Walking through Week 13 of the NWSL season

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It was another unimpressive week at the top of the NWSL, hinting at some mid-week doldrums for teams preparing for the season’s home stretch. Yet some teams are dealing with those doldrums better than others. Despite failing to impress in their game, first place Sky Blue stretched their lead at the top of the league, while a FC Kansas City side missing the league’s best player closed their gap on second place Portland.

The team of the week, however, was one in the table’s bottom half, though that may not be for long. Coming into Week 13, Boston was six points out of fourth and facing two games in the Pacific Northwest. With a little help from New York’s results, Boston now controls their own playoff destiny, the four-point gap between them and their rivals mitigated by their schedule.

Let’s walk through Week 13:

Wednesday, July 3

Washington Spirit 1, FC Kansas City 1 – For the second week in a row, FC Kansas City traveled east mid-week, outplayed their opponent, but gave away two points late. This time it was the returning Diana Matheson from the spot equalizing Erika Tymrak’s early second half tally to give head coach Mark Parsons a point in his Spirit debut. While the details were encouraging for the Blues – strong performances throughout midfield; Becky Sauerbrunn and Lauren Sesselmann making their case as the league’s best center back tandem; Nicole Barnhart being her usual, steady self – a late penalty drawn by Tiffany McCarty made it all for naught.

Implications: For Washington, the point was a morale boost in the wake of Mike Jorden’s departure. For Kansas City, though, all the positives can’t detract from the fact that points missed in New Jersey and Washington hurt their chances to track down Sky Blue.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 3 Sky Blue 15 30 +10
2 7 Portland 14 26 +5
3 1 Kansas City 15 25 +7
4 2 W. New York 14 23 +9
5 6 Boston 14 19 +1
6 5 Chicago 13 15 -6
7 4 Seattle 14 9 -12
8 8 Washington 13 7 -14

Seattle Reign FC 1, Boston Breakers 1 – Seattle extend their unbeaten run to four, but this could have been more than a one-point result. Some late confusion in front of goalkeeper Hope Solo saw a ball deflect off defender Kaylyn Kyle, hovering unplayed in the six before Sydney Leroux stole an equalizer. Still, the Reign midfield was ferocious, the Jessica Fishlock, Keelin Winters, Kate Deines trio disrupting anything Boston tried to build from Mariah Noguiera forward. For a team that should be judged by progress not points, the draw was still an encouraging one.

Implications: Boston needed to make up ground on the top four, but the first game of their Cascadia road trip only saw them tread water. But given the strength of their opposition, it’s hard to deride the Breakers for “only” getting a draw in Seattle.

Thursday, July 4

Chicago Red Stars 1, Western New York Flash 0 – After a game wherethe Flash had more chances but Chicago stole the only goal, Red Stars head coach Rory Dames proclaimed goal scorer Lori Chalupny one of the league’s top five players, whether she’s in the U.S. national team or not. It was a not-so-subtle allusion to the fact nobody’s clear why Chalupny, a one-time mainstay in the national team, has never been allowed back once concussion symptoms cleared, allowing her club career to continue. Thursday’s goal will only increase the call for clarity, though given it’s a health issue, we may remain in the dark.

Implications: They’re valuable points for Chicago, who can persist in their playoff chase with an ‘anything can happen approach,’ but the Flash half of the result will likely be more important to playoff positioning. Like Kansas City, Western New York needs to maximize points against teams in the bottom half in order to give themselves the best chance for a home playoff game. There’s no shame in losing at Chicago, but it’s still a missed opportunity.

Saturday, July 6

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 8 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 5
Abby Wambach (WNY) 7 Leigh Ann Robinson (FCKC) 5
Sophie Schmidt (SBFC) 6 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 5
5 tied at 5 3 tied at 4

Sky Blue FC 1, Washington Spirit 0 – Monica Ocampo, coming off a three-goal week, got a rare start, rewarding Jim Gabarra’s decision with the only goal in Sky Blue’s ninth win of the season. That Sky Blue couldn’t put together a more impressive performance against the league’s worst team speaks to the inconsistency they’re carried into this game. Though the standings said this was a first versus eighth matchup, the gap wasn’t that large between two largely unimpressive sides.

Implications: It’s becoming more difficult for Gabarra to justify keeping Ocampo on the bench behind Danesha Adams or Kelley O’Hara, but with his team four points clear on the rest of the league, he gets even more license to do what he wants. At the same time, each of the league’s top four needs to worry about preparing themselves for the postseason, which requires getting your team performing to its potential. That the Mexican international left the game with a shoulder injury may give Gabarra a reprieve on a tough decision.

Portland Thorns FC 0, Boston Breakers 2 – Two first half goals from Sydney Leroux vaulted the U.S. international to the top of the league’s scoring charts, her performance building on standout days from Heather O’Reilly and Alyssa Naeher for an easy win at JELD-WEN. In the first half, the Portland defense looked shakier than it had the whole season, while the attack didn’t get going until the second half, when Christine Sinclair moved into her natural forward’s role. Left scoreless again, the Thorns have only 18 goals in 14 games, a rate notably worse than the league’s top-four attacks.

Implications: Portland may have hit rock bottom. A two-goal loss at home to a team outside the playoff picture is worst-case scenario-type stuff. The beneficiary of that fall is Boston, whose four-point road trip has revitalized their playoff hopes.

Sunday, July 7

FC Kansas City 0, Western New York 0 – Although Aaran Lines saw standout winger Sam Kerr return to the lineup, the Flash were unable to take advantage of the Lauren Cheney-less Blues, left with one point and no ground gained on the team above them in the standings. For Kansas City, Erika Tymrak continues to impress, the first-year pro making a run for Rookie of the Year since winning a spot in the starting lineup. As opposed to Wednesday, however, Tymrak’s efforts never led to a break through.

Implications: Third place, Kansas City maintains their two-point lead on Western New York, although the Flash hold a match in hand. But after a one-point week, Western New York find Boston on their heels, with the rivals set to play each other two more times this season.

source:  And finally … our Player of the Week

Sydney Leroux claimed three goals for Boston, with Heather O’Reilly assisting on each score, but for a team that has had trouble defending for most of the season, the play of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher may have been the most important part of Boston’s big week. Credited with 12 saves while conceding only one, Naeher’s numbers actually understate her contributions, her decisive play coming off her line in each second half helping preserve her team’s results.

Head coach Lisa Cole was particularly effusive after Naeher’s performance in Portland:

“I thought today was one of [Naeher’s] overall best performances I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Alyssa since she was about 13 — maybe even younger than that. I thought she was outstanding today, not only making saves, but coming for through balls and then being good on her distribution.”

“Both Ashley (Phillips) and Alyssa have been good for us, and then they’ve had one or two little mistakes that they’ve give up soft goals. What I’ve said to them is ‘you’ve both overall been good for us,’ but we need one of them to be great … Not everyday, but sometimes we need an outstanding performance, and I thought Alyssa gave that to us today.”

Defense has been a problem all year for Boston, but the return of the Penn State grad threatens to solidify Cole’s biggest weakness. If you’re wondering if Boston’s latest surge has staying power, look to their talents in attack, the strength of their midfield, and know Naeher may be capable of papering over their holes at the back.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Arsenal board will be told decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.