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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.

MLS Snapshot: New York Red Bulls 4-0 FC Dallas (video)

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:  Felipe Martins #8 of New York Red Bulls drives around Federico Higuain #10 of Columbus Crew during their match at Red Bull Arena on November 29, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Is it too early to say the Red Bulls have their mojo back? While FC Dallas will be leaving Harrison dazed and confused, the Red Bulls found success offensively for the second consecutive match, while also shutting out a potent attack. Head coach Jesse Marsch recently said that the Red Bulls’ win over Orlando City could spark a positive chain reaction moving forward, and it appears he was right. The Red Bulls looked dangerous every time they came down the Dallas end, finding the back of the net four times. Dallas still holds the top spot in the Western Conference, while New York makes a jump in the East, now sitting on nine points this season.

[ MORE: Previewing Week 9 around MLS ]

Three moments that mattered

37′ — Clever Red Bulls free kick finished by Sam — After two players ran over the ball, Sacha Kljestan’s chip to the far post was perfectly placed toward the run of Sal Zizzo. The right back nodded it into the center, where Lloyd Sam smashed the close-range chance home for the Red Bulls opener.

52′ — Kljestan doubles lead in style — Sam continued his impressive night for the Red Bulls after a long-range effort struck the bar from 40 yards out. Sacha Kljestan’s hustle put him in the right place at the right time and slid in to head the ball into the open net. FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez made his best effort but the initial shot’s bounce threw him off.

71′ — Grella heads home third — Sam was arguably the most dangerous man on the pitch Friday night, and he was directly involved in New York’s third goal. The 31-year-old found himself down the right wing, before laying the ball off to Felipe. The Brazilian crossed the ball into a striding Grella, who headed the ball home, giving Gonzalez no chance.

82′ — Felipe concludes the rout  — The Brazilian got in on the action for the fourth time on the night. The central midfielder received the ball at the top of the box from rookie Alex Muyl, before ripping a effort to the top corner. Gonzalez managed to get a hand to it, but Felipe’s shot was too strong to keep out.

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

Man of the match: Lloyd Sam

Goalscorers: Lloyd Sam (37′), Sacha Kljestan (52′), Mike Grella (71′), Felipe (82′)

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Crotone promoted to Serie A for 1st time in its history

CROTONE, ITALY - APRIL 23: Team of Crotone celebrate after the Serie B match between FC Crotone and Como Calcio  at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on April 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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MODENA, Italy (AP) Crotone secured promotion to Italy’s top flight for the first time in its history Friday, drawing 1-1 at Modena in Serie B to spark scenes of celebration in the Calabrian city.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazilian Copa America roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

There are three rounds remaining but a point was enough to guarantee Ivan Juric’s team will finish in the top two in the second division and earn automatic promotion to Serie A.

Cagliari is second, seven points behind Crotone, with Trapani eight points further back.

Davide Luppi gave Modena the lead in the 17th minute but former Juventus and Italy forward Raffaele Palladino leveled with a penalty on the stroke of halftime.

Around 1,200 fans had travelled to Modena, while thousands of people are celebrating in the streets of Crotone, where there were two giant screens set up for fans to watch the match.

It is Juric’s first season in charge of Crotone. The former Croatia midfielder also spent five years as a player for Crotone, before moving to Genoa in 2006.

The Stadio Ezio Scida, where Crotone plays its home matches, holds less than 10,000 people.

Fellow minnows Carpi and Frosinone were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history last season.

Carpi is currently three points above the drop zone, while Frosinone is five points from safety.

Arsene Wenger deserves criticism amid Arsenal fan protests

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 08:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal reacts during the Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round Replay match between Hull City and Arsenal at KC Stadium on March 8, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Now in his 20th season with the club, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has taken heat for failing to guide the team to success, or at least not in the form of trophies.

[ MORE: Van Gaal says Leicester will have to earn title against Man United ]

Arsenal supporters have arranged a protest for Saturday’s match against Norwich City, and that hasn’t been too pleasing for the team’s coach.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Premier League match for Week 36 ]

Are the fans right though? Should they be protesting the club’s lack of success?

The Gunners, who currently sit third in the Barclays Premier League as the season winds down, have been eliminated from the title race, something that has eluded the club since the 2003-04 campaign.

The only title that Arsenal has won since that season is the FA Cup, which they captured in back-to-back seasons (2013-14 and 2014-15).

In all, Wenger has captured nine trophies while with Arsenal, but only the FA Cup crowns have come in the past decade. Consistent top four finishes have aided the Frenchman’s chances of staying with the team, but now scrutiny is really taking shape amongst the Gunners supporters.

Wenger recently tried defending his lack of titles by citing the club’s financial struggles that resulted from Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006.

“You have to remember that when we built the stadium we had 5-7 difficult financial years when we had to pay back,” Wenger said earlier at a news conference. “And I think the club is now out of that period and is in a much stronger position. It is today in a position where we can compete again financially with our main opponents. But during that time it was very difficult.”

While his position in regards to the club’s finances may have played a bit of a factor, Arsenal still spends money like the rest of England’s top clubs.

Current players in the squad such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil didn’t come cheap, and while injuries have hampered the team’s success, Wenger is truly running out of excuses with the squad that lies in front of him.

Additionally, the team’s failure to find success in the most important competition of them all, the UEFA Champions League, has fans extremely antsy, and rightfully so.

Under Wenger, the Gunners have made it to the Champions League just twice and in neither case was Arsenal able to hoist the trophy. The Champions League is undoubtedly one of the most difficult competitions to find success in, but the club has exited the tournament in the Round of 16 during five straight seasons.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazil roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

Wenger will likely be retained next season, but the leash for the 66-year old is wearing thin. With Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola entering new positions at Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively, it’s fair to say that Wenger’s days could be numbered if he doesn’t secure any title in 2016-17.

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Coutinho, Kaka headline preliminary Brazil roster for Copa America

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It appears that Neymar won’t be the only big name missing from Brazil’s star-studded squad this summer at the Copa America Centenario.

[ VIDEO: Previewing every Week 36 match around the Premier League ]

The Selecao revealed their preliminary 40-man roster for this summer’s competition, and it includes Orlando City midfielder Kaka, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa of Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: PST discusses how Leicester has gotten to the verge of an epic title ]

Chelsea pair Willian and Oscar also made the initial cut, in addition to Liverpool midfielder Roberto Firminho, who is coming off of a stellar season for Liverpool.

Among the biggest snubs for Brazil are a trio of defenders. Paris Saint-Germain duo Thiago Silva and David Luiz were each left off, while Real Madrid wing back Marcelo was also left out of the side.

Head coach Dunga will be forced to cut his roster down to 23 before the tournament starts for the Brazilians on June 4. The Selecao will take on Ecuador, Haiti and Peru in Group B play.

You can view the entire roster below:

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