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.

CONCACAF & CONMEBOL: Lionel Messi injured in final pre-Copa friendly

LANDOVER, MD - MARCH 27: Lionel Messi of the Argentinian national soccer team sits on the bench as his teammates practice on the field in preparation to take on El Salvador at FedExField on March 27, 2015 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 16 North, Central and South American and Caribbean nations prepare for the 2016 Copa America Centenario…

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

Argentina 1-0 Honduras

Gonzalo Higuain, who recently set a brand new record for most goals scored in a single Serie A season (36 goals in 35 games played), continued his scintillating 2015-16 season by scoring the only goal in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday (WATCH HERE).

The result obviously takes a backseat to news that Lionel Messi left the game injured midway through the second half. Following a corner kick that was cleared from the Honduras penalty area, Messi took a blow to the lower back and/or hip on his left side. The Barcelona superstar tumbled to the ground in a heap. He walked off the field under his own power, but was clearly in a great deal of pain before deciding he couldn’t continue.

That says Messi suffered an injury to his left side and that tests (MRI) are being done to determine the severity of the knock. La Albiceleste will kick off their Group D campaign against the reigning Copa holders, Chile, on June 6 in Santa Clara, Calif.

[ MORE: Preview — USMNT faces Bolivia in final Copa America tune-up ]

Uruguay 3-1 Trinidad and Tobago

With Luis Suarez currently on the shelf injured, it’s Edinson Cavani’s time to shine for Uruguay. The Paris Saint-Germain frontman — who’ll coincidentally also be “the man” for his club side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading for the exit door — bagged a first-half brace in La Celeste‘s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Trinidad and Tobago. His first came from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, followed not long after by another from open play in the 40th minute. Matias Vecino added the third for Uruguay in the 52nd minute. T&T took an early lead through Jomal Williams’ opener on 7 minutes.

Cavani scored 19 goals in 32 Ligue 1 appearances this season, making him the league’s third-highest scorer, behind Zlatan (38) and Alexandre Lacazette (21). Suarez, on the other hand, won this year’s La Liga Golden Boot after scoring 40 goals in 35 league games. Uruguay will begin their Group C campaign against Mexico on June 5 in Glendale, Ariz.

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

Chile 1-2 Jamaica

No longer content as CONCACAF’s best-kept secret, Jamaica are took their upsetting ways to a different level on Friday, knocking off South America’s reigning champions, 1-2 in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Clayton Donaldson and Simon Dawkins scored for the Reggae Boyz either side of halftime before Nicolas Castillo pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute. Winfried Schäfer’s side will join Uruguay and Mexico in Group C, along with Venezuela, their tournament-opening opponents on June 5 in Chicago, Ill.

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Costa Rica vs. Venezuela (underway)

Reunited in Manchester: The best (so far) of Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 25: Head coach Josep Guardiola (R) of FC Barcelona greets head coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid during the Copa del Rey quarter final second leg match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou stadium on January 25, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) The rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola is about to be renewed.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After years of spats and high-profile games between the two rival coaches in Spain, they are set to face off again — this time in England.

Guardiola, who used to thrive with Barcelona, will begin his stint at Manchester City next season. Jose Mourinho, who succeeded with Real Madrid, is on his way to Manchester United after his appointment on a three-year contract was announced Friday.

There was plenty of controversy when the two met while coaching the Spanish powerhouses in the early 2010s, with incidents on and off the field.

Barcelona was doing well under Guardiola when Mourinho arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, and in the first game between the two, Barcelona thrashed Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

In the Copa del Rey final later that year, Real Madrid won the title and Mourinho took his first stab at Guardiola.

After the Barcelona coach lamented a close offside call that ruled out a goal by forward Pedro, Mourinho said that a “new era in football was beginning, one in which coaches criticize the correct decisions made by referees, not the wrong ones.”

Guardiola said he knew Mourinho well and the Portuguese coach was only trying to provoke him. He said such antics would not work, and he would answer them at an appropriate time.

The response came before Barcelona and Real Madrid played in the semifinals of the Champion League in 2011.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal ]

“The teams will meet tomorrow on the pitch, but off the field he has already won, he has won his own Champions off the field,” Guardiola said of Mourinho, using an expletive. “In this press conference room, he is the (big) boss, he is the one who knows it all. I don’t want to even start competing against him here.”

