Looking back at Week 3 of the NWSL season

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It seems we were a bit premature in touting the league’s ability to get goals, because while the NWSL’s first two weeks notably avoided WPS’s punch-less debut, it wasn’t until this weekend – Week 3 of the new league’s season – that we saw a surge. Whereas only one team (Portland Thorns, against Seattle) had bagged multiple goals in a game through “The N’s” first fortnight, every Week 3 winner got on the scoresheet twice, with matches in Kansas City and Chicago giving the league its first multi-goal margins.

While the product wasn’t necessarily better (`70s-style turf pitches challenging our soccer aesthetics), the execution was, with set piece precision and counterattacking awareness flashing the cohesion coaches have been trying to instill. With teams having only assembled for preseason six weeks ago, some growing pains were expected. Now teams are making good on their coaches’ two-week-old promises: As we get more time together, things will improve.

Take Boston, who injected ball-winner Mariah Nogueira into midfield, used Lianne Sanderson as a focal point at the top of midfield, and push Sydney Leroux wide to break down the Flash’s right back (Alex Sahlen). The result? Two goals for Heather O’Reilly cutting in from the right. That’s a system doing work.

Or look at Kansas City. On all the league’s teams, Vlatko Andonovski’s was most-ready to go on day one, but even the Blues made tweaks. They stayed 4-2-3-1 but moved Sinead Farrelly into the team, pushing Lauren Cheney wide. That tightened screw allowed FCKC to avoid their Week 1 slog, a trough that allowed Portland’s second half goal to take a point from Overland Park. On Friday, it was Kansas City scoring the second half goal, Renae Cueller’s second of the season sealing their 2-0 win over Seattle.

For some teams, asking fans for patience is so two weeks ago. Their changes are already collecting points that could make a difference at the end of this short, 22-game season. They’re also putting pressure on the rest of the league to catch up.

Here’s what else happened in Week 3:

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

With Western New York struggling out of the gate, it’s difficult to know what Boston was up against on the field, especially with Flash focal point Abby Wambach kept out of Saturday’s home opener. But this weekend in Rochester, the Breakers’ biggest obstacles were always going to be away from the pitch, where the team sought to move on from last week’s tragedies in Boston.

With last week’s match in Kansas City cancelled, Boston may have shown some rust while allowing Samantha Kerr to put the Flash up after six minutes, even if Heather O’Reilly’s quick response evened the scales. Late in the second half, O’Reilly’s dash from her right-wing position through the left channel created the game-winner, the U.S. international recording the first brace in NWSL history.

It’s easy to exaggerate the link between sports and “real life,” but there is a link, one that Lee Billiard and Lisa Cole talked about in the buildup to Saturday’s game. If not for Boston as a whole then for the team and community around it, Saturday’s game was an important return to normalcy. And a winning one.

MVP … OF THE WEEK

While O’Reilly recorded the league’s first double, FC Kansas City’s Lauren Cheney (above) was in a giving mood. Dangerous over dead balls all night, Cheney curled a corner kick two yards from the goal line to give Farrelly a far post, 21st minute opener.

But witness the real gem of Cheney’s night:

(Mark Yesilevskiy graciously made the GIF for us)

Cheney was a target striker in WPS, but in the year-plus since that league closed shop, she’s been converted to a midfielder by the national team, a move made possible by her intelligence and quality on the ball. But to this point, her performances in the middle have been merely acceptable, perhaps the product of a learning curve. She’s been steady, and her versatility allows for a lot of possibilities tactically, but squeezed backward by the national team’s forward surplus, Cheney just hasn’t had as much of an impact in midfield.

On Friday, that showed signs of changing. Beyond her two assists, Cheney showed a command for the game that justified Andonovski’s midfield deployment, assuming the responsibility of being the driving force in midfield. Whether wide left or back in the middle (Kansas City’s interchangeability seeing her move around), Cheney was the week’s best player.

At the time of allocation, there was some speculation Cheney would resume her natural, forward’s position, but after performances like Friday’s, we now have a proof of concept. Lauren Cheney – whether as a wide creator, late-match regista, box-to-boxer or a No. 10 – may have a viable future in midfield.

Also of note: “HAO” did have those two goals, Coco Goodson is a giant (h/t Lauren Barker), Christine Sinclair was again her match’s best player, and don’t forget our unsung hero, below.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Fri., Apr. 26 Kansas City 2-0 Seattle
Sat., Apr. 27 Washington 1-2 Sky Blue FC
Sat., Apr. 27 W. New York 1-2 Boston
Sat., Apr. 27 Chicago 0-2 Portland

ROUND’S BIG STORY

It’s no surprise the league’s first two-goal margins were produced by Portland and Kansas City, the two clubs at the top of most expert’s blindly predicted final standings. What’s more surprising: Two teams have joined them to create an early haves, have nots scenario.

That Boston and Sky Blue are undefeated is neither alarming nor remarkable this early in the season, but the quality gap between them and the league’s bottom four is surprisingly large:

  • Washington Spirit’s attack could click at any time, but until it does, they have no consist means of producing goals. More troubling: A defense expected to be the team’s backbone just allowed two goals at home against Sky Blue.
  • The Western New York Flash, thanks to being drastically short-changed in allocation, just don’t seem to the quality. Aaran Lines has done well to keep his team competitive in their three games, but the team’s yet to find a solution.
  • Like the Flash, the Chicago Red Stars’ allocation was lacking, though they did get a national team quality player in free agency (Lori Chalupny). Unfortunately, she’s the only Red Star that’s meaningfully distinguished herself through two games.
  • And just like Washington, the Seattle Reign just don’t have any goal scorers. Megan Rapinoe is coming, but it remains to be seen if they can scrape together enough points to stay close while she’s gone.

It’s too early to make any long-term assumptions about the league’s bottom half, but Week 3 gave us a lot of information about the chasm dividing the league’s eight teams. Not only did the scoreboards favor the league’s better half, the teams’ actual quality reinforced the notion of haves and have nots.

UNSUNG HERO

Washington may not have a reliable goal scorer, but in Diana Matheson, they have somebody who can create chances, like this one Saturday for rookie Caroline Miller:

It was her own Lauren Cheney moment, and although the Canadian international doesn’t have Cheney’s renown, she carries some of the same qualities: Somebody who can orchestrate play from the middle of the park. At 5’0″, though, Matheson has to go about her business much differently then the 5’8″ Cheney, with her willingness to turn on a ball and burst forward in attack feeding the natural description ‘spark plug’.

NWSL Standings

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

In that way, Matheson is more Jessica Fishlock (last week’s Unsung Hero) than Cheney, with both the Canadian and Welsh internationals serving as examples of a women’s professional league ancillary benefits. While much of women’s soccer fandom in the U.S. is tied to the popularity (and exposure) of the women’s national team, there’s an array of underappreciated talent fans see to thanks to the NWSL’s arrival. At some point, women’s soccer might be about more than the Olympics and whomever’s the latest Mia Hamm.

Matheson’s 150 caps for Canada mean she’s well-known to most long-term women’s soccer fans, but newer fans drawn in by the U.S.’s World Cup and Olympic runs may know little about her. But with NWSL, Matheson may not be unsung for long.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Can Kansas City take their act on the road? … How much patience should Cindy Parlow Cone have with Portland’s midfield? … Why did it take until Saturday to hear the word “concussion” from Abby Wambach or the Flash? … Can Kelley O’Hara stop tackling like Paul Scholes? … Is Sydney Leroux: Left Winger a real thing? … Will fans turn out for Seattle’s home opener?

LOOKING FORWARD

Reign FC finally get that opener his weekend when FC Kansas City show up in Tukwila, a match we’ll feature as this week’s NWSL Game of the Week. With some factions of Seattle fandom balking at supporting a non-Sounders FC brand, owner Bill Predmore has a marketing challenge ahead of him. On Saturday, we’ll see the first product of his efforts.

And for the first time this season, the NWSL is going mid-week:

Wednesday, May 1
Western New York Flash vs. Sky Blue FC

Saturday, May 4
Boston Breakers vs. Chicago Red Stars
Washington Spirit vs. Portland Thorns
Seattle Reign vs. FC Kansas City

Lukaku or Morata; who got the better deal?

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Romelu Lukaku or Alvaro Morata, who ya got?

[ MORE: Keys to Manchester derby in Houston ]

It’s one of the biggest questions swirling around after Chelsea agreed a $92 million fee with Real Madrid for striker Alvaro Morata on Wednesday, who has arrived in London and called Chelsea “the best club” for him.

He also admitted he has no idea how close he came to signing for Manchester United and Morata could have easily ended up at United and Lukaku at Chelsea, but the opposite is now true as both Premier League giants have acquired clinical strikers who will be the focal point of their respective attacks.

Both Morata and Lukaku have the potential to be the two best out-and-out strikers in the world for many years to come.

