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With Rapinoe, Solo, Seattle Reign FC finally putting the pieces together

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Standing on the pitch in suburban Boston after nearly a third full 90-minute match in a hot, muggy week of East Coast weather was a shock to the system for Megan Rapinoe.

Until these past 10 days, the crafty United States and Seattle Reign FC midfielder hadn’t played in the heat and humidity this calendar year. She went from winter in the U.S. to more moderate temperatures in France, spending the spring with UEFA Champions League runner-up Lyon.

She would be within reason to take a break after a busy six months with Lyon, but instead Rapinoe decided to jump right in and help her struggling National Women’s Soccer League team.

“I think that show’s what she’s like as a character,” Seattle coach Laura Harvey said after Wednesday’s match.

Wednesday was Seattle’s first win (1-9-2), ending a frustrating 10 weeks that saw the club lose nine-straight games after an opening weekend draw.

Rapinoe played 90 minutes for the United States on June 20 – delivering the corner kick to Abby Wambach’s head for a record-breaking goal – and then joined her Seattle teammates in Rochester, N.Y., last weekend. Ninety minutes of out-playing the fourth place Western New York Flash only produced a draw, but Seattle’s maiden victory finally came on Wednesday against a slumping Boston Breakers team, a 2-1 win in which Rapinoe played 87 minutes and created the equalizing goal.

“I think coming off a season in France, knowing I was going to be tired, was meant to be managed a little bit more,” Rapinoe said. “But after I got onto the field, when it got to the time that I was meant to come off I looked at Laura and I was like, ‘I’m fine.’ My competitive juices catch up.”

It’s no coincidence that Seattle’s first victory comes just five days after Harvey finally met Rapinoe.

Brimming in confidence, the instantly recognizable 27-year-old platinum blonde struck a shot off the woodwork – the corner where the post meets the crossbar – in the 80th minute, four minutes after nearly catching Breakers goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher off her line with a dipping volley nearly from the center circle.

It was a knuckling, driven Rapinoe free kick that Naeher spilled for Jessica Fishlock to tap-in for the 78th minute equalizer.

“We constantly thought we weren’t showing people how good we felt we were as a group,” Harvey said. “And now we’ve added the extra quality of Hope (Solo), the extra quality of Megan and you start to see a difference with us now.”

It’s not that Seattle were as bad as their 0-9-2 record coming into Wednesday’s match suggested. Lady luck just seemed to be against them. Almost nothing went right for Reign FC since January.

Solo and Rapinoe were two of the three United States women’s national team allocations acquired by Seattle in January. Rapinoe had already signed to play the spring with Lyon in France, where she fell one victory short of a UEFA Champions League title. Forward Amy Rodriguez soon after allocation found out she was pregnant, and Solo in early March underwent surgery to repair cartilage in her left wrist.

All that left Seattle without their stars – players around which to anchor a team.

Solo’s return between the pipes on May 25 brought a sense of calm, but the misfortunes continued with a dubious handball call in the box late in the match against Portland and a strange misplay from Solo in another 1-0 loss in the following match vs. Kansas City.

Still, Seattle showed signs of hope, but never had enough to finish. Seattle has scored just seven goals in 12 games.

“Megan Rapinoe is a special player, but even before she got here, we were starting to play well together,” Solo said.

“I am proud even before Megan got here (in) our ability to hold the ball. You can see we’re a team that can play.”

Rodriguez, a forward, is that final piece that Seattle desperately could have used. When – and if – Rodriguez turns up in a Seattle jersey, Reign FC will welcome a forward with international experience.

But for now, Rapinoe – whose flair is peaking following a half-season with the world’s best club team – is clearly ready to serve as an attacking threat, even if it comes from the left wing. She took nine of Seattle’s 18 shots on Wednesday.

“I’m feeling really, really confident coming off my season there,” she said. “I think it was a different style. I think it was a different kind of game. Definitely not emphasized on the physical attributes, but kind of where I could find myself in the game. More of the technical and the tactical side and just feeling like when I get the ball I can kind of impact the game in different ways, not just the physical.”

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.

Mourinho looks to pile title pressure on Chelsea

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A week ago, just before their 2017/18 Premier League season began, Antonio Conte declared Chelsea to be an underdog for the title. It’s right not to put Chelsea to be a favorite,” Conte said.

Jose Mourinho disagrees.

Looking to deflect pressure away from his Manchester United squad, Mourinho declared Chelsea to not only be the favorites to win the Premier League this season and defend their title, but proclaimed it would be a massive disappointment if they didn’t.

[ MORE: Liverpool in an advantageous position regarding Coutinho ]

To Mourinho, the simple fact that Chelsea won last season means they should consider themselves the team to beat going forward. “For me the favorite is the champion,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Manchester United’s game against Swansea City on Saturday. “Always. Because for some reason [they were] the champion. It doesn’t mean you are going to win it – I think it is the stamp that you have when you are champion, it is that the next season you are the favorite.”

Chelsea seems to have a depth issue at the moment, with injuries plaguing the squad. New signing Tiemoue Bakayoko leaves a big hole in midfield, especially with Nemanja Matic sold to the Red Devils. In addition, Gary Cahill and Pedro will miss time in the near future with suspensions, while superstar Eden Hazard remains out as he recovers from a broken ankle.

Despite all the missing players, Mourinho believes that Chelsea always comes through in the transfer window, and that will solve their problems. “If they have [depth problems], in a couple of weeks the problems are over. They have very good teams, very good players and I don’t see any reason for them not to be fighting for the title.”

Manchester United next meets Chelsea on November 5th in Premier League action at Stamford Bridge.

LA Galaxy offloads Jelle van Damme to native Belgium

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The 2017 season continues to punch LA Galaxy fans right in the gut.

With the club near the basement of the Western Conference standings, the LA Galaxy have officially announced the sale of defensive rock Jelle van Damme to Royal Antwerp of the Belgian top flight. The club confirmed a transfer fee of $235,000.

While van Damme is 33 years old, the sale of fan-favorite van Damme is still a blow both on and off the pitch. With the Galaxy in a period of transition, van Damme was a likeable personality who was known for leaving it all out on the field on gamedays.

The official news release of the transfer made it clear the club did not initiate the transfer with the intention to sell, but instead the player himself requested a return home as his career comes nearer to a close. Van Damme is from Lokeren, Belgium, a town between Antwerp and Ghent.

“Jelle came to us and requested to return home to Belgium to be closer to his children,” LA Galaxy General Manager Pete Vagenas told LAGalaxy.com. “We worked closely with Jelle and Royal Antwerp so that we could make this move possible for Jelle and his family. Our top priority remains the success of the LA Galaxy. We thank him for his time with our club and wish him the best going forward.”

Van Damme joined the Galaxy in early 2016 on a free transfer from Belgian giants Standard Liege. He made 55 total appearances across all competitions, including 46 in league play and another three in the playoffs. The defender’s contract was set to expire in December.

The team has taken a total nosedive in the last two months. Without a league win since June 21st against Colorado, the Galaxy have collected just a single point in league play, and they currently sit just a point off the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho saga

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In a time of heightening player control in a rapidly expanding transfer market, one club sticks out as grasping a clear understanding of the shifting business landscape and how to retain its grip on its most valuable assets.

Following the sudden departure of superstar playmaker Neymar, Barcelona is trying desperately to pry Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. On Friday, numerous reports in England claimed that Barcelona had gone in with a third bid, one even more ridiculous than the previous two. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

For a number of reasons, the Reds hold complete control over Philippe Coutinho’s transfer saga, a saga that will likely end with no transfer having been completed.

First and foremost, Coutinho just recently signed a contract extension in January that runs through 2022. As far as we know, there is no release clause in the deal, meaning at the most basic of levels, Liverpool maintains contractual control. However, as we’ve seen the past few years, that alone hasn’t stopped a number of players forcing their way out.

Yet this time, Liverpool finds itself in an advantageous position outside of just the contract. With the 2018 World Cup right around the corner, the Reds know that should they force Coutinho to stay, he is obligated to play at his best, knowing that any less would see him miss out on a spot in the packed Brazil roster, or at the least a starting position. Thus, Liverpool can be sure that even if their denial of his departure renders him despondent, he will likely remain the quality player he has proven to be.

The money Barcelona is offering – a whopping $151 million according to the most recent reports – is indeed a ludicrous amount for a player who, while quality, does not have nearly the marketability of his countrymate now residing in Paris. On talent alone, Coutinho likely isn’t worth that total, meaning Liverpool should sell. And yet, even with that cash in hand, in this hyper-inflated market where more is less, could it really do justice in replacing his impact in the club? This late in the transfer window, there’s no chance they could replace the 25-year-old, meaning they’d likely be torpedoing their entire season – Champions League included – to feel the warmth of $151 million burning a hole in their pocket until January, or even next summer.

Liverpool has built its entire roster around Coutinho. The arrival of Salah, the use of Firmino, the wide deployment of Mane, the makeup of the midfield. He’s good enough and young enough to be considered a “franchise player.” In two games without Coutinho this season, they’ve scored five goals, but that is a poor metric to describe the 180 wild minutes. The money alone isn’t worth the cost of his departure.

It’s quite possible that Barcelona’s stubbornness, brought on by the sudden loss of a beloved player and the meteoric rise of their rivals to all-time greatness, could see the Catalans come back with an even more preposterous bid. It’s true every player has a value, and at some point, should Barcelona’s blind rage see them flail wildly into the transfer window, the Reds should sell, and will. But with Fenway Sports Group not in dire need of cash and in an advantageous position, in all likelihood they won’t. Barcelona can throw all the Neymar money at Liverpool their heart desires, but nothing will force the Reds to budge.