Looking back at Week 5 of the NWSL Season

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The NWSL went into its fifth weekend with three undefeated teams, but with wide play that gave them the ability to draw back FC Kansas City’s wingers, Western New York should have always seen as a threat to hand the Blues their first loss. Unfortunately, Vlatko Andonovski’s wingers didn’t do much to protect his fullbacks, and when direct play from the Flash took advantage of a bad night from K.C.’s central defense, Western New York had an easy route to a 2-1 win.

The Flash deserve amount of credit for recovering from a slow start, but after Kansas City’s performance last week in Tukwila, the game telling reverted the Blues’ narrative. Against Reign FC, Kansas City rebuked the notion that a new team playing away from home for the first time would struggle to adapt. Although the result was close (a 1-0 win), FC Kansas City gave their best performance of the season. “There was nothing more we could have done,” a beaming Andonvski said post-match.

On Saturday, all those concerns came back into focus. Kansas City looked like a team that didn’t know how to play on the road, their aggression tempered as the home side came out stronger. At the beginning, they held the ball reasonably well, but the Flash’s decisiveness dictated the match. With Veronica Perez underneath the strikers creating an overload on Sam Kerr’s side, Western New York was again able to double down on their wide play, with right back/team president Alex Sahlen having her best night of the season. By the time FCKC woke up, they were down two, their lack of composure at the back digging too deep of a hole.

For Kansas City, while Western New York will always present a series of specific and serious problems, the game seemed like a one-off, in performance if not result. And it’s the type of thing that happens on the road. You’ve traveled, you’re in a new place, playing on an unfamiliar surface, against a team usually close to their peak conditions. Bad results happen.

Despite their strong performance in Seattle, the Blues are not immune to those challenges. As a result, the league is down to two undefeated teams.

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

It’s not just that Western New York won, or that they beat FCKC, or that Kansas City is considered one of the league’s two preeminent contenders. It’s how Aaran Lines’ team won, displaying a formula that could make them a dark horse contender.

As discussed last week, 19-year-old Sam Kerr’s going to be a problem for most of the league’s fullbacks. That Australian international can function on the left or right flank lets Lines pick on the weaker defender. With Veronica Perez’s ability to come across the field and play underneath, the Flash can overload . That leads to balls into the area and chances for Abby Wambach (who scored twice on Saturday) and Adrianna Martin.

And Carli Lloyd, who came on late against Kansas City, is back. Sarah Huffman was on the bench. McCall Zerboni’s drawing attention for her work in midifeld and holder Angela Salem just gave her best performance of the season. Even when they don’t have the tactical advantages they had against the Blues, Western New York has enough strength in the middle to compete.

Lines has steered his team through a tough start, and after their second straight win, the Flash sit in fourth place. If remains to be seen if their defense can hold up (especially with goalkeeper Adrianna Franch coming back to earth), but having weathered an opening storm, the Flash may be ready to embrace their upside.

Here’s the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s coverage from Sahlen’s Stadium, with Lines, Wambach, Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn speaking after the Flash’s big win:

MVP … OF THE WEEK

It wasn’t a great week for individual performances; at least, as far as a Player of the Week-type performance is concerned. Amid the myriad strong displays across the week’s five games, nobody distinguished themselves as the outright star, even if Wambach’s double in Rochester means she’s destined to win the league-wide honors.

PST’s award, however goes to Lori Lindsey, whose performance in central midfield for the Washington spurred the Spirit to a draw against unbeaten Boston. Crucial to Washington’s buildup play (that often resulted in Diana Matheson torching the Breakers down the right), Lindsey put in her strongest performance of the year, a day that was capped by one of the league’s best goals to date:

(GIF courtesy of the Tumblr site USWNTGIFs)

Goals are often overrated, with stats columns and the passage of time allowing easy scores off a terrible turnovers to carry the same weight as incredible finishes from tough angles. But now, in this not-so-far-removed moment, we can acknowledge Lindsey’s goal and admire the skill in the hit. We can marvel that it drew Washington even with an unbeaten foe, and we can acknowledge her as our Player of the Week.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Wed., May 8 Sky Blue 1-1 Chicago
Sat., May 11 Washington 1-1 Boston
Sat., May 11 W. New York 2-1 Kansas City
Sun., May 12 Chicago 0-2 Portland

Also of note: Christine Sinclair seems to have an obligatory spot here, especially after that ball that led to Portland’s second goal; Christie Rampone may be the league’s first libero, and teammate Lisa De Vanna’s found a scoring touch to match her all-energy menace; Kristie Mewis nearly broke out (and almost broke a Sahlen’s Stadium crossbar); Heather O’Reilly became a fixture in Robyn Gayle’s nightmares; Diana Matheson continues to be a game-defining presence; and don’t forget our unsung hero, below.

