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Looking back at Week 6 of the NWSL season

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Scheduling-wise, Week 6 was the strangest yet on the NWSL calendar; either a horrible idea that shook up the routine of all but two of the league’s team or a welcome way of breaking up to monotony of the league’s scheduling treadmill. In a competition comprised of only eight teams, two didn’t see action, yet the league still scheduled five games, four taking place in the Pacific Northwest. That meant while Chicago and Western New York were enjoying early-season reprieves, Seattle and Portland were hosting Thursday-Sunday dyads against continent-crossing Sky Blue (New Jersey) and Washington.

Though the games produced the season’s first major surprise, Sky Blue stifling Portland at JELD-WEN for a 1-0 victory, it was Thorns FC’s Cascadia partners, Reign FC, that ultimately stole the week’s headlines. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons. On Thursday, Laura Harvey’s squad became the first team to give up four goals in a game at home, losing 4-2 to what was previously thought to be an attack-challenged Washington Spirit. Three days later, Seattle lost 3-0 to Sky Blue, completing a week that evoked the worst of comparisons.

Before the last year of Women’s Professional Soccer, the Atlanta Beat traded away almost all of their star players, an apparent reaction to a 2011 season that would see most quality internationals spend their summer in Germany, at the World Cup. The argument put forth at the time by head coach James Galanas was that the competition for spots and the resulting continuity would help the Beat overcome their talent deficiencies. Atlanta went on to score seven goals in 18 games, lose 13 times, and finish last, 12 points behind their closest competition.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Thur., May 16 Seattle 2-4 Washington
Thur., May 16 Portland 0-1 Sky Blue
Sat., May 17 Kansas City 2-0 Boston
Sun., May 18 Portland 2-0 Washington
Sun., May 18 Seattle 0-3 Sky Blue FC

The Beat, however, have one thing the Reign do not: A win. Through seven games, Seattle is 0-6-1. They’ve allowed a staggering 15 goals while scoring only four times, and after being outscored 7-2 last week, the trend line’s about to hit rock bottom. All six of their losses have come in succession, and in five of those games, Seattle has given up at least two goals.

Megan Rapinoe will be back from Lyon in a month. Hope Solo will be there, too. Once those U.S. internationals join the team, Seattle actually has a decent squad on paper, one that complements their two most-prominent faces with Jess Fishlock, Keelin Winters, Teresa Noyola (one of the few sparks this week), and Christine Nairn. As Harvey and owner Bill Predmore search for solutions to their present, they can take some solace in their future.

Unfortunately, Seattle’s two big names may arrive too late. Thoguht Reign FC are only six points back of the playoff line (fourth place), the two teams sitting on that boundary – Boston and Western New York – have both played two fewer games. As the league quickly sprints away from its quarter pole, Seattle’s hole may already be too big.

Here’s what else happened in Week 6:

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

On paper, the team has little that stands out, especially with U.S. international Kelley O’Hara struggling to have an impact for Sky Blue FC. But in their organization at the back, the rotations of their midfielders and attackers, and the play of their two young fullbacks, you see SBFC coach Jim Gabarra has amassed a team that’s fulfilling that old-timey cliché. Right now, Sky Blue is greater than the sum of its parts.

They’re also 5-1-1 and, thanks to their new tiebreaker advantage over Thorns FC, the surprise leaders in the NWSL. That advantage was earned late Thursday night when a gruff display in Portland was blown open by substitute Taylor Lytle, whose first NWSL goal came from 24 yards in the 80th minute, sending Portland to their first defeat of the season.

Combined with a rout at Seattle (a more impressive performance, though a less notable outcome), Sky Blue collected six validating points. While you can look at a team that lacks game-breaking talent and is getting relatively little production from its attackers (O’Hara, Lisa De Vanna, Danesha Adams combining for three goals), their results are beyond reproach. They’re tied for the league’s best attack, and only one team has conceded fewer than Sky Blue’s four goals allowed.

The explanations aren’t easy, but it’s happening, and at some point, you have to give Gabarra credit. You have to credit a back four that’s rebounded from their May 1 loss at Western New York. You have to credit a midfield which has supplied six of the team’s goals.

And at some point, we have to stop doubting Sky Blue. Or, at least, we have to start imagining this team as more than a plucky upstart that could snatch a playoff spot. When they post results like last week’s, we have to start asking: Are we seeing a contender?

