China v United States

NWSL Game of the Week: Sky Blue FC vs. FC Kansas City

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source:  Sky Blue FC, currently atop the NWSL’s standings, just finished the league’s most impressive road trip of the season, the New Jersey-based club taking six points during last week’s tour of Cascadia. At JELD-WEN on Thursday, Jim Gabarra’s team handed the previously unbeaten Thorns a 1-0 defeat. Three days later, a 3-0 win in Seattle left Sky Blue with a 5-1-1 record, making them the surprise pace-setters of the nascent women’s league.

On Saturday, the league-leaders visit one of the preseason favorites, FC Kansas City – one of four teams sitting on one loss. Coming off a 2-0 victory over the previously unbeaten Boston Breakers, the Blues’ form has them on top of ProSoccerTalk’s power rankings, even though they sit third in the league’s standings.

Kicking off at 8:35 p.m. Eastern at Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kan., Sky Blue’s visit to FCKC this week’s ProSoccerTalk NWSL Game of the Week (stream).

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Allocation the beginning (not end) of the world

So much of the NWSL’s early attention was defined by January’s national team player allocation. Not only did the process disperse the league’s biggest names among the circuit’s eight clubs, it also gave teams their piece of identity. U.S. national team icons Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo became the faces of their new clubs (Portland, Western New York, and Seattle, respectively.

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

FC Kansas City got Lauren Cheney, one of the league’s most talented players, but they didn’t land one of the big marketing prizes. Instead, the new club were given one of the deepest allocations in league, handing them prominent names at each level of their formation. Their “balance,” a word that constantly comes up from opposing players and coaches, is epitomized not only by a fluid style that stresses freedom and creativity but also their personnel: Nicole Barnhart in goal; Becky Sauerbrunn and Lauren Sesselmann in defense; Desiree Scott at the base of midfield; Cheney as their playmaker; and Renae Cuellar at forward. With those six internationals distributed through the middle of Vlatko Andonovski’s formation, Kansas City has the best spine in the league.

Sky Blue FC’s starter kit wasn’t quite as flushed out. Of the 11 players coach Gabarra’s likely to start on Saturday, only three will be from his allocation: center half Christie Rampone; likely left back Kelley O’Hara; and central midfielder Sophie Schmidt. Instead of spending much of the winter looking for parts to complement a core, Gabarra had to build an entire squad.

In his words:

“It was different [from] in past leagues. With past teams that we put together, we had more input.

I thought we were fortunate in the allocation process, and then you had to go about it in a step-by-step process and do the best you could. I was fortunate to get some good, quality pieces to go along with them … It says a lot about the other players that we did get to sign and their commitment and their hard work in our success so far.”

Those pieces include two Australian internationals (Lisa De Vanna, Caitlin Foord), two other veteran free agents (Danesha Adams, Manya Makoski), one college draftee (Kendall Johnson) and three Supplemental Draft selections (Brittany Cameron, Katy Freels, CoCo Goodson). They’re the eight players that will join Rampone, O’Hara, and Schmidt in Saturday’s lineup, an XI which, having posted three straight shutouts, are proving player allocation isn’t the be-all, end-all in the league’s first season.

Teams like FC Kansas City and Portland were clearly fortunate in January’s dispersal, but with a 5-1-1 record, Sky Blue have shown no team has to be defined by its stars. Right now, Jim Gabarra’s making new stars.

source: Getty Images2. Time Desiree Scott stopped being “unsung”

“I’ve come to love my new position,” is not what you expect to hear from somebody who’s quickly become a standard-bearer for her role. After all, if you’re new to a position, you probably haven’t gathered the years of expertise it usually takes to be the best at your spot. Yet when you’re talking about destroyers – players at the base of midfield tasked with breaking up opposition attacks – no one’s better than Kansas City’s Desiree Scott, a Canadian international who’s only been playing defensive midfield for a couple of years.

All it took was a new set of eyes to set Scott’s career in motion. Those eyes came to Canada two years ago.

“When John Herdman came into the national team, I was actually playing an outside winger,” Scott recalls of her time under Herdman’s processor, Carolina Morace. “I wasn’t getting a lot of playing time. Then he found this defensive, holding midfield (role), and I’ve come to really find this is where I shine.

“It’s a position I’m meant to be [in]. I like to really shut down the opposition’s transition and be the player people look to stop those things. I would like to be a little more offensive, but can’t get all we want all the time.”

That’s one of Scott’s main goals – improving her contribution going forward, a desire that coincides with an area in KC’s game where Andonovski would like to see improvement. Although Kansas City has done a good job of controlling possession and deciding how their games are played, their coach would like to see more of that possession in the final third. For Scott, that means not only winning balls in midfield or picking the ball up off the defense. She needs to evolve into a player who can, in her words, “dictate the pace and try to find players in dangerous places.”

