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.

Three key battles in Man City vs. Man United

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Ahead of the massive Manchester derby on Thursday at the Etihad Stadium (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) both Manchester City and Manchester United have some massive absentees through injury with Paul Pogba and Zlaan

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That being said, there are still plenty of stars who will be out on the pitch and both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be sure to surprise many with their team selections. With City in fourth place but just one point and one place ahead of United, this game will be crucial in the race for UEFA Champions League qualification.

[ MORE: Manchester derby, team news ]

Below is a look at three key battles on the pitch which will determine the outcome of the game.


Vincent Kompany vs. Marcus Rashford

This will perhaps be the most pivotal individual battle on the pitch. With Vincent Kompany back fit, Man City’s defense has looked incredibly solid. The Belgian star will have his hands full with a fired up Marcus Rashford though. The local lad scored the winner at the Eithad last season and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic out injured the 19-year-old has stepped up big in recent weeks. Kompany will look to step high and intercept balls into Rashford early but we all now have deceptively strong Rashford is and if he can turn Kompany early then there’s no way City’s skipper will catch him in a straight race.

Kevin De Bruyne vs. Ander Herrera

In the 2-1 win for City at United back in September (man, that seems like a long time ago) Kevin de Bruyne tore United’s midfield apart. In the first half of that game he scored the opener and his shot off the post fell to Kelechi Iheanacho for City’s second as Guardiola deployed KDB in a slightly unfamiliar central role. He was much more attacking at Old Trafford and kept winning the ball back in key area in front of United’s defense. Ander Herrera started that game on the bench that day and Mourinho brought him on at half time to quell the threat of KDB, which he did. Guardiola may play De Bruyne deeper, as he did against Arsenal recently, but the Belgian will have to get by Herrera. The Spaniard has been a terrier in Mourinho’s midfield and is having a fine season. Herrera did a wonderful man-marking job on Eden Hazard last weekend and after shaking off an injury, don’t be surprised if Mourinho puts him up against De Bruyne.

Sergio Aguero vs. Eric Bailly

Guardiola had an injury concern about Aguero but the Argentine is fit and ready and that’s bad news for United. He took his goal superbly well in the FA Cup semifinal to Arsenal at the weekend and Aguero is now second all-time in City’s goalscorers, scoring in his last five PL games on the troy. Eric Bailly has been been forced to play a lot of games this season and he went the full 120 minutes against Anderlecht last Thursday and then the full 90 against Burnley on Sunday. With Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo out through injury, Bailly will have to play again (Daley Blind will likely partner him) and his battle with Aguero will be crucial. Not to mention Aguero has eight goals in 10 appearances against United

Transfer rumors: De Gea out, Oblak in; Van Dijk to Liverpool

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We are edging towards May and that means two things: the Premier League season is almost over and the transfer rumor mill is about to switch back into overdrive.

[ MORE: Manchester derby team news ]

The latest reports from Spain state that Manchester United are willing to let David De Gea leave this summer if the right deal can be reached with Real Madrid.

Spanish radio station Onda Cero state that Jose Mourinho is ready to listen to offers for De Gea and Real Madrid are in pole position to sign the goalkeeper they came so close to acquiring in the summer 2015. I wonder if that fax machine has been replaced…

Anyway, with DDG reportedly on the move, who would United bring in? The Manchester Evening News states that Jan Oblak’s agent has flown into Manchester for meetings and although the Slovenian stopper (La Liga’s goalkeeper of the season in 2015-16) has a release clause of $109 million, it is reported that a deal can be struck for the 24-year-old who is close friends with Atletico teammate, and another United target, Antoine Griezmann.

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Elsewhere in England’s north west, the Liverpool Echo state that Liverpool are willing to pay a club record $64.1 million for Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk.

VVD, 25, is among the best center backs in the Premier League and has been named Southampton’s team captain in just his second season at St Mary’s following his $18 million move from Celtic in September 2015.

Per the report, and pretty much common knowledge, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal are all said to be interested in signing Van Dijk this summer.

