Alex Morgan of the U.S. celebrates her goal against Germany during the Algarve Women's Soccer Cup final match

NWSL Game of the Week: Washington Spirit at Portland Thorns FC

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While two of the league’s early powers face off Saturday in Overland Park (Lauren Cheney and FC Kansas City hosting Sydney Leroux and the Boston Breakers), a battle from teams at different ends of the NWSL’s early spectrum will take place in Portland. On Sunday afternoon, the Thorns FC, fresh off their first loss of the season, will host Washington, a team who broke out Thursday in Tukwila.

A rematch of the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago, Portland hosting Washington is this round’s ProSoccerTalk NWSL Game of the Week.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Opposites in almost every way

By now you know: Portland was almost everyone’s favorite to win this league. And if that’s one of the few things you’ve heard about the new women’s league – that Portland has Alex Morgan (above); and Christine Sinclair; and these great facilities; and oh my god it’s women’s soccer’s Shangri-La — you probably haven’t heard much about Washington, who were the consensus pick to finish last. Go back two months, and this match looked like David knocking on Goliath’s door, only with five-digits worth of neighbors heckling David while doing do.

The contrast between the two sides extends beyond preseason expectations. Portland was giving an established, potent attack while Washington has had to rely on drafted kids. The Spirit have the likes of Lori Lindsey and Diana Matheson in midfield, while the Thorns had to turn to free agency during Tobin Heath’s Parisian sojourn. Portland was given a bedrock center half (Rachel Buehler) while the Spirit’s allocated defender (Ali Krieger) is a fullback, yet Washington was given Ashlyn Harris, to date the league’s best keeper.

Leave those initial impressions behind and fast-forward to mid-May, where all the lip service the league’s coaches have given to the quality of each side – arguments encouraging fans and media to look beyond the big names — is starting to have merit. Back in March, their comments seemed like empty platitudes – the kind of hogwash that’s more American folklore than something that correlates to reality. Overlooked, under-appreciated Washington, whose attack was considered one of the league’s weakest, just exploded for four goals against Seattle. And Portland? They were shocked at home by Sky Blue, with a late song from Taylor Lytle giving Jim Gabarra’s a 1-0 win. Goliath’s not so big, David’s not so small, and the rash predictions of a preseason spent evaluating teams we’d never before seen has proved predictably fallible.

Portland and Washington may have been at opposite ends of March’s spectrum, but the gap appears to be closing. Despite their strong record (now 4-1-1), the Thorns are still struggling to meet their potential, while after a break out performance in Tukwila, the Spirit may have just received a first glimpse of their’s.

After Sunday’s game, comparisons to David and Goliath may prove as foolish as our preseason assumptions.

NWSL Standings

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

2. Young, talented, and unproven: Spirit’s attack still coming into its own

It’s not that Washington got a bad allocation, as far as their attackers were concerned. They didn’t get any help up top. One goalkeeper, three defenders, three midfielders – no forwards. That meant Mike Jorden and the Spirit organization were reliant on the supplemental draft, college players, and limited free agency to forge an attack, a daunting task given each team’s financial constraints.

Come Week 1, Washington had three main options:

  • With the second overall pick in the college draft, Washington went for Florida State’s Tiffany McCarty, a local product who had spent time with the W-League’s Washington Freedom. Only 5’4″, McCarty has the speed to beat anybody in the league, though finding an end product has proved more difficult than blowing past some of the world’s best defenders.
  • Stephanie Ochs, an industrious striker from San Diego, was selected third overall in WPS’s last draft before that league officially folded in 2012. After a year in relative limo, spending some time with the U.S. U-23s, Ochs signed on with Washington, her work rate a potentially potent complement to McCarty.
  • Caroline Miller, last year’s ACC Offensive Player of the Year, slipped into the college draft’s second round. A consistent part of the U.S.’s youth national teams, the former Virginia attacker was seen a possible Week 1 starter, even if she’s eventually settled into a substitute’s role.

They represented three lottery tickets. In a league where few teams have more than one true goal-scoring threat, all Jorden needed is for one to come good. Combined with Diana Matheson’s play making and Lori Lindsey’s occasional attacking contributions, the Spirit could be viable. It was just a matter of getting one player to click.

