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

1 Comment

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.

World Cup expansion will destroy regional qualifying

Getty Images
Leave a comment

On Thursday, FIFA announced a preliminary plan to expand the World Cup to a whopping 48 teams, starting in 2026 if the approval process goes as planned.

Every continental region is gaining slots, with CONCACAF nearly doubling its allotment, Africa adding four teams, and Europe gaining three. 46 teams would make the tournament outright, while another two would come from a six-team playoff.

The early outlook was met with cautious optimism across the soccer community, and there’s no doubt that the World Cup itself would benefit from expansion, with not only a significantly increased revenue stream for the FIFA brass to gawk at, but also viewers will gain from added entertainment, a la March Madness as smaller countries gain access to opportunities to shock larger nations in front of a grander audience.

[ MORE: FIFA announces World Cup expansion details ]

Despite the obvious gains, what gets completely and utterly dismantled is the qualification stage. In exchange for a month of tournament-style wackiness, not only does making the World Cup completely lose any remaining pedigree, but the qualification stage becomes an afterthought for continental powerhouses.

This particularly applies to CONCACAF, where currently the final round of qualification features a six-team round-robin. The way it stands currently, the usual bunch can often overcome minor slips to qualify on a regular basis, but as we’re seeing with the United States, at least things are interesting for the opening few rounds and questions often remain throughout the entire process. Just last cycle, we saw Mexico qualify thanks to the United States’ generosity with a last-second goal against Panama to send their southern neighbors through. Bottom line: it’s not always easy.

Now, with the new system, a massive total of six teams will make the finals, leaving almost no doubt about the fates of those at the top. Mexico and the United States will be shoo-ins, leaving the qualification process a near-afterthought. Sure, countries that don’t always see the final rounds will now have an increased shot, and that’s a great development for the growth of the game worldwide, but it comes at a great price. Now, instead of the ability to lure casual World Cup-only fans with meaningful games between tournaments, national teams will be left with a shell of the old qualification process to slog through.

Looking to Europe, already teams like France, Spain, and Germany are running away with their groups in the current format. Add three more slots to the mix, and even the next tier of countries like England, Poland, and Italy will be given near-automatic spots. Group G currently sees Spain and Italy battling for the automatic berth, with the runner-up left with a chance at disappointment in a one-game playoff. Now, with the new system, the life is sucked from the process, and teams are left with glorified friendlies.

In South America, four (usually five) teams make the tournament. That often leaves a top team sweating it out near the end of the cycle, with Argentina currently tugging at its collar having slipped in recent qualifiers. Add two more automatic slots, and you can kiss the drama goodbye. As it stands, Argentina – despite three losses in its last five matches – would still be four points clear of danger.

tl;dr version: It’s no fun anymore.

Nobody is surprised by FIFA’s pursuit of yet another way to increase revenue; we’ve seen it countless times before. Unfortunately, the price is high, as the 3-1/2 years between would entirely fall apart.

Preview of every Premier League game – Week 30

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It’s back! The Premier League returns after the final international break of the 2016-17 season and the run-in has begun.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With a massive clash between Arsenal and Manchester City on Sunday, plus the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton on Saturday and tricky tests for Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, plenty of the big boys could drop points this weekend.

[ MORE: PL schedule | Standings

Below is a look at all 10 games with team news, top things to watch and a score prediction for each encounter.


Southampton vs. Bournemouth

Liverpool vs. Everton

Arsenal vs. Manchester City

Burnley vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace

Manchester United vs. West Brom

Hull City vs. West Ham

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough

Leicester City vs. Stoke City

Watford vs. Sunderland

Ilkay Gundogan impressed by US progress

1 Comment

Manchester City and Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has been sharing Manchester City’s mantra in the USA recently.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

With City announcing the schedule for their U.S. tour this summer, Gundogan’s long-term knee injury meant he was able to travel Stateside and work on his rehab while he also checked out New York City, promoted City’s upcoming tour, hung out in the studio with the NBC Sports crew — see the video above as Gundogan talks tactics with Robbie Earle — and also took in some MLS action.

He was a busy, busy man.

[ MORE: PL giants announce US tour dates

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk after his trip, the 26-year-old midfielder is excited about returning to the States this summer with his teammates as they face Real Madrid in LA, Tottenham Hotspur in Nashville and arch rivals Manchester United in preseason games.

“This preseason will be really important for the club, and it was also a privilege to represent the club and help launch our summer tour of the USA,” Gundogan said. “We are due to play some amazing games against Spurs, Real Madrid and also the derby with Manchester United. It’s a great chance to see some more USA cities and culture, and the players will be delighted to be out there in some good weather in some amazing stadiums, in order to prepare for the season.”

Gundogan was a key part of Pep Guardiola‘s rebuild of City last summer but the former Borussia Dortmund star suffered a season-ending injury in December. He is well on the road to recovery and has had a close friend throughout the last few weeks of his rehab.

Joining him on his trip to the U.S. was fellow City teammate Gabriel Jesus — the 19-year-old Brazilian striker is recovering from a broken metatarsal — and the duo enjoyed hanging out in New York City to give themselves a break from the day-to-day grind in the gym.

“The hospitality in New York was brilliant, and the overall trip was a great way for Gabriel and myself to combine our rehabilitation in the gym with some marketing and community work for the club,” Gundogan explained. “We took in some U.S. sports by visiting games at New York City FC, the Brookyln Nets and New York Rangers, and also did some sightseeing around New York. I enjoyed seeing the Manchester City billboard advert in Times Square with our photo on it! And watching Germany beat England in a New York bar in Manhattan was also an experience…”

One of the advantages of visiting the Big Apple was the fact that City’s stars could spend some time with sister club New York City FC and Gundogan and Gabriel had the chance to meet with NYCFC boss Patrick Vieira, with the German taking a keen interest in how the game is developing in the USA.

