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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.

PL Sunday Preview: Everton hosts Man United, Liverpool visits Bournemouth

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United takes on Gareth Barry of Everton  during the Wayne Rooney Testimonial match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on August 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Chelsea remains atop the Premier League after its eighth straight victory, but Liverpool can keep within striking distance with a victory at Bournemouth on Sunday.

Elsewhere, an important top half clash takes place at Goodison Park as Everton hosts Manchester United.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Cherries have lost three of their last four matches, and Sunday’s test against Liverpool won’t make their stretch any easier. Eddie Howe‘s side currently sits in 12th place through 13 matches, but with just four points separating Bournemouth from the drop zone the club needs to begin to string together results once more. In their last five fixtures, Bournemouth has managed just three goals, so Callum Wilson and the attack will need to come out of its dry spell against the Reds — who have allowed the third fewest goals in 2016 (14).

Jurgen Klopp and his side haven’t lost in 15 matches across all competitions, and with another win on Sunday Liverpool can remain close to Chelsea at the top of the PL. While the Reds attack often gets much of the recognition, the Liverpool is beginning to hit its stride after allowing just four goals over the last matches in PL play. Meanwhile, the Reds attack will have to make due without Philippe Coutinho, who remains out injured with an ankle injury.

Everton vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Toffees have hit a rough patch after starting 2016 in fine form, but Sunday’s clash will certainly be a critical fixture for Ronald Koeman‘s side if they are to get back into the mix for the top six. Everton hasn’t won in its last three matches, while only scoring one goal in that span. Koeman’s group currently sits eighth in the table but a victory on Sunday would propel the Toffees up to sixth.

Jose Mourinho has already had his shares of ups and downs in his first season at Manchester United, however, the Red Devils have gone unbeaten in their last five matches across all competitions, bringing a more cheery feel around Old Trafford. With the club’s chances of advancing in the Europa League significant, Mourinho and co. can turn their attention back to the PL as the Red Devils attempt to get back into the title chase. United currently sits 14 points off the pace set by Chelsea, a gap that will have to dwindle down before the holidays if the team is to compete for the Premiership.

Chapecoense will be crowned Copa Sudamericana champions

ADDS NAMES - In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, players of Brazil's Chapecoense team pose before a Copa Sudamericana soccer match against Argentina's San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Top row from left, goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, Bruno Rangel Domingues, Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, Cleber Santana Loureiro, Willian Thiago. Bottom row from left, Guilherme Gimenez de Souza, Ananias Eloi Castro Monteiro, Tiago "Tiaguinho" Da Rocha Vieira, Matheus Bitencourt da Silva, Dener Assuncao Braz and Jose "Gil" Gildeixon Clemente de Paiva. A plane carrying the Brazilian soccer club Chapecoense team that was on it's way for a Copa Sudamericana final match against Colombia's Atletico Nacional crashed in a mountainous area outside Medellin, Colombian officials said Tuesday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
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Tragedy can only describe the event that transpired just days ago, but the soccer world has rallied around Chapecoense in the days that followed.

[ MORE: PL roundup: Chelsea handles Man City; Arsenal, Spurs cruise ]

The Brazilian club’s interim president Ivan Tozzo has confirmed that Chapecoense will be named Copa Sudamericana champions after CONMEBOL officials agreed to the terms.

Chapecoense was set to face Atletico Nacional in the tournament’s finale, however, Atletico called for CONMEBOL to award Chapeco the title and be awarded the prize money.

“CONMEBOL have testified that they will crown Chapecoense as champions of the Copa Sudamericana,” Tozzo told TV Globo.

“In addition, the club will receive the two million dollar prize. Everything is confirmed. I do not know if there will be a ceremony to receive the cup.”

In total, 71 people on the plane carrying most of the Chapeco squad perished in Monday’s crash, including 19 players.

Tozzo said that while the club is understandable still grieving the devastating event that Chapeco has received an overwhelming amount of support in the time of hardship.

“We are receiving support from all federations,” Tozzo said. “The CBF, CONMEBOL, FIFA, and especially the people of Chapeco. Right now we are beginning to rebuild the team. People want football, people love football in Chapeco.

“Therefore, we must continue this. Let’s talk and do well, let the dust settle and rebuild the team for next year. ”

Gareth Southgate will attempt to lure Zaha back to England

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 06:  Wilfried Zaha of Crystal Palace in action during the Pre Season Friendly match between Crystal Palace and Valencia at Selhurst Park on August 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
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Just days after Wilfried Zaha stunned the Football Association by announcing his decision to switch to playing for the Ivory Coast, England’s manager is prepared to lure the attacker back.

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea handles Man City; Arsenal, Spurs each score five ]

Gareth Southgate has come out and said that he will attempt to convince Zaha to remain with England, despite only having made two appearances with the senior side since 2012.

[ MORE: Gunners pressure helps aid five-goal performance at West Ham ]

Zaha, 24, came up with England at the Under-19 and U-21 levels, but his last call up with the senior team was three years ago.

While winger is a competitive position within the Three Lions squad, Southgate is content on speaking with Zaha and hopefully dissuading the attacker from switching his allegiance to Ivory Coast.

“I cannot assess that until I speak with him. I would like to speak to him before we make a decision and happy to make that happen.”

“We are still first and foremost hopeful that we can speak to Wilf. He’s a player I’ve obviously worked with. At the time, I had him with the Under-21s. First few months he played very well for us then he had a difficult period for his club [Manchester United]. [He had] A loan spell at Cardiff that didn’t go so well.

“At the stage we had players like Tom Ince, who was performing better in the Championship out wide for us so he dipped out of that group. Then obviously over the last couple of years, with respect no one was questioning him not being in our [senior Euro 2016] squad that summer.

In 2016, Zaha has made 15 appearances in all competitions for Crystal Palace and notched two goals in that span. Zaha began his professional career with the Eagles after coming up through the club’s academy, before making a highly-anticipated switch to Manchester United.

However, his time at United was cut short after making just two senior appearances for the club and Zaha landed back at Palace in 2015.

La Liga & Serie A: Ramos rescues draw in Clasico, Juve rolls

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid CF heads the ball towards goal and scores his team's first goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ MORE: PL roundup — Chelsea handles City; Spurs, Arsenal each score five ]

Barcelona 1-1 Real MadridRECAP

It was nearly the end of Real’s lengthy unbeaten streak, but then Sergio Ramos stepped up with his noggin to give the visitors a share of the points at the Camp Nou. The veteran Spanish defender headed home the equalizer in second-half stoppage time to give Real a draw against its bitter rival.

Barcelona took the lead on 53 minutes when Luis Suarez headed home a Neymar free kick from the left wing. The result keeps both sides in place as the league’s top two teams, with Real holding a six-point advantage at the summit.

Granada 2-1 Sevilla

On a day where the league’s top two sides settled for a draw in El Clasico, Sevilla suffered a massive blow on the road against one of La Liga’s struggling sides. Granada earned its first win of 2016 after goals from Andreas Pereira and David Lomban propelled the hosts past Sevilla.

Wissam Ben Yedder netted a late finish for the visitors in second-half stoppage time, however, it wasn’t enough for Sevilla to pull out a result. Granada remains in the relegation zone on eight points, while Sevilla holds its third-place standing following the loss.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Leganes 0-0 Villareal
Atletico Madrid 0-0 Espanyol

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Betis vs. Celta Vigo — 6 a.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Eibar — 10:15 a.m. ET
Alaves vs. Las Palmas — 12:30 p.m. ET
Sporting Gijon vs. Osasuna — 12:30 p.m. ET
Valencia vs. Malaga — 2:45 p.m. ET


Juventus 3-1 Atalanta

Alex Sandro and Daniele Rugani got Juventus out to a flying start in the first half, and it was Mario Mandzukic who finished the day off for the hosts. Juventus remains atop Serie A following Saturday’s convincing win over Atalanta, while the visitors remain in fifth place in Italy’s top flight.

Remo Freuler provided consolation for the away side in the 82nd minute after finishing off Marco D’Alessandro cross, which was Atalanta’s second shot on target during the match.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

AC Milan vs. Crotone — 6:30 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Roma — 9 a.m. ET
Sampdoria vs. Torino — 9 a.m. ET
Sassuolo vs. Empoli — 9 a.m. ET
Pescara vs. Cagliari — 9 a.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. Palermo — 2:45 p.m. ET