MVP … OF THE WEEK

There have been many ‘Ali Krieger is back’ moments since the U.S. international blew out her knee during in January 2012. There was her return to live action with Frankfurt II on September 2. There was her first team appearance a week later, and five months later, there was her return to the U.S. women’s national team.

source: Getty ImagesAt various points along the way, fans have used “she’s back” to claimed she’s returned to her former form, but if there were scarce, lingering doubts as to whether the 28-year-old right back had fully returned, she blew those out of the water last week.

In Seattle, Krieger scored her first goal of the season, charging through the Reign defense on a Lori Lindsey free kick to put home the rebound. It was part of a performance that has become customary in Mike Jorden’s set up. Playing a wing back’s role in a fullback’s spot, Krieger teamed with Diana Matheson to torment Seattle’s left flank, a tactic Washington’s leaned on against each of its recent opponents.

In Portland, that plan was on full display. In a first half that saw the Spirit dictate the game’s terms, Krieger constantly took advantage of Thorns FC’s narrow midfield, switches to her side allowing her to gain steam as she charged past Allie Long before beating Portland left back Nikki Marshall. Multiple times, she was able to get in crosses for Tiffany McCarty and Stephanie Ochs. Multiple times, she was able to threaten Karina LeBlanc’s goal from the right side of the box.

In this league, you don’t see many fullbacks who can provide a credible, consistent threat going forward. Krieger is not only one of them, she’s somebody Washington has come to lean on. And in Week 6, her performance in that role made her the NWSL’s best player.

Also of note: Never aging Christie Rampone has put together four strong games in a row; Caitlin Foord was a part of two shutouts and created a nice goal against Seattle; Lauren Cheney continues to play the No. 10 role better than anybody in the league; obligatory mention of Christine Sinclair, this time for one of the week’s most skillful goals (as well as her contributions at the top of midfield); oh, poor Jess Fishlock; and don’t forget our unsung hero, below.

ROUND’S BIG STORY

With the U.S. national team set to face Canada on June 2, some team’s rosters are going to get real thin, real quick. The United States are scheduled to play three times between June 2 and June 20, while Canada has two friendlies in that time. Given some teams are leaning heavily on the countries’ allocated players, early June will test the league’s depth.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Diana Matheson (WAS) 4 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 3
Sophie Schmidt (SBFC) 4 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 3
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 4 5 tied with 2
Alex Morgan (PTFC) 4
Renae Cuellar (FCKC) 4

So coaches can’t be thrilled that, a week before players start leaving for national team camps, injuries are starting to take their toll:

  • Sky Blue FC saw Brittany Bock, out since the season opener, leave Sunday’s game after five minutes after apparently breaking her left wrist. She had just recovered from a rib injury. Goalkeeper Jill Loyden still hasn’t played a game, recovering from a broken hand, while Lisa De Vanna picked up a knock late in Seattle.
  • FC Kansas City were forced to scratch WPS iron women Becky Sauerbrunn for Saturday’s win over Boston with what was reported as a hamstring injury. Late in the match, center back partner Lauren Sesselmann picked up a right ankle injury and was forced from the game.
  • For Washington, Ashlyn Harris was kept out of Sunday’s game for what was originally identified as a “coach’s decision.” Later the Spirit clarified, saying the U.S. international failed a late fitness test.
  • And in Seattle, where defenders Kate Dienes and Elli Reed had joined Hope Solo as injury absences, Keelin Winters is still not fully healthy after suffering an ankle injury 12 days ago in New Jersey. She may have hurt her shoulder late Sunday, compounding troubles for a team that will miss Jenny Ruiz in their next match after the defender picked up the league’s first red card.

Portland and Boston were able to escape this week’s action without any additional injuries (the Breakers got their share out of the way in preseason). Chicago and Western New York? If they have new injuries, we won’t know the extent until Friday.

For the league’s other four teams, though, the season’s stresses are starting to be felt. Unfortunately, they may need to get healthy before next week, when their rosters will really be thinned out.

UNSUNG HERO

source:  It says something about the lack of awareness of Canadian internationals that this, a section designed to shine light on a player casual fans may not know, has turned into a tribute to CONCACAF’s second power. It also says something about the quality the Canadians have brought to this league that Sophie Schmidt, Diana Matheson, and Desiree Scott have already been honored in this space.

