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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.

Luke Shaw “happy” at Man United despite transfer links

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Luke Shaw of Manchester United in action  during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on September 27, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Luke Shaw wants to stay at Manchester United despite not playing a single second since November.

[ MORE: United need Griezmann

Shaw, 21, has seen his career stall at Old Trafford since Jose Mourinho arrived in the summer and the English left back has been linked with a move away in the summer.

However his agent, Jonathan Barnett, has spoke to Sky Sports in the UK and moved to quash that speculation, insisting his client is very happy fighting for a place in the first team at United.

“He is happy at the club. Manchester United are very happy with him and he’s very happy at Manchester United,” Barnett said.

Mourinho appeared to call out Shaw and his England colleague Chris Smalling earlier this season after a win at Swansea City, as he questioned the pain threshold of his players and their injuries. Shaw, of course, has returned from a horrific leg break he suffered at the start of the 2015-16 season and he seemed to be getting back to his best when he made himself unavailable for selection in November.

The report stating that Mourinho was wiling to let Shaw leave in the summer perhaps had more to do with these injury issues than his actual quality on the pitch. Shaw broke through in the Premier League at Southampton as a 17-year-old and United paid $35 million for him in the summer of 2014.

Even though Mourinho has placed Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and even Daley Blind out of position at left back ahead of him in recent months, it appears he still has a future at Old Trafford.

That said, one thing is key for Shaw’s future: fitness. If he can get that back then the marauding left back can kick-start his United career and deliver on the promise he showed in his teenage years.

Jurgen Klopp reacts to special Cornish pasty from Plymouth

PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18:  A Giant Cornish pasty made for Jurgan Klopp by the Plymouth Argyle sponsers prior to The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Replay match between Plymouth Argyle and Liverpool at Home Park on January 18, 2017 in Plymouth, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had something to chew on his way back home from Plymouth on Wednesday.

Actually he had a lot to chew on…

[ MORE: FA Cup replay roundup ]

Klopp was presented with a gift from fourth-tier Plymouth Argyle and their sponsors Ginsters after a much-changed Liverpool beat them 1-0 at Home Park in the FA Cup third round replay.

A giant Cornish pasty.

“What’s that!?” was Klopp’s bemused response when the giant snack (which is stuffed full of potato, meat and vegetables) starting coming his way in his press conference after the game.

In the south west of England pasties are the local delicacy and with Liverpool having to get a bus home over 293 miles on a chilly evening, the pasty had a little message for Klopp on there.

Ah, the magic of the FA Cup.

Fair play to Klopp for accepting the gift magnanimously and for Plymouth for spreading the gospel of the pasty. If you haven’t tried one, do it.


Gabriel Jesus available to make Man City debut

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 27:  Gabriel Jesus of Palmeiras celebrates with the trophy after winning the match between Palmeiras and Chapecoense for the Brazilian Series A 2016 at Allianz Parque on November 27, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)
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Manchester City have confirmed that new striker Gabriel Jesus is available to play against Tottenham Hotspur this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

[ MORE: United need Griezmann

Jesus, 19, agreed to move from Palmerias in the summer for $35 million but remained with the Brazilian side for the rest of their season as he was their top scorer en route to them winning the league title.

After a few weeks training at City he is now registered in the squad and ready to feature for Pep Guardiola‘s side to help them claw back from the 10-point gap between themselves and current Premier League leaders Chelsea.

Jesus scored 28 goals in 85 games in all competitions for Palmerias and has shown great promise for the Brazilian national team, scoring four goals in his first six appearances for the Selecao in 2016.

Speaking about his arrival at City, Jesus is looking to hit the ground running.

“I want to win titles and Manchester City is a club that is used to winning,” Jesus said. “City is a Club that always competes for the title in the competitions it enters, so that was an important factor, and because of the manager, Guardiola, and the squad.”

Jesus has arrived at the perfect time to give an ailing City side a boost.

On the back of their 4-0 drubbing at Everton last weekend (City’s worst league defeat since 2008 and Guardiola’s worst-ever in the league as a manager) they need to beat Tottenham this weekend to keep alive any hopes of winning the title. City can’t afford any more slipups and their defensive unit has to improve.

Going forward Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling David Silva and Sergio Aguero have been in good form for most of the season, but adding Jesus will bring competition and Kelechi Iheanacho will also be pushing him all the way for minutes.

Many would like to see Aguero given some help up top and maybe Jesus can start alongside him in the weeks and months to come?

We all saw just how good Jesus can be during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Now he has all eyes on him as he prepares to make his long-awaited debut against Tottenham.

Kaka hoping to stay in Orlando beyond 2017

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 08:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC dribbles the ball during an MLS soccer match between the New York City FC and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 8, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Kaka is enjoying life in Florida.

The former Ballon d’Or winner is hoping to stay with Orlando City SC beyond the end of his contract, which runs its course after the 2017 season.

[ MORE: Real Madrid now winless in three ]

Kaka has been very good for the Lions, scoring 19 goals and 15 assists in 53 total matches. Reports had said he’s skip town after the third year of the deal, but Kaka refutes that idea.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“A misunderstanding because I am very happy here,” Kaká told reporters at MLS Media Day on Tuesday. “I had a three year contract, so this is the last year under this contract, but my idea is to stay here.

“Of course we never know what can happen at the end of the season or during the season, but my idea for now is to stay in Orlando and stay in the league.”

Kaka turns 35 in April, but has been consistently good even if injuries kept him to 24 MLS contests last season. If he puts forth a similar season, there’s little reason for Orlando — or another team — not to take a chance on Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.