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.

Video: Schmeichel opens up about Ranieri sacking, state of Leicester

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Leicester’s downward spiral this season has certainly been one of the most intriguing storylines in the Premier League, and that story came to a head when manager Claudio Ranieri was sacked by the club.

[ MORE: Chelsea, Everton extend unbeaten runs in Saturday’s PL action ]

After leading his side to an improbable PL title during the 2015/16 season, the Foxes are now in the midst of a difficult relegation battle as the season hits its most crucial juncture.

[ MORE: Brighton extends lead in Championship, Newcastle held by Bristol ]

Still, the Foxes must turn their attention towards survival despite losing a manager that was amongst the most well liked in England and really all throughout European football.

“Claudio [Ranieri] leaving is obviously very, very sad. We achieved the impossible together and I have nothing but the upmost respect for him for everything that he achieved at this club,” said Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

“Everybody knows he’s a classy guy. He came in and said his piece to the players, thanked us for our efforts and for last season and said goodbye. It’s a shame it has come to this.”

Schmeichel reiterated that he didn’t believe Ranieri was the issue and that the players are at fault for not taking care of the results on the pitch.

“You can look at our performances on the pitch,” Schmeichel said. “We haven’t been quite good enough this season. It’s quite clear. The league doesn’t lie. We’re in the position we are in because we haven’t been good enough.”

The keeper stated that he especially is taking Ranieri’s sacking to heart and that he wishes the club could have strung together some better performances in order to save his former manager’s job.

“I don’t think anyone has had more sleepless nights over our form than I have,” Schmeichel said. “Our form affects me deeply. Every person can clearly see that we haven’t performed on the pitch and we deserve the criticism that we get and that we are getting because of our performances. But anything above that is out of our hands. On the pitch, we definitely deserve the criticism that we are getting.”

In the interim, Craig Shakespeare will be tasked with replacing Ranieri and hoping to keep his club afloat next season in the PL.

While Shakespeare does have caretaker experience back in 2006 with West Bromwich Albion, the 53-year-old is in a much more difficult position this time around given the magnitude of Leicester’s fall from grace.

“Craig is someone I’ve known for a very long time,” Schmeichel said. “He’s a very bright character. he’s a very serious football man, what you’d call a real football man. he’s very enthusiastic about training. I have absolutely no doubt that he’s capable of becoming a manager whether it’s now or at some point. I think that he does have ambitions of that but he’s been a magnificent manager in his time here.”

La Liga & Serie A: Sevilla moves second, Caldara guides Atalanta

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 29:  Stevan Jovetic (L) of Sevilla FC celebrates with his team mates after scoring his team's first goal during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Sevilla FC at Cornella-El Prat stadium on January 29, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Betis 1-2 Sevilla

Sevilla has moved into second in La Liga thanks to a pair of second half goals on Saturday. Riza Durmisi gave the hosts the advantage heading into the halftime break but Sevilla fought back in the second stanza with finishes from Gabriel Mercado and Vicente Iborra to pull into a tie on points with league leaders Real Madrid.

Leganes 4-0 Deportivo La Coruna

Raúl Albentosa’s red card was the least of Deportivo’s worries on the day as the 17th place side took a hammering from Leganes. The victory for the hosts moves Leganes two points clear of Deportivo in the table and five points above the drop zone. Alexander Szymanowski and Martín Mantovani helped Leganes jump out to a 2-0 lead inside of the opening half hour before late finishes from Unai Lopez and Alberto Bueno put the finishing touches on the encounter.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Alaves 2-1 Valencia
Eibar 3-0 Malaga

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Espanyol vs. Osasuna (6 a.m. ET)
Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona (10:15 a.m. ET)
Athletic Bilbao vs. Granada (12:30 p.m. ET)
Sporting Gijon vs. Celta Vigo (12:30 p.m. ET)
Villareal vs. Real Madrid (2:45 p.m. ET)


Napoli 0-2 Atalanta

Mattia Caldara netted a brace on Saturday and helped guide his Atalanta side to within three points of Napoli in the Serie A table. Atalanta currently sits fourth in Italy’s top flight, but the race for the second place is heating up as Roma, Napoli and Atalanta all sit within five points of one another. Meanwhile, Inter Milan will have a chance to draw level on points with Atalanta on Sunday when they take on Roma.

Juventus 2-0 Empoli

It took a bit for the league leaders to get going but Juventus remains in firm control of Serie A after another victory. An own goal from Lukasz Skorupski gave the hosts the lead after the halftime break before Alex Sandro doubled the advantage 12 minutes later after finishing off a Dani Alves cross. The Bianconeri now hold a 10-point advantage over second place Roma.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Palermo vs. Sampdoria (6:30 a.m. ET)
Chievo vs. Pescara (9 a.m. ET)
Crotone vs. Cagliari (9 a.m. ET)
Genoa vs. Bologna (9 a.m. ET)
Lazio vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. AC Milan (9 a.m. ET)
Inter Milan vs. Roma (2:45 p.m. ET)

Championship Focus: Brighton continues to roll, Newcastle tripped up

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  Sam Baldlock (R) of Brighton & Hove Albion celebrates scoring with teamates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Barnsley and Brighton & Hove Albion at Oakwell Stadium on February 18, 2017 in Barnsley, England.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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With most clubs having just 10 matches remaining before the promotion playoffs, both ends of the Championship table boast plenty of storylines.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

Brighton & Hove Albion 3-0 Reading

Brighton is on a warpath towards promotion and it looks like the club won’t be stopped in its attempts to reach the Premier League next season. With just four blemishes on its record this season, the Championship leaders picked up another convincing win on Saturday against fifth place Reading. Sam Baldock continued his brilliant scoring streak this season in the first half, before Jamie Murphy and Anthony Knockaert each found the back of the net on the other side of the break.

