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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.

Robbie Keane still entertaining offers ahead of return

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 12:  Soccer Player Robbie Keane arrives at the Premiere of IFC Films' "Pele: Birth Of A Legend" at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
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Robbie Keane is still sorting out his future, and it seems unlikely he’s heading back to the past.

Keane is training in Dublin ahead of a return to the pitch. The 36-year-old striker left the LA Galaxy this offseason, and says he’s had several offers from Championship squads in England as well as a few clubs abroad.

[ MORE: Top Premier League story lines ]

Although he’s starred for Wolverhampton and Leeds, destinations where fans would welcome his arrival, Keane says not to hold your breath.

From TalkSport.com:

“I’ve had a lot of people asking me about coming back to Leeds and Wolves, and they’re great clubs I’ve played for, but you can’t go somewhere if people actually don’t offer you anything.

“Until it’s actually in writing to me I can’t comment much on it, but I definitely haven’t heard from Leeds or Wolves.”

Whether Stateside or in England, Keane can still have an impact on a team’s fortunes. We look forward to seeing him back on the field, and to hear some more quips as well.

Consider his answer to whether he’d entertain an offer from China:

“If they gave the money Diego Costa was offered, I’d walk there now,” Keane said.

Galaxy adds center mid from Portuguese top flight

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LA Galaxy’s roster reformation continues with the addition of Joao Pedro, a day after formalizing a deal with USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones.

The 23-year-old center midfielder was with Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal’s top flight, and comes to the club as a “Special Discovery Player” with Targeted Allocation Money.

[ MORE: Top Premier League story lines ]

Pedro has a goal in 17 appearances this season, as Vitoria Guimaraes sits fifth in the Primeira Liga.

From LAGalaxy.com:

“Joao is an extremely talented midfielder who has experience playing at a high level in Portugal,” said Galaxy general manager Peter Vagenas in a written statement released by the club.

“He is only 23 years old and has the best years of his career front of him. We identified him as a top target this offseason and we think he can immediately help strengthen our midfield. We look forward to welcoming Joao to Los Angeles as we continue to prepare for the upcoming season.”

Pedro was a regular for Vitoria Guimaraes but is far from a certainty to star for the Galaxy. We do know that Vagenas has probably done his research as to whether Pedro fits with Jermaine Jones.

AFCON wrap: Senegal clinches first knockout round slot

Senegal's, Sadio Mane, right, is challenged by Zimbabwe's, Willard Katsande, left, during the African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match between Senegal and Zimbabwe at, Stade de Franceville Stadium, in Franceville, Gabon Thursday Jan. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Senegal has advanced to the knockout rounds of the Africa Cup of Nations, leaving three teams to work for the second Group B slot come the final day.

[ MORE: Top Premier League story lines ]

Senegal 2-0 Zimbabwe

Sadio Mane (Liverpool) and Henri Saivet (Saint-Etienne) scored within the first 13 minutes as Senegal clinched Group B with a win over Zimbabwe. There were 48 shots between the two teams, 24 for Senegal, in a fairly open affair. As for the Warriors, they’ll need to beat Tunisia on Monday.

Algeria 1-2 Tunisia

Tunisia rebounded from a loss to Senegal without scoring from the run of play. Lille mid Naim Sliti scored a penalty after an Algeria own goal made it 1-0. Anderlecht midfielder Sofiane Hanni scored for Algeria.

Friday’s matches
Ivory Coast vs. DR Congo — 11 a.m. ET
Morocco vs. Togo — 11 a.m. ET

Wenger concerned Chinese wages become benchmark for players

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 15:  Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal looks on during an Arsenal press conference ahead of their UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg match against Barcelona at Camp Nou on March 15, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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LONDON (AP) Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is hoping the high quality of competition in Europe will keep players from leaving for the financial gain in China.

Wenger is facing regular questions about the future of both Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, and the big money on offer in the Chinese league can complicate negotiations.

[ MORE: Top Premier League story lines ]

Argentine striker Carlos Tevez joined Shanghai Shenhua last month in a deal worth $40 million over two years.

“The danger (is) that the Chinese offers become the benchmark for Europe,” Wenger said Thursday. “You cannot compete with that, but I still think that, when you’re a footballer, the first thing is that you want to play against the best players in the best teams.”

Wenger said players that want the best compensation for playing in the best quality league need not look to Asia.

“I think that combination is the best in England at the moment, so I don’t see why the players should leave the English Premier League,” Wenger said.

Wenger, whose team is fourth in the standings, has made only one signing in the January transfer window, picking up defender Cohen Bramall from non-league club Hednesford.

Arsenal has also decided to keep captain Per Mertesacker for another season. Wenger announced Thursday that the club has taken up a one-year option to extend the contract of the 32-year-old German, who has not played this season because of a knee injury sustained during a friendly in July.

Mertesacker faces a fight to get back into the team because Shkodran Mustafi, an offseason signing from Valencia, has built a strong partrnership with vice captain Laurent Koscielny at the heart of Wenger’s defense.