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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.

Cantona claims ethnicity played role in Benzema, Ben Arfa France snubs

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 14:  Former Footballer Eric Cantona of France speaks during a press conference at the Shanghai Grand Theatre prior to the  Laureus World Sports Awards  on April 14, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images for Laureus)
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Eric Cantona has made the headlines again, this time making some bold claims against France national team manager Didier Deschamps.

Cantona, a former Manchester United legend and French international, questioned whether Deschamps excluded Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from the team due to their North African origins.

[ MORE: Skrtel set to leave Liverpool ]

Speaking to The Guardian, Cantona calls Benzema and Ben Arfa two of France’s best footballers, both of whom will not be playing for the national team this summer.

Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know.

So I’m not surprised he used the situation of Benzema not to take him. Especially after [French Prime Minister Manuel Valls] said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.

One thing is for sure – Benzema and Ben Arfa are two of the best players in France and will not play the European Championship. And for sure, Benzema and Ben Arfa, their origins are north African. So, the debate is open.

Cantona’s view doesn’t hold much merit as Deschamps did not even have the option of selecting Benzema, the country’s active leading goalscorer. The Real Madrid striker is suspended by the federation, embroiled in a blackmail sex-tape scandal involving French teammate Mathieu Valbuena, who was also left off the EURO roster.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine the Champions League final ]

France is an extremely diverse nation with a large North African population, Benzema of Algerian descent and Ben Arfa’s father a former Tunisian international. Both players were born in France and have received prior call-ups under Deschamps, with Cantona’s quite ridiculous comments likely to cause a stir before the EURO.

FA Cup will no longer have quarterfinal replays

HALIFAX, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09:  The FA Cup is seen prior to the FA Cup First Round match between FC Halifax and Bradford City  on November 9, 2014 in Halifax, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Starting in 2017, the FA Cup will no longer have replays in the quarterfinal round.

The decision was made in an effort to combat the congested English fixture list, which has been a topic of debate for years now.

[ MORE: Lukaku wants out at Everton ]

This season, Manchester United defeated West Ham in a quarterfinal replay before going on to win the competition.

In a statement released by the FA, these changes aim to add drama to the matches while eliminating an extra matchday needed for replays.

The revamped competition will see eight clubs battle it out over one weekend with each tie to be played to a finish on the day, adding to the drama and impact the competition has enjoyed in recent years.

Other new initiatives will be explored to ensure The FA Cup retains its status and appeal. These plans also form part of The FA’s commitment to help ease English football’s congested fixture schedule.

There will still be replays in the earlier rounds of the tournament, which allows lower level clubs the opportunity to earn a nice financial boost should they force a second match at a Premier League ground.

The Premier League is the only top league in Europe that does not take a winter break, a schedule that has been criticized by multiple managers, including Jurgen Klopp.

Judge hears arguments on US women’s team strike rights

HARRISON, NJ - MAY 30:  The United States team poses for a team picture before the match against the South Korea during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on May 30, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO — A federal judge in Chicago has heard arguments whether the world champion U.S. women’s soccer team has the right to strike for improved conditions and wages before this year’s Olympics.

Lawyers for the U.S. Soccer Federation told Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman at a Thursday hearing that a no-strike clause is implied in a still-valid 2013 memorandum with players.

[ MORE: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

But a lawyer for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association balked at that claim. Jeffrey Kessler said the federation had “screwed up” by not securing a no-strike clause in writing and can’t argue three years later that such a provision is implied.

The union wants the option to strike before the Olympics start in August, but hasn’t said it will. Many players have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer.

Three battles that could determine the Champions League final

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 14:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF is tackled by Koke of Atletico Madrid and Mario Suarez of Atletico Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final First Leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Vicente Calderon Stadium on April 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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We’re just two days away from the Champions League final, as Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid prepare to face each other in Milan on Saturday.

The tie is a rematch of the 2014 final when Real Madrid won 4-1 to claim a record tenth Champions League title. Atletico led that match 1-0 in stoppage time, only to concede a late equalizer before collapsing in extra time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

With Real one of Europe’s best attacking teams and Atleti the best defensive side, two completely different styles of play will clash at the San Siro this weekend. Below, we take a look at a few key matchups that could determine who leaves Milan as champions.

Keylor Navas vs. Jan Oblak

In the Champions League this season, Navas has kept nine clean sheets in ten appearances (tied for the most-ever in a single campaign), while Oblak has kept eight in 12 appearances. Oblak was named to the La Liga Team of the Year after a stellar season for Atleti, and his massive double-save on Thomas Muller’s penalty kick in the semifinals helped Simeone’s men reach Milan. For Navas, the keeper’s strong play is often overshadowed by Real’s attack, but the Costa Rican international has proved massive for the club all season long. In what will surely be an extremely tight match, one big save could prove the difference.

[ MORE: Ranking the Copa America Centenario contenders ]

Luka Modric vs. Gabi 

These may not be two “superstar” names in the sides, but Luka Modric and Gabi may be the most important men on the pitch for Real and Atletico, respectively. When Real goes forward, it starts with Modric in the midfield. The Croatian playmaker is confident in possession and spreads the ball all over the pitch, seemingly always in the right place at the right time. On the other side, Gabi epitomizes what Diego Simeone wants in his Atletico squad. The hard-nosed midfielder sits right in front of the back-line, in charge of clogging up and holes and making sure the rest of his midfield tracks back and keeps shape, which will be vitally important against Real. A product of the Atleti youth system, red and white runs through Gabi’s veins, and having already experienced a loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final back in 2014, Simeone’s leader on the pitch will want to turn the tides this time around.

(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Atleti back-line vs. BBC

When all is said and done, the biggest battle will be between the stout Atleti defense and Real’s potent attack. Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez have become the best center-back pairing in Europe, while Real’s BBC trio of Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano combined for 119 goals in all competitions this season. Atleti have already kept clean sheets in the Champions League against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but both of those matches were in front of a home crowd at the Vicente Calderon. Expect a few heavy challenges to come in early, as the Atletico defense will look to keep Ronaldo & Co. honest.