State of the NWSL, after Week 12: Reign FC’s narratives, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 13

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If an NFL team went 0-8, we’d only watch for the train wreck. Once they broke through, we’d move on. Nobody’s interested in a 1-8 team.

But what if J.J. Watt all of a sudden appeared on their roster? And Adrian Peterson arrived a couple of weeks later? Like the record would matter, at that point. That injection of new talent on a wayward team? We’d tune in just for the spectacle.

That’s why the Seattle Reign have become must-see soccer. Midway through the season, they’ve finally added two of the league’s four most recognizable players, players whose absences had contributed to the team’s 0-9-2 first half. Hope Solo, sidelined through the season’s first two months while recovering from wrist surgery, has returned to solidify a defense that was overwhelmed through May. And Megan Rapinoe, having finished her Lyon sojourn, returned for Seattle’s draw in Rochester, the start of the team’s three-game unbeaten run.

Since Rapinoe returned, Seattle is 2-0-1.

“We’re starting to see the hard work paying off,” Seattte coach Laura Harvey told Equalizer Soccer. “We felt that we played okay in some previous games and decisions and luck hasn’t gone our way.”

That’s an understatement. Between a phantom penalty call (May 25), an out-of-character Solo error (June 9) and another phantom penalty call (June 23), Seattle recently had four points taken in aberrational circumstances. That’s not to say Seattle “should have had those points.” They did, after all, contribute to those circumstances. But it does hint Seattle’s current resurgence started before Megan Rapinoe galloped into town.

It just illustrates the fickle nature of narratives – the angles people like me choose when telling these tales. When Megan Rapinoe returns and Seattle stars getting results, it’s easy to see the correlation and think Rapinoe’s meant so much. And she’s certainly helped, but Seattle was on the verge of a breakthrough before her arrival. Any tale of Rapinoe’s illustrious contributions should note: Seattle’s been decent for a while.

It’s a shame there’s no pithy saying about correlation and causation, because it often bears reminding: They’re not the same. And while the Reign have certainly seemed to get a confidence boost from Rapinoe’s return, her performances haven’t defined Seattle’s wins. People like Christine Nairn, Jessica Fishlock, Keelin Winters and Kaylyn Kyle deserve more credit that they’re being given.

Then again, that may just be my narrative.

RANKINGS OF POWER

In reverse order. The underlying logic: Tomorrow, neutral site, who do we think is more likely to win:

8. Washington Spirit (last week: 8) – An embarrassing loss Friday at Western New York saw Mike Jorden lose his job, replaced by Mark Parsens. The move came after goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris’s post-match comments said the team lacked leadership and direction. Jorden’s response, via Equalizer Soccer: “I hope the Spirit fine her and sit her down.”

7. Chicago Red Stars (5) – A loss at Seattle sees the Red Stars lose two spots, but they’re much closer to 5 than 8 in terms of quality. They’ll be a problem tonight for Western New York.

6. Boston Breakers (6) – A Sunday win over visiting Sky Blue keeps their playoff hopes alive, but with games this week at Seattle and Portland, those hopes could be extinguished by Saturday.

5. Portland Thorns FC (4) – We could write this every week: Portland still hasn’t figured out how to replace Becky Edwards. Against Kansas City, it showed. They’re not the same team defensively, lacking somebody to protect the back line. They’re not the same offensively without that strong holder at the base of midfield. With the attack having slipped to fifth in the league, players are starting to get frustrated. There are rumblings in the house that Merritt built.

4. Seattle Reign FC (7) – It’s not an exaggeration to say two huge wins have turned the club around. The whole club.

3. Sky Blue FC (1) – Were second best in both of last week’s games, and although they got a miraculous point from FC Kansas City, their luck ran out at the boots of Sydney Leroux. They’re a rocket that’s coming back to earth.

2. FC Kansas City (4) – Two more goals from Lauren Cheney have the Blues’ midfielder running away with the MVP race. It’s not even that interesting to talk about, right now. Slightly more interesting: The comparison between her success and Christine Sinclair’s struggles.

1. Western New York Flash (2)- Carli Lloyd scored three times. Abby Wambach added two assists. And Sam Kerr wasn’t even in the country. I feel obligated to remind you: I picked this team to finish seventh.

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, July 3

Seattle Reign vs. Boston Breakers (10:00 p.m. Eastern) – Seattle’s strength in the middle guarantees a shakey Boston defense will have to deal with Rapinoe and Nairn. Newly acquired Renae Cuellar could play, a perfect addition to an attack that lacked a true striker.

Washington Spirit vs. FC Kansas City (7:30 p.m. Eastern) – The Spirit haven’t scored since May 16, and as a team, they’ve only scored one more time than Lauren Cheney, who will miss this game and Sunday’s as she marries Philadelphia 76ers point guard Jrue Holliday. That leaves the door open for Washington to spring an upset.

Thursday, July 4

Chicago Red Stars vs. Western New York Flash (2:00 p.m. Eastern) – The teams’ last meeting ended in a draw in Chicago, but with the Flash hitting for four on Friday, Aaran Lines’ team has recaptured their momentum. Their chase for a home playoff game is on.

Saturday, July 6

Sky Blue FC vs. Washington Spirit (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – If Sky Blue’s descent has started, a visit from Washington could give them a needed boost. If they can’t win this, we’ll know they’re in trouble.

Portland Thorns FC vs. Boston Breakers (10:30 p.m. Eastern) – Depending what happens mid-week in Seattle, this may be a must-win game for the Breakers. Cindy Parlow Cone shouldn’t relish the idea of her midfield against Mariah Nogueira, Joanna Lohman, Heather O’Reilly, and Lianne Sanderson.

Sunday, July 8

Western New York Flash vs. FC Kansas City (3:10 p.m. Eastern) – It’s one versus two, per our Power Rankings. The first time Kansas City visited Rochester, they came away with their first loss of the season. The short rest between two artificial surface games could have an effect on Wambach.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.

Barcelona announces Valverde as next manager

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Six days after leaving his post at Athletic Bilbao, another dream job has been signed, sealed, and delivered to Ernesto Valverde.

The ex-Barcelona striker is joining the Blaugranas as the replacement for accolade-winning coach Luis Enrique, who stepped away from the position after Saturday’s Copa del Rey victory.

[ JPW: Huddersfield completes the dream ]

Valverde, 53, played two seasons with Barca in the late 1980s, and previously coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia. His spent most of his playing career at Athletic and began as their manager in 2013.

Here’s what Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu said about Valverde:

“Valverde has the ability, the knowledge and the experience. He promotes players from the youth teams and he has a style and a way of working like ours. He has a philosophy of the game that is very Barça and he is a hard worker. Also, he is passionate about applying technology to both training and matches.”

Valverde becomes the fourth manager to take charge of Barcelona since Pep Guardiola left in 2012 (Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, and Enrique are the others).

Huddersfield seal fairytale promotion to Premier League

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LONDON — Huddersfield Town have been promoted to the Premier League.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to “fairytale” ]

The Terriers, for the first time in their history, will play in the PL and for the first time since 1972 they will be in the top-flight of English soccer.

German-American manager David Wagner has worked a miracle to turnaround a team who finished in 19th place in the Championship last season. They beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks on Monday after a tight, tense 120 minutes of action at Wembley Stadium, holding their nerve to seal an estimated windfall of $218 million next season and up to $372 million if they survive in the PL for another season.

All day long, and perhaps all season long, it has felt like Huddersfield were destined for promotion.

Huddersfield sold out their full allocation of tickets, 39,150, and their fans made the most noise all day long. There was no contest.

In central London Huddersfield’s fans piled on to the tube heading to Wembley for their day of reckoning.

“It’s his first full season as a fan!” said a proud mother decked out in a Huddersfield shirt as she hugged her five-year-old son proudly. “What a time to start!” replied a stranger, also a Huddersfield fan.

Excited chatter filled the 15 minute tube ride from Baker Street to Wembley Park as fans “I can’t believe it,” said one fan to another, quietly. “It will hit home when we get into the stadium,” his friend replied.

Steven Sunderland stood outside Wembley with his wife Melanie and their daughter Megan.

He summed up the surprise that Huddersfield were even one game away from the Premier League to start with.

“It would be amazing to play all of the big clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, clubs like that,” Sunderland said. “I never thought we would make it. No chance. I just thought if we make midtable, it would be an improvement on last season because we’ve been struggling with relegation the last few seasons. This season, David Wagner has got the team playing really well, best team spirit I’ve ever seen for a long, long time. The fans are really connected. It shows today, there are nearly 40,000 Huddersfield fans here today and they are up for it.”

Oh yes. Yes they were.

Amid dissecting the struggles of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, talk of just going up to the PL for one year and then enjoying it “no matter how we do” was rife among the Huddersfield fans. One Terriers supporter puffed out his cheeks, gripping his can of cider nervously as he walked up Wembley Way.

Tense was the word of the day.

With the future of both clubs on the line, the game itself didn’t deliver end-to-end excitement. With an estimated $218 million on the line for next season and $370 million if they manage to stay up one year in the PL, the economic benefit for Huddersfield the club, and the town, will be huge.

When Michael Hefele headed wide and Isaiah Brown missed a glorious chance early on, you began to wonder if it was Huddersfield’s day. In the end none of that mattered.

Christopher Schindler stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty kick after Danny Ward saved from Jordan Obita as Huddersfield had reached the promised land.

Huddersfield chairman Dean Hoyle summed up his emotions after taking over the club and putting in a prudent plan for promotion involving loan players and a budget less than $12 million this season.

“I’m so emotional. To say I’ve been supporting this club since 1969, to be a Premier League team now – dreams come true,” Hoyle said. “It’s huge what it means for Huddersfield, we’re on the big stage. It proves you don’t have to blow your brains to get promoted. We’ve done it the right way.”

What impact will this have on the Yorkshire town?

Sunderland and his family summed it up perfectly as yet another underdog, just like Bournemouth, Blackpool and Burnley before them, has risen to the promised land.

“It is massive. It is the land of milk and honey if you like, the place where everybody wants to be,” Sunderland said. “It will be brilliant, for the town. Just that little bit of success makes a big difference. We’ve been on TV this season more times than we have been the last 10 seasons. Next year it will be high profile very week. Match of the Day, on TV… Champions League the year after!? You never know.”

What did Wagner have to say? He told ProSoccerTalk he wants Huddersfield to keep the identity he has helped build and nurture.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves. This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They certainly are. Even if their fans can’t quite believe it.

As some posed for photos outside the electronic board at Wembley which said “congratulations Huddersfield!” others stood around in disbelief.

A group of three young Yorkshiremen sat on the tube back to Baker Street in stunned silence.

“We are going to be on Match of the Day!” said one fan, rubbing his hands in glee as he recites an intro to next years show which, of course, features Huddersfield top of the bill.

Discussion then switches to which games they’re most looking forward to. Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United away tops the list.

“We can’t believe it. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said one fan as they looked at each other with dropped jaws.

Believe it, lads.

Watch out, Premier League. Huddersfield are on their way.

David Wagner reacts to Huddersfield’s promotion

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LONDON — There will be an American coach in the Premier League next season.

David Wagner, 45, led Huddersfield Town to its first-ever promotion to the Premier League as the Terriers beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks after a tense Championship Playoff Final at Wembley which ended 0-0 after 120 minutes.

Speaking after the nail-biting win, Wagner was delighted that his team proved everyone wrong and came from nowhere to reach the top-flight for the first time since 1972.

“A lot of the pundits wrote us off before the season,” Wagner told Sky Sports. “Over the season I thought we could do a little bit more, I thought around Christmas when we’d played everyone we had a chance. What happened is an unbelievable story – a fairytale.”

The former U.S. national team forward has galvanized the club, linking the team and fans together with passion and a plethora of loan players from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.

What he has achieved this season has left Huddersfield fans stunned as the former Borussia Dortmund II boss, who left the German giants in November 2015, has built a hardworking, organized team.

ProSoccerTalk asked Wagner if he will look at any of the smaller teams who have been recently promoted to the PL — the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley et al. — to follow a blueprint of how to plan ahead.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves,” Wagner said. “This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They are certainly on their way and we will be hearing a lot about the Terriers in the days and weeks to come.