ROUND’S BIG STORY

The reports from Yurcak Field after Seattle’s Saturday 2-0 loss depict a broken Seattle team, one that may be the first to bow out of NWSL contention. With four losses in a row, Reign FC sit at the bottom of the league, their combination of missing stars (Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Amy Rodriguez), tough schedule (having played Portland and Kansas City a combined three times) and one home date in five leaving the team deflated and, potentially, hopeless.

According to those at Yurcak, frustrating goals conceded early in New Jersey left head coach Laura Harvey deflated. After the match, she took her team to task, and while her post-game comments have been pointed after each of her team’s losses, the newly-imported boss was particularly frank on Saturday – her conclusions short and too-the-point:

(from Equalizer Soccer)

“We were nowhere near good enough in the first half,” Harvey said. Asked to expand she said, “Everything. We weren’t good enough in possession. We weren’t good enough defensively. We looked completely (dis)organized. We looked like we haven’t trained. We did pretty much the exact opposite of what we prepared for. We just looked like a team that had never played together before.”

It was an Olsenian diatribe that leaves Seattle in the same place as MLS’s D.C. United: desperate, clueless, and searching for answers. With one point through five games, Seattle now face two pivotal home games – games that could restore the notion that circumstances have conspired against the new club. On Thursday, Reign FC host Washington before welcoming Sky Blue on Sunday night.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. +/- PST
Rank
1 Portland 5 13 +6 1
2 Sky Blue 5 10 +3 5
3 Boston 4 8 +4 3
5 W. New York 5 7 +0 4
5 Kansas City 4 7 +2 2
6 Washington 5 3 -2 6
7 Chicago 5 2 -7 7
8 Seattle 5 1 -6 8

It’s two games in four days (with no travelling) against beatable sides. At least, on talent alone, Seattle should be favorites at home this week (though opinion’s decided on second place Sky Blue, see below). If they get full points, Harvey’s team will be on seven through as many rounds. Then they can convince themselves they’re surviving their spring ordeal.

But Saturday’s loss – giving away two early goals to Sky Blue – was heartbreaking. Michelle Betos’s weak punch to Danesha Adams for an open net goal? The inexplicable giveaway that allowed De Vanna an easy finish? These are the type of things bad teams let happen.

After that display at Yurcak on Saturday, Harvey’s task shifted from survival to salvation.

UNSUNG HERO

Sky Blue may be in second place, but look to their schedule (not their squad) for explanations. They’ve yet to face Portland. They’ve yet to face Kansas City. They haven’t played Boston, and their win over Western New York came before the Flash started piecing things together. They are the anti-Reign. Their record is outpacing their performance.

That could change, though. Kelley O’Hara has been unexpectedly (and unsustainably) disappointing, and while Lisa De Vanna’s work rate matches any striker’s in the league, her finishing has let her down. If it weren’t for one player’s timely contributions, Sky Blue wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting for answers.

That player is Sophie Schmidt, whose role high in Jim Gabarra’s midfield has already led to three goals – half of her team’s output. The Canadian international has never been a big scorer, finding goal only once in 17 professional games between magicJack and Sweden’s Kristianstads, but benefitting from the work of de Vanna, Schmidt’s become Sky Blue’s most dependable option.

Last Wednesday, the 24-year-old was in the right place at the right time, heading Kendall Johnson’s late cross past Erin McLeod to give Sky Blue a late lead against the visiting Red Stars. Sky Blue would eventually concede an equalizer, but the goal was another example of Schmidt’s timely contributions.

Curiously, Canadian internationals seem to be making a home playing behind their team’s strikers. Christine Sinclair’s been forced to drop into the position in Portland. The Reign have recently used Kaylyn Kyle behind their striker, while Diana Matheson, while doing damage down the Spirit’s right, has also had a presence underneath.

Schmidt’s also occupying that spot, one that is providing a disproportionate amount of Sky Blue’s output. If she can continue chipping in goals, Sky Blue may prove playoff contenders … once de Vanna and O’Hara can find net, too.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Have we seen the last of Angie Kerr in Portland? … What is going on with Kelley O’Hara? … How close is Boston’s holding duo (Joanna Lohman, Mariah Nogueira) to Kansas City’s (Desiree Scott, Jen Buczkowski)? … Or Seattle’s new duo (Jess Fislock, Keelin Winters) … Who goes to the bench once Carli Lloyd and Sarah Huffman are fully fit? … How long until one of Tiffany McCarty, Stephanie Ochs, or Caroline Miller find goals in Washington? … And are these teams ready for the approaching international break?

LOOKING FORWARD

There are two mid-week matches on Thursday, with Portland and Seattle hosting the first of their Thursday-Sunday double dips. Though Boston’s trip to Kansas City may prove the week’s most-telling (and competitive) match,  JELD-WEN’s second NWSL game gives us a change to examine the young Spirit’s visit to league-leading Portland.

Thursday, May 16
Seattle Reign FC vs. Washington Spirit
Portland Thorns FC vs. Sky Blue FC

Saturday, May 18
FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers

Sunday, May 19
Seattle Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC
Portland Thorns FC vs. Washington Spirit

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

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