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.

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA