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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.

PSG down Marseille 2-1 for ninth-straight Le Classique win

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 21:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic #10 of Paris Saint-Germain is congratulated by teamamte Maxwell #17 after Ibrahimovic scored a goal in the second half against AFC Fiorentina during the International Champions Cup at Red Bull Arena on July 21, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.Paris Saint-Germain defeated ACF Fiorentina 4-2.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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France’s biggest rivalry has been quite one-sided, as Paris Saint-Germain defeated Marseille 2-1 on Sunday to take their ninth-straight Le Classique.

Marseille’s last win over PSG in Ligue 1 play was in November of 2011.

[ MORE: Juve win 14th straight ]

PSG got off to a dream start in Sunday’s Classique as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in the opening two minutes to give the Le Parisiens an early lead. It was Zlatan’s league-leading 21st goal of the season.

On loan from Newcastle, Remy Cabella equalized for Marseille in the 25th minute. Cabella scored on a brilliant individual effort, taking the ball from his own half on a solo run to the PSG box before firing a low shot into the bottom corner.

[ RELATED: Lewandowski’s agent confirms contract talks with Bayern Munich ]

However, PSG pushed on and claimed the win thanks to a 71st minute goal from Angel di Maria, who has been impressing in his first season in Paris. With eight goals and ten assists in Ligue 1 play, only Zlatan has been involved in more goals than di Maria.

Through 25 matches, PSG hold a ridiculous 24-point lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Barca, Juve continue record streaks

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar JR of Barcelona walk on the pitch during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Catch up on all of Sunday’s action from Spain and Italy’s top flights.

Levante 0-2 Barcelona

With a two-goal win over Levante, Barcelona has tied their club-record as the Catalans are now unbeaten in 28 games across all competitions. An own-goal and late tally from Luis Suarez gave Barca the win against Levante, as Barcelona remains three points clear at the top of the La Liga table.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Granada 1-2 Real Madrid

Granada sits second-to-last in La Liga, but the struggling club nearly took points from Real Madrid, who needed a late strike from Luka Modric to leave with a win. Karim Benzema had put Real ahead, but Youssef El Arabi equalized for Granada who looked to be the more dangerous side for spells of the second half. However, Modric scored the winner with a blistering top-corner strike with less than ten minutes to play as Zinedine Zidane remains undefeated in charge.

Real Betis 1-0 Valencia

Gary Neville is still without a win in La Liga play after nine matches in charge as Valencia fell 1-0 to Real Betis on Sunday. Betis has been struggling as well, as the win was the club’s first league success since November. With both teams on 25 points, the two sides sit just four points above the relegation zone.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-1 Sevilla
Espanyol vs. Real Sociedad (Monday, 2:30 p.m. ET)


Frosinone 0-2 Juventus

After beating Frosinone, Juventus has now won a club-record 14 straight Serie A matches. Juventus’ last league defeat came way back on October 28, as The Old Lady has climbed from 12th to second on the table. Paulo Dybala scored again in the win over Frosinone, as the Argentinian striker is now second in the league with 13 goals on the year.

Napoli 1-0 Carpi

While Juventus’ Dybala is second in Serie A with 13 goals, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain scored the game’s only goal against Carpi to bring his league-leading tally up to 24. Higuain buried his penalty shot to lead Napoli to another win on Sunday, as Maurizio Sarri’s side remains two points clear at the top of the table. Higuain has been the main man, scoring eight goals in his last six matches while grabbing 24 in 24 appearances on the year.

[ VIDEO: John Terry says he made it “very clear” he wanted to stay at Chelsea ]

Verona 3-3 Inter Milan

After winning their first match of the season last week, Verona nearly won a second-straight against Inter Milan, although they had to settle for a draw against the Italian giants. Verona led the match 3-1 with 30 minutes to play, but goals from Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic rescued a point for Inter. With the point, Inter remain fourth place on the table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sassuolo 2-2 Palermo
Torino 1-2 Chievo
AC Milan 1-1 Udinese
Atalanta 0-0 Empoli
Roma 2-1 Sampdoria

Lewandowski’s agent confirms talks with Bayern over new contract

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 21:  Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Muenchen in action during the international friendly match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Inter Milan of the Audi Football Summit 2015 at Shanghai Stadium on July 21, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Robert Lewandowski’s stellar season has seen the striker linked with all the top clubs in Europe, but he could be staying put at Bayern Munich.

The Bundesliga’s second-leading goalscorer has been tipped for big-money moves to Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain this year, but his agent Cezary Kucharski said “there is no need to change anything.”

[ MORE: Barca unbeaten in 28 ]

Speaking to Polish news outlet Polsat Sport, Kucharski said that he has started talking with Bayern about a contract extension and denied speaking with other clubs.

Yes, we’ve started talking [to Bayern]. I can confirm this.

I won’t talk about specifics, because it’s confidential. Real have not conducted talks over a transfer. It’s just speculation. Rumours around Robert show what a player he is. He’s known not only in Poland or Germany, but throughout Europe.

There are no talks with PSG. The English write about English clubs, the French about PSG, the Spaniards Real Madrid, and Juventus in Italy. In each country a great club is linked with Robert.

But Lewandowski is at a team that suits him, and there is no need to change anything. I know [Bayern chairman] Rummenigge is aware that Lewy is a great player, who has great value for Bayern, and how such a boy should be rewarded.

Lewandowski has scored 19 goals in 19 Bundesliga appearances this season for Bayern, as the German giants hold an eight-point lead at the top of the table. Overall, Lewandowski has scored 27 goals in 29 appearances in all competitions.

[ RELATED: Alexandre Pato eager to make his mark at Chelsea ]

In the midst of the best season of his career, the 27-year-old Polish international could move to any club and be the star player, where at Bayern he is just one of many stars. However, with the amount of success he is having at Munich, there is no reason to leave.

VIDEO: John Terry says he made it “very clear” he wanted to stay at Chelsea

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John Terry will leave Chelsea at the end of this season, although it may be against his will.

The Blues’ captain announced earlier this year that he would not be given a new contract and will move on after 18 years with the club.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Speaking after Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Sunday, Terry said he has had no communication with the club about the possibility of signing a new deal, although he made it “very clear” that he never intended on leaving.

The club is the most important thing.

There’s no communication between myself and the club at this minute. I said what I had to say, that’s how it was.

I made it very clear that I wanted to stay.

Chelsea has a policy of giving older players one-year contracts, and one would assume Terry could still help the club on the pitch for another season. However, with the captain saying there has been no communication about even the possibility of signing a new deal, it looks like he is being forced out.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Chelsea vs. Manchester United ]

With more than 700 appearances for Chelsea and one of the club’s iconic figures, it looks like the end of Terry’s run at Stamford Bridge could be a bit messy. Hopefully, the club can patch this situation so Terry gets the send-off he deserves.