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

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.