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Looking back at Week 7 of the NWSL Season

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In this infancy before the competition can cultivate its own stars, the NWSL has been defined by those renowned talents the U.S. and Canada are paying to be in the league. So it’s perhaps apt that, days before those talents left to join their national teams, two of The N’s biggest names snared weekend headlines

The good came in Seattle, where Hope Solo’s early return from wrist surgery captivated hardcore U.S. Women’s National Team fans. Buoyed by their icon’s returned, Reign FC gave one of their most complete performances of the season, avoiding the type of in-game collapses that saw them enter Week 7 with a six-match losing streak. Unfortunately, an officiating error intervened to ruin Solo’s return, with Reign FC left to embrace a moral victory while their losing ways continue.

The bad news came in Boston, where Lisa Cole picked a team without attacking star Sydney Leroux. After the game, the Breakers’ coach alluded to a “bazillion” reasons why Leroux was held out, but having pulled the international off late the previous week in Kansas City, it was clear this might may have been a performance-related decision. From the outside, this looks like an attempted attitude adjustment, with Cole using an old coaching standard to send a message to one of her biggest stars.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Fri., May 24 W. New York 2-1 Chicago
Sat., May 25 Boston 3-0 Washington
Sat., May 25 Kansas City 0-1 Sky Blue FC
Sat., May 25 Seattle 0-1 Portland

Any time you bench a talent like Leroux, you’re taking a risk, yet Cole was vindicated in Somerville, with Boston’s win keeping the Breakers among the league’s one-loss teams. With Sky Blue and Portland also winning, the league has a small caste of near-unbeaten teams at the head of its standings. Right on their heels, Western New York finished a perfect May with a Friday win over Chicago.

Here’s what else happened in Week 7:

TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

For the second time this season, Boston routed a team at Dilboy Stadium, pasting a 3-0 result on Washington that could have been much worse. Late, with the game already decided, Katie Schoepfer drew a penalty that should have made it a four-goal game, but perhaps still smarting from being takendown, the Breakers striker left a thigh-high try within reach of Chantel Jones, a relatively easy ball to keep out.

source:  But nobody’s going to remember the penalty kick. What they’ll remember is the lofted ball that led to Heather O’Reilly’s opener. They’ll remember the easy finish Schoepfer had for the second. They’ll especially remember the blistering shot Kyah Simon put in the far side netting from the right of the box, deflating the already demoralized Spirit.

The league didn’t need Boston to show off the depth of their attack, but with Leroux riding the pine, that’s exactly when happened. Mike Jorden was undoubtedly disappointed with a poor performance from his defense, but as Chicago found out while giving up four to Boston on May 4, the Breakers can explode on anybody who takes a disorganized defense into Dilboy.

With 11 goals in six games, Boston has the best attack in the league (goals per game). And rebounding off their 2-0 loss in Kansas City, the Breakers showed they still need to be considered among the league’s elite.

MVP … OF THE WEEK

source:  Breaker Lianne Sanderson has always been considered a highly skilled forward, but after joining Boston this winter, she’s been fully converted to an attacking midfielder. Playing behind the striker in what functions as a 4-2-3-1 formation, Sanderson has rivaled Lauren Cheney and Christine Sinclair as the league’s best at that position. The reputations of that company speak to how well Sanderson’s played.

On Saturday, she had her best performance of the season, collecting three assists as Boston routed visiting Washington, 3-0. The highlight was her first, a ball looped back over her head as she stood with her back to goal. Near the edge of the 18-yard box, Sanderson hit a bouncing ball back and to her right, dropping her pass between the defense (about 12 yards out) and goalkeeper Chantel Jones. Heather O’Reilly, cutting in from the left, leapt onto her volley, the top of her shin putting home Boston’s opening goal.

Sanderson now leads the league in assists, and it’s not even close. Her six helpers double the total of second place Cheney, forcing us to consider where she ranks among that elite group of NWSL playmakers. She may not possess Sinclair’s threat toward goal or provide Cheney’s all-the-little things contributions, but she’s contributing more to the bottom line. Her actions are creating goals; lots of them.

And in Week 7, she was the clear player of the week.

Also of note: Sanderson teammate Kyah Simon contributed to the season’s huge, early Australian influence; Abby Wambach’s up to four goals after scoring on Friday, with teammate Brittany Taylor contributing two assists; Lauren Cheney did everything but kind an equalizer for Kansas City; Karina LeBlanc may have been the weekend’s best `keeper; and don’t forget about our Unsung Hero, below.

ROUND’S BIG STORY

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 5 Sky Blue 8 19 +8
2 4 Portland 8 19 +8
3 3 Boston 6 11 +5
4 2 W. New York 6 10 +1
5 1 Kansas City 6 10 +3
6 6 Washington 8 6 -5
7 7 Chicago 6 2 -8
8 8 Seattle 8 1 -12

You’re not a real league until your fans hate your officials. NWSL followers naturally did so from the beginning, an apparent blind obligation of every soccer fan, but in Week 7, the league gifted the curmudgeons two game-defining controversies.

In Kansas City, first place Sky Blue saw their game all but sealed mid-way through the first. Lisa De Vanna, her relentless effort getting the best of yet another center half tandem, forced Lauren Sesselman to grab her jersey as she linded up a nine-yard shot. The whistle blew, the official pointed to the spot, and to the surprise of KC’s Canadian international, a red card was shown. Sophie Schmidt converted for her league-leading fifth goal of the year, and after an hour of playing against 10, Sky Blue finished off a 1-0 win.