Newcastle 2-2 Bristol City

Bristol won’t be winning a title this season but the club did manage a vital point against one of the Championship’s top sides on Saturday to keep its hopes of avoiding relegation alive. The visitors got off to a stunning start against the Magpies with a pair of first-half finishes giving Bristol a halftime lead of 2-0. Then, Newcastle picked up their pressure and pulled one back after a Korey Smith own goal before Ciaran Clark leveled the match with under 10 minutes to play for the second-place team.

Leeds United 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday

Chris Wood helped move his side up to fourth in England’s second flight, however, Leeds still remains nine points out of second position. Meanwhile, keeper Robert Green was forced into a brilliant save from the penalty spot to deny Wednesday a share of the points. Wednesday are currently sixth in the table and hold the final promotion playoff position.

Elsewhere in the Championship

Aston Villa 1-0 Derby County
Barnsley 1-1 Huddersfield
Brentford 4-2 Rotherham
Cardiff 2-2 Fulham
Preston North End 2-1 QPR
Wigan 0-0 Nottingham Forest

Bundesliga wrap: Top three win as Lewandowski bags trio

Munich's Robert Lewandowski, right, celebrates with Douglas Costa after scoring during the German first division Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and Hamburger SV in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)
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The top teams keep winning as the Bundesliga closes in on its final third of the season, as the top three sides all scooped up multi-goal wins on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Bayern Munich 8-0 Hamburg

One to forget for USMNT man Bobby Wood, as Bayern again spun the collective heads of Hamburg. Robert Lewandowski scored a hat trick and Kingsley Coman added a brace as the leaders battered 16th place Hamburg.

Lewandowski’s 19 goals are good for a tie atop the leaderboard, as he joins Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (More on him after this wild Tweet).

Freiburg 0-3 Borussia Dortmund

Aubameyang struck twice stay atop the Bundesliga leaderboard with 19 goals, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos also scored for third-place BVB. USMNT winger Christian Pulisic made an 8-minute cameo when he came on for Marco Reus late in the match.

RB Leipzig 3-1 Koln

Emil Forsberg scored in the first five minutes and an own goal gave the new boys a 2-0 halftime lead. Timo Werner than restored the two-goal cushion after Yuya Osako had scored Koln’s only goal.

Elsewhere

Wolfsburg 1-2 Werder Bremen — RECAP
Bayer Leverkusen 0-2 Mainz
Darmstadt 1-2 Augsburg
Hertha Berlin 2-0 Eintracht Frankfurt
Ingolstadt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach — 9:30 a.m. EDT Sunday
Schalke vs. Hoffenheim — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 22 16 5 1 54 13 41 8-3-0 8-2-1 53
 RB Leipzig 22 15 3 4 41 22 19 9-1-1 6-2-3 48
 Borussia Dortmund 22 11 7 4 46 23 23 7-3-0 4-4-4 40
 1899 Hoffenheim 21 9 10 2 38 21 17 6-5-0 3-5-2 37
 Hertha BSC Berlin 22 11 4 7 30 24 6 9-1-1 2-3-6 37
 Eintracht Frankfurt 22 10 5 7 25 22 3 6-3-1 4-2-6 35
 1. FC Köln 22 8 9 5 31 22 9 5-5-0 3-4-5 33
 Bayer Leverkusen 22 9 3 10 34 32 2 5-2-5 4-1-5 30
 SC Freiburg 22 9 3 10 28 39 -11 7-0-4 2-3-6 30
 FSV Mainz 05 22 8 4 10 31 37 -6 5-3-3 3-1-7 28
 FC Augsburg 22 7 6 9 21 28 -7 3-3-5 4-3-4 27
 FC Schalke 04 21 7 5 9 25 22 3 6-1-4 1-4-5 26
 Mönchengladbach 21 7 5 9 23 29 -6 5-3-3 2-2-6 26
 VfL Wolfsburg 22 6 4 12 20 33 -13 3-2-7 3-2-5 22
 Werder Bremen 22 6 4 12 28 43 -15 3-1-7 3-3-5 22
 Hamburger SV 22 5 5 12 21 45 -24 3-3-4 2-2-8 20
 FC Ingolstadt 04 21 5 3 13 19 32 -13 2-2-6 3-1-7 18
 Darmstadt 22 3 3 16 15 43 -28 3-3-6 0-0-10 12