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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

AT THE HALF: Man City 1-2 Monaco; Atleti lead in UCL round of 16

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Radamel Falcao Garcia of AS Monaco celebrates as he scores their first and equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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We’re only halfway through the first leg of Manchester City versus Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen versus Atletico Madrid, in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, but the goals are coming fast and furious from England to Germany.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

Man City found themselves 1-0 up at the Etihad Stadium, when Leroy Sane turned on video-game mode to set up Raheem Sterling for the opening goal in the 28th minute. But, as City have so typically done in the Champions League, they began self-destructing four minutes later. Radamel Falcao‘s diving header brought Monaco level in the 32nd minute, and Kylian Mbappe’s finish over the head of Willy Caballero put the visitors 2-1 up eight minutes later.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

As for Tuesday’s other round-of-16 tie, Saul Niguez simultaneously opened the scoring and snatched the soul of every Bayer defender who dared to contest him. Antoine Griezmann added a second for Atleti, who hold their 2-0 lead at halftime, seven minutes later.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Man City v Monaco; Bayer v Atletico Madrid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates after scoring his sides fourth goal during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Manchester City at London Stadium on January 6, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clashes get underway on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Manchester City host AS Monaco at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola knowing his shaky defense must stay strong against the leading scorers in France’s top-flight. Monaco have already come to England and beaten Tottenham Hotspur in the UCL group stage and under talented manager Leanardo Jardim the likes of Radamel Falcao looks fired up and ready to go.

That said, City have been much better in recent weeks and have shown their best form this season in the UCL. Remember, Pep has never failed to reach the semifinals of this competition as a manager. Quite the record.

Elsewhere Bayer Leverkusen welcome Atletico Madrid to the BayArena with Mexico’s Javier Hernandez back among the goals and aiming to give the Bundesliga outfit a lead to take with them to Madrid.

The runners up late season, Atleti are currently fourth in La Liga but Diego Simeone’s side have looked stellar in Europe this season once again as they finished above Bayern Munich to win their group. Expect a tense, tough game in Germany.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Manchester City vs. AS Monaco – 2:45 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid – 2:45 p.m. ET

Bayern defends Ancelotti for middle-finger gesture to fans

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich has defended coach Carlo Ancelotti for raising his middle finger to Hertha Berlin fans after supposedly being spit at following a dramatic 1-1 draw in the Bundesliga.

[ MORE: Shaw in betting investigation ]

Bayern says “basically we find the human reaction of Carlo Ancelotti with the gesture to be emotionally understandable after the nasty spitting attack.”

Robert Lewandowski’s injury-time equalizer for Bayern on Saturday prompted altercations between Bayern and Hertha players in a heated atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

The German soccer federation ended its investigation into the matter after Ancelotti agreed to pay 5,000 euros ($5,300) to its foundation for social work.

In 2014, Norbert Duewel, then-coach of second-division club Union Berlin, was fined 3,500 euros for raising his middle finger in a 4-1 loss at home against 1860 Munich.

Sacha Kljestan ready to take reigns as Red Bulls captain

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC  during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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When news began to spread of a trade regarding one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable faces, Sacha Kljestan was with his New York Red Bulls teammate at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The clarity over Dax McCarty’s move to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire is very much uncertain — even a month after the fact — but the veteran midfielder’s absence left an opening for the Red Bulls captaincy.

[ MORE: PST talks with Atlanta president Darren Eales ahead of 2017 ]

And that was an opportunity that Kljestan was honored to be named.

“I was just proud. My first feeling was that I’m thankful for Jesse [Marsch] having that trust in me and my teammates having that trust in me as well, which is very important,” Kljestan said. “But I just feel very proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and represent every member of the club that works with the New York Red Bulls. Most importantly I want to represent the fans in a way that they are proud of.”

Fortunately for the Red Bulls, what they have had over the past two seasons in Kljestan is a player that not only provides flash and brilliance on the pitch but also stability off the field and in the locker room.

Since making his return to MLS in 2015, Kljestan has notched an astounding 34 assists — the most of any player during that span — to go along with his 14 goals.

Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been impressed with Kljestan’s work ethic since bringing in the Designated Player, and he says little thought needed to be put into naming the U.S. international his squad’s next captain.

“It almost wasn’t even a choice at all,” Marsch said in regards to naming Kljestan his primary captain. “He had served as basically a vice-captain for two years and it was an natural fit. There were discussions with the staff but I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy that is a top leader. That being said, we’ve said all along that the captain isn’t a one man job.

“It’s about a community of people and certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis [Robles] and Brad [Wright-Phillips]. I think the three of them will take on big leadership roles and there’s room for young guys to blossom into bigger leadership positions as well.”

The Red Bulls have undoubtedly proven their success in the regular season since rebranding to the aforementioned name in 2006 when the Global giant, Red Bull, acquired the franchise.

The last 11 seasons have provided the club with plenty to cheer about, including two Supporters’ Shield crowns and only missing out on the postseason once, but the Red Bulls have struggled to get past one major hurdle.

Winning an MLS Cup is challenging.

It’s only something that 11 teams have accomplished in the league’s history. Of those 11 teams, only five of them have won two or more titles since MLS’ inception in 1996.

Marsch’s approach since day one has been very clear to both his team and the opponents that the Red Bulls face. The goal has been to play an attacking-minded press, similar to that of Barcelona in the club’s hay day.

While that pressing style likely won’t change, the team is prepared to add another dimension to its attack by switching to a two-forward setup starting in 2017.

“With our little tweak in formation that we’re doing now, we’re trying to be less susceptible to opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines,” Kljestan said. “We’re working on ways now to become more connected and become harder to break down and really make teams earn their chances against us. We might go through some growing pains with the formation but I think it’ll make us stronger in the long run.”

The Red Bulls begin their 2017 journey on Wednesday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The two sides will meet a second time on March 2 in Vancouver.