But should it have been a red card? The cynicism of Sesselmann’s move convinced many, but if that challenge occurs outside the penalty area, it’s a yellow card-worthy, professional foul. Players go into matches with that expectation, which is why Sesselmann was so surprised to be dismissed. Inferentially, the referee must have seen it as a denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity, but De Vanna was neither behind Sesselman nor moving toward goal. As De Vanna said after the match, a yellow card would have been enough.

The situation in Seattle was much worse. In the 83rd minute of a 0-0 game, Christine Sinclair chipped a ball to the edge of the area, the last part of a give-and-go with Allie Long. Long then ran into defender Kiersten Dallstream ahead Kaylyn Kyle’s clearance, only after which did the whistle blow. Occurring just inside the area, an otherwise innocuous collision drew a penalty, one that seemed a clear make-up call for the hand ball missed 15 minutes earlier. Moments later, Sinclair beat Hope Solo for the game’s only goal, and Seattle had their seventh loss in a row.

The call in Kansas City happens. It was a reasonable, if debatable interpretation on what was obviously a foul. The play in Seattle, however, was inexplicable – one that Laura Harvey justifiably (and perhaps, understatedly) labelled “a joke.”

Unfortunately, as bad as the call was, no post hoc solution will give Seattle the point they deserve.

UNSUNG HERO

source:  Chicago and Seattle have been coupled since their 1-1 result in Week 1. Unfortunately, since that draw, the two clubs been linked for all the wrong reasons. They remain the NWSL’s only teams without a win, each struggling to find goals in lieu of obvious attacking threats. As their winless runs persist, the sides risk carving an unfortunate niche for themselves at the bottom of the NWSL’s standings.

But just as Seattle has Jessica Fishlock, Chicago has one player whose performance has transcended the Red Stars’ standing, and while in former years Lori Chalupny wouldn’t have qualified as unsung, the relative obscurity of the Red Stars’ start combine with her exile from the U.S. National Team means new fans know little about her.

Chalupny has 92 caps for the U.S. and has the honor of wearing the team’s armband, but since concussion symptoms sidelined her from the team in 2009, Chalupny hasn’t been called in. While she’s been cleared to play for the St. Louis Athletica (right), Atlanta Beat, Sweden’s AIK and Chicago, U.S. Soccer still hasn’t green lighted the former Tar Heel.

This being a health issue, we’re unlikely to ever hear U.S. Soccer’s side of the story, but in the professional ranks, Chalupny’s career goes on. On Friday, she helped spark and finish the counterattack that gave Chicago an early lead in Rochester, her activity and quality through the middle serving as the key to the Red Stars’ upset bid.

That bid fell flat, but as has been the case all year, Chalupny did not. For a team that was hamstrung by an unfavorable allocation, she’s provided national team quality. Whether deployed wide or playing through the middle, Chalupny has been one of the season’s unsung stars.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sophie Schmidt (SBFC) 6 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 6
6 tied at 4 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 3
6 tied with 2

What will it take for Portland to start changing things up? … How good can the Flash be with Carli Lloyd playing behind Abby Wambach in their 4-2-3-1? … How much of this is luck, and how much of this is Jim Gabarra manufacturing luck for Sky Blue? … Are Washington’s scoring problems back? Were they ever truly gone? … Can Brittany Cameron hold off Jill Loyden in goal for Sky Blue? … Which teams are best-situated to survive the national team callups? … Will Megan Rapinoe be able to build on Seattle’s Hope Solo boost?

LOOKING FORWARD

It’s a slow weekend in the NWSL, with only two matches ahead of two-mid week games next week. While Boston takes their high-octane attack to New Jersey to face a ever-stringy Sky Blue, Chicago makes a trip west, visiting JELD-WEN Field. We’ll use that game as an opportunity to take our first look at Rory Dames’ Red Stars in Friday’s PST NWSL Game of the Week feature.

Saturday, June 1
Sky Blue FC vs. Boston Breakers
Portland Thorns FC vs. Chicago Red Stars

Wednesday, June 5
Boston Breakers vs. Western New York Flash
Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City

Jozy Altidore’s foundation funding Copa America watch parties in Haiti

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jozy Altidore has never shied away from his Hatian decent, and while the 26-year-old will miss the Copa America, but his second home certainly won’t.

Altidore’s charity organization the St. Luke Foundation has set up watch parties across Haiti so the island nation can watch all the United States and Haiti matches, as well as the semifinals and finals.

In a phone interview with Sports Illustrated, Altidore cited that Haiti had not been invited to a major international tournament since 1974, and that the country should be able to watch. According to SI, the watch parties will allow those in the country to watch who otherwise would be unable to do so.

“I thought this would be something cool knowing how much Haitian people love their national team” Altidore told SI, “to have thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the matches broadcast the group games and see them perform.”

Haiti plays in Brazil’s Group B along with Peru and Ecuador, with group stage games on June 4, 8, and 12.

[ MORE: Copa America Group B preview | USA in Group A ]

Altidore will miss the tournament due to a hamstring injury which will take 6-8 weeks to recover from.

The New Jersey product has been very active with charity work in Haiti in the past, mostly through his foundation. Altidore’s parents were both born in Haiti. He said he hopes that the Haitian team “can surprise some people” in the upcoming tournament.

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
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This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide