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State of the NWSL, after Week 11: Midseason awards, rankings of power, and a look ahead to Week 12

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So this is blogging, right? We all agree I don’t have to speak as if this is a 4,000-word Sports Illustrated feature? Good, because I need to break down the fourth wall, the third dimension for a moment and explain what’s going on with the NWSL coverage some of you have come to expect on this blog. And I promise not to do this too often (this is my first time in 15 months).

Through the first two months of the season we were chugging along. Friday previews and Monday recaps. It was all good. We had a consistent audience, and the clubs were helping us out. We were living out our excessively verbose, typo-laden dreams!

Then came June, with its transfer window madness, U.S. men’s national team onslaught, and those mid-season NWSL callups. In its wake, we’ve had to make some adjustments.

Starting now, we’ll wrap up each weekend with a quick look at the results then circle back on Wednesday with something a little more ambitious – something talking about the issues around the league as well as the week’s upcoming games. That will be my contribution, Jeff Kassouf will chime in as his time permits. Life won’t be that different. And don’t worry: Mommy and Daddy still love each other.

Hopefully this will carry us through the season, because now that we’re at the half-way point, we’ve got to look at our situation the same way the NWSL’s teams look at their’s. It’s time to figure out what’s working, what needs to be tweaked, and lay out a plan for the season’s home stretch.

… and start reading here

Perhaps paradoxically, the first thing we’re going with our plan for the future is look to the past. Especially for people who haven’t been able to watch every game, a nice (if trite) midseason awards piece is a quick way to get up to date. And with the NWSL gone from PST for a few weeks, we definitely need to get back up to date.

Using the awards handed out at the end of Women’s Professional Soccer:

source:  COACH OF THE HALF-SEASON – Jim Gabarra, Sky Blue FC

Sky Blue was supposed to be a borderline playoff team. With teams like Portland, Kansas City, Western New York and Boston carrying greater star power on paper, the New Jersey-based club were thought to have drawn a short allocation straw.

Gabarra has helped make up the difference. Although Christie Rampone has stood out, the team’s success has been more a reflection of the team’s organization then any individual performances. With help from Rampone, Gabarra has his parts transcending their whole, the reason why Sky Blue sit top of the league going into tonight’s match.

Runner up: Aaran Lines, Western New York

source:  ROOKIE OF THE HALF-SEASON – Kathryn Williamson, D, Portland Thorns

Portland played one preseason game, a exhibition at Merlo Field against the University of Portland. In that game, Pilot attacker Amanda Frisbee got the best of the Thorns’ number one draft pick, leading many to think Emilee O’Neil would eventually start in central defense next to Rachel Buehler.

Cindy Parlow Cone, however, has never wavered in her support for the former Florida Gator, who has arguably been the team’s best defender. And because she hasn’t missed any time with national team commitments, she’s been one of the most valuable defenders in the league, part of a team that has the NWSL’s lowest goals against average.

Right now, if you define the field in terms of college draftees, the Rookie of the Year race isn’t particularly close.

Runner up: Kendall Johnson, LB, Sky Blue FC

source:  GOALKEEPER OF THE HALF-SEASON – Karina LeBlanc, Portland Thorns

There’s been no standout goalkeeper over the season’s first half. Western New York’s Adrianna Franch was first out of the gates. Ashlynn Harris has been given plenty of chances to shine for Washington. Kansas City’s Nicole Barnhart has been the most consistent keeper.

Karina LeBlanc, however, edged ahead of the logjam on Sunday. Her Player of the Week-caliber performance preserved a draw in New Jersey when the loss of midfielder Becky Edwards (gone for the season with an ACL tear) made Portland’s defense into a row of sitting ducks. Giving the league’s best goalkeeping performance since Franch’s debut, LeBlanc salvaged a point for the Thorns, lowering her league-best GAA to 0.64.

Runner up: Barnhart

source:  DEFENDER OF THE HALF-SEASON – Christie Rampone, Sky Blue FC

This one isn’t particularly close. Along with Kansas City’s Becky Sauerbrunn, Rampone is one of the two central defenders who’ve really stood out. Add in her influence as a de facto assistant coach, helping to bring along a starting defense featuring 19, 22, and 23 year olds, and you have the league’s best defender.