Early, though, it wasn’t happening. The Spirit scored one goal in each of their first five games, with Matheson being the team’s only consistent threat. Long balls that tried to use McCarty’s speed weren’t being converted into chances, while Och’s determination was often left unrewarded.

On Thursday, however, that changed. Perhaps a floundering Reign FC side contributed to the outburst, but after flying cross-country for a battle of winless sides, Washington finally broke through. McCarty scored her second goal of the season. Matheson found her fourth. Defenders Krieger and Tori Huster also got on the scoresheet as Washington tied a (young) league record for goals in a game: four. The Spirit won, 4-2.

Along the way, Ochs and Miller also made contributions, providing a glimpse of how Washington’s attack may come around before their lottery tickets are cashed. As long as his Jorden’s young attackers can threaten, the game opens up for players like Matheson, who’s now tied for the league lead in goals.

Washington’s forwards are still be a work in progress, but with nine goals in six games (as many as team in the league), they may not have to wait for something to click. Perhaps something already has.

source: AP3. Tactics or talent? There’s a problem in Portland’s midfield

When the Thorns opened the season with a 1-1 draw at Kansas City, many remarked on the trouble Cindy Parlow Cone’s midfield had in Overland Park, the quartet of Angie Kerr, Allie Long, Nikki Washington and Becky Edwards unable to generate chances for Morgan and Sinclair. Since, Cone has made adjustments, dropping Sinclair into Kerr’s spot while the team continues becoming more familiar with each other.

It hasn’t helped that Portland has played four games on the road. Half their matches have been on the type of multi-purpose, turf surfaces that most midfield creativity. While every team’s facing similar problems as they try to establish a style and a systems, Portland’s time on the road combined with a want to play a possession-style has presented the Thorns with some distinct obstacles.

Thursday, however, those excuses went out the window. Against a Sky Blue team who, like their previous opponents, sat deep and dared the Thorns to break them down, Portland still seemed to lack ideas. And this wasn’t on the road, on a bad field. This was at home, on the same field they practiced on all week. Still, the movement Cone had promoted all preseason was non-existent. There was no combination play, no significant buildup. The team was playing into Sky Blue’s jam-packed block.

Having carried a four-game winning streak into Thursday’s game, Portland is clearly capable of winning despite their shortcomings. But they can’t reach their potential without improvement. The cohesion and familiarity, which has only been evident on one goal this year (their second last Saturday at Chicago), needs to improve. They need to draw compact defenses out of their positions, and if they can’t, they have to kind a way to play wide. To date, the Thorns have had almost no presence down the flanks, their wide midfielders pinching in to contribute to the congestion.

That’s meant Long (left midfield) has been in focus, with onlookers asking if there’s more that can be done to serve Morgan and Sinclair. Same goes for Washington (right midfield, pictured), though at some point, when the players are repeatedly trying the same, unsuccessful approaches, you have to look beyond their individual play. Why are the Thorns persistently trying to work through the middle? Why aren’t they going wide, be it with by more readily overlapping their fullbacks, overloading a flank, or just playing behind their opposing fullbacks? Instead of trying to go through teams’ two-woman shields, why aren’t they playing in, out, and around the defense, trying to pull players out of position while encouraging Morgan to make better runs behind the center halves?

Perhaps Long and Washington need to do more, but when you consider how Portland’s played through six games, it’s unclear they’ve been asked to do anything different. At some point, the team needs to change it up.

QUICK HITS

Portland Thorns FC Washington Spirit
Star to Watch Christine Sinclair – The natural forward has been draw into attacking midfield to try and solve the team’s biggest problem. She’s still Portland’s best player, but while adjusting to her new role, Sinclair has yet to discover how to balance a midfielder’s demands with her goal-scoring talent. Diana Matheson – Arguably the league’s best player after five-plus weeks, the Canadian international is capable of creating chances by going either from the middle or by going wide. To date, however, she’s been handling the goal-scoring herself. She’ll go into Sunday’s match tied for he league lead in goals (four).
Still Important Alex Morgan – The U.S. international leads the league in shots and shots on goal, but the quality of chances need to improve. Part of that is on Morgan’s teammates to put her in better spots. Part of that is on Morgan, who’s still adapting to a markedly different style than what she’s flourished in for the U.S. national team. Ashlyn Harris – No NWSL keeper has been better about decisively coming off her line to collect opposition through balls. If Portland’s plan to beat Washington depends on running through the Spirit defense, they better hope Harris is off her game.
Win if … … they either add another trick to their attack, thus finding a way around what’s bound to be blockade in the midfield, or they get something special from Sinclair or Morgan. … they stay tight and deep through the middle, eschew risks for organization in defense, and find a moment’s magic from Matheson going forward.