Van Dijk has been out with a foot injury since January but his impressive displays over the past two seasons mean he is a prime target for several of the PL’s top teams. With Liverpool’s woes clear and Jurgen Klopp‘s men aiming to hang on for a top four finish in the PL this season, securing UEFA Champions League action will surely be crucial in landing Van Dijk.

Saints have stated many times that Van Dijk is not for sale but every player has his price. If Chelsea and other get involved, the bidding war for Van Dijk could get out of hand very, very quickly.

Manchester derby: Pogba out, Gabriel ready, Zlatan update

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Ahead of the massive Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday between Manchester City and Manchester United (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) there has been some significant team news.

[ MORE: PW’s PL picks

Jose Mourinho has confirmed that midfielder Paul Pogba will not play for United after hobbling off late on against Burnley on Sunday, while Pep Guardiola has confirmed that star midfield David Silva is a serious doubt.

Speaking in their respective press conferences ahead of the massive clash between the bitter rivals both managers played down the importance of the match despite their being just one point and one place between the teams with City sitting in fourth place, the final UEFA Champions League spot.

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Mourinho simply confirmed that Pogba would not be fit but also stated that Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia would be available while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remain out. Mourinho also gave an update on Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s future at Manchester United as the 35-year-old has flown to the USA to undergo knee surgery to try and salvage his career.

Zlatan only had a contract until this summer at United and has been linked with signing another deal, moving to China or heading to Major League Soccer. Mourinho said he wasn’t sure if Ibrahimovic would be at United next season and instead praised his fighting spirit.

“I just want the difficult surgery to go, for him to recover from the injury and prepare for the next step,” Mourinho said. “I think the next step will be something that he really wants, which is what I was saying before the injury in the period of doubt about his future.”

Guardiola stated that Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus is ready to be in the matchday squad after recovering from a broken metatarsal but he said it would be tough for Silva to play but did confirm Sergio Aguero is fit.

“David Silva real, real doubt – I don’t know if he will be ready to play after what happened in the first minutes in the semi-final,” Guardiola said. “Gabriel has no pain at all so is ready but [after] three months out his physical condition is not optimal. Sergio is much better. Today he make a part of the training session. Tomorrow he will be ready.”

At this hectic time of the season both City and United have struggled with injuries to key players throughout the campaign and it is perhaps United who have dealt better with those absences. There’s no doubt that losing top scorer Ibrahimovic for the rest of the season was a huge blow but Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford are ready to step up in his absence with Martial and Rooney scoring in the 2-0 victory at Burnley last time out.

Who will come in for Pogba? Expect Herrera and Michael Carrick to start in central midfield in perhaps a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lingard, Rooney and Mkhitaryan ahead of them and Rashford up top.

For City, they will likely start Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph in central midfield in Silva’s absence but Guardiola must be worried about losing Silva as the Spaniard has made City tick all season long. Coupled with the long-term absence of Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany (who returned to action recently) City’s midfield and defensive unit has struggled to cope with injuries all season long.

Expect this Manchester derby to be a slugfest between two ailing teams.

David Moyes charged by FA for “slap” comments

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Sunderland manager David Moyes has been charged by the English Football Association after he was filmed telling a female BBC reporter “you still might get a slap even though you’re a woman,” and warned her to “be careful” the next time she came to their Stadium of Light home.

[ MORE: Barton banned 18 months ]

Moyes, 53, has since apologized for the outburst which occurred after a post-match interview following Sunderland’s 0-0 draw with Burnley. He believed the cameras had stopped rolling but his comments were filmed on a cell phone.

The Sunderland manager has his team rooted to the foot of the Premier League table, 12 points off safety with six games remaining.

Below is the statement in full from The FA:

David Moyes has been charged in relation to comments made after the game against Burnley on 18 March 2017.

It is alleged the Sunderland manager’s remarks were improper and/or threatening and/or brought the game into disrepute, contrary to FA Rule E3(1).  He has until 6pm on 3 May 2017 to reply to the charge.