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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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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.

Chastain, McMillan, Garber make Hall of Fame

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Brandi Chastain attends the Annual Charity Day Hosted By Cantor Fitzgerald And BGC at the Cantor Fitzgerald Office on September 11, 2013 in New York, United States.  (Photo by Mike McGregor/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald)
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CHICAGO (AP) — World Cup champions Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Chastain, who scored the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup final shootout against China, was selected on the player ballot. MacMillan, her teammate on that squad, was voted in on the veteran ballot. Garber was chosen on the builder ballot.

Chastain played 12 seasons of international soccer, scoring 30 goals in 192 matches. She also won a World Cup in 1991, and earned Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004. She was the first U.S. player to score five goals in one match, in 1991 World Cup qualifying as a forward. She later became a mainstay on defense.

“To be inducted into the Hall of Fame and have my name read in the same sentence with our country’s best is truly humbling,” Chastain said Thursday. “The opportunity to play the game was given to me by my parents; my competitiveness and enthusiasm was fostered by every coach who I was blessed to be taught by; and my passion was shared and heightened by all of my teammates over my career. It is not enough to say how grateful I am with words, and therefore, I continue to share the game with anyone and everyone.”

MacMillan also was on the 1996 Olympic team. She scored 60 goals in 12 international seasons and was the 2002 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year.

“Playing for the USA was always an honor and privilege for me, and that could only be topped by being selected for the Hall of Fame,” MacMillan said. “I am incredibly humbled and honored by this selection. I will forever be grateful to the great game of soccer for all of the life lessons it has taught me along the way, and for all the friendships I built along the way. I want to thank U.S. Soccer and my teammates for all of the support throughout the years.”

Garber, in his 17th year as MLS commissioner, was cited for his work growing the sport in the United States.

“Thanks to the commitment and hard work of many people, our sport has grown significantly during the last few decades, and there is no doubt the United States is a true soccer nation,” Garber said. “It is an honor to be inducted alongside Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, two iconic figures in U.S. Soccer history who have impacted the sport at so many levels.”

MLS Preview: Can anyone separate from the pack? Western leaders get big tests

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - APRIL 02:  Shkelzen Gashi #11 of Colorado Rapids controls the ball against the Toronto FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Rapids defeated Toronto FC 1-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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With last week’s draw-fest in the past and both conferences still jumbled, all eyes are on the top of the Western Conference with this week’s list of matchups.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Three teams – Colorado, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas – are all tied atop the standings on 17 points. The first two respectively play each other. The final one crosses sides to play the 3rd place team in the East. Should this week go differently than last – meaning, fewer than the eight draws we were handed across Week 8 – some teams could find themselves with some valuable separation atop the standings.

So, who has the opportunity to make moves?

Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake — 9:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Each with 17 points at the top of the West, there’s plenty at stake at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Colorado is four games unbeaten, although it dropped points for the first time in a month last time out. The Rapids feasted upon underachieving teams during its three-game winning streak, but when faced with the leaders of the Eastern Conference last weekend, they needed a pair of comebacks to earn a point. Nonetheless, the Rapids have put their early-season struggles firmly behind them.

The Rapids have struggled against RSL in the recent past, losing the last time out in Salt Lake City, and sporting a 1-4-2 record against RSL in the last seven meetings at DSG Park. Shkëlzen Gashi continues to be the key for Colorado’s attack, having pumped 25 shots on target this season so far. For RSL, last week’s win put the demolition at the hands of Los Angeles firmly in the past, changing the narrative to five wins in their last six, a significant rise in form.

Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas  7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FC Dallas also has a chance to go atop the West with a result on the road at BMO Field. Dallas’s grip on the West is gone thanks to a pair of flunks against two eighth-placed teams – a bad sign as the Jeckyll and Hyde season continues. They’re in a great place, but have also looked lost at times. All three heavy defeats have come on the road, and wouldn’t you know it, now they’re serving as Toronto’s May home opener.

The East has been a mire thus far, but for Toronto to sit third after three wins in an eight-game road trip, Sebastian Giovinco and company have put themselves in great position. Nonetheless, Greg Vanney said the club still needs to “prove itself” in front of its home fans, and those fans are sure to be up for it after the long wait.

D.C. United vs. New York City FC  7:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Two of the four teams stuck on 10 points in the middle of the Eastern Conference have a critical matchup at RFK Stadium Saturday. D.C. has gutted things out through the softer part of its schedule, but now a meeting with a team in the hunt will test D.C., who will be without the suspended Chris Rolfe after his dangerous challenge on Nick LaBrocca. If anything, the break could give Rolfe a chance to collect his thoughts after a slow start to the season.

They face a NYCFC team that picked up just its second win of the season last time out. Draw-happy early on, NY had lost three of four before the 3-2 win over Vancouver, a gritty win that took overcoming adversity after Vancouver went ahead, then came back to tie things up before Steven Mendoza tied things up with 17 minutes to go. This one’s a big one in the East mix, can anyone come out on top?

Elsewhere

Orlando City FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m. ET Friday
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET Saturday
Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Seattle Sounders vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 10 p.m. ET Saturday
L.A. Galaxy vs. New England Revolution — 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Men in Blazers podcast: Jurgen Klopp pod special

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog sits down with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to give you a taste of his new documentary on the eccentric German boss.

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Klopp hails “unbelievable” player performance to send Liverpool to Europa League final

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool gives instructions to captain James Milner of Liverpool during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp didn’t want any of the credit after Liverpool defeated Villarreal 3-0 at Anfield to send the Reds to Basel with a spot in the Europa League final.

“Wonderful night – a brilliant game from my side,” Klopp said to BT Sport after the game. “What power, what a performance, what attitude with the readiness, motivation, emotion in the game – everything.”

Liverpool held 60% of the possession and out-shot Villarreal 25-6, including 12-2 among shots on target.

“We go to Basel. We take 50,000, 60k, 70k Liverpudlians with us – maybe 100k – not in the stadium, but in the city,” Klopp said of the upcoming final. “Everybody is invited. It is a nice city by the way, close to my home! Let’s go there, create an atmosphere and do our best again. It is well deserved and I am really, really pleased for all the boys.”

Klopp, who hails from Stuttgart, Germany which is under a three hour drive from Basel, made the call to start Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can.

Sturridge was on the bench for the first leg against Villarreal when Liverpool was held scoreless and played the full 90 minutes in their loss to Swansea over the weekend. This time, he forced the opening own-goal and scored the second. Can, meanwhile, hasn’t played in a month due to an ankle injury, but he was a force in front of the Reds back line.

“The only thing we said at half time was that the first half an hour was a big emotion,” Klopp said after the game. “It was great but then the last 15 minutes of the first half we lost patience. We didn’t move them over the pitch as much and tried to go down the middle, but there was no space so we lost balls. We defended well though so nothing happened. The second half plan was to keep going with the emotional football plus using your brain little a bit more and in the end it was brilliant – wonderful goals. The whole night was unbelievable.”

“We have to create atmospheres like this in each Premier League game too.”