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)

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.

Wenger called ref Dean “not honest,” “a disgrace” to earn ban

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LONDON (AP) Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger accused a referee of being “not honest” and called him “a disgrace” in a rant inside the match officials’ changing room that led to a three-match touchline ban for one of English soccer’s most experienced coaches.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

The English Football Association published Tuesday the written reasons behind its decision to ban Wenger for being abusive toward referee Mike Dean after Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League on Dec. 31.

In his match report given to the FA, Dean said Wenger “was pointing aggressively at me saying, ‘You’re not honest’ on numerous occasions.” Dean then said Wenger said “you’ve done this to us many times before, you’re supposed to be professional, you’re a disgrace.”

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

Wenger had been incensed at Calum Chambers being penalized for a handball and West Brom converting the resulting penalty to equalize late in the game.

The FA said “there is simply no justification for this behavior” and considered a stadium ban for Wenger.

Wenger was also fined $54,200 for his conduct.

FA Cup: Leicester, West Ham survive replays to reach 4th round

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Two more Premier League sides reached the fourth round of the 2017-18 FA Cup on Tuesday, winning their respective replays and joining 10 other top-flight clubs already through to the next round…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town

Kelechi Iheanacho moved to Leicester from Manchester City for $33 million this summer and has, through his first half-season in the East Midlands, failed to live up to that price tag. In nine PL appearances, he is yet to score his first league goal. Tuesday, however, saw the 21-year-old Nigerian international put forth a bit production and performance more befitting a player of his promise and pedigree.

Manager Claude Puel picked a side consisting of first-team regulars and lesser-used squad players for the Foxes FA Cup third-round replay against League One side Fleetwood Town. It was Iheanacho, who started alongside/just behind target man Islam Slimani, who shown brightest with a pair of goals, in the 43rd and 77th minutes, to send Leicester into the fourth round. Iheanacho’s second, the one that put the game away for Leicester, was originally ruled out for offside, but was eventually after consultation of the video-assistant referee.

Leicester will travel to League One side Peterborough in the fourth round, on Sat. Jan. 27.

[ MORE: Newcastle sale talks collapse — Staveley, not Ashley, out ]

West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town

It took far longer than Hammers fans would have liked — or expected — but West Ham, over the course of 120 minutes, survived the Cupset bid of third-division Shrewsbury Town. With eight minutes remaining before Tuesday’s replay went to penalty kicks at the London Stadium, 21-year-old defender Reece Burke fired home from inside the box to break the scoreless deadlock.

West Ham will be away to the winner of the replay between Bournemouth and Wigan Athletic (Wednesday), on Sat. Jan. 27.

Elsewhere in FA Cup replay action

Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Wednesday’s FA Cup replay schedule

Chelsea vs. Norwich City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Swansea City vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers — 2:45 p.m. ET
Wigan Athletic vs. Bournemouth — 2:45 p.m. ET

Report: Newcastle sale talks between Ashley, Staveley collapse

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Talks between Mike Ashley and Amanda Staveley over the much-desired and -rumored sale of Newcastle United are off, according to a report from Sky Sports and various other UK news outlets.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Sky has quoted a source close to Ashley as having said: “Attempts to reach a deal (with Staveley) have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time.” (Full quote below)

Ashley, the club’s current and long-beleaguered owner, has been seeking a potential buyer since putting the club up for sale back in October. Staveley emerged as the front-runner (the only runner, perhaps) in the days following Ashley’s announcement, and reportedly tabled an offer of $335 million in early December before reportedly offering something closer to $400 million a couple weeks later.

Ashley selling the club — and doing so before the end of the January transfer window, which now appears nigh impossible — appeared to be one the few scenarios in which Rafa Benitez would remain the Magpies’ manager beyond the end of the current Premier League season (Newcastle currently sit 15th, just three points clear of relegation) after constant rumors of his discontent and lack of financial backing last summer.