Desiree Scott, however, deserves further recognition. As far as pure destroyers at the base of midfield, there’s nobody better than the diminutive Canadian, somebody whose job became more difficult on Saturday when partner Jen Buczkowski was moved into central defense. Scott, however, didn’t miss a beat, wandering midfield slightly less than she would have were Buczkowski next to her, instead protecting Vlatko Andonvoski’s makeshift defense. Making like difficult for Lianne Sanderson and the Breakers’ attack, Scott helped turn around the Blues’ slow start and keep one of the league’s deepest attacks off the scoresheet. FC Kansas City went on to win, 2-0.

Depending on what you want from a sitter, you might prefer another NWSL deep midfielder to Scott. If you like more of a holder, somebody who can act as a pivot, Portland’s Becky Edwards is probably your woman. Like more of a box-to-box profile? Maybe Lori Lindsey’s your choice. If you want a versatile, all-arounder, Keelin Winters is an option.

But if you’re looking for a pure destroyer – somebody who can imitate a Claude Makelélé in more than just relative stature – there’s no question who best fits that profile. Desiree Scott is one of the keys to a K.C. team that’s kept three clean sheets in five games. On Saturday, with their captain and best defender (Sauerbrunn) on the sideline, Scott played the most important role in the Blues’ shutout of Boston.

At some point, Desiree Scott becomes so good and so acknowledged, she can no longer be ‘unsung.’ But we’re not at that point. Today, a few people will click on this post and read about her for the first time. But in the future, hopefully the near future, her quality will be old news.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 5 Sky Blue 7 16 +7
2 2 Portland 7 16 +7
3 1 Kansas City 5 10 +4
4 3 Boston 5 8 +2
5 4 W. New York 5 7 +0
6 6 Washington 7 6 -2
7 7 Chicago 5 2 -7
8 8 Seattle 7 1 -11

LINGERING QUESTIONS

Can Sophie Schmidt keep making up for her forwards’ lack of production? … Will Sunday’s win continue to mask Portland’s problems connecting Edwards to Sinclair? … Will Kansas City be able to hold on when they lose six starters next week? … Is Sydney Leroux wearing down? … Can Washington’s attack sustain this output? … How often does Laura Harvey dream of London?

LOOKING FORWARD

The NWSL returns to business as usual in Week 7: eight teams; all active; each playing once. While Portland’s first visit to Seattle will draw the attention of the those hoping for a rivalry atmosphere, the ProSoccerTalk Game of the Week will take place in Overland Park, where FC Kansas City, number one in our rankings, takes on the league’s number one – Sky Blue FC.

Friday, May 24
Western New York vs. Chicago Red Stars

Saturday, May 25
Boston Breakers vs. Washington Spirit
Seattle Reign FC vs. Portland Thorns FC
FC Kansas City vs. Sky Blue FC

Copa America trip helped convince Lodeiro of Sounders move

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 22: Nicolas Lodeiro #10 of the Seattle Sounders gets control of the ball during a match against the Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals at CenturyLink Field on November 22, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders won the match 2-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Nicolas Loderio is getting set to play in the MLS Cup finals, something that only came to pass with a team visit to the United States, and the assistance of Luis Suarez.

According to Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, he spoke with Lodeiro often in his attempts to bring the 27-year-old from Boca Juniors to Major League Soccer. The moment that swayed him was a trip to the US. A business trip.

With Uruguay competing in the Copa America Centenario, it allowed the two to speak more frequently, but when the Uruguayan became frustrated with his own handle of the native language, a friend stepped in to help. He asked national teammate Suarez to help translate, and thus the transfer came to pass.

“You don’t have body language, it’s harder than it is straight to the face and so he just got frustrated that he couldn’t understand everything that I’m saying,” Lagerwey told MLSSoccer.com’s radio show. “And so he says, ‘Hold on, speak to my friend,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and I have no idea what’s happening. And Luis Suarez gets on and says, ‘Hi, this is Luis Suarez, how are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Morning, Mr. Suarez, how are you?’ And he was our translator.”

Lodiero has been a revelation for the Sounders since joining in the summer. A creative force all season, the Uruguayan has scored four goals in five playoff matches, bursting onto the national scene on the biggest stage.

“It was just funny. Nico and I, we talked fairly regularly during the process, in part because it took four months for the thing to play out,”  “And he was in the US for the Copa America with Uruguay, obviously, and in hindsight that ended up being a big deciding factor for him, because he brought his wife and his little son and they got to see America and I think liked it and developed a comfort level with it. And I think that’s what ultimately pushed them to make the leap, but I was talking and Nico’s English is actually pretty, pretty good, but he isn’t always so comfortable on the phone.”

With over 50 caps for the national team, Lodeiro is a well-known presence with the Barcelona striker and his other national teammates. The two have hooked up on the field as well, with Suarez assisting Lodeiro’s fourth national team goal back in October.

Zidane’s Madrid on cusp of setting new unbeaten record

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid looks on during the La Liga  match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Zinedine Zidane is one match away from coaching Real Madrid to a new unbeaten record.

When Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez midway through last season, the inexperienced former midfield standout got off to an auspicious start with a 5-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

Eleven months and one Champions League title later, Madrid faces Deportivo again at home on Saturday with the chance of surpassing its longest unbeaten run since the club was founded in 1902.

On Wednesday, Madrid equaled a club record of 34 games without a loss set in 1989 under coach Leo Beenhakker when it drew 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund.

“It’s important to continue to make history and continue our good run,” Zidane said after the match. “I don’t think it’s very important for me to leave my mark. What interests me the most is to continue with this great run that we’re on.”

Last season, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez tapped Zidane to take over a struggling team, the decision smelled of desperation.

A fan favorite from his playing days as part of Madrid’s “galaticos” bunch, Zidane was promoted from coaching the reserve team to take over a side that was lurching from one embarrassing episode to the next.

Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign had started with Perez flubbing his play to sign away Manchester United goalie David De Gea. The team was then disqualified from the Copa de Rey for fielding an illegible player, and it endured a 4-0 defeat from Barcelona at home as it failed to click with Benitez.

Perez needed to make an impact move. But instead of searching for a veteran manager, he charged the unproven Zidane with turning around Madrid’s group of talented underachievers.

At first, the team remained erratic, and even looked set to bow out of the Champions League after a shocking 2-0 loss at German side Wolfsburg.

But that defeat on April 6 proved to be a catalyst. The team hasn’t lost since, recovering to claim its 11th European Cup and almost nip Barcelona for the Spanish league crown, before roaring out to lead la Liga this season.

Zidane, whose top-tier coaching experience had been limited to his stint as an assistant under Carlo Ancelotti, has now reached the half-century mark as head manager. During that 50-match period, he has overseen 37 wins, 11 draws and only two losses. That other loss came at Atletico Madrid in February.

“The players have to be congratulated. They’re the ones out on the pitch, it’s them who run, fight and dig in,” Zidane said. “We also have to thank the fans, who always get behind the team and support us. They’ve got to take some credit for what the team is achieving”.

Gifted with world-class stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, Zidane focused on getting more from Madrid’s supporting cast. He put a new emphasis on defense in his midfield by favoring Mateo Kovacic and Casemiro over flashier playmakers James Rodriguez and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, and he has helped the little-known Lucas Vazquez blossom into an important piece of its attack.

“(Zidane) has gotten us to work hard and for things to go well for us, and that is paying off with this run of 34 unbeaten games,” defender Dani Carvajal said. “Everyone on the team has words of praise for him.”

Whereas the draw with Dortmund was disappointing because it cost Madrid a first-place finish in its Champions League group, its 1-1 stalemate earned last weekend at Barcelona tasted of victory. The “clasico” draw kept Madrid six points clear of Barcelona at the top of the Spanish table.

After it plays Deportivo, Madrid heads to Japan for the Club World Cup.

If Zidane sets the new club mark, his next goal would be the milestone held by Barcelona under counterpart Luis Enrique, whose 39-game unbeaten run was ended by Madrid last April.

Top 5 Premier League storylines for Week 15: Chelsea top, Leicester tested

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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This weekend is absolutely critical for the Premier League. Last time out, the top of the table kept pace and little changed. This time around, there is danger lurking for much of the top. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs all have difficult tests, but can Tony Pulis be the one to pin Chelsea back?

Spurs and Manchester United 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com) meet with both teams clawing for scraps from those above them. These two teams very well could be battling it out for a final Champions League place at the end of the season, meaning this matchup could go a long way in building a true gap in the table.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho failing to adapt at Manchester United ]

The bottom of the table is fascinating as well. Bob Bradley has his biggest chance yet to pull the Swans off the bottom against Sunderland amid the noise, while Hull City and Crystal Palace have a key meeting.

1. Moving day for Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Brom — 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

Chelsea is in the best form of any Premier League team in years. Their clean sheet streak predictably ended two games ago, but it hasn’t stopped the Blues’ fine run. They’ve won eight in a row and look impossible to stop. Can Pulis-ball keep the Blues at bay? They’re three points on top of the table, and another win would likely give them even more space considering tough matches for the other top teams.

2. Any magic left in the tank for Leicester City?

Leicester City vs. Manchester City — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

The Foxes topped their Champions League group, but things continue to look more and more bleak in league play. Claudio Raneiri admitted they’re in a relegation battle with the Foxes just two points above the drop. But we’ve learned not to count this team out already, and a win against Pep Guardiola‘s stumbling team could be more than just three points.

Speaking of Manchester City, Pep was pipped by fellow first-time Premier League manager Antonio Conte last weekend, and then held to a 1-1 draw with Celtic in midweek Champions League action. However, City has taken care of business so far this season against weaker opponents, and the Foxes certainly seem to be just that at this point.

Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

3. Will Arsenal stumble against Stoke?

Arsenal vs. Stoke City — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

For all the heat the Gunners have (unfairly?) taken this season, Alexis Sanchez has them just three points off the top. For Arsenal to still be one game off Chelsea despite the Blues’ fabulous run is somewhat remarkable, and for them to have thus far weathered the storm, it would be truly something to see them capitalize on a slip-up from Conte.

[ MORE: Sanchez among Premier League’s best 5 players ]

However, Stoke has been here before. The Potters have conceded just three goals in their last seven matches, including a pair with clean sheets; if anyone can stop Sanchez’s amazing form, it’s the Mark Hughes and the defensively stout Potters. A win for Stoke could potentially see them jump as high as sixth, could they go on the road and halt the Gunners? It’s possible, but a 315-minute shutout streak vs. Stoke for Arsenal puts things squarely in Arsene Wenger‘s favor before kickoff.

4. Bob Bradley’s golden opportunity

Swansea City vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

Bob Bradley has taken plenty of flak at Swansea City, and rightly so. Since his anointment as the first American manager in England’s top flight, the Swans have picked up just five points and still sit bottom of the table, two points back of anyone else. But to be fair, the competition has been tough. The four losses since his appointment have come against Arsenal, Stoke City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, and he picked up a pair of points against 8th placed Everton and 11th placed Watford. Now is his chance to pick the Swans off the bottom with a win against those directly above him.

[ RELATED: Swansea issues vote of confidence for Bob Bradley ]

Sunderland visits Wales sitting in 18th, and should Swansea win, they would jump above the Black Cats. The task is no given, however, with Sunderland owning three wins in its last four, meaning they’ve picked up nine of their 11 total points in the last month. Bradley fended off much criticism the past week, and if he’s going to silence those calls for his job after just two months, this is a must-win.

5. West Ham finishes gauntlet stretch

Liverpool vs. West Ham United — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

The Hammers are in the midst of a brutal run of matches where they have just two points, putting them a single point above the relegation zone. The teams they’ve played? Everton, Stoke City, Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal. Yikes. And yet, if West Ham aspire to the heights they reached last season, Slaven Bilic will expect better. Can the Hammers get a result against the high-flying Reds? Liverpool sits four points off the top, but goalkeeper Loris Karius was exposed last week in the stunning Bournemouth comeback, and it’s possible that disappointment leaves a lasting impact. Who will prevail?

FA bans Leeds owner Massimo Cellino 18 months

LEEDS, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Massimo Cellino President and Director of Leeds United during the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on December 13, 2014 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Leeds United may be making a push to return to the Premier League, but they’ll have to do so without their owner.

Massimo Cellino, who took over Leeds in February of 2014, has been banned for 18 months by the English FA for his involvement in the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham later that summer. He was also fined $315,000 and required to complete a course outlining the duties and restrictions for owners in the English league.

During McCormack’s sale, a significant payment was apparently paid to unlicensed agent Barry Hughes, facilitated by McCormack’s official licensed agent Derek Day, who was also banned for 18 months, although 11 of those are suspended, leaving him sidelined for seven months should no other infractions arise.

This likely will only serve to accelerate the current potential sale of Leeds to Andrea Radrizzani, with both sides having publicly acknowledged discussions are ongoing.

Leeds is currently in fourth in the Championship table, having won five of their last six matches. McCormack, meanwhile, scoring a whopping 42 goals in 100 appearances over two years before making a big-money move to Aston Villa this past summer, where he has slumped at Villa Park, owning just two goals over 13 Championship appearances this season and losing his place in the team. To be fair, he struggled in his early days at Fulham as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 matches before exploding in his second season at Craven Cottage with 21 league goals.