juventus is still in firm control of the Serie A title race, but they were dealt a slight setback as Atalanta secured a 2-2 draw with a dramatic 89th minute equalizer in Bergamo.

Dani Alves had given Juventus the lead in the 83rd minute on a header after a brilliant far-post cross by Miralem Pjanic, but Remo Freuler answered late as he grabbed a point.

The goal came on a fortunate bounce as Pjanic and substitute Stephen Lichtensteiner got tangled up on the ball and failed to clear, and the ball squirted to Freuler who suddenly found himself free in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus keeper came off his line to smother the chance, but he failed to completely collect, and the ball again popped free. Freuler followed up the loose ball, and with a trio of Juventus defenders flying in, the 25-year-old Swiss attacker knocked it in.

The draw was deserving for Atalanta, who had controlled the game for much of the first half, and went ahead just seconds before the break on a goal by Andrea Conti. Atalanta outshot Juventus 7-4 in the first half, 3-1 on shots on target. Juventus took over control in the second half, and got back on level terms just five minutes after the break as Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola put one in his own net.

Alves’ goal put Juventus in front, but that lead only lasted six minutes. Juventus goes nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with the draw, but Roma has the chance to cut that to six if they can beat Lazio at home on Sunday.

MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.

Argentina closes in on Sampaoli, according to FA boss

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The Argentinian FA is hoping to convince Jorge Sampaoli to abandon Sevilla and take the opening in his home nation.

President Claudio Tapia confirmed that Sampaoli is their top target, calling the 57-year-old their “chosen one” in an interview with ESPN.

“We have chosen a coach that has a contract,” Tapia told ESPN. “We want to be respectful and wait because he has a release clause which is once the tournament ends. We will communicate it to the club and we will sit down and negotiate his departure and release clause. We want things to go well in the final games he has left.”

Argentina dismissed coach Edgardo Bauza after the country fell to fifth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification following defeats to Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile over the past six months.

Sampaoli is under contract with Sevilla until the summer of 2018, but has a $1.6 million release clause, to which Tapia was referring. Sevilla sits in fourth position in the La Liga table, level on points with Atletico Madrid but behind significantly on goal differential. The club finishes its league season on May 21st against Osasuna, and Argentina’s next game is a friendly on June 9th at home against Brazil. The next World Cup qualifier is in August against Uruguay.

Samapoli has been with Sevilla since since last summer in his first European club job, but the Argentinian has ample experience to take over for his home country. He managed Chile for four years, winning the 2015 Copa America in Chile. He resigned in early 2016 due to a contract dispute, paying a heavy price to do so as he gave up bonuses to wriggle free of his contract.

Argentina’s desire to secure Sampaoli as coach is nothing new, as the man himself confirmed an offer for the job a week ago, but said he would not consider it until the end of the season. It appears now that a deal is likely, and he will have a very short turnaround to get his first look at the team against a fierce continental rival.