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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.

UEL: Saint-Etienne hope Beric comes to the rescue vs. Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United and Kevin Monnet-Paquet of Saint-Etienne in action during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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PARIS (AP) While Zlatan Ibrahimovic was scoring a hat trick in Manchester United’s win over Saint-Etienne in the Europa League last week, Robert Beric’s 11-minute substitute appearance at Old Trafford was barely noticed.

Still reeling from a hamstring injury, Beric’s cameo had little impact as Ibrahimovic ended Saint-Etienne’s 10-game unbeaten run in Europe by 3-0.

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Beric’s condition has improved since the heavy loss, and he featured in a French league game in Montpellier last weekend. The 1976 European Cup runner-up is hoping that’s enough for Beric to help it overturn their deficit against United on Wednesday in the last-32 return leg.

Beric, a versatile center-forward capable of playing with his back to goal and creating, joined Saint-Etienne last season. He’d scored 27 goals in 34 matches in his final season with Rapid Vienna, but was unable to replicate the feat in the French league because his progression was abruptly stopped by a serious right knee injury.

He is expected to start at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium after his teammates managed to force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into only a single save from 14 shots last week.

“Beric is so skillful and astute in front of goal that we all want to give him a starting nod,” former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli, now a club ambassador, told L’Equipe.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

United was carved open at times, but the French club was made to pay for its blatant lack of efficiency. Revelli insisted Beric can make a difference.

“He is likely to put our chances into the back of the net,” Revelli said.

With an estimated budget of close to 70 million euros, Saint-Etienne simply can’t afford the services of a world-class striker. When he joined the 10-time French champion for a reported six million euros, Beric became the third most expensive player signed by the club.

A humble player and a man of few words, Beric is somewhat the opposite of the self-infatuated Ibrahimovic.

Unlike Ibrahimovic, who once said he will be “God of Manchester,” Beric rarely speaks about himself and his rare comments on social networks are limited to praise of his teammates and Saint-Etienne fans.

Beric, who scored the last of his three league goals this season back in September, is not yet fully fit and should not be able to last the whole match. But Revelli is counting on his instinct for goals.

[ MORE: Guardiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” ]

“With him in a finisher role, I firmly believe in our chances,” said Revelli, Saint-Etienne’s all-time best scorer.

Saint-Etienne needs to find a way to stop Ibrahimovic, but history does not favor the home side.

During his time in France with Paris Saint-Gernain, Ibrahimovic was the scourge of Saint-Etienne, scoring 14 goals in 13 games in all competitions. He now has 17, including three hat tricks.

“It’s difficult to neutralize him. There is a possibility that we will set up an anti-Ibra plan,” Saint-Etienne coach Chirstophe Galtier said. “I don’t know what’s inside Zlatan, but for sure he likes to play against us. It’s not easy to score a hat trick in a European Cup game.”

Champions League Wednesday: Leicester’s last stand; Porto-Juve

SEVILLE, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City looks on during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Sevilla FC at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 21, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Previewing Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League round-of-16 action…

[ MORE: Man City win in epic comeback vs. Monaco | Atleti blitz Bayer ]

Leicester City vs. Sevilla

There’s no two ways about it: Leicester’s season — and perhaps their status as a Premier League club — is quickly spiraling out of control. The Foxes, just nine months after winning the PL title, sit 17th in the league table, one point clear of relegation, with 13 games still to play. Chances are, they won’t be back in the Champions League anytime soon, making Wednesday’s round-of-16 first-leg clash away to Sevilla all the more a monumental moment in the club’s history.

Where has hasn’t it gone wrong for Claudio Ranieri‘s side this season? If you’re of the mind that one player — N'Golo Kante in Leicester’s case — doesn’t make a team himself, then we’ll have to go one step further in diagnosing the stunning regression seen at the King Power Stadium this season: Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who combined to score 41 goals in the PL last season, have managed all of eight together in 2016-17. It’s the loss of Kante, though, that has left the defense forever exposed (43 goals conceded in 25 PL games, after conceding 36 in 38 all of last season), and the goal-getters forever feeding on scraps (24 goals scored, compared to 68 last season).

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]


Porto vs. Juventusfrom the AP

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci will be left in the stands for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Porto as punishment for his outburst aimed at coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Allegri announced the move on Tuesday at the pre-match news conference, saying he had agreed it with club officials as “a fair decision, out of respect for the squad, the fans and the club.”

Bonucci became embroiled in a heated argument over substitutions with Allegri after a 4-1 win over Palermo on Friday.

Allegri also will punish himself for his angry reaction to Bonucci, announcing a donation to charity.

U.S. U-20s awaken in 2nd half vs. Haiti, keep WCQ hopes alive

USMNT U-20 team (Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
Photo credit: U.S. Soccer
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With many thanks to the hat trick scored by Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake, on loan from Liverpool), the U.S. U-20 national team’s hopes of qualifying for the 2017 U-20 World Cup remain intact.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

After dropping all three points in their opening group-stage game against Panama on Saturday, Tab Ramos’ young Yanks faced elimination from CONCACAF’s U-20 Championship in Costa Rica with a defeat to Haiti on Tuesday. After 15 minutes, the Americans found themselves a goal down, the prospect of winning zero points from their first two games a terrifying possibility.

Then, Lennon struck from the penalty spot. A draw wouldn’t be enough, realistically, though, as they’d still trail Haiti by three points ahead of the final group game, against Saint Kitts and Nevis, with the top two sides from each team advancing to the classification stage.

The score remained 1-1 until halftime, after which point the Yanks roared to life with three goals in a seven-minute span. Luca de la Torre (Fulham) scored the first of the bunch, an empty-net finish after a failed punch by the goalkeeper. Lennon quickly followed suit with two more to make it 4-1.

With three points from two games and a goal differential that now sits at +2, the Yanks are second in Group B, just ahead of Haiti on goal differential (+1). Panama sit atop the group with six points and a +5 goal differential. A U.S. victory over Saint Kitts and Nevis, to go with a Haitian upset of Panama, would see the Americans finish top of the group go into Group E in the classification stage, which would see them accompanied by a pair of second-place sides. The first-place side in each classification group qualifies for May’s tournament in South Korea.

Guradiola “so happy” to see Man City “achieve another step” as a club

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Josep Guardiola manager of Manchester City reacts as Leonardo Jardim head coach of AS Monaco looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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In the past, when faced with adversity in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City could do little more than wilt and crumble as their European dreams when up in smoke year after year, typically in embarrassing and/or heartbreaking fashion.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

On Tuesday, when faced with 2-1 and 3-2 deficits late into the second half of their round-of-16 first leg against Monaco, deja vu was quickly setting in for anyone who’s followed Man City’s rise from middling afterthought to mega-rich conglomerate with aspirations of world domination. Then, something strange (based on years of recent history) happened: Sergio Aguero fired City back to level at 2-2 in the 58th minute. Sure, more shocking defending saw the deficit restored three minutes later, but again, Aguero dissented.

For this reason, and perhaps this reason alone considering the putrid defensively display over the course of 90 minutes, first-year City manager Pep Guardiola should be heartened by Tuesday’s events at the Etihad Stadium. In his mind, it was a massive step forward in the club’s psyche — quotes from the BBC:

“I am so happy for the result, we are still alive. These kind of things help this club to achieve another step. We attacked in small spaces. That’s why they wanted me to come here. Everybody has to be congratulated.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score as many goals as possible. If we don’t score in Monaco we will be eliminated.”