Even before that’s developed, Scott is one of FC Kansas City’s most valuable pieces. Here’s Andonovski, asked to describe Scott’s importance:

Desiree Scott is probably one of the key players on our team (given) as attacking as we want to play, with our two outside backs pushing forward as high as the 18-yard box, and both of them at the same time.

Desiree Scott really reads and understands the game so well. She covers every inch the open field, especially when those two outside backs are up. Not only does she cover (the space), she covers it very well. She’s always successful in those 50-50 tackles and stops a lot of the attacks. She also stops all the balls that are going toward the opponents’ forwards. She’s a key element in our team, and she does her role extremely well.

On Saturday, Scott will be operating where Sky Blue’s most dangerous: between Sophie Schmidt and Lisa De Vanna, players who’ve combined for six of the team’s 11 goals. Deliver again, and Scott will not only go a long way to securing KC’s fourth clean sheet in six games, she will take herself out of the running for yet another “unsung hero” award. By now, everybody should be singing the praises of Desiree Scott.

source: Getty Images3. The value of Christie Rampone

Ask Gabarra about his team’s success in Portland, and he’ll say “midfield was really where we won the game,” yet in tracking Alex Morgan’s futile attempts to try to break open the Sky Blue block, Christie Rampone got all the attention. One month shy of her 38th birthday, the U.S. national team captain won the NWSL’s Player of the Week honors, the high point of a three-week stretch where she’s been the league’s best central defender.

“The biggest benefit we have (in defense) is having Christie back there to provide stability, experience and leadership,” Gabarra said of his captain, describing her importance to a defense that often features three rookies. Foord, the starting right back, is only 18 years old. Goodson and Johnson are each 22. At times, Gabarra has dropped U.S. national team left back Kelley O’Hara from her left-wingrole into defense, but most of the time, it’s three kids and the captain.

That dynamic completely changes the demands of job. According to Rampone:

“A lot times, I’m more mentally fatigued in these games rather than physical. (I’m) probably over-talking, shifting and rotating people, just so that they can understand their positions.

I know it’s a young back line. Even in the national team, it takes six months to get a back four all on the same page. Now I’m working with a younger squad and that didn’t have a lot of time (to prepare). For me, it’s just educating as much as I can away from the games, and then during the games, trying to communicate and given them the confidence.

With Rampone on the pitch, Sky Blue has a second coach, somebody who guided the club to a WPS title while serving as a player/interim coach in 2009. Hoping to go into coaching after she retires (which doesn’t appear likely any time soon), Rampone has leveraged that experience while forging one of the league’s best defenses out of inexperienced personnel.

Kansas City, however, represents a whole new challenge. The interchangeability of Lauren Cheney, Kristie Mewis, and Sinead Farrelly – attacking midfielders playing behind Renae Cuellar – will test Sky Blue’s organization and communication. In addition to tracking Cuellar, one of the league’s most efficient strikers, Rampone’s going to have to organize a midfield that will have resist the temptation to be drawn out of position.

“It’s a lot of communicating,” Rampone said, explaining how Sky Blue have to adjust to Kansas City’s movement. “With three players interchanging, changing lines, and changing speed, it’s being mindful of them at all times and trying not to get caught ball-watching.

“When you have players like Lauren Cheney who will commit to running behind the line, making sure that we’re talking to each other, it’s challenging … making sure we’re cutting off players in the passing channel, not chasing – trying not to man mark. They’ll run us all over the place.”

But just as Rampone will be adjusting to the challenges presented by Kansas City, the Blues will adapt to Rampone.

“We’re going to have to make a lot of adjustments, left and right, and try to avoid head-to-head battles with Christie Rampone,” Andonovski said, asked to describe how the Sky Blue defender changes the game. “She’s fast. She’s smart. She’s experienced. She reads the game – everything you would like to have in a defender. The less one-on-one battles with her and the more we have with the other defenders, I would hope we’re going to have a lot of success.”

“A lot” of success may be asking too much. Sky Blue’s given up multiple goals only once this season, though with Kansas City sporting a stingy defense of their own, one goal may be enough. The question is whether Kansas City can succeed where Sky Blue’s last three opponents could not.

