Looking back at Week 4 of the NWSL Season

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Through the first four weeks of the NWSL season, life on the road has proven very forgiving for the league’s eight clubs, a minor surprise for those expecting transcontinental travel and the challenges of the league’s various surfaces to give home teams an edge. Yet through 14 games, teams are 5-5-4 away from home, and while that figure may be skewed by Portland’s three games on the raod, home teams have still yet to see any significant advantage from their friendly confines.

That’s in aggregate, though. For individual teams, there were still questions, particularly surrounding Kansas City and Chicago – two teams who ventured away from home for the first time in Week 4.

For the Red Stars, the questions were ominous ones. One point from home games against Seattle and Portland confirmed doubts about Rory Dames’ team, none of which were assuaged by Saturday’s 4-1 loss in Boston. League-wide results may not show a home field advantage, but for Chicago, life went from bad to worse on the road.

For FC Kansas City — a team living at the other end of the standings — the story was much different. Their 1-0 result at Starfire Sports Complex may be superficially less impressive than last week’s 2-0 over Reign FC in Overland Park, but on the road against a Seattle team that played better than they did a week ago, Kansas City gave arguably their most convincing performance of the season. Vlatko Andonovski’s team dominated the first half-hour, executed one of the season’s best goals in the second half, and went on to sully the Reign’s home opener.

Most convincing was the continuity. Lauren Cheney is FCKC’s key player, somebody whose constant, steady movement in the attacking phase churns the team, with fellow midfielder Sinead Farrelly filling in the spaces Cheney vacates. As defenders adjust, Renae Cuellar’s given areas to exploit, while Kristie Mewis can pick spots to attack. It isn’t explosive, it isn’t overbearing, but with patience and prodding, Kansas City eventually opens you up, just as they did on Cuellar’s 69th minute score, her third of the season.

Andonovski, beaming after the convincing performance, was easy with his praise, saying “There was nothing more I could ask” of the team.

“Every line was working great,” he said, shortly after Saturday’s final whistle, “The goal that we scored was just a pleasure to watch.”

“It was our first road game, and we didn’t know how we were going to respond. If [we] want to be a contender for a playoff spot and move up from there, we have to win games on the road. We came out, worked hard and did what we did.”

What they did was stay undefeated, now 2-0-1. They also may have answered the last, faint question about their potential. Through the season’s first three weeks, our internal cynics could wonder whether they’d be as strong on the road. Now we know.

Here’s what else happened in Week 4:

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

It was the league’s first four-goal game, the first time any team’d won by at least three goals, and for the Boston Breakers, it was the second straight week where they stood out. Last week, a convincing road victory in Rochester made their post-Boston Marathon return a successful one. On Saturday, their result to Dilboy Field produced the league’s first rout.

For as much talk as there’s been about the NWSL’s Big Two (Portland and Kansas City), Boston’s giving us some reason to think they can keep up. After an opening day stumble at home against Washington, the Breakers have put together two convincing wins, the second showing off the depth of one of the league’s deepest attacks. Though there were concerns about their goalkeeping and defense at the beginning of the season, central defenders Kia McNeill and Cat Whitehill are capable of providing some stability. And thanks to the insertion of rookie Mariah Nogueira into the lineup, Lisa Cole has a formidable presence in front of the defense – somebody who can destroy play before it hits the back line. Put the package together, and you have the most likely challenger to the league’s still-unproven duopoly.

At a minimum, the Breakers are dangerous, and with a player like Syndey Leroux, they have a way to steal games they don’t otherwise control. That could come in handy against the likes of Portland and FCKC.

MVP … OF THE WEEK

The Red Stars were unfortunate to be exposed to the whole Sydney Leroux arsenal – an array of skills that leaves her atop the league’s scoring list after Saturday’s onslaught. Her scoring instincts were on display when she opened her account (and gave Boston their final lead), redirecting a Nogeuira flick past Erin McLeod in the 26th minute. In the 74th minute, Leroux flashed her near-unmatched speed and tenacity, taking a ball off defender Camelina Moscato and racing near-half the field for her second. Ten minutes later, she reminded everybody of the finishing that’s made her one of the world’s best per-minute scorers, putting home a ball from Kyah Simon to record the league’s first hat trick.

Because of her place in the national team, Leroux doesn’t get as much publicity as Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, but in some ways, she’s more dangerous. While she doesn’t have Wambach’s aerial presence or Morgan’s finishing, she’s still an elite player in both regards, and with her speed, tenacity, and pure physicality, she better equipped to create opportunities for herself (as evidenced by her second goal on Saturday).

Just as in the men’s game, national team performance isn’t the be-all, end-all of a player’s profile, yet for internationals in the NWSL, that’s all they’ve had since WPS folded. For a player like Leroux — someone who’s in the middle of her first professional season — getting regular playing time could broaden people’s perceptions. She’s just as dangerous as Morgan or Wambach, and the Breakers are allowing her to prove it.

(Note: Tuesday is Sydney Leroux’s birthday. Happy 23rd birthday, Ms. Leroux.)

Also of note: Diana Matheson’s still a jewel for Washington; as is Jessica Fishlock for Seattle; Becky Sauerbrunn went on an 80-yard run out of central defense to set up Kansas City’s only goal; Sophie Schmidt is the one thing that is working for Sky Blue; and don’t forget our unsung hero, below.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Wed., May 1 W. New York 2-1 Sky Blue
Sat., May 4 Boston 4-1 Chicago
Sat., May 4 W. New York 1-2 Boston
Sat., May 4 Chicago 0-2 Portland

ROUND’S BIG STORY

Abby Wambach returned to the field on Wednesday, a highly-anticipated home debut after a week of speculation surrounding her health created the league’s first major controvery.

Two weeks ago, Wambach was nailed in the face by a kicked ball and played out the last five minutes of the Flash’s visit to Washington with what was later conceded to be a concussion. Unfortunately, Western New York was late to diagnose the injury, leading the criticism of the team, league, and the official who oversaw the Spirit-Flash match. U.S. Soccer eventually conceded the situation was handled incorrectly.

Chalk it up as a leaning experience, albeit a very disturbing one. While flakey live streams and organizational issues at facilities can be categorized as growing pains of a new, small league, players’ health can’t be allowed to suffer amid those mistakes. Professional standards demand you provide for the basic care of your workers. In the realm of athletics, that means being able to treat your employees when they suffer injuries on the field.

Undoubtedly, the Flash will learn from this experience. They didn’t diagnosis Wambach properly on site. They allowed her to travel back to Western New York without full knowledge of her condition. They didn’t promptly see she was treated when they returned to Rochester. The word “concussion” wasn’t even used until a week after it was inflicted when Wambach revealed it during an on-field interview.

U.S. Soccer stepped up, confessed there was a problem, and acknowledged this can’t happen again. That it was allowed to happen at all, however, is disturbing. This isn’t a web stream where you can justify improving as you go. Everything should have been in place before hand.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. +/- PST
Rank
1 Portland 4 10 +4 1
2 Boston 3 7 +4 3
3 Kansas City 3 7 +3 2
4 Sky Blue 3 6 +1 5
5 W. New York 4 4 -1 4
6 Washington 4 2 -2 7
7 Seattle 4 1 -4 6
8 Chicago 3 1 -5 8

UNSUNG HERO

Nineteen-year-old Samantha Kerr knew what she was up against on Wednesday. She’s been playing with Caitlin Foord since the 18-year-old defender joined the Australian national team two years ago, so when the two Matildas met mid-week in Rochester, Kerr knew exactly how to pick apart her Sky Blue counterpart.

Shifted over to the left wing, Kerr was able to continuously get behind Foord, SBFC’s isolated right back. With Jim Gabarra starting Danesha Adams at right wing in Sky Blue’s 4-3-3, Foord was given no help, stranded while deciding when to come up to stop the ball or lay back to contain Kerr. Between Flash left back Katherine Reynolds and help from midfielder Veronica Perez cutting across the Western New York formation, Foord was overrun.

But it was Kerr who made the tactic really pay off almost immediately, assisting on Spanish international Adriana’s sixth minute opener. Shortly after, a cross mishandled by Christie Rampone set up Wambach for what became the game-winning goal.

With Wambach and Adriana in the middle, Wednesday’s could be a regular occurrence for Kerr, who has already shown she can beat players down both the left and right flanks. That gives head coach Aaran Lines a lot of tactical flexibility, flexibility he used to get the Flash’s first win last Wednesday.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Did Portland’s midfield finally wake up? … Or is Washington regressing after a feisty start? … Who will win first: Seattle or Chicago? … When will Lisa De Vanna start finishing some of those chances? … How many people were really in attendance last Wednesday in Rochester? … Is the Big Two really a Big Three?

LOOKING FORWARD

The NWSL has its first five-match week, with another Wednesday match serving as the opening act for a four-game weekend. The marquee event is on Saturday, with FC Kansas City visiting Western New York – this week’s PST Game of the Week.

Wednesday, May 8
Sky Blue FC vs. Chicago

Saturday, May 11
Washington vs. Boston
Sky Blue FC vs. Seattle
Western New York vs. FC Kansas City

Sunday, May 12
Chicago vs. Portland

UCL wrap: Napoli, Celtic win big; Nwakaeme volleys beauty (video)

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A day after three of five road sides felt good with their work in first legs of the UEFA Champions League playoff round, it was the hosts time to celebrate good results.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL first legs ]

Home sides in Italy, Scotland, Greece, and Israel posted wins. Spanish side Sevilla did manage a road win.

