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.

Report: American teenager linked with Manchester United

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The U.S. Men’s National Team is always looking for more Christian Pulisic-like players, and another star-in-the-making could be on his way to Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Three keys for USMNT ahead of Panama clash ]

American teenager Will Vint is reportedly being pursued by Premier League giants Manchester United after previously having trialed with Fulham and Everton.

Vint, the 15-year-old son Everton academy director Peter Vint, has reportedly impressed the Red Devils while on trial as of late. Additionally, the teen’s Instagram page describes him as a “Footballer at Manchester United.”

The number of Americans in England’s top flight have dwindled down over recent years, however, USMNT mainstays like Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan (moving to Atlanta United) still reside in the PL.

Chapecoense announces match against Colombia’s Nacional

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SAO PAULO (AP) Brazilian club Chapecoense will play Colombia’s Atletico Nacional on April 4 in what will be an emotional home match.

[ MORE: Aguero left out of Argentina XI to face Bolivia ]

In November, 19 members of the Brazilian team died in an air crash outside Medellin as they travelled to play Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final. Out of 77 passengers, 71 died in the incident, including players, journalists, and club officials.

Chapecoense says they will play at 22,000-seat Arena Conda in southern Brazil in the first leg of the Recopa Sudamericana.

The tragedy made Atletico Nacional pronounce Chapecoense as champions, and the South American confederation agreed.

The Recopa Sudamericana is between the champions of the Copa Sudamericana and the Copa Libertadores.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.