Jessica Fishlock

NWSL Game of the Week: Seattle Reign FC vs. FC Kansas City

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In a league with eight clubs and a 22-game schedule for each team, there’s always a chance at redemption for a result that may have previously slipped away. For Seattle Reign FC, the wait to turn the table on FC Kansas City is a mere seven days.

On Saturday, the two teams face off for the second time in a week when Kansas City travels to Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash., for a late 11 p.m. ET kickoff. FC Kansas City won the first-ever meeting between the two clubs 2-0, with goals from Renae Cuellar and Sinead Farrelly.

Despite the quick rematch, it’s a game of firsts for each team, with Seattle opening its home slate and Kansas City boarding a plane for the first time this season.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1 – Welcome home Seattle; say hello to the road, KC

Seattle is the last of the eight clubs to play its home opener, now in Week 4 of the season. Reign FC have come away with just one point in three road matches to open the season (a 1-1 draw with Chicago Red Stars) but a trip to the intimidating JELD-WEN Field in Portland and rain-soaked pitch in Kansas City last weekend are tall tasks for any team. Now Seattle comes home for the first time this season, and while the 3,800-seat venue is not sold out — a point of concern given the lead-in time and the strength of Seattle’s soccer fan culture — it finally offers a chance at some regularity to life for Reign FC.

The travel began almost the moment the team arrived to training camp in early March. Seattle embarked on an ambitious two week preseason tour in Japan – including a match against L. League power INAC Kobe Leonessa – while the other seven clubs humbly stayed home and trained in domes or cold weather, scrimmaging college teams. Now, nearly two months after leaving for the Far East and then trekking to Portland and twice to the Midwest, the sight of the Emerald City for a full week is a welcomed one for Reign FC.

NWSL Standings

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

“That’s been the biggest positive this week is we’ve just been able to settle in and not get on an airplane and not go to an airport, which has been a nice change for us,” Seattle head coach Laura Harvey said.

Likewise, as impressive as FC Kansas City has been thus far, the Blues are yet to play on the road this season. They’ve gotten comfortable in their Kansas confines and look like one of the best teams in the league. But all that gets put to the test on the road, where a Seattle team hungry for its first win and not far off from putting the pieces together offers a trap game for FC Kansas City, which sits in third place on 4 pts.

“We haven’t had a chance to get the feeling and the rhythm of being on the road,” Blues defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “It’s a little different without having a set schedule, which we’ve had here, fortunately, the last three weeks or so. That’s going to be a challenge, just being able to find that comfort level [like] at home. And then just playing Seattle again, the game here they were high pressuring and they had a lot of energy. I think that can only be magnified by the fact that they are playing at home and it’s their home opener.”

[MORE: Looking back at Week 3 of the NWSL season]

Harvey thinks that, to an extent, the advantage lies with Seattle having not gotten the result last week. She doesn’t anticipate changing much in the game plan and said her side hasn’t struggled to create opportunities, but rather, to finish them.

FC Kansas City coach will look to replicate last week’s performance, but is well aware of the dangers of his team’s first road match.

“We’re working on the psychological aspect and we’re working and getting ready for those first 15-20 minutes of the game, because usually in a home opener those first 15-20 minutes are crucial,” he said.

2 – Buczkowski and Scott holding down the middle for KC

Two of the league’s best players early in the season have been FC Kansas City’s pair of holding midfielders, Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott. Both serve as an extra line of defense in front of an already solid back four for the Blues, which includes Sauerbrunn alongside Canadian international Lauren Sesselmann.

“They make our jobs so much easier at the back line, specifically for me as a center back with Sesselmann, just having them in front – they sweep in front of us so they break up plays, but they are also so good at finding the ball and keeping it that they are our outlet,” Sauerbrunn said. “Both defensively and offensively they’ve been such a help in there.”

FC Kansas City has come together quickly across the pitch. The back line is solid, but there is no stronger unit than the Blues’ loaded midfield, in which Buczkowski and Scott sit in and first round college draft pick Kristie Mewis, U.S. international Lauren Cheney and Sinead Farrelly have freedom to roam and push forward at will.

The system is cohesive, free-flowing and flat-out effective thus far. Mexican international Renae Cuellar, who has two goals this season, utilizes world-class speed to run off that five-woman midfield as the lone striker.

And the tendencies of the Blues’ midfielders to play more centrally at times opens up the wings for outside backs Merritt Mathias and Leigh Ann Robinson, something Seattle learned last week.

Round one of this matchup in Overland Park, Kan., last week was won and lost in the midfield. The same will be said about Saturday’s rematch.

3 – Fishlock the engine of a team close to clicking

source: APSeattle hasn’t overly wowed anyone with their opening three performances, but there have been moments – flashes – where Reign FC have pieced together sequences that show their potential.

At the heart of most of that is Welsh midfielder Jessica Fishlock (pictured above, right).

[MORE: Fishlock the unsung hero in Week 2 vs. Portland]

Without a doubt she has been Seattle’s engine and best player, creating attacking opportunities sometimes out of nothing from her advanced midfield role and doing so in place of a front line that hasn’t come to fruition yet. Harvey admits she  is yet to figure out who is best suited in the lone striker role of Seattle’s 4-5-1 formation, she knows where her foundation is.

“Prior to any ball being kicked we knew we had a strong midfield,” Harvey said.

Harvey says Fishlock will be “a massive success” for the team and the league. But Fishlock’s fellow central midfielders, Keelin Winters and Canadian Kaylyn Kyle (pictured left), have also been instrumental. The trio is a perfect combination of defensive ball-winning and attacking flair.

On Saturday, the midfield will need to stay connected with its backs. Cheney was able to find pockets of space between those lines last week and while neither of her two assists came from a built-up attack (one was a corner kick, the other a clearance turned through ball), she had far too much time on the ball.

As for the battle of two strong midfield units – a crowded one with two teams that prefer three central midfielders – Andonovski said he was “very happy” with how Buczkowski and Scott contained Fishlock, but the Welsh international isn’t sweating the rematch.

“A lot of teams nowadays play with the two holding, so it’s not something knew that we’ve come up against or I’ve come up against,” Fishlock said. “But they do it very well. I tip my hat to them tremendously; they did it very well against us when we played them away.”

Harvey said Lindsay Taylor and Tiffany Cameron have returned to fitness and could be options at forward, where Seattle has struggled.

QUICK HITS

Seattle Kansas City
Star to Watch Jessica Fishlock – She’s the focal point of an attack lacking a pure striker and often pushes beyond the lone forward from her attacking midfield role. Can she get support from a forward who rises to the occasion? Lauren Cheney – Lit up Seattle last week. Her two assists weren’t even her most impressive contributions. Three of Cheney’s free kicks were dangerous, including one in the second half that that forced a huge save.
Still Important Michelle Betos – The young goalkeeper has done a solid job filling in for Hope Solo, who is out until June or July after having wrist surgery. Betos needs to continue to come up big to keep her team in matches, including this home opener. Renae Cuellar – Lost in all the praise of Kansas City’s midfield is a 22-year-old star who has scored in both games, including the first goal in NWSL history. Her pace is electrifying and she showed it last week, out-running the Reign’s defense in a 50-yard sprint.
Win if … … they stay compact and win the midfield battle. They’ll need this to be a 1-0 kind of game. … Buczkowski and Scott can dictate play and if Cheney is given too much space again.

Other games in Week 4:

Western New York Flash 2-1 Sky Blue FC (Wednesday) The Flash finally picked up their first win in the first midweek game of the season, which also ruined Sky Blue FC’s previously perfect record and bid to go top of the league. Abby Wambach scored the game-winner in the 20th minute for Western New York in front of a paltry 2,127 fans.

Chicago Red Stars at Boston Breakers (Saturday, 6 p.m. Eastern) The Breakers return to Somerville, Mass. for the first time since the Boston Marathon bombings (which canceled their trip to Kansas City and deeply affected defender Kia McNeill). Boston comes in riding high on the heels of a big three points in Western New York last week, while Chicago begins a brutal stretch that has them on the road for four of the next five games.

Portland Thorns FC at Washington Spirit (Saturday, 7 p.m. Eastern) – The Alex Morgan Show is in town and a sellout crowd of over 4,500 is expected at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Washington has exceeded very low expectations early on, but Portland – and the Thorns’ engine, Christine Sinclair – seem to have hit their stride. Ashlyn Harris will need another big game in net for Washington, which can’t afford to get into a shootout with the Thorns.

2-time defending champions Sevilla back in Europa League final behind Gameiro brace

SEVILLE, SPAIN - MAY 05:  Kevin Gameiro of Sevilla FC celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final second leg match between Sevilla and Shakhtar Donetsk at Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on May 05, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Sevilla is getting pretty good at this European competition thing.

The two-time defending Europa League champions are back in the finals after topping Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk 3-1 in Seville thanks to a pair from Kevin Gameiro plus an insurance goal from Mariano.

With the aggregate even at 2-2 coming into the second leg, Gameiro got things started in the ninth minute all by himself when he pilfered the ball off Maksim Malyshev in the attacking half and stuck it home into the far post. Shakhtar hit back just before halftime when former Arsenal striker Eduardo finished off a wonderful through ball by Marlos that split the Sevilla defense, tying things at 1-1 and the aggregate at 3-3.

[ MORE: Liverpool into Europa League final after running Villarreal ragged ]

But with Shakhtar still trailing on away goals, Sevilla put things away straight after the break when Gameiro again proved vital. The 28-year-old Frenchman took a feed from Grzegorz Krychowiak and finished from a very tight angle. Mariano left no doubt when he struck a stunning curler that bent inside the left post and put Sevilla 3-1 up.

Sevilla has not failed in European play since they dropped out of the Europa League qualification round to Hannover 3-2 on aggregate in August 2011. They won the title in 2014 on penalties after drawing 0-0 with Benfica in Turin, and they took down Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-2 in last year’s final from Warsaw.

Liverpool 3-0 Villarreal: Sturridge sends Liverpool to Europa League final

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool celebrates as Bruno of Villarreal scores an own goal for their first goal during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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For Liverpool in Europe, there’s just no place like home.

Back to Anfield down 1-0 to Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals, they turned the matchup on its head with a 2-0 win that sent the Reds to the finals in Switzerland. It’s their fifth straight win at home in European play, and the club is undefeated at Anfield in Europe since October of 2014.

The hosts were on the front foot from wire to wire, and who else but Daniel Sturridge provided the winner, a 63rd minute strike on a wonderful link-up with Roberto Firmino. Adam Lallana put the game away with 10 minutes to go, sending the Reds through.

Both sides looked as if they came to play, but Liverpool appeared the most dangerous, and they were rewarded just seven minutes in. A cross from Nathaniel Clyne was tipped by Villareal goalkeeper Alphonse Arreola and fell straight to Roberto Firmino on the far side. He popped back across the face of goal, and while Sturridge inexplicably whiffed with his sliding chance from point-blank range, his effort put off defender Bruno just behind him, and the ball skipped in off the defender’s hip for an own-goal.

[ RELATED: Two-time defending champions Sevilla book spot in Europa League final ]

The visitors appeared rattled by the opening goal, and with Liverpool pressing they nearly doubled the lead five minutes later. The ball finally cleared by Villareal, a wonderful tackle by Dejan Lovren prevented a counter and sent it back at them. James Milner threaded Adam Lallana through past the back line, but the England international put his off-balance effort just wide of the far post.

[ MORE: Liverpool program features Hillsborough tribute ]

Things got chippy past the half-hour mark, with the atmosphere tense. Roberto Soldado went down dramatically after Clyne brushed the back of his head which earned Clyne a caution. Denis Suarez was also lucky to not earn himself a card as well for a few hard challenges.

Following the halftime break, Liverpool came back out on top, with James Milner getting a big chance five minutes in, only to have his shot blocked straight to Areola.

As the Reds continued to push forward, they went two up and into the ascendency in the two-legged tie. A cross by Lallana deflected up front to Firmino, and he expertly unlocked the Villarreal defense sending Sturridge through, and the frontman slotted it home.

It would get worse for Villarreal as Ruiz earned his second yellow with 19 minutes to go as he felled Lallana on the edge of the box, picking up his second yellow and earning an early exit. Liverpool would capitalize, with Firmino cutting back to Sturridge in the box. The striker put a weak effort on net, but it bobbled to Lallana who spun and poked home with the outside of his foot to go 3-0 up and secure the result. Jurgen Klopp brought on Joe Allen for the final 10 minutes, and the hosts locked things down.

The Reds will take on defending champions Sevilla in the Europa League final on May 18 after the Spanish club took down Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk 5-3 on aggregate.

Success, then sustainability. How Leicester City can keep it rolling next season

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester reacts to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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It’s well known by now that Leicester City beat 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League. Now that they’ve crested the mountain, staying there is a whole new challenge, one that will present even greater odds.

When Blackburn won the Premier League in the 1994/95 season, they were unable to bottle that season’s success, finding themselves in a tailspin that saw their manager resign by October of 1996, and the club was relegated in spring of 1997. Just by that case study alone, it’s clear that for a small club that finds untold riches, the prospect of saving for the future is one that can easily escape among the chaos of success.

If winning the Premier League is climbing Mt. Everest, then maintaining that success is traveling to Mars.

That being said, Leicester could not have picked a better time to catch lightning in a bottle. With the influx of money at an all-time high, the player pool deeper than ever, and other English clubs in a state of transition, now is the time to pounce on the foundation they’ve built.

So how should the Foxes ensure the club returns to glory? Here are a few general rules for Claudio Ranieri and the rest of the Leicester City management to follow.

Forget about winning the title again

Having beat the odds, shocked the world, and captured the crown, everyone from the players to the staff will be hungry for more. It’s human nature. The key is to fight that. For the club to be successful, they cannot go into next season with a goal of winning the Premier League. There’s nowhere to go but down.

[ RELATED: Will Leicester City keep their stars? ]

The key is to keep expectations in check. There will be many more distractions, many more theaters of war to battle, and many more fronts to cover. Should the team specifically gun for another title run, it may hinder the long-term goals. The saying goes “shoot for the moon; if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply here. Could it happen again? Who’s to say no after this year’s magical run? But that wasn’t their goal this season, and they’ll need to resist the lust for blood in the upcoming campaign.

Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has plenty of work in front of him this summer. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha has plenty of work in front of him this summer. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Don’t overspend

Money will be flying every which way this offseason. With every Premier League club earning a massive cut of the new television deals, there are sure to be much-inflated prices for lots of players. A sports marketing and data firm estimates this title run could be worth a massive $220 million to the club. Leicester’s own players will surely be tempted by heavy contracts and monstrous transfer deals.

What the club must avoid is overspending on one or two players. The staff must evaluate every player they scout, place a value on their head, and stick to that evaluation. Queens Park Rangers learned the hard way how overspending for players they wanted, and it cost them dearly when they could not stay in the Premier League. It’s hard to resist the temptation to plunk down big bucks for a flashy name, but it will only turn out poorly.

Build depth and anticipate injuries

The Foxes enjoyed untold luck this season on the injury front. None of their core group of players were injured for any significant length of time, and the club used the fewest players of any Premier League team this campaign. That is an anomaly. Next year, the club will need to significantly improve its depth, especially with Champions League play added to the Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup competitions. European play has doomed many other smaller clubs looking to bigger pastures, so this is a must.

[ MORE: Claudio Ranieri’s best quotes and moments of the season ]

Unfortunately, depth is one of the most difficult things to achieve in sports. Players naturally want to play, and therefore luring talented players to sit on the bench and be an insurance policy is nearly impossible. This will be a puzzle that Ranieri must solve if Leicester is to navigate four separate competitions next season.

Crucial players such as Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Riyad Mahrez, and others all maintained a pristine bill of health throughout the season (Photo: Getty Images)
Crucial players such as Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs, Riyad Mahrez, and others all maintained a pristine bill of health throughout the season (Photo: Getty Images)

Develop a transfer plan

A number of Leicester players saw their value skyrocket this season. The likes of N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and Danny Drinkwater will be highly coveted players in the transfer window. In addition, there will be plenty of high-profile players on other teams who will be available and could be lured by money and Champions League play.

[ MORE: Game-by-game look at Leicester City’s magical season ]

It’s easy for fans and media to aimlessly shout “hold onto your players!” but we aren’t the ones with $30 million waved in our faces. It’s just as easy for those same sheeple to toss transfer targets out ad nauseam – hunker down, because it’s happening. The key for Leicester management will be to meet, develop a transfer plan, and stick to it. Some players may go, their price too valuable to turn down. Others will join, as the decision-makers determine what they need and where to fill those needs. Should they blindly follow the mad shoutings of the silly season, things will go downhill quickly.

Maintain their identity

Above all, the club must not lose focus on what makes it Leicester City. This is a vague and difficult notion to conceive, but nonetheless an absolutely vital one. The quickest way for a club – successful or not – to lose its supporter base is to deviate from what makes those supporters love the club. It’s hard to say exactly what that is, and only Leicester City supporters can truly identify what magnetizes them to the badge. It is management’s job to identify what makes the Foxes the Foxes, and do everything in its power not to stray from that feeling.

This is an important concept for every club from the first tier to the seventh, but it’s worth pointing out in this case particularly because newfound success can intoxicate those in power, leaving them vulnerable to violating this code. It is of the utmost importance that Leicester City stays grounded, and keeps true to who they really are as a club.

Liverpool game program for Europa League match features Hillsborough tribute

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Programmes for sale prior to the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Ahead of today’s game against Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals, the Reds have paid a wonderful tribute to the 96 who passed away in the Hillsborough tragedy.

On the heels of last Tuesday’s verdict that cleared the crowd of any wrongdoing in the disaster, the game program for Thursday’s match featured the Anfield crowd visible through a giant “96” on the front. On the back, a list of the 96 who lost their lives stands alone, along with the ages of the fans when on that day, with a “96” flanked by the torches from the Liverpool crest.

The jury’s verdict found in a 7-2 majority that the 96 who died in the crush were “unlawfully killed” due to “gross negligence” on the part of David Duckenfield and the rest of his security staff. It also stated that “fan behavior did not contribute to the tragedy.”

Jurgen Klopp was also featured in the program, urging his team and the fans on with the quote, “Tonight we are at our home, we are back at Anfield. this is our place and it is a place where special moments happen.”