A little voice in the front of my head tells me this is where I’m supposed to reference her age. Rampone is, after all, 38 years old, though any allusion to her longevity ends up confounding the picture. This isn’t somebody that’s inexplicably defying the odds, holding on to success during a Maldini-esque fade into a legend’s deserved sunset. Rampone somebody who could easily play through Rio 2016.

As quickly as we’ve seen Rampone track the likes of Alex Morgan (as she did in shutting her out last week), it’s not difficult to imagine a 41-year-old captain pushing for a fourth gold medal.

Runner up: Sauerbrunn

source:  PLAYER OF THE HALF-SEASON – Lauren Cheney, FC Kansas City

Second in the league in both goals (six) and assists (five), it’s easy to make a statistical case for Cheney. That would be a disservice, though, to a player whose value so obviously transcends her numbers. Boiling Lauren Cheney down to goals and assists is lazy. It’s boring! It takes the joy out of the league’s most-watchable player.

From day one, head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s instilled the sometimes striker, winger, and deep midfielder as his playmaker, making one of the team’s off-field leaders into the focal point of Kansas City’s attack. The result is textbook display of how to play a 4-2-3-1’s number 10. Her intelligence, always a strength of her game, is on display in each of her team’s movements, her skill and vision helping to make striker Renae Cuellar one of the league’s early goal scoring leaders. Her off the ball movement, better than anybody’s in the NWSL, helps key teammates even when she’s not pulling the strings, and lest anybody forget the goalscoring talents she’s shown at UCLA and internationally, Cheney’s been good for two goals every three games.

In a league of Morgans, Wambachs, and Solos, there’s no more enjoyable player to watch than Lauren Cheney, and no matter how you define most valuable – either by raw performance or importance to the team – Cheney has been the league’s standard.

Runner up: Rampone

TEAM OF THE HALF-SEASON

Pos. Player, Team
G Karina LeBlanc, Portland Thorns FC
RB Ali Krieger, Washington Spirit
CB Christie Rampone, Sky Blue FC
CB Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City
LB Katherine Reynolds, Western New York
DM Desiree Scott, FC Kansas City
CM Lori Chalupny, Chicago Red Stars
RW/AM Diana Matheson, Washington Spirit
AM Lauren Cheney, FC Kansas City
LW/AM Samantha Kerr, Western New York
ST Abby Wambach, Western New York

Others of note:  Barnhart, Jen Buczkowski (Kansas City), Kate Deines (Seattle), Edwards, Jessica Fishlock (Seattle), Caitlin Foord (Sky Blue), CoCo Goodson (Sky Blue), Joanna Lohman (Boston), Alex Morgan (Portland), Heather O’Reilly (Boston), Leigh Ann Robinson (Kansas City), Lianne Sanderson (Boston), Christine Sinclair (Portland), Williamson, Keelin Winters (Seattle)

RANKINGS OF POWER

In reverse order. The underlying logic: Tomorrow, neutral site, who do we think is more likely to win:

8. Washington Spirit – The Spirit were particularly ineffectual in Overland Park, giving Kansas City their easiest win of the season. You want to give the Blues some credit, but other teams have put up more resistance against similar KC performances. Washington’s attack has never come around, though the addition of German international Conny Pohlers can’t hurt.

7. Seattle Reign FC – Seattle are still winless and four points back of Washington, but a poor call awarding Western New York a penalty kick was the only thing that kept them from their first win. If this team isn’t cursed, their season sure is.

6. Boston Breakers – Have not won a game since May 25, going 0-3-1 during a spell that’s seen their defense give up 11 goals. It’s approaching now-or-never time for a team that’s seven points back of a playoff spot.

5. Chicago Red Stars – With three wins in five games since Inka Grings and Sonia Fuss signed up, Chicago’s turned their season around, but seven  back with 10 to play, it may be too late for the Red Stars to crack the top four.

4. FC Kansas City – Andonovski’s team showed signs of snapping out of their funk, but ultimately, Washington didn’t pose much of a challenge. We won’t know where a rebounding Kansas City stand until they face more stalwart competition.

3. Portland Thorns FC – A new look met with mixed results in New Jersey. The team got a point at Yurcak but were fortunate to avoid a loss. It’s unclear they’ll be able to replace Edwards.

2. Western New York Flash – Had we published them last week, our rankings would have had the Flash at number one. But a draw at Chicago followed by a lucky tie against visiting Seattle see the Flash cede their spot.

1. Sky Blue FC – Another impressive performance against Portland allows Gabarra’s group to claim to the top spot. The only worrisome part about Sky Blue’s season: They seem to match up particularly poorly against Western New York.

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, June 26

Boston Breakers vs. Seattle Reign FC (7:00 p.m. EDT) – If Seattle pushed the Flash, they can beat Boston. The team has been on the road for almost a week, however, and there could be a carry-on effect from a frustrating result in Megan Rapinoe’s return.

Sky Blue FC vs. FC Kansas City (8:00 p.m. EDT) – The last time these two met, Lauren Sesselman’s early, controversial red card left the Blues shorthanded for most of the game. This one should be a better test for Sky Blue.

Friday, June 28

Western New York Flash vs. Washington Spirit (7:05 p.m. EDT) – Samanatha Kerr and Adrianna Martin will be with their national teams, but this one shouldn’t be much trouble for the Flash, who need to win games like these to maintain hopes of a semifinal in Rochester.

Saturday, June 29

Seattle Reign FC vs. Chicago Red Stars (11:00 p.m. EDT) – So Seattle makes the longest road trip in the league, get only three days rest, and are forced to face a team that hasn’t played since last Wednesday? This team really is cursed.

Sunday, June 30

FC Kansas City vs. Portland Thorns FC (4:10 p.m. EDT) – At the beginning of the season, this matchup was speculated as a possible final preview. Sunday’s still is, but both teams look far more vulnerable than we imagined in April.

Boston Breakers vs. Sky Blue FC (6:30 p.m. EDT) – This will be the third time these teams have met this month but the first occasion where both sides will have their U.S. and Canadian internationals. Sky Blue has won both meetings by a combined score of 8-3.

FOLLOW LIVE: Man United back at Old Trafford; Southampton away in Israel

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton, the only Premier League sides in the group stage of the 2016-17 Europa League, suffered and enjoyed, respectively, on matchday no. 1 two weeks ago.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Thursday’s Europa League action ]

Man United suffered defeat at the hands of Feyenoord on the opening day of the group stage, losing 1-0 abroad, with a mostly first-team squad just days after the Manchester derby defeat to Manchester City. Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils currently sit bottom of Group A.

Meanwhile, Southampton opened their European campaign with a home victory over Sparta Prague. Charlie Austin scored twice on the day, and Jay Rodriguez provided the other goal. Saints enter matchday no. 2 top of Group K.

Today’s notable Europa League fixtures

Manchester United vs. Zorya — 3:05 p.m. ET
Hapoel Beer Sheva vs. Southampton — 1 p.m. ET
Steaua Bucuresti vs. Villarreal — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Rapid Vienna — 3:05 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Panathinaikos — 1 p.m. ET
Roma vs. Astra Giurgiu — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sparta Prague vs. Inter Milan — 1 p.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. Qarabga — 1 p.m. ET
Genk vs. Sassuolo — 3:05 p.m. ET
Schalke vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 1 p.m. ET

18-year-old American Carter-Vickers signs new Tottenham contract

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 29:   Cameron Carter-Vickers of Tottenham Hotspur headers the ball during 2016 International Champions Cup Australia match between Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico de Madrid at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 29, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)
Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images
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It’s been a decent eight days for Cameron Carter-Vickers, to say the least.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Just last Wednesday, the 18-year-old United States and England dual international made his first-team debut for Tottenham Hotspur in the club’s rout of League One side Gillingham in the third round of the 2016-17 EFL Cup.

