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

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You may want to skip this …

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.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands…

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that didn’t “want to influence the next manager.”

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still had one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season. The growing notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger.

Roma condemn violent scenes outside Anfield

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AS Roma have condemned an attack from some of its supporters on Liverpool’s fans before the game after a 53-year-old Liverpool supporter was injured outside Anfield before the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Serie A side said that a “small minority of traveling fans brought shame on the club” as two men from Rome have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after the attack on the Liverpool fan who is in a critical condition after suffering head injuries.

Below is the statement in full from the Italian club.

AS Roma condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent behavior of a small minority of traveling fans who brought shame on the club and the vast majority of Roma’s well-behaved supporters at Anfield after getting involved in clashes with Liverpool supporters before last night’s fixture.

There is no place for this type of vile behavior in football and the club is now cooperating with Liverpool Football Club, UEFA and the authorities. The club’s thoughts and prayers are with the 53-year-old Liverpool fan in hospital and his family at this time.

Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

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While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are