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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.

Bundesliga wrap: Top three win as Lewandowski bags trio

Munich's Robert Lewandowski, right, celebrates with Douglas Costa after scoring during the German first division Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and Hamburger SV in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)
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The top teams keep winning as the Bundesliga closes in on its final third of the season, as the top three sides all scooped up multi-goal wins on Saturday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Bayern Munich 8-0 Hamburg

One to forget for USMNT man Bobby Wood, as Bayern again spun the collective heads of Hamburg. Robert Lewandowski scored a hat trick and Kingsley Coman added a brace as the leaders battered 16th place Hamburg.

Lewandowski’s 19 goals are good for a tie atop the leaderboard, as he joins Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (More on him after this wild Tweet).

Freiburg 0-3 Borussia Dortmund

Aubameyang struck twice stay atop the Bundesliga leaderboard with 19 goals, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos also scored for third-place BVB. USMNT winger Christian Pulisic made an 8-minute cameo when he came on for Marco Reus late in the match.

RB Leipzig 3-1 Koln

Emil Forsberg scored in the first five minutes and an own goal gave the new boys a 2-0 halftime lead. Timo Werner than restored the two-goal cushion after Yuya Osako had scored Koln’s only goal.

Elsewhere

Wolfsburg 1-2 Werder Bremen — RECAP
Bayer Leverkusen 0-2 Mainz
Darmstadt 1-2 Augsburg
Hertha Berlin 2-0 Eintracht Frankfurt
Ingolstadt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach — 9:30 a.m. EDT Sunday
Schalke vs. Hoffenheim — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 22 16 5 1 54 13 41 8-3-0 8-2-1 53
 RB Leipzig 22 15 3 4 41 22 19 9-1-1 6-2-3 48
 Borussia Dortmund 22 11 7 4 46 23 23 7-3-0 4-4-4 40
 1899 Hoffenheim 21 9 10 2 38 21 17 6-5-0 3-5-2 37
 Hertha BSC Berlin 22 11 4 7 30 24 6 9-1-1 2-3-6 37
 Eintracht Frankfurt 22 10 5 7 25 22 3 6-3-1 4-2-6 35
 1. FC Köln 22 8 9 5 31 22 9 5-5-0 3-4-5 33
 Bayer Leverkusen 22 9 3 10 34 32 2 5-2-5 4-1-5 30
 SC Freiburg 22 9 3 10 28 39 -11 7-0-4 2-3-6 30
 FSV Mainz 05 22 8 4 10 31 37 -6 5-3-3 3-1-7 28
 FC Augsburg 22 7 6 9 21 28 -7 3-3-5 4-3-4 27
 FC Schalke 04 21 7 5 9 25 22 3 6-1-4 1-4-5 26
 Mönchengladbach 21 7 5 9 23 29 -6 5-3-3 2-2-6 26
 VfL Wolfsburg 22 6 4 12 20 33 -13 3-2-7 3-2-5 22
 Werder Bremen 22 6 4 12 28 43 -15 3-1-7 3-3-5 22
 Hamburger SV 22 5 5 12 21 45 -24 3-3-4 2-2-8 20
 FC Ingolstadt 04 21 5 3 13 19 32 -13 2-2-6 3-1-7 18
 Darmstadt 22 3 3 16 15 43 -28 3-3-6 0-0-10 12

PL Saturday roundup: Chelsea create 11-point gap, Everton extend unbeaten run

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25: Diego Costa of Chelsea (C) celebrates scoring his sides third goal with his challenges team mates during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on February 25, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
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Chelsea continued its path towards the Premier League crown on Saturday, while the league’s bottom sides are fighting for their lives to remain afloat next season.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Here, we take a look back at Saturday’s action from around England’s top flight.

Chelsea 3-1 Swansea CityRECAP

Swansea put up a heck of a fight after coming to life recently under manager Paul Clement, but Diego Costa and co. were too much in the end to keep the Blues at bay. Costa’s 16th goal of the season put the finishing touches on the encounter at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea an 11-point cushion at the summit of the PL. Goals from Cesc Fabregas and Pedro preceded Costa, while Fernando Llorente had put the Swans on level terms with the Blues just prior to halftime. Clement’s group remains out of the relegation zone in 15th place, but the club is a mere three points above the drop zone.

Everton 2-0 Sunderland — RECAP

Ronald Koeman‘s group have picked up form as of late, and Saturday’s win makes nine consecutive matches unbeaten for the Toffees. Romelu Lukaku and Idrissa Gueye booked their names on the scoresheet to create more woes for Sunderland, who remain in last place on 19 points.