“Gabriel and I went for dinner with Patrick Vieira and we heard all about how well he is enjoying coaching New York City FC. And we saw the NYCFC game against Montreal, and it was incredible to witness the passion for the club there at Yankee Stadium,” Gundogan said. “There is no doubt that soccer is on an upward curve in the USA, and its very interesting to see it developing. The passion for sport is evident, the facilities are incredible, and they have all the ingredients for soccer to continue to improve.”

Overall, the trip was a great way for the silky midfielder to taste the U.S. before a big summer Stateside for City and MLS had a lasting impression on the German star who is hopeful that soccer will continue to grow and progress.

“We do get to see MLS games over in Europe now and then, and there is an increased focus on it at Manchester City, given our colleagues in New York play in that league,” Gundogan said. “It was great to see it in the flesh at Yankee Stadium last week and I’ll definitely be paying a closer attention to it in future. I certainly think it has a great potential. There are some great players in the league, both from at home and also the stars coming from elsewhere around the globe like Andrea Pirlo and David Villa. The standard is improving all the time.”

Two months to go: What’s ahead for each Premier League club?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The sun is shinning in England this week as we head into April and there are just nine gameweek’s remaining in the Premier League. Can you believe it?

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

After a long winter, the business end of the season is here and there’s still so much on the line when it comes to the top four race, relegation battle and maybe, just maybe, Chelsea will start to wobble as the edge closer to the title…

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings |  Schedule

Let’s have some fun by summing up what lies ahead in the final two months of the season for each club in a single sentence. With no more international breaks to negotiate, we are entering the home-stretch of the 2016-17 campaign.

Ready? Here it goes.


Arsenal – Uncertainty in the air, Arsene Wenger‘s side have to regroup to secure a top four finish and try to win the FA Cup with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil putting their contract issues aside and leading the way.

Bournemouth – Should be a stroll in the South Coast sun for the Cherries in the final few months of the season as Eddie Howe‘s side have picked up back-to-back wins and should be clear of relegation and able to express themselves.

Burnley – Well on course to retain their status as a Premier League club for the first time in history, Sean Dyche‘s side will hunt their first away win of the season and look to cause a few more shocks at home with relegation no longer a lingering fear.

Chelsea – All about the title for Chelsea as Antonio Conte‘s men can wrap things up before the end of April if other results go their way, plus the double is still up for grabs as Conte looks to cap off his first season in England in style.

Crystal PalaceSam Allardyce the survival expert is at it again with three-straight shutout wins as he’s sorted out Palace’s defense but knows a huge challenge is ahead with all of the top six teams still to play.

Everton – The Toffees have top four aspirations and are the in-form team in the Premier League in 2017 as Ronald Koeman hopes Romelu Lukaku‘s goals can fire Everton to an unlikely top six finish.

Hull City – Survival is the key for the Tigers as Marco Silva’s men battle against all the odds to remain in the Premier League and they have a real fighting chance with some big games against relegation rivals still remaining.

Leicester City – After three-straight wins new manager Craig Shakespeare will look to secure Leicester’s PL status as soon as possible and then all the focus is on Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals… surely they can’t make the UCL’s last four?

LiverpoolJurgen Klopp‘s preseason target of finishing in the top four is well within reach but you get the lingering sense that Liverpool’s fans are getting nervous as clashes with bottom half teams proving tricky all season long.

Manchester City – Top four finish (by no means a guarantee) and an FA Cup victory would be a decent first season for Pep Guardiola at City but after spending so much money there’s a feeling that better things are to come next season.

Manchester United – All the focus is on somehow qualifying for the Champions League next season, be that with a top four finish or winning the Europa League as Jose Mourinho’s injury-hit squad will be under intense pressure as the games come thick and fast.

Middlesbrough – The next three weeks will define Boro’s season as they face direct relegation rivals and caretaker boss Steve Agnew simply needs his team to start throwing caution to the wind and score some goals.

Southampton – Saints’ season is in danger of petering out after their Europa League exploits and EFL Cup final defeat as they aren’t close to the relegation zone and can’t finish any higher than eighth place in Claude Puel‘s debut campaign in charge.

Stoke CityMark Hughes‘ Stoke are set for a fourth-straight top 10 finish but making that extra leap to try and challenge the top six is proving so difficult for not only the Potters but a host of well-run teams.

Sunderland – Survival is on the mind of David Moyes‘ side who have spent 91 percent of the campaign in the bottom three and they need Jermain Defoe to keep scoring and for their fans to pray for a miracle…

Swansea City – After picking up big wins when Paul Clement first arrived, the Swans have regressed in recent weeks and they need to win key games against relegation rivals in the run-in before some tough games to finish with.

Tottenham HotspurMauricio Pochettino‘s youngsters believe they can still catch Chelsea and win the Premier League title with a favorable run of games to finish with, but another top four finish would be a great season and adding an FA Cup trophy would be the cherry on top despite their struggles in Europe.

WatfordWalter Mazzarri‘s men have had a really strange season and after losing three of their last four games the Hornets are starting to glance over their shoulders a little at the relegation zone with a tough finish to the season coming up.

West Brom – A phenomenal season so far for the Baggies as they aim to reach 50 points in a single season for the first time in club history and Tony Pulis‘ men will look to upset Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in the process.

West HamSlaven Bilic and the Hammers probably can’t wait for this season to end but there’s still a very good chance they can finish in the top 10 with a favorable run-in giving them a chance to salvage a season riddled by injuries, the move to a new stadium and losing Dimitri Payet.