Napoli 2-0 Nice

Chances and even possession was at a premium for the visitors, and Napoli found its breakthrough from one of the more overlooked gems in the world. Dries Mertens scored in the first half, his sixth career UCL goal, and Jorginho converted a second half penalty to give Napoli a foot in the group stage.

Adding insult was a pair of red cards in the 80th minute, the first to Vincent Koziello for a dangerous tackle (it was a harsh call) and Alassane Plea was given a second yellow for protesting the sending off.

Mertens’ goal was smooth as silk:

Celtic 5-0 Astana

A pair of Scott Sinclair goals joined an Astana own goal as the Bhoys went a long way towards avoiding the tight tie that made the last round tricky.

Olympiacos 2-1 Rijeka

Heber gave the visitors a halftime lead in the 42nd minute, but Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe equalized in the 66th minute to minimize the damage for Olympiacos, who would go on to win.

Istanbul Basaksehir 1-2 Sevilla

Remember Eljero Elia? The Dutchman’s on his eighth club and third since leaving Southampton after just a half season, but he’s given his Turkish side hope against mighty Sevilla after Sergio Escudero gave the Spanish side an early lead and Wissam Ben Yedder nabbed the winner.

Hapoel Be’er Sheva 2-1 Maribor

Goals from Anthony Nwakaeme and Shir Tzedek boosted the Israeli hosts to a come-from-behind win.

In the case of the former, it was a beauty:

Brighton breaks transfer record (again) with Izquierdo (video)

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Brighton and Hove Albion have broken its transfer record.

A week after setting a new club standard with the signing of Davy Propper from PSV Eindhoven, the Gulls have signed electric Colombian attacker Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge for over $15 million.

[ MORE: Matuidi medical at Juve ]

Izquierdo averaged a goal every other match for Brugge last season and broke through to the Colombian national team with two caps this summer, scoring in a friendly against Cameroon.

With Propper and Izquierdo, manager Chris Hughton has two more playmakers who can better set the table for a strike corps that has been questioned at the Premier League level.

Brighton lost to Man City 2-0 on Saturday and next faces Leicester City at King Power Stadium.

Matuidi having a medical at Juventus ahead of move from PSG

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Blaise Matuidi was having a medical at Juventus on Wednesday ahead of a potential move to the Serie A club.

Juventus said that Matuidi arrived at Turin airport in the afternoon and was undergoing tests.

Juventus will reportedly pay PSG 20 million euros ($23 million) plus bonuses for the 30-year-old Matuidi, who had a year left on his contract with the French club.

[ MORE: Wenger issues updates on Alexis, Ox, Wilshere ]

PSG, which is also trying to balance the books after buying Neymar for 222 million euros, could not afford to lose Matuidi on a free transfer.

Matuidi played nearly 300 games for PSG in all competitions after joining from Saint-Etienne in 2011.

After a difficult first season, he quickly became an integral part of the team for successive managers, Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc.

He flourished from a largely defensive midfielder to a robust, tireless runner with an eye for goal and an enormous work-rate.

Overcoming some technical deficiencies in his game, Matuidi gradually earned himself a place in the France lineup and became a key player at the 2014 World Cup and last year’s European Championship.

At the beginning of last season, after Blanc was fired and replaced by Unai Emery, he expressed a desire to leave PSG and already wanted to join Juventus. But the club blocked his move, considering him too important to leave, and he stayed for another season.

Altogether, Matuidi has scored 33 goals for PSG in 295 appearances, becoming a well-respected player among fans and teammates alike, often taking a public stance when others would not and when tensions arose within the club.

In all, Matuidi has won four league titles, three French Cups and four League Cups with PSG.

This story has been corrected to show that Neymar’s fee was 222 million euros, not 220 million euros.

Furious Cristiano Ronaldo responds to five-game ban

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Cristiano Ronaldo has hit out at the Spanish soccer federation after his five game ban for pushing a referee in the back was upheld.

Ronaldo, 32, pushed the ref after he was shown a second yellow card in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Barcelona on Sunday.

It capped an eventful El Clasico for Ronaldo who arrived in the second half as a sub, then scored a stunner to put Real 2-1 up.

He received his first yellow for taking off his shirt and holding it up to the Nou Camp crowd to mock Lionel Messi for doing the same in a goal celebration in April at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ronaldo then received a second yellow for going down in the box under a challenge.

In an Instagram post the Real Madrid forward had the following to say about the decision which sees him banned for the second leg ag the Bernabeu on Wednesday as well as Real’s next four games.

“It seems to me exaggerated and ridiculous, this is called persecution.”