West Brom 2-1 Bournemouth — RECAP

Joshua King put the visitors in front but West Brom’s resilience has moved the Baggies to within 10 points of the top four. Craig Dawson gave the Baggies an equalizer on the stroke of halftime, before Gareth McAuley provided the winner for the eighth-place side. The loss for Bournemouth won’t give the Cherries much comfort as they sit just five points above 18th place with 12 matches left to play.

Crystal Palace 1-0 Middlesbrough RECAP

The bleeding has stopped. At least temporarily for the Eagles. Crystal Palace has moved out of the bottom three courtesy of their victory at Selhurst Park, but Sam Allardyce‘s side still has much work left to do if they want to considered out of the clear. Patrick Van Aanholt netted in the first half to give Palace its first win in its last five matches across all competitions, while the Boro remain narrowly above Allardyce’s group in the table based on superior goal differential.

Hull City 1-1 Burnley — RECAP

Michael Keane was at the center of the action on Saturday but the Burnley defender made amends to give his side a share of the points at the KC Stadium. Keane was called for a hand ball inside his own area, which allowed Tom Huddlestone to put Hull out front. Meanwhile, the defender made things right for the visitors minutes later after finishing off a Robbie Brady corner kick.

Watford 1-1 West Ham United — RECAP

Andre Ayew helped ensure the Hammers would come away with a point at Vicarage Road after Michail Antonio struck both posts on the same attempt. The hosts got out to the lead after Troy Deeney converted from the penalty spot but the West Ham was calm and collected to move into ninth place. Watford sits just two points behind the Hammers in the table on 31 points.

Southampton vs. Arsenal — Postponed

Watford 1-1 West Ham United: Deeney, Ayew trade goals

Watford's Troy Deeney, second left, scores his side's first goal of the game against West Ham United during the English Premier League soccer match at Vicarage Road, Watford, England, Saturday Feb. 25, 2017. (Scott Heavey/PA via AP)
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  • Zarate gives away quick PK
  • Deeney converts
  • Ayew equalizes

Andre Ayew tapped in after Michail Antonio struck two posts with one shot, as West Ham scored a well-deserved equalizer in drawing Watford 1-1 at Vicarage Road on Saturday.

Troy Deeney converted a penalty for Watford, who lost ex-West Ham man Mauro Zarate to a serious-looking knee injury in the first half.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Watford earned a penalty within two minutes, as Troy Deeney played Mauro Zarate into the box and Cheikhou Kouyate took down the Argentine. Deeney beat Darren Randolph and it was quickly 1-0 to the hosts.

The Hornets continued to dominate the proceedings before West Ham saw a terrific chance in the 18th minute, with Robert Snodgrass‘ shot deflected out.

The Hammers had the better of play for a spell before a long delay when Zarate suffered a serious knee injury that stretched the first half into 10 minutes of stoppage time.

West Ham came close to answering several times in the second half, but was either a shade off or denied by Heurelho Gomes. The ex-Spurs backstop flew to deny Jose Fonte’s 62nd minute header.

And Michail Antonio nodded Aaron Cresswell‘s inviting cross wide of the near post in the 69th minute.

Antonio was the catalyst for the equalizer, curling a shot off both posts that went right to substitute Ayew. He finished. 1-1.

A second yellow card came Antonio’s way in the 86th minute, as the Irons would have to finish the away match down a man.

Isaac Success nearly won it for Watford on the doorstep just before the final whistle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Allardyce on Palace’s “great victory” over Boro

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25:  Sam Allardyce manager of Crystal Palace signals during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough at Selhurst Park on February 25, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
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Big Sam got a big win, and he knows it.

Two days after tearing into his players for not adapting to his system, the Crystal Palace boss was glowing with praise after the Eagles knocked off visiting Middlesbrough in a relegation six-pointer on Saturday.

[ MORE: Palace 1-0 Middlesbrough ]

The win lifts Palace out of the drop zone, a point ahead of Leicester City who plays Monday. Allardyce is shaping his own Premier League table and he’ll try to lift a sort of Bottom Seven trophy after the season

From the BBC:

“It’s a great victory. I think the two-week break helped us refocus and that showed – today they made a lot of very good decisions.

“The three points are important as it puts us in amongst the pack, out of the bottom three and a bit closer to Bournemouth.

“I see the bottom seven as the Premier League table we need to try and win. If we can achieve more then that would be great but we need to make next week’s game against West Brom a game to win.”

Crystal Palace have too much talent to be in this spot, and Allardyce’s acumen as a “never relegated” manager has not been questioned much despite the Eagles falling into a worse spot than they were when Alan Pardew was fired. Is this finally their move out of trouble, or just a clean sheet against a Boro team that can’t score?