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)

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.