Barely a week later, it was announced by the club that Carter-Vickers had put pen to paper on a brand new contract that will keep him at Tottenham until the summer of 2019.

Carter-Vickers, who is yet to make his Premier League debut for Spurs, has been a part of the club’s youth academy for eight years now, progressing through the ranks and arriving onto the periphery of the first-team squad this season. Available off the bench for just about every game Spurs have played this season, the Essex-born youngster has seemingly surpassed 23-year-old Austrian international Kevin Wimmer along Mauricio Pochettino‘s pecking order.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

The son of an American father, former professional basketball player Howard Carter, CCV is eligible for both the English and U.S. national teams. With his rise to the Spurs first team, rumors have begun to circulate that England would come calling soon, though SI.com reported on Wednesday that he is “all USA” regarding his international allegiance.

CCV spoke exclusively and extensively to PST’s Joe Prince-Wright last September. You can read JPW’s feature about the then-17-year-old, right here.

MLS Playoff Picture: LA, Philly, 4 others can clinch berths this weekend

Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy (Photo credit: LA Galaxy / Facebook)
Photo credit: LA Galaxy / Facebook
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By 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, the race for MLS Cup Playoffs places in the Eastern Conference could be 100 percent complete, with only (lots and lots of) questions over seeding for the postseason left to be worked out over the season’s final two games.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

In the Western Conference, as many as four playoff places could be claimed by weekend’s end, with three teams left to battle it out for the final two spots over the final month of the 2016 regular season.

Eastern Conference

Already clinched

Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, New York City FC

Can clinch this weekend

Philadelphia Union With a win over New York Red Bulls (7 p.m. ET, Saturday), and a New England Revolution draw or loss to Sporting Kansas City (7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday), would clinch a playoff place; would also clinch a playoff place with a win over Red Bulls, and a Revolution loss to Sporting KC, and an Orlando City SC draw or loss to Montreal Impact (1 p.m. ET, Sunday).

Montreal Impact — With a win over Orlando City SC, and a Revolution draw or loss to Sporting KC, would clinch a playoff place.

D.C. United — With a win over Toronto FC (7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday), and a Revolution loss to Sporting KC, would clinch a playoff place.

Game to watch

Toronto FC vs. D.C. United (7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday) — Massive implications at the top of the East, and at the bottom of the playoff places. TFC need a win to stay at least one point clear of the duo from New York, while DCU would just about lock up a spot of their own with the three points. Fourth place, thus hosting the knockout round game, is still in play for United.

Western Conference

Already clinched

FC Dallas

Can clinch this weekend

Colorado Rapids — With a win or draw against Portland Timbers (9 p.m. ET, Saturday), would clinch a playoff place.

LA Galaxy — With a win over FC Dallas (9 p.m. ET, Saturday), would clinch a playoff place; would also clinch a playoff place with a draw against FC Dallas, and a Timbers draw or loss against Rapids; would also clinch a playoff place with a loss to FC Dallas and a Timbers loss to Rapids.

Real Salt Lake — With a win over San Jose Earthquakes (10:30 p.m. ET, Saturday), and a Timbers loss to Rapids, would clinch a playoff place.

Game to watch

FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy (9 p.m. ET, Saturday) — With the Rapids just five points back and holding two games in hand, the Supporters’ Shield is far from locked up for FCD. Winless in their last three, they’ve only themselves to blame for Colorado being back in it.

VIDEO: PL Download on Arsene Wenger’s 20-year anniversary at Arsenal

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This is a must-watch for any fan of the Premier League.

On Oct. 1 1996, Arsene Wenger arrived as Arsenal’s new manager as a virtual nobody. This Saturday he celebrates 20 years in charge of the Gunners and there is a special Premier League Download to celebrate his incredible longevity.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live on NBC Sports 

At 12:30 p.m. ET, this Saturday, Oct. 1, NBCSN presents a new Premier League Download: Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger, hosted by The Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett.

Watch the promo above to get a taste of what’s to come in the full episode, as Bennett traveled to London to interview Wenger on his legacy, philosophy as a manager, and more.