The Abby-comes-home era begins without Wambach, but will it sell?

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The walkway to the main gate of Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. is called Wambach Way, a reminder of just how endeared Abby Wambach is in Rochester. And that was dedicated before Wambach was even part of a team that would be playing there, never mind before a league even officially existed.

She’s an A-list celebrity in the region. Her arrival at the stadium in the past has typically filled the building, which seats about 15,000 fans, depending on capacity for the day.

That’s just a small sampling of how big the U.S. women’s national team forward is in the greater Rochester area, where she grew up.

Most recently, Wambach and her U.S. teammates kicked off their celebration tour of a third-straight Olympic gold medal in Rochester in front of 13,208 fans on Sept. 1, 2012. That came a little over a year after the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) played its first game back  from the 2011 Women’s World Cup at that same Sahlen’s Stadium.

On that day, 15,404 fans packed into additional seating and others had to be turned away at the gate. The whole city shut down. Thousands of fans and swarms of media — a paparazzi sort of scene if women’s soccer has ever seen one — packed into a local mall for a runners-up welcome  back rally primarily for Wambach, along with Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, who were also in town.

It was, and still is, The Abby Effect in Rochester. But now, that’s an every day thing. And now Rochester’s claim as Soccer Town USA is put to the test. How fleeting is the region’s affection for its city’s biggest star?

[MORE: NWSL Game of the Week — Western New York Flash vs. Boston Breakers]

Unlike 2011, when Wambach played for (she didn’t actually play in the homecoming match due to a sore Achilles) the road team, the infamously rogue magicJack squad, Rochester’s First Lady is on the home team. Sure, she’s on the home team when the United States plays there, but that occurs sparingly.

Now Rochester has 11 Flash games (plus potential playoffs) to show up and support Wambach and the rest of this Flash squad, which has won three straight championships in three different leagues.

We already know that Wambach will miss the home opener as a “precautionary” measure after she sustained a head injury in last week’s 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit.

But even before that was known, the sales for the home opener — the first chance of the year to see the Flash and Wambach — didn’t sound up to expectations. Per Wambach’s tweet:

That is the sort of attendance the Flash averaged in 2011 before the post-World Cup boom. That’s the kind of number that makes the very open Sahlen’s Stadium feel empty.

As of Friday morning, the Flash would not comment on how many tickets had been sold for the home opener.

So the question remains: Will Wambach still sell when she is in Western New York all the time? The answer is not an implication on Wambach, but the market’s elasticity. Relative to women’s soccer, this should be a slam dunk for attendance and marketing. Whether or not it is remains to be seen. And those expectations need to be realistic, too.

The Flash won’t sell out every game. They may not sell out at all this year. But the hope in Western New York is that Wambach can turn those crowds that may have previously hovered around 2,000 fans into double that. Even that would be a major victory for Rochester and the National Women’s Soccer League.

The test begins Saturday, but really kicks into gear on Wednesday, when the Flash host Sky Blue FC on a weeknight, four days after the home opener. Then, of course, every home game after that.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.