Guardiola said he was surprised by Mourinho’s animosity toward him considering they worked together for four years at Barcelona, when Guardiola was a player and Mourinho an assistant coach.

“He knows me and I know him,” Guardiola said. “If he prefers to pay more attention to the point of view of the (Madrid-friendly) media and not to the relationship that we had, then he can do it. It’s his decision and it’s his right.”

Later in 2011, during a brawl in a Spanish Super Cup game between the rival teams, Mourinho was caught by television cameras poking the eye of Tito Vilanova, then an assistant to Guardiola at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Klopp to pick between signing Gotze or Mane this summer ]

Guardiola’s Barcelona won most of the “clasicos” against Mourinho’s Madrid during the three seasons the Portuguese coach was in Spain.

In addition to winning the league in 2011-12, Mourinho also won the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup titles before ending his stint with Madrid. He and the club parted ways after what Mourinho called his worst season ever in 2012-13.

He was without a job since December after leaving Chelsea following a poor start to the season.

Guardiola won nearly every title possible with Barcelona before leaving the club to join Bayern Munich in 2013.

Gotze’s Bayern future remains uncertain; Sadio Mane still Liverpool’s Plan B?

MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 14: Mario Goetze of Muenchen celebrates after the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Hannover 96 at Allianz Arena on May 14, 2016 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN)
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Sadio Mane has been an extremely in-demand commodity since last summer, when Manchester United and a handful of other Premier League and foreign clubs failed to pry the Southampton winger away from the South Coast in either one of the summer or January transfer windows.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Great players will always be in demand, though, which means another summer full of transfer rumors linking the ever-dangerous 24-year-old to clubs across England and Europe.

Enter stage left: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who’s eager to undertake his first summer transfer window since taking the Anfield job last October.

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Mario Gotze is said to remain Klopp’s no. 1 target this summer — the 23-year-old has said he intends to remain at Bayern Munich and fight for his place under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, but the Bayern hierarchy (Ancelotti included) perhaps see it differently — with Mane a not-so-terrible Plan B should Gotze remain at the Allianz Arena or land elsewhere. Gotze has scored just 22 Bundesliga goals in three seasons at Bayern (36 in all competitions) since making a big-money move from Borussia Dortmund three years ago.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal

After a promising debut in England saw Mane score 10 goals in 30 PL games two seasons ago, the Senegalese dynamo followed up with an 11-goal haul in the PL season just completed (15 goals in all competitions), much of which was shrouded in transfer rumors and clear discontent at St. Mary’s Stadium. Mane will cost anyone a great deal more — think 10 to $15 million more — than the $30 million Bayern hope to recoup in their sale of Gotze (they paid roughly $40 million for him in the summer of 2013).

Pre-EURO int’l friendly roundup: Rooney, Rashford score as England win again

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England scores his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 24 European nations prepare for EURO 2016…

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

England 2-1 Australia

Roy Hodgson seems to have one of those good dilemmas on his hands: with Danny Welbeck already out for EURO 2016, and Daniel Sturridge injured yet again, does he take 18-year-old Marcus Rashford to France next month? The Manchester United striker is certainly making his case after a breakout finish to the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, which he followed up on Friday with a goal all of three minutes into his England debut (WATCH HERE).

Wayne Rooney doubled England’s lead 10 minutes after he entered the game as a halftime substitute (WATCH HERE), extending the England and Man United captain’s record goal haul to 52 in his international career. Eric Dier scored an embarrassing header to pull one back for the Australians in the 75th minute (WATCH HERE).

England will host Portugal at Wembley Stadium next Thursday in either side’s final pre-EURO friendly.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores another debut goal

Ireland 1-1 Netherlands

The Dutch aren’t headed to EURO 2016 themselves, but the Irish certainly are, and Martin O’Neill’s side picked up a bit of positive momentum in the form of a 1-1 draw with the 2014 World Cup semifinalists.

Southampton’s Shane Long put the Irish ahead when he cleaned up a goal-line scramble on the half-hour mark, but former Newcastle United striker Luuk De Jong turned home a free kick to equalize for the visitors with five minutes remaining in regular time.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Northern Ireland 3-0 Belarus
Croatia 1-0 Moldova
Czech Republic 6-0 Malta
Slovakia 3-1 Georgia