[ MORE: Lukaku promises goals for Man United

In terms of who got the better deal, financially both players will end up costing a very similar amount with the fee for Lukaku set to rise to $96.5 million and Morata’s fee just below that. Both players are 24 years of age, and both have very similar skill sets which is understandable given why both United and Chelsea went for them.

So, all square there.

In terms of Premier League experience Lukaku obviously had the edge with the Belgian now playing four full seasons in the PL, while Morata has only played in Spain and Italy. Lukaku is much more likely to hit the ground running as he knows what to expect and is settled in England.

That said, Morata’s experience in the UEFA Champions League is vastly superior to Lukaku’s and the Spanish international also has 13 trophies (including two UCL trophies) to his name already. Lukaku may have more experience in England, but Morata has more experience in elite club competitions and has scored crucial goals in title-winning seasons for both Real and Juve.

Looking at the way both of the players will fit into their teams, it’s difficult to argue that they’re not well suited to both the system and personnel around them.

Lukaku has had many seasons as a lone front man but he could play up top alongside Marcus Rashford which may actually benefit him with someone to work off of and a little more space for him to work in.

Morata will be a lone forward in Chelsea’s attack, but he is flexible and able to play out wide or drop a little deeper when needed and that will work well with Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian buzzing around in support. Both of these players are more than a target man but you’d have to say Morata appears to be the more creative with the ball at his feet, so he gets the edge.

How can we judge these deals on some kind of scale? Well, the goal tally at the end of the season for each striker will tell the story of who was the better signing. It’s as simple as that and both will be expected to score at least 15-20 goals in all competitions.

But I know you guys don’t like simple answers, so here’s a ranking on some of the key categories which may help us to answer which club spent their $90 million-plus better.

Finishing (out of 10)
Lukaku: 8
Morata: 9

Power
Lukaku: 9
Morata: 8

Pace 
Lukaku: 9
Morata: 8

Aerial ability
Lukaku: 8
Morata: 9

Hold-up play
Lukaku: 7
Morata: 8

Mentality
Lukaku: 7
Morata: 9

Total score
Morata: 51/60
Lukaku: 48/60

Monaco report clubs to FIFA over Kylian Mbappe contact

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AS Monaco are not happy at all.

Star striker Kylian Mbappe is wanted by every top club in the world with the 18-year-old bursting onto the scenes last season as he scored 26 goals in all competitions with Monaco winning Ligue 1 and reaching the UEFA Champions League semifinals.

The French champions released the following strongly-worded statement on Thursday after they’ve already sold Tiemoue Bakayoko to Chelsea, Bernando Silva to Manchester City and both Benjamin Mendy and Fabinho are being chased by Europe’s top clubs.

“AS Monaco regretfully notice that important European football clubs made contacts with Kylian Mbappe (and his entourage) without its authorization. AS Monaco want to remind to these clubs that such actions are contrary to the article 211 of the Administrative regulation of the French Football League (Ligue de Football Professionnel) and to the article 18.3 of the Regulation of the Status and the Transfer of the Players of FIFA.

“To put an end to this unacceptable situation, AS Monaco consider asking the French Football League (Ligue de Football Professionnel) and the FIFA to commit disciplinary procedures against clubs offenders.”

Reports state that Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are among the clubs reported to FIFA.

Southampton had a similar situation earlier this summer where they made a complaint over the conduct of Liverpool with regards to their star defender and team captain Virgil Van Dijk. Liverpool ended up issuing a public apology and stated that would end their interest in the player.

The secret world of “tapping up” is now coming out into the open with serious sanctions potentially awaiting any parties found guilty of not following the proper procedures.

Who is “winning” the summer transfer window?

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With big-money deals being done all the time, let’s take a look at how each Premier League club have fared so far in the summer transfer window.

[ MORE: Latest PL transfer news ]

Some have been busier than others and with big deals for Alexandre Lacazette, Romelu Lukaku and now Alvaro Morata spicing things up, we are seeing huge sums flying around among the big boys.

Let’s analyze who is “winning” and “losing” so far this summer with six weeks to go until the window closes on August 31.


Winning

Everton – Seven new players, Rooney has returned and Lukaku cash spenty wisely on defense. More signings promised too.
Chelsea – Morata incoming, plus Bakayoko, Rudiger and Caballero strengthen the squad. Very good summer, so far, despite Costa.
Man City – Overpaid for Walker but have Ederson in goal and Danilo said to be on the way. Bernardo Silva a quality buy.
Bournemouth – Shrewd summer of spending for the Cherries: Begovic, Ake and Defoe arriving. Perfectly blend of youth and experience.