OTHER GAMES, WEEK 6

Seattle Reign 2-4 Washington Spirit (Thursday) – While we’re only six games into the season, you have to consider whether Reign FC can come back from this. If there was one game they were going to win, it was this one – returning home, against another winless side. Instead, they become the first team to give up four goals at home.

Portland Thorns 0-1 Sky Blue FC (Thursday) – Jim Gabarra’s team moves into a tie for first after an 80th minute blast from Lytle handed Portland their first loss. One of the least-entertaining match of the season, Lytle’s long shot was the only real test either keeper saw. Karina LeBlanc, ultimately had no chance to stop the winner.

FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers (Saturday, 8:35 p.m. Eastern) – The Blues are coming off their first loss of the season, falling 2-1 at Western New York. Venturing out of the Eastern time zone for the first time this year, Boston looks to remain the league’s last undefeated team. Watch for the how Leigh Ann Robinson and Lauren Sesselmann deal with Heather O’Reilly.

Portland Thorns vs. Washington Spirit (Sunday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern)

Seattle Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC (Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern) – Last weekend, Sky Blue got two first half goals en route to a 2-0 win over Seattle at Yurcak Field. While a change of venue would seem to embolden the Reign, there’s an increasing feeling the first-year club is in a flat spin. Based on mid-week results, it appears these teams are going in opposite directions.

Swansea City 3-1 Liverpool: Young Reds bested as Swansea officially earns safety

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Andre Ayew (L) of Swansea City celebrates scoring the opening goal with Gylfi Sigurdsson during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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After defeat on Thursday in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal, the Reds looked to get back on track in league play at the Liberty Stadium, as Jurgen Klopp rotated the squad to Liverpool’s youngest ever. Instead, it was the home side celebrating as a young Reds lineup was second best in a 3-1 defeat to Swansea City.

Already more than likely to stay up, Swansea mathematically clinched Premier League safety with the three points, moving above West Brom and Bournemouth into 13th with 43 points.

The two teams began lively but produced little in the opening 10 minutes. The visitors got the first chance on 12 minutes, as Gylfi Sigurdsson had a sliding effort thanks to a wonderful touch from Andre Ayew at the top of the box, but it was saved by Danny Ward.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Liverpool defense looked clunky while Swansea maintained control, but it did its job, just keeping the hosts out as the rain came pouring down. Swansea had a break in the 20th minute, but Ayew’s shot was just blocked Dejan Lovren. However, the resulting corner provided a deserved breakthrough, as Ayew lost Daniel Sturridge and skied above Lovren to head home.

Jordan Ibe forced the first save of Lukasz Fabianski on 24 minutes, but it was back down the other end as Jack Cork nearly made it 2-0 but Danny Ward made a fantastic snap save to keep the low, powerful shot out.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The pressure continued from the hosts as Leon Britton managed to lock down the midfield and give Liverpool hardly a sniff. Just before the half-hour mark, it was Jordi Amat‘s turn to rise above Lovren on a free-kick, but he put the header just over. Moments later there was another break for Swansea, with Jefferson Montero forcing another fine save by Ward. But on 33 minutes, Ward could do nothing about an absolutely wonderful curler from Jack Cork on 33 minutes which made it 2-0.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Klopp looked to change things up, bringing on Christian Benteke at Lucas at halftime, and the changes worked. The Reds seemed to hold the ball much better after the break, and it paid dividends off a corner as Benteke worked himself away from Sigurdsson in the box and headed home.

It would be short-lived. Just three minutes later, with advantage placed after a foul in midfield, Montero weaved his way to the end line on the left and crossed to Ayew at the top of the box. With Sheyi Ojo and a host of other Reds unable to clear the ball effectively, Ayew poked it home past a frozen Danny Ward for a 3-1 Swansea lead.

Things only got worse for Liverpool, as Brad Smith received a second yellow card in the 76th minute after a very high boot in a 50/50 challenge with Swansea substitute Kyle Naughton.

With Swansea officially safe, Liverpool remains stuck in 7th, in danger of falling out of a European place sitting just a point above Southampton. Liverpool can still win a place in the Champions League next season by winning the Europa League, but should they fail to do that, a top 7 finish is the only way to return to European competition.

Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel says he’ll be a Leicester City fan at Old Trafford

(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between images (L-R) 1251624 and 186224564 of Father (L) and Son (R). 
**LEFT IMAGE*** 11 Aug 1996: Peter Schmeichel of Manchester United celebrates during the FA Charity Shield between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Wembley Stadium in London. Manchester went on to defeat Newcastle by 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport UK 
***RIGHT IMAGE*** LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City celebrates a Leicester goal during the Capital One Cup fourth round match between Leicester City and Fulham at the King Power Stadium on October 29, 2013 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel will be on hand at Old Trafford on Sunday, hoping to witness a title clinched at his old ground.

That title he’ll be rooting for isn’t for Manchester United.

With Schmeichel’s son Kasper leading the way for Leicester City this season in goal as the Foxes chase a historic result, Peter is all-in for his protégée, even at the expense of his old club.

“I live and die by the results of Man Utd, but today I want the other team to win,” Peter told BT Sport. “Blood is thicker than water.”

While Peter said his son has spent many days on the Old Trafford pitch, this will be the first time Kasper has played at his father’s old stomping grounds, having missed out on this fixture last season due to a broken foot.

Kasper said he yearned to have an influence on the game while watching his father play, and now the roles are reversed. “He’s experiencing now what I went through then,” Kasper said before the match. “The helplessness of not being able to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome of a game. It’s quite funny to hear how he’s felt during games.”

Watch Live: Manchester United vs. Leicester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Wes Morgan of Leicester City and Anthony Martial of Manchester United compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The fairytale is nearly complete. Leicester City would clinch the Premier League title with a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, live on NBCSN at 9:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Jamie Vardy is still suspended for the Foxes, but he would be on hand for the celebration should they seal the deal. His replacement remains Leonardo Ulloa, who suffered a back injury after scoring a brace against Swansea last weekend, but recovers in time to start at Old Trafford.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester United vs. Leicester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

The side for the Foxes is unchanged from that win over Swansea, as Claudio Raneiri looks to win his first-ever league title in his managerial career.

For the hosts, the Red Devils make just one change from their win over Everton in the FA Cup semifinals last time out, with Antonio Valencia coming in for 18-year-old Tim Fosu-Mensah, who drops to the bench. Matteo Darmian is out of the lineup for the second straight match, scoring their last time out in league play against Crystal Palace but finding himself replaced on the left by Marcus Rojo.

While the story is well-documented for the visitors, this game is also a must-win for Manchester United, who need three points to stay within striking distance of the top four. Failure to garner any points would leave them in sixth, five points adrift of the top four. A win, meanwhile, jumps West Ham and brings them back within one of Manchester City.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Martial, Rashford.
Subs: 
Romero, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Herrera, Mata, Schneiderlin, Memphis.

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Mahrez, Kanté, Drinkwater, Schlupp, Okazaki, Ulloa.
Subs: 
King, Albrighton, Amartey, Gray, Wasilewski, Chilwell, Schwarzer.

With Barcelona in La Liga title fight, goalkeeper Claudio Bravo injured

BILBAO, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Claudio Bravo of FC Barcelona looks on  during the warm up prior to the Spanish Super Cup first leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at San Mames Stadium on August 14, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Barcelona’s regular league goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was injured in the 2-0 win over Real Betis on Saturday, substituted with 12 minutes to go. The club confirmed the injury on Sunday, detailing a calf injury for the Chilean, with his status for the stretch run uncertain.

Bravo, who was replaced by Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Betis match, has played nearly every match for Barcelona in La Liga this season, owning full 90’s in every match save four in late September due to injury. Ter Stegen has received the bulk of the work in cup competitions.

With two matches to go in league play, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are even on points atop the La Liga table, with Real Madrid a single point behind. Barcelona holds the tiebreaker on Atletico via head-to-head record, with a pair of wins over Diego Simeone’s squad.

It’s unclear if Bravo will miss any time, or even the rest of the season, with Barcelona claiming, “The extent of the injury will determine how long he will be out for.”

Barcelona finish out the season home against Espanyol and at Granada. They also have the Copa del Rey final to compete in against Sevilla on May 22, but the expected starter for that is ter Stegen either way.