QUICK HITS

FC Kansas City Sky Blue FC
Star to Watch Lauren Cheney“She’s just a very technical, smart player. She’s able to read the game while the game’s going on. If a defender’s going to get pulled out, she’s going to take that space … she just moves throughout the game. She probably covers twice the ground that most midfielders do, and she’s just got energy. She’s going to constantly make the effort to get in behind and make her team better.” — Christie Rampone Sophie Schmidt“I was especially impressed with her on the defensive side of the ball against Portland … She showed a lot on the defensive side that wasn’t really expected. The attacking side, I always knew and expected she would contribute and awful lot to our attack. In my mind, that’s always been a given. That’s what we expect of her. If there’s anything she can improve on, it’s the defensive side of it, but she’s been great, on both sides of the ball.” — Jim Gabarra
Still Important Renae Cuellar – “We have to be aware of her runs, because she is slipping in behind. She is finishing her chances. I think she has four goals now … I would say she’s been doing an exceptional job. You can’t let her put you to sleep. She’s going to turn it on at the right time, so we have to be mindful of that.” — Rampone CoCo Goodson“CoCo’s one that’s kind of overlooked … She’s just been incredibly solid – played every minute, has a good presence in the air, has picked up how to defend, and being not the fastest of the four back there, it’s been a real adjustment for her. Christie likes to play a very high line, and there’ve been some adjustments that she’s had to make, and they’ve been seemless. — Gabarra
Win if … … they have success wide against Foord and O’Hara, and are able to get around the block in the middle of Sky Blue’s midfield. … strong defense in front of their back line, particularly from Danesha Adams and Kendall Johnson helping in wide areas, gives Schmidt and De Vanna a chance to steal three points.

OTHER GAMES, WEEK 7

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

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

Mourinho lauds Pogba, Zlatan after EFL Cup triumph

United manager Jose Mourinho applauds during the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Southampton FC at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
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Jose Mourinho knows his side is fortunate to come away with the EFL Cup, and he’s fairly confident who deserves the credit.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored to help Manchester United build a 2-0 lead over Southampton on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, then added the winner in the 87th minute of the Red Devils’ 3-2 win.

[ MORE: Recap | Zlatan reacts | 3 things ]

Mourinho said his “outstanding” legendary striker won the game for United, adding that big buy Paul Pogba was close to the same level.

And while the manager didn’t appear too impressed with the win, admitting that Southampton did not deserve its fate, Mourinho is happy to win. From Sky Sports:

“I’m a bit emotional. It’s not easy to win titles so many times, it’s not easy to cope with the pressure I put myself under all of my career, It was a game I felt was difficult, so credit goes to Southampton. We have the cup in our hands but we should be playing extra-time. Winning is always special. The day I don’t get emotional when I win is the day I go home.”

United is still alive in the FA Cup and the UEFA Europa League, while Mourinho’s men sit sixth in the Premier League table with 48 points. They’ve played one match less than leaders Chelsea, which has 63 points.

Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United scores their third goal during the EFL Cup Final between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Manchester United beat Southampton 3-2 at Wembley on Sunday in a thrilling EFL Cup Final.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s late winner gave Jose Mourinho’s men a largely undeserved victory as the Portuguese manager won his first major trophy as Red Devils boss.

Here’s what we learned from a pulsating, topsy-turvy encounter.


ZLATAN’S THE MAN

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the man for the big occasion.

He scored a superb free kick and a late header to make it two trophies from two trips to Wembley, as he also scored the winner late on against Leicester City in the Community Shield in August.

At the age of 35 he’s defied belief with his 26 goals this season and is showing the world just how good he is. Mourinho said in the week that Zlatan has got better with age and with 26 goals in 38 appearances he continues to look at home in the PL.

He didn’t have his best game, but the big Swede popped up with two vital goals to win the trophy for his team.

Zlatan is a born winner. It’s just what he does.


SLACK UNITED SUCCEED

Somehow Manchester United found themselves 2-0 up against Southampton after 38 minutes. They didn’t deserve it. Not at all. But then again, that’s the sign of a champion.

Southampton should have been 1-0 up after 11 minutes. Cedric cut the ball back from the right flank and Gabbiadini’s goal was chalked out for offside. The Italian striker timed his run to perfection and tapped home. Saints were in dreamland. Well, they should have been. Linesman Stuart Burt put his flag up presumably because he thought Bertrand was interfering with play at the back post. He wasn’t. It was a shocker of a call and ultimately changed the outcome of the game.

Even after going behind to Ibrahimovic’s free kick, Saints did all the pressing. Jesse Lingard put United 2-0 up before the break but United never got a grip on the game as Saints’ wide play bamboozled their full backs. As well as having a perfectly good goal chalked off, Saints also hit the post with Oriol Romeu‘s header in the second half.

Those are the kind of breaks which are going United’s way of late, as they’ve now lost just one game in their past 27 in all competitions.

Mourinho must know his team were lucky to get past Saints and lift the trophy. Then again, he’ll argue that the sign of a true champion is digging out a win when you don’t deserve it.

That’s what he is building.


OFFSIDE DENIES GABBIADINI, SAINTS

Manolo Gabbiadini has scored five goals in his first three games for Southampton after joining from Napoli on Deadline Day in January. He should have had six goals in three games and a hat trick in the EFL Cup Final.

The 25-year-old joined without much fanfare for a fee believed to be around $19 million, with the likes of Everton said to be close to signing him back in the summer. In recent months Gabbiadini felt out of favor at Napoli under manager Maurizio Sarri. Gabbiadini’s goal return hasn’t been too impressive with 25 goals in 76 appearances in the last three seasons.

His movement was sharp throughout and his finishing sublime. Southampton have done some incredible business in the past few years but he may turn out to be the best of the bunch. This defeat was a bitter one for Saints, but if they can continue to buy players of Gabbiadini’s quality then they’ll be fighting for trophies and top 10 finishes for many years to come.

As disappointed as they’ll be, the future is looking bright for Saints.

“My friend, I keep doing it” – Zlatan lifts another Cup

United's Marcos Rojo celebrates with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the ground, at the end of the English League Cup final soccer match between Manchester United and Southampton FC at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. United won 3-2. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has answered every question, including whether his big game prowess extends to England.

The Big Swede scored early and late as Manchester United won the EFL Cup with a 3-2 win over Southampton on Sunday.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 3-2 Southampton ]

Ibrahimovic has won trophies at every stop from Ajax to Old Trafford, and now has given Jose Mourinho the distinction of being the first manager to win the League Cup with two different clubs.

From the BBC:

“This is a team effort. This is what I came for – to win and I am winning. The more I win the more satisfied I get.

“You appreciated it more the older you get. Wherever I have gone I have won. I think this is trophy number 32 for me.

“This is what I predicted. To many I could not do it. My friend, I keep doing it. I’m enjoying it in England.”

He sure is.

Zlatan the hero as Manchester United wins EFL Cup

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United (C) celebrates with Eric Bailly (L) and Paul Pogba (R) as he scores their first goal during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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  • Zlatan opens, closes scoring
  • Mourinho wins first tourney with Utd
  • Lingard scores
  • Gabbiadini with Saints brace

Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose to the occasion at Wembley Stadium, scoring early and late as Manchester United defeated Southampton 3-2 in an instant classic EFL Cup Final on Sunday.

Jesse Lingard also scored as Jose Mourinho became the first manager to win a League Cup with two sides (Chelsea).

Manolo Gabbiadini scored twice as Saints erased a 2-0 deficit in their first final since 1979.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Paul Pogba unleashed a furious shot from 20-plus yards in the 4th minute that Fraser Forster popped away from danger for the match’s first moment of danger.

Saints earned a corner with their first true bit of possession, which came almost exclusively from the dribbling of Nathan Redmond. It led to another corner, which Pogba eventually sent free of trouble.

Poor defending from United from Marcos Rojo nearly put Saints in front, but an incorrectly ruled offside Manolo Gabbiadini put the ball in the goal.

Oriol Romeu earned a yellow card for a late tackle on Ander Herrera, cueing up United for a 19th minute free kick that Ibrahimovic sent home.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Gabbiadini then fed James Ward-Prowse for a strong shot that De Gea did very well to slap away.

Soon after, it was Dusan Tadic‘s turn. Cued up by Redmond, he forced De Gea into another excellent save.

Lingard made it 2-0 before halftime, given plenty of room to position Rojo’s pass for a successful strike.

But Gabbiadini got his goal just before the break, slipping behind Eric Bailly to poke home Saints’ first.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton (20) celebrates as he scores their second goal with Oriol Romeu of Southampton (14) during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The second half began just as lively, with De Gea making a stop on Redmond’s solid effort from inside the 18.

And Saints earned the corner that led to their equalizer moments later, Gabbiadini again the proverbial fox in the box to score on a half turn.

The game had passed the hour mark when Romeu headed a chance off the post.

Pogba and Ibrahimovic presided over another free kick in the 74th minute, but the wall did its job to keep the score 2-2.

Lingard lashed over soon after, and subsequently left the match for Marcus Rashford. Claude Puel also made a move, taking off Dusan Tadic for Sofiane Boufal.

It was fellow sub Shane Long who missed a chance to make it 3-2 when Ryan Bertrand blazed a run down the left to send an inviting ball across goal.

That’s when United won it. Ibrahimovic blazed down the field on a counter attack, but slowed up to let the Red Devils set up shop. Martial found Herrera on the right side of the box, and cross for the noggin of Ibrahimovic, who headed through the hands of Forster.