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Walking through Week 12 of the NWSL season

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A before-and-after of the NWSL’s standings would tell you little about the league’s 12th week of the season. Sky Blue and Portland disappointed, but they remained one-two come Sunday night. FC Kansas City and Western New York, however – three-four in the league – gave strong performances, furthering the perception that the league’s four playoff teams have already stepped forward.

At the bottom of the table, Boston got a much-needed win over the league leaders on Sunday, a victory that keeps their long shot playoff hopes alive. Seattle is surging, a phrase people thought they would never read, while the Red Stars’ climb was haulted by their former cellar dwellers.

Let’s walk through the games, shall we?

Wednesday, June 26

Boston Breakers 1, Seattle Reign FC 2 – Seattle’s being improving for a month, but thanks to the depths to which they’d sunk and some terrible luck, the Reign remained winless. Then Wednesday came.

Though they gave up the opener, goals from Christine Nairn and Jessica Fishlock brought the visitors back, giving Seattle five points on the road this season (and none at home). Though neither Hope Solo nor Megan Rapinoe gave match-winning performances, you can’t help but thing the confidence they’ve brought to a floundering squad helped enable this comeback. It also prolonged a Breaker slide which, by the time they took the field on Sunday, Boston 10 points back of a playoff spot.

Implications: Seattle’s not going to make the playoffs, but right now, they’re playing as good as anybody. Sometimes, good soccer makes everything worthwhile. Boston, meanwhile, is grossly underperforming their talent and have to hope the integration of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher will eventually pay off.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 3 Sky Blue 14 27 +9
2 4 Portland 13 26 +7
3 2 Kansas City 12 23 +7
4 1 W. New York 12 22 +10
5 6 Boston 12 15 -1
6 7 Chicago 12 12 -7
7 5 Seattle 13 8 -12
8 8 Washington 11 6 -13

Sky Blue FC 2, FC Kansas City 2 – Two very late goals from substitute Monica Ocampo salvaged a result for the league leaders, the Mexican international continuing to make her case for playing time in place of the underperforming Danesha Adams and Kelley O’Hara (who continues to deal with an ankle problem). Where it not for her outburst, FC Kansas City would have gotten revenge for a their May 25 loss in Overland Park, one in which the Blues played most of the match with 10.

Regardless, Vlatko Andonovski’s starting XI shakeup looks to be paying off. Melissa Henderson, Courtney Jones, and Erika Tymrak are in. Renae Cualler, Sinead Farrelly, Merritt Mathias are out, and Kansas City looks like their former selves. Lauren Cheney has pulled into a tie for the league lead in goals (seven), while Tymrak looks like one of the year’s best draft picks.

Implications: We covered FCKC, but for Sky Blue the result highlights the problems they have with teams that can play wide. Western New York has given them problems all season, and FC Kansas City had the better of play on Wednesday. Both teams are capable of stretching that compact Sky Blue defense.

Friday, June 28

Western New York 4, Washington Spirit 0 – Three goals from Carli Lloyd and some extra time frosting from Brittany Taylor made for one of the most lopsided results of the season, one that had Washington Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris fuming after the game. Harris called out her defense (“How are you going to give someone like Carli Lloyd the amount of space and time she had”), potentially called out her coach (“we need some guidance, we need some leadership and until we get that, nothings going to change”), while expressing disappointment in “my team and myself.”

Implications: Mike Jorden was fired on Sunday.

Saturday, June 29

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 8 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Abby Wambach (WNY) 7 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 5
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 7 Leigh Ann Robinson (FCKC) 5
Sophie Schmid (SBFC) 6 Abby Wambach (WNY) 4
3 tied at 5 Katy Freels-Frierson (SBFC) 4

Seattle Reign FC 3, Chicago Red Stars 1 – On three days rest, one of which was spent on the return trip from Boston, Seattle got their second win of the season, climbing out of the cellar on the strength of their season’s first home points. While more focus will go to Rapinoe and Solo (Rapinoe didn’t start), Seattle’s other standouts did the damage. Kaylyn Kyle, whose move to central defense has salvaged her season, opened the scoring from the spot, while Jessica Fishlock’s ball under the cross bar from outside the penalty area sealed the victory. Rapinoe would add extra time insurance.

Implications: Seattle’s unbeaten in three, and you really can’t understate the quality and confidence it took to overcome the travel to knock off a team playing on nine days rest. For Chicago, if may have been the most disappointing result since the arrival of Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss, but it’s nothing they shouldn’t shake off.

Sunday, June 30

FC Kansas City 2, Portland Thorns FC 0 – For the second game in a row, Portland couldn’t stop their opponents from hitting their defense with momentum coming out of midfield. Unfortunately for them, FC Kansas City didn’t show the same mercy Sky Blue did last week. A brilliant goal from Lauren Cheney (her second of the week, eighth of the season) and an insurance tally from Merritt Mathias capped FC Kansas City’s best performance since May 18 (2-0 home win over the then-good Boston). The Thorns, on the other hand, gave arguably their worst performance of the season.

Implications: Without Becky Edwards, Portland’s no longer playing like a title contender. They have nine weeks to find a way to replace her. FC Kansas City, on the other hand, have rekindled their May selves. Many may have wondered what Andonovski was doing benching Cuellar and Matthias (many meaning me), but it’s worked. Go figure: A professional coach who’s worked with his players all year knows his squad better than we do.

Boston Breakers 3, Sky Blue FC 2 – Did I just imply (above) the Breakers are no longer good? Well then this happened, a win over a legitimately good team. As encouraging: The two goals from Sydney Leroux, who is suddenly only one goal behind Cheney for the league lead. For Sky Blue, it was their second disappointing performance of the week, falling to a team they’d handled two previous times this month.

Implications: For the first time since before the win in Portland, we’ve reason to believe Jim Gabarra’s team may fall back to the pack. Boston, on the other hand, is seven points out of the playoffs with 10 to play. They’ll need help, but it’s still possible.

And finally … our Player of the Week

source:  Ashlyn Harris may want to blame the Spirit defense, but Carli Lloyd deserves some credit. As we see in the missed chances racked up every weekend, scoring goals is never a given, and when you’re playing a midfielders role (albeit an attacking one).

That’s not to say Lloyd did everything on her own. Strong play from Sarah Huffman and Alex Sahlen created the first, a header from within Washington’s six-yard box. Abby Wambach crafted the final two, the first from wide left and the second with a flicked through ball that saw a Lloyd run open up the Spirit defense.

Lloyd, however, did her part. The first goal was relatively easy, but her finished on the second took advantage of the only ball width Ashlyn Harris gave her. On her final goal, Lloyd started and finished the movement, feeding Wambach before sprinting from the center circle during a play that ended in front of goal.

The role that Aaran Lines has Lloyd playing, the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation, is different that the job that’s made her famous for the national team, but just like Lauren Cheney in Kansas City, it may be the spot she’s best suited for. In six games, she’s notched four goals while helping to make the Flash a title contender.

Honorable mentions: Abby Wambach would have won this award other weeks; as would have Lauren Cheney (but seriously, we could say that every week); Hope Solo was ‘Hope Freakin’ Solo’ for much of the week; while Solo teammate Jessica Fishlock deserves as shout.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.