Getting there

Man United – Lukaku and Lindelof were costly but just what they needed. If Matic arrives then Mourinho has had a good summer.
West Ham United – Hart and Zabaelta will bring experience. If they land Arnautovic and Chicharito then a very good window.
Liverpool – Salah will be a star, while Robertson and Solanke will contribute but getting a new center back in is a must.
Huddersfield Town – 10 new arrivals for the Terriers and some real quality in Mounie, Mooy and Williams. Need one or two more players.
Leicester – Iborra, Maguire and Jakupovic upgrades and Iheanacho on the way. Mahrez should only leave for the right price.
Burnley – Walters, Cork and Taylor all good additions, but just lacking a new center back.

Work to do

Stoke – Losing Arnautovic means Hughes must have some deals up his sleeve. Zouma and Delph likely to arrive. New striker a must.
Newcastle – Slow going for Rafael Benitez so far this summer. Murphy and Atsu have arrived in attack, but midfield is the problem area.
Crystal Palace – Loftus-Cheek a solid addition but Frank De Boer needs 2/3 quality additions to avoid a relegation scrap.
Brighton – Hughton is sticking to his budget but the Seagulls should look to add another striker and center mid. Ryan a good get.
Swansea Paul Clement is likely to lose Sigurdsson and with Llorente out injured, new attackers key. Bony to return?

Fine as things stand

Tottenham – After selling on Walker for big money, Spurs will look to invest it shrwedly. All about keeping hold of their stars.
Southampton – Same story for Saints who have added Bednarek in defense and sold Rodriguez. One more striker and defender key.
WatfordMarco Silva should be okay with what he has after adding Chalobah and Hughes in midfield. Replacement for Deeney up top?
West Brom – Rodriguez has slotted in well and Pulis has brought in Ghazi in defense. Solid summer so far and not much needed.
Arsenal – Alexandre Lacazette’s arrival is key, but Arsenal’s summer appears to hinge on the Sanchez and Ozil decision.

3 things to look for in the Manchester derby in Houston

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Manchester City and Manchester United square off in Houston, Texas on Thursday in what will be the first-ever Manchester derby played outside of the UK.

[ MORE: Daley Blind chat to JPW ]

This game is never a friendly but with it being a preseason match-up in the International Champions Cup, we may not see as many challenges flying as we usually do when Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola lock horns. Maybe…

It will also be an occasion for both clubs to pay tribute to the victims of the Manchester Bombing attack in May with both teams to display the “worker bee” logo on their shirts for the game.

Here’s a quick look at three intriguing storylines heading into the game.


New kids on the block

This will be our first chance to see Kyle Walker, Ederson and Bernardo Silva in Man City shirts as Pep’s team kick off their preseason games. Walker is a big upgrade on City’s previous full back options and his pace and power will give them a new dynamic and balance. Ederson is now the go-to goalkeeper for Guardiola, even though he said Claudio Bravo will stick around and Bernando Silva is a true luxury player capable of slotting in wherever needed in attack. All three will have plenty to prove with big price-tags hanging around their necks, but perhaps Ederson is the most intriguing because the goalkeeper position has been a huge problem area for City and we know what to expect from Walker and Silva. First impressions can shape your future at a club and Ederson will be well aware of that.

Kompany vs. Lukaku

One big man against another, there’s no love lost between Belgium teammates Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku. This battle will set the tone for the upcoming clashes this season and it is a pivotal one. Kompany can handle Lukaku’s power and aerial ability, but can he handle his pace in-behind? If United can set Lukaku free, there are still doubts over Kompany’s fitness and if the 31-year-old has lost a yard of pace over the years. A supreme defender, Kompany knows this is a massive year for him to stay fit as he will try to lead City to PL glory and then Belgium to World Cup glory next summer with Lukaku by his side. On Thursday in Houston it should be a titanic battle if they come up against one another.

3-4-3 system from United?

I spoke with Man United’s utility man Daley Blind earlier this week and he told me that preparations for a 3-4-3 system is going well. When this alternate formation is deployed, Blind will likely slot in as the left-sided center back with Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof alongside him. Mourinho usually keeps it simple and plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, but now is the time to experiment and given the recent success of teams playing with wing-backs (Chelsea for most of last season, then Spurs and Arsenal towards the end) why not see if his team can do it?

United have been working on it in training and have already played that way against LA Galaxy in preseason. With United’s fans urging them to be more attack-minded, maybe Mourinho, like Wenger, could change his ways. If United do play wing-backs it will be interesting to see how City’s attackers cope with having to track back and having players in the space they’d usually roam free in.