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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

Klinsmann: USMNT’s Pulisic earning respect with “no-fear” approach

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Christian Pulisic #17 of USA attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra #23 of Bolivia late in the second half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Christian Pulisic, whose name was known to only the most ardent of U.S. national team supporters six short months ago, is the fastest rising star in American soccer these days, but you’d never know it just listening to him talk.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking after the USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday — having made a big bit of history of his own in the process (WATCH HERE) — Pulisic seemed to have just walked off the field following just another ordinary game — something you’d be easily tricked into thinking he’d done 500 times thus far in his career.

USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has something of a theory to explain Pulisic’s meteoric rise, from making his Borussia Dortmund debut three months ago, to scoring his first international goal on Saturday: the youngster is fearless — perhaps because he’s not been around the block enough to know any better, but without fear of conscience in the face of any challenge nonetheless.

“I think he is a wonderful kid. He’s grounded, he knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear, and this is very important — not having fear, especially when you play in our region (CONCACAF), where it becomes really physical. What you’re going to see next Friday will be very, very physical.”

[ MORE: Three things we learned — USA 4-0 Bolivia | Player ratings ]

On that lack of fear, Pulisic says it’s something that was instilled in him at a very young age, playing soccer and living an ordinary childhood in his hometown of Hershey, Penn., before it became clear that his future was to be anything but ordinary. Fear does seem a foreign concept to the now-three-times-capped USMNT starlet when asked how he’s made the transition from Dortmund Under-19s, to Dortmund first team, to USMNT impact-maker, so seamlessly.

“It’s just what I learned since I was a little kid. My dad taught me no matter what — I would play against these bigger players — to just be myself. I knew that I was good enough, that I had the ability, so I never shy away from any moment and I don’t think anyone should.”

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

The challenges for a 17-year-old earning his stripes on a team chock-full of established stars such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and on and on, are innumerable. From trying to impress Klinsmann and earn a share of first-team minutes, to “making friends” with the senior members of the squad, Pulisic is just doing his best to fit in and prove he can contribute at next week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario — the USMNT’s last major tournament before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“The guys have taken me in, they’re all really nice, and it’s helped me a lot that I’ve been with them a few weeks now. It’s getting more and more comfortable. I’m making more friends. Normally, you’d hang out with some of the younger guys — kind of work your way up. You really have to earn your respects on the field. Off the field, they’re all nice guys.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

And yet, with all of that said, an air of naiveté hangs over Pulisic as he talks of becoming the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history (17 years, 253 days), the 17-year-old that he is. Does the magnitude of such an accomplishment register an hour after that record-breaking strike?

“Honestly, no. I’m just living life, living in the moment. It’s cool — stats and stuff are cool — but I want to win this tournament coming up. That’s the overall goal, so I don’t really care too much about being the [youngest] goalscorer.”

Player ratings from a historic, comfortable USMNT win over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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Yes, the United States should beat Bolivia at home, and soundly, but that doesn’t make Saturday’s 4-0 win in Kansas City any less fun.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men throttled Bolivia, picking up the biggest win over a South American foe in national team history while writing in the U.S. men’s record book from an individual standpoint as well.

[ MORE: Match recapThree things we learned ]

Christian Pulisic became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history, and the Americans will be feeling pretty good after improving to 7-1-1 in their last nine games before the start of the Copa America Centenario on Friday in California.

So who showed well? See below:

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 7 — Called on only once or twice, but made the saves. Always hard to know what to score a goalkeeper who doesn’t have much to do. We’ll go with 7.

Matt Besler (off HT) — 7 — Filling in at left back wasn’t a problem for Sporting KC’s center back, and he even pulled off a nifty attacking trick or two.

John Brooks — 6 — Made up for a horrible giveaway by charging into the play to score the Yanks’ second goal. Out of position on a late chance that Guzan handled well.

Geoff Cameron — 7 — This team is so much better when he is healthy. Have to wonder if the Confederations Cup berth would’ve been assured with him last summer.

Michael Orozco (off HT) — 6 — Wasn’t noticed much, and that’s good for him.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

Michael Bradley (off 73′) — 9 — Weird how he’s good in his best position, pinged balls around the field and keeping things moving like a Newton’s cradle.

Jermaine Jones — 6 — Was just fine. Hard as nails and set to make an impact in the Copa America, and made a great takeaway and pass on the Pulisic goal.

Alejandro Bedoya 9 — The Nantes man had two assists, and looked capable of pulling as many strings as he wanted against Bolivia. Showed a hard edge against a nasty Bolivia side, too.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Bobby Wood — Lively and active, even if his finish was off.

Gyasi Zardes (Off, 64′) — 7 — If he wasn’t fighting his first touch, might’ve scored 3 or 4. Two is pretty good, though, right? He’d be a center forward, but Klinsmann needs to know the man up top can handle his first touch better.

Clint Dempsey (Off, 73′) — 6 — By no means bad. Is it too far off to say he’s doing the American version of the waning years of Cuauthemoc Blanco’s Mexican prime?

Subs

Fabian Johnson (On, HT) — 6 — Slow to get back on Bolivia’s only scoring chance.

DeAndre Yedlin (On, HT) — 6 — Like Orozco, had very little to do on the right side.

Christian Pulisic (On, 64′) — 7 — He’s a mouth-watering prospect, and became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Darlington Nagbe (On, 64′) — 7 — His work on Pulisic’s goal was everything MLS fans have been imagining while waiting for Nagbe to be USMNT eligible.

Graham Zusi (On, 73′) — 6 — Game was over when he entered, and did just fine. See below.

Chris Wondolowski (On, 73′) — 5 — Missed his only chance on a dynamite feed from Zusi in stoppage time.

Three things we learned from USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: The USA soccer team poses for a group photo before taking on Bolivia in the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the most part, the U.S. national team systematically dismantled Bolivia, to the tune of a 4-0 victory (as it should have done), in its final pre-2016 Copa America Centenario tune-up Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park. We learned a few things about Jurgen Klinsmann’s side ahead of Friday’s tournament opener…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Klinsmann settles on the right midfield … finally

Michael Bradley is the USMNT’s no. 6. End of story. His ability to play himself (and teammates) out of trouble at all times and hit (quick) long balls out to the wings changes the point of attack in an instant. The USMNT actually resembles a dangerous attacking side in these brief moments. (He’s also the quickest thinker in the player pool, doing things like this to set up goals.) Not to mention, he’s got the wheels to recover tons of space when a quick counter is inevitably launched the other way — something that Kyle Beckerman, for everything he’s been to the USMNT the last few years, simply doesn’t have anymore.

Alejandro Bedoya was easily the standout performer Saturday night, though, bagging a pair of first-half assists as the USMNT took a 2-0 lead into halftime. Speaking of circulating the ball quickly, Bedoya’s first-time chipped helper was the only ball that puts Gyasi Zardes into space with enough time to compose himself and beat the goalkeeper the way he did for the opener. With Bradley and Jermaine Jones capably waging the possession battle a bit deeper, Bedoya has the license — and ability — to flair out wide when a pocket of space presents itself (reference: USMNT goals scored in above links).

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]


At their best playing with width

Matt Besler and Michael Orozco, who are center backs by nature, started the game at left and right back respectively. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world defensively, but tasked with overlapping a pair of narrow-sitting wide players ahead of them, Zardes and Bobby Wood, much was left to be desired.

Klinsmann brought Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin, full back-winger hybrids by nature, on at halftime, and things opened up all over the field. Bolivia’s full backs had to stay wide, given their speed and (actual) ability to pick out a cross. Remember those long diagonals from Bradley that we talked about above? It was open season for “The General,” who played the decisive ball over the top to free Wood down the left, at which point his cross for Zardes was the final piece for a 3-0 lead.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]


USMNT (finally) has impact subs … if they’re not going to start

Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic are the future — feel free to debate amongst yourselves whether or not they should instead be the present; I won’t stop you — but for now, they’re the impact substitutes the USMNT has been missing for so long. The dynamic duo came on after 63 minutes on Saturday, and immediately they looked to link up and run at opposition defenders every time they got on the ball.

Whether on the halfway line or the edge of the opposition penalty area, it’s quick one and two-touch passing and moving from these two, as was the case in the 69th minute, when Nagbe turned one defender inside the box before sliding a simple square ball to Pulisic. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund prodigy made no mistake on the finish and bagged his first senior international goal.

At this point, perhaps they’re best suited for 30 minutes of running at tired defenders with heavy legs. At some point, though — in the not-so-distant future — they need to be given the opportunity to prove themselves as 90-minute players.

USMNT 4-0 Bolivia: Bedoya one of many stars in final Copa America prep match

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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  • Bedoya sets up two first half goals
  • Zardes gets brace
  • Pulisic becomes youngest U.S. scorer
  • Brooks scores, too.

Don’t look now, but the United States men’s national team is looking pretty darn good ahead of Friday’s Copa America Centenario opener against Colombia.

Gyasi Zardes scored twice, while John Brooks and Christian Pulisic also scored in a comfortable 4-0 win over Bolivia at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City on Saturday night.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Pulisic became the youngest USMNT goal scorer in history with his second half goal, set up by Darlington Nagbe. Alejandro Bedoya had a hand in two goals as well for Jurgen Klinsmann’s Yanks, who open up Copa America play on Friday against Colombia.

Bolivia is no power, but the Yanks gave them little room to maneuver after 20 minutes of play.

The U.S. started Matt Besler and Michael Orozco at fullback thanks to Edgar Castillo not having arrived yet to replace Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson having played in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Ecuador.

[ MORE: Real Madrid wins Champions League ]

Bolivia had moments early, specifically on a 15th minute set piece that saw New York Cosmos striker Yasmani Duk a split second offside in heading wide of goal.

Zardes put the Yanks ahead in the 26th minute on a cool bit of passing. Geoff Cameron found Clint Dempsey, who clipped the ball over to Alejandro Bedoya. The Nantes midfielder played a pretty ball through to Zardes, who calmly fired past a charging Guillermo Viscarra. 1-0.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Gyasi Zardes #9 of USA celebrates after scoring the first goal against Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

This game was very chippy, with Bolivia doing the little nasty things to go with big, card-worthy fouls. The Yanks kept their composure, though, and made it 2-0 when Bedoya slid to knock the ball outside the six for Brooks to pass home with his left foot.

Bobby Wood made a lightning quick cut while running onto a Clint Dempsey pass, only to see his shot saved Viscarra on the edge of stoppage time.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

The Yanks made a pair of changes at halftime, introducing DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson for Orozco and Besler.

There was a terrific build-up for the Yanks on goal No. 3, as Bradley played a gorgeous diagonal ball into the box for Wood. The Bundesliga striker worked his man and then fed Zardes for a left-footed, close-range goal. 3-0.

It took 67 minutes for Bolivia to really trouble Guzan, but the Aston Villa keeper rose to the challenge when Brooks and Fabian Johnson were a bit lax in returning to the back line.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

USMNT: Guzan; Besler (Johnson, HT), Brooks, Cameron, Orozco (Yedlin, HT); Bradley (Zusi, 73′), Jones, Bedoya (Nagbe, 64′); Wood, Zardes (Pulisic, 64′), Dempsey (Wondolowski, 73′).

Goals: Zardes (26′, 54′), Brooks (37′), Pulisic (69′)