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.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-1 New England Revolution (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): For nearly 75 minutes, NYCFC couldn’t muster up any chances in the attacking third, but thankfully their captain did what he does best. David Villa scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday night to pull out a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution, but it was rookie Jonathan Lewis that notched the winner. The visitors took the lead 20 minutes prior after Sean Johnson spilled a shot in front of his own goal, allowing Teal Bunbury to pounce on the rebound. NYCFC now moves to within four points of Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC with nine matches remaining in the regular season.

Three four moments that mattered

16′ — Harrison breaks ankles, but Villa can’t finish — This might be the only time all see you’ll see David Villa miss a chance like this…

38′ — Johnson gets a finger tip to Rowe’s blast — Sean Johnson had no work to do in the first half, at least until Kelyn Rowe decided to rip a shot from distance just before halftime.

57′ — Johnson’s error grants Bunbury, Revs the lead — Look away, NYCFC fans.

77′ — Villa find the back of the net — When you need a goal, who you gonna call? That’s right. David Villa. The NYCFC captain is now up to 19 this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Teal Bunbury (57′), David Villa (77′), Jonathan Lewis (90+4′)

Honoring victims of attacks, Barcelona wins league opener

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Wearing shirts honoring victims of the recent attacks in Spain, Barcelona opened its Spanish league season with a comfortable 2-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Neymar double helps PSG cruise past Toulouse ]

Players had the word “Barcelona” instead of their names on the back of their shirts, and the Catalan hashtag “TOTSSOMBARCELONA” (We are all Barcelona) was on display around the Camp Nou stadium. The message was also shown on the stadium’s large screens, as well as on many banners carried by fans.

An emotional minute’s silence was held before the game as the music of Catalan cellist Pau Casals played in the background.

Before the minute was up, the more than 55,000 fans at the stadium broke into a round of applause and began chanting “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid), a chant which has become a symbol of people’s reactions to the attacks that killed 14 people and injured more than 120 in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.

Extra security was implemented in and around Camp Nou.

There was a minute’s silence before every Spanish league match this weekend.

Without Neymar and the injured Luis Suarez, Barcelona got off to a winning start in the league after consecutive losses to rival Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

It scored two goals three minutes apart near the end of the first half – an own-goal by Betis defender Alin Tosca and a close-range shot by Sergi Roberto. Both goals came after plays started by Gerard Deulofeu, one of the players expected to try to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

“We lost depth with Neymar’s departure and we have to find a way to overcome that,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Lionel Messi looked lively but wasn’t able to score his 350th goal in La Liga. He came close, though, being denied by the woodwork three different times.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Brighton breaks club record with signing of winger Jose Izquierdo

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Brighton hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start in its debut season in the Premier League, but a key reinforcement is on the way.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Spurs at Wembley behind Alonso’s brace ]

After starting the 2017/18 campaign with back-to-back defeats, the Seagulls announced on Sunday the signing of Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge in Belgium for a record fee.

The 25-year-old spent three seasons in Belgium’s top flight and totaled 38 goals across all competitions for Brugge, prior to making the move to England.

Additionally, Izquierdo has worked his way into the Colombia squad as of late, and scored his first international goal for his country in June 2017 in a friendly against Cameroon.

MLS Follow Live — NYCFC hosts Revs, Minnesota meets Sounders

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Only two matches will feature on the MLS docket Sunday evening, but luckily two of the league’s most exciting teams will take to the pitch.

[ MORE: Toronto tops Fire as East leaders reach 50 points on season ]

First, New York City FC will attempt to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder when they host Kei Kamara and the New England Revolution.

In the night cap, the Seattle Sounders look to extend their unbeaten streak to nine matches when they welcome newcomers Minnesota United to CenturyLink Field.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Here’s the schedule and kick-off times for Sunday’s two MLS fixtures.

New York City FC vs. New England Revolution — 6 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 10 p.m. ET