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.

MLS: NYCFC with 3 wins in 3; defending champs TFC point-less

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NEW YORK (AP) Ismael Tajouri and Maximiliano Moralez scored 12-minutes apart in the second half and New York City FC opened the season with three straight wins for the first time in the club’s short history with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City on Saturday.

Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik misplayed a back-pass that went right to Tajouri inside the 18-yard box and Tajouri took a few touches to the penalty spot for an easy finish in the 62nd minute. After an Orlando giveaway to Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jesus Medina settled it for an oncoming Moralez to slide it home.

NYCFC (3-0-0) was without start David Villa due to a minor injury.

Orlando City (0-2-1), led by NYC’s former coach Jason Kreis (2014-15), has its share of injury problems as well. Striker Stefano Pinho had a right ankle injury last Saturday, leaving on crutches, and playmaker Dom Dwyer will be out for at least two more weeks.

Sacha Kljestan made his debut for Orlando after serving a two-game ban. The club arrived late due to the St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic.

MONTREAL (AP) Jeisson Vargas scored four minutes before the intermission to lift Montreal to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the Impact’s home opener Saturday.

It was the first MLS goal for 20-year-old Vargas and the first win for new coach Remi Garde, who replaced Mauro Biello in December as coach of the Impact (1-2).

Toronto (0-2) played its first game since a rousing victory in the CONCACAF Champions League over Mexican side Tigres. The travel to Mexico may have sapped some energy from the defending MLS champions, who nonetheless started most of their top players.

Garde seemed to catch everyone off guard by starting a three-man backline with former Marseille defender Rod Fanni making his debut in the middle.

It made for a mostly uneventful first half until Saphir Taider intercepted a ball and sent Ignacio Piatti up the middle. Three Toronto defenders focused on the Impact captain, leaving Vargas open on the right side to take the pass and slice a shot inside the goalpost in the 41st minute for their first lead in three games.

Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the break but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.

Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot.

Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide. Toronto looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal line, but Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.

Montreal striker Matteo Mancosu, who missed practice this week for what the team called precautionary reasons, didn’t dress.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez, who has had back trouble, didn’t dress for Toronto. Chris Mavinga (suspected sports hernia) was in the lineup but did not start.

Mourinho slams Man Utd players for “lack of desire” despite FA Cup win

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Jose Mourinho, voted the manager mostly likely to zig when everyone else in the world is zagging*, laid into his Manchester United players on Saturday despite the fact the Red Devils topped Brighton & Hove Albion to advance to the semifinals of the FA Cup.

*not a real poll that has ever been taken, as far as we’re aware

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

The Portuguese boss called out his players for what he deemed “a lack of personality, a lack of class, and a lack of desire” in the 2-0 victory at Old Trafford.

quotes from the Guardian:

“The basic things is to keep the emotional balance to play with that red shirt, which is a heavy shirt to wear. But to feel not comfortable to play, saying, ‘Please Mister, take me from the pitch.’ I felt that. So I have nothing to lose in relation to that. The strong ones will be always the strong ones. The young ones, under pressure and under criticism, will improve or will not improve.

“Matic was an island of personality and quality. But a few of the other guys, I saw them scared to play. Look, I cannot say much more. I think it is in relation with personality, in relation to trust, in relation to class. And you know when the sun is shining, and in football the sun is shining when everything goes well, you win matches, you score goals, everything goes in your direction, every player is a good player and every player wants to play and every player wants the ball and every player is confident to play and every player looks amazing.

“When it is dark and cold and that in football means a period of bad results or a bad result like what happened to us a couple of days ago, not everybody has the confidence and the personality to play really. Because to be on the pitch and touch the ball every five minutes, anyone can do it but to be on the pitch and say: ‘Give me the ball because I want to play,’ that is a little bit more difficult. Not all of them were able to do it.”

As for 21-year-old Scott McTominay, Mourinho singled him out for criticism not only in the public forum, but in the locker room after the final whistle:

“You have the kid that didn’t play well at all. I told him already, he was the first one I spoke to individually in the dressing room. And instead of being critical with him, I was positive with him saying: ‘You played very bad but you did the basic things that one player has to do.'”

This is year two of Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, and if the signs of fractures between manager and players are beginning to sound all too familiar, one should be reminded that Mourinho only signed a new contract to remain at the club through 2020 (with a further option) in January.

Serie A: Juventus slip up vs. SPAL, let Napoli back in the race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

SPAL 2013 0-0 Juventus

Just one week after going top of the league with a game in hand, Juventus slipped up away to 17th-place SPAL on Saturday and left the door ever so slightly ajar for second-place Napoli in the title race.

Juve had 65 percent of possession on the day and out-shot SPAL by a count of 12-3 (3-0 on target), but the likes of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Douglas Costa and Miralem Pjanic couldn’t beat 20-year-old goalkeeper Alex Meret (on loan from Udinese).

(Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Massimiliano Allegri’s side now leads Napoli by five points, but the game in hand now belongs to the chasers, who host 13th-place Genoa on Sunday with a chance to cut the deficit to just two points with nine games remaining. Just when it seemed crystal clear and a foregone conclusion Juve would wrap up their seventh straight Serie A title, newly promoted SPAL helped to make things quite interesting once again.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Udinese 1-2 Sassuolo

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Sampdoria vs. Inter Milan — 7:30 a.m. ET
Crotone vs. Roma — 10 a.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Chievo — 10 a.m. ET
Torino vs. Fiorentina — 10 a.m. ET
Hellas Verona vs. Atalanta — 10 a.m. ET
Benevento vs. Cagliari — 10 a.m. ET
Napoli vs. Genoa — 3:45 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Bologna — 3:45 p.m. ET

Man Utd joins Spurs in FA Cup semis

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Jose Mourinho has come under heavy scrutiny in recent days and weeks, as his Manchester United side crashed out of the Champions League this week and continue to trail runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City by 16 points, yet the Portuguese is perhaps just 180 minutes from finishing the 2017-18 with a major trophy anyway.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Swansea to reach FA Cup semis ]

Man United got the best of Brighton & Hove Albion, to the tune of 2-0 at Old Trafford on Saturday, to book their spot at Wembley Stadium in the semifinals of the FA Cup. Romelu Lukaku scored the winning goal not long before halftime, with United grinding out another laborious result with superstars Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez glued to the bench for the whole of 90 minutes.

United enjoyed a healthy 61 percent of possession in the game, but were out-shot by the 12th-place side in the PL by a sizable margin, 16-8 (4-2 on target).

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores ] 

Lukaku’s rampage through the FA Cup continued in the 37th minute, as the big Belgian striker bagged not only his 23rd goal of the season in all competitions, but his fifth of the tournament thus far and extended his record of having scored in each round to four games.

Nemanja Matic floated a cross from the let side of the box to the back post, where Lukaku had created a yard or two of space for himself. Tim Krul didn’t come out to catch it, and Lukaku headed it just under the crossbar to give the Old Trafford faithful reason to smile again.

[ PREVIEW: Who will join Spurs, United at Wembley?

It was Matic who got on the end of another back-post ball, this one from an Ashley Young free kick, in the 84th minute to put United two goals ahead and secure the club’s second FA Cup semifinals appearance in seven seasons (United enjoyed a run of five final-four appearances out of eight in the years prior).

Tottenham Hotspur, who trail United by four points in the race for second in the PL, were the first side to advance to this season’s semifinals by winning 3-0 away to Swansea City on Saturday.