State of the NWSL, after Week 13: Leroux in the news (and the nude), Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 14

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Four days in Cascadia, and all of a sudden Sydney Leroux was top of the scoring charts, the apex of what’s been a roller coaster year for the U.S. international. Her first professional season has featured hat tricks, a brief benching, controversy in her birth nation, but after a goal in Seattle and two in Portland, it also features an ongoing run as the league’s preeminent striker. Not to mention some national attention for some extra-athletic activities.

The 23-year-old was the U.S. women’s national team’s annual selection to ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, following in the footsteps of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and others. Put aside all the reasonable qualms you have about athletics for nudity’s sake and Leroux’s selection represents a type of professional breakthrough. It’s one thing to achieve fame among the isolated following of women’s professional soccer. There, Leroux’s akin to a household name. Among a broader audience, however, opportunities like The Body Issue represent a chance to transcend that niche demographic; a pathway to join the likes of Alex Morgan, Solo, Wambach, and Megan Rapinoe as names recognized by general sports fans.

source:  Leroux has an undeniable appeal to that audience, one that tends to skew male, away from women’s sports, and contains a population who could be lured to watch women’s soccer if they think a Solo or Morgan is playing. Nobody ever lost money betting on guys’ affinity for attractive women, but if Leroux gives that large, influential demographic a reason to tune into an NWSL stream, look up where their local team plays, or even talk about a player they were unaware of before, her layout becomes more than another excuse to confound women’s athletic achievements with sexuality.

Back in the NWSL world, things are simpler. We can look at what Leroux’s done for the Breakers – five goals in three games; matches which have claimed seven points for Boston – and see the influence of the league’s hottest player, one that’s led her team’s surge back into playoff contention.

With the latest NWSL Player of the Week award in her pocket, Leroux’s shown how important her finishing is to a resurgent Breakers’ squad.

“We need to have performances like tonight from Syd,” head coach Lisa Cole said after Boston’s 2-0 on Saturday in Portland. “Not just with her finishing but with her work off the ball, getting in and pressuring … When we can get Syd chances and she’s putting them away, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

For Leroux, her performances have been as much about Heather O’Reilly, Lianne Sanderson, and the rest of the teammates that have enabled her run. Normally that kind of attitude’s a deflection – athletes reflecting a modesty the public expects them to portray – but for a Boston team that needed results on the west coast to preserve their playoff ambitions, it needs to be about the team.

“I wouldn’t be here without my teammates,” Leroux said, asked to explain her recent surge. “Heather has assisted on so many of my goals, same with Lianne Sanderson … I’m just trying to do my job, trying to do the best that I can, and hope our team wins.”

And with the attention she’s drawn this week, both on and off the field, perhaps a few more people will follow Boston’s quest to reclaim a spot in the league’s top four.

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) – They’ve made progress since letting Mike Jorden go, but that’s progress from the four-goal defeat they suffered in their former coach’s last game. In a league where almost everybody can beat anyone, they remain the reason for the ‘almost.’

7. Portland Thorns FC (5)- The most discouraging part of their 2-0 home loss to Boston were the early jitters from a defense that couldn’t handle Boston’s pressure. If the back line goes, Portland have nothing to hang Cindy Parlow Cone’s hats on.

6. Boston Breakers (6) – After their strong week, Boston deserve better than this ranking, but the fact the Breakers can’t rise above six reflects a league which, all of a sudden, has become very deep.

5. Chicago Red Stars (7) – Perhaps I’m over valuing their win over Western New York given it played out as a rare home team’s smash-and-grab, but the Flash went into last week at number one in our rankings. The Red Stars deserve some credit for that.

4. Seattle Reign FC (4) – Seattle were probably the slightly better team in their mid-week draw with Boston, one defensive mistake-type-thing costing them two points. A midfield three of Jessica Fishlock, Keelin Winters, and Kate Deines could quickly become the league’s best.

3. Sky Blue FC (3) – Beat Washington this weekend, but failed to impress while doing so. The reason: The squad was utterly depleted, between suspensions, international duty, and injuries. Jim Gabarra had one healthy sub for the Spirit game. The returns of Lisa De Vanna, Sophie Schmidt and Caitlin Foord will help, but Monica Ocampo is out. The Mexican internationa’s shoulder injury means she will not start. She’s questionable to even play Saturday against Boston, an AC-joint injury keeping her from returning to training.

2. Western New York (1) – Finished the first half of a tough road trip with one point from Chicago and Kansas City. As they turn to Cascadia, their failure to score in either game is a bigger concern than dropping points to two strong teams.

1. FC Kansas City (2) – How do you go a week without winning and jump to the top spot? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe do it without the league’s best player. Congratulations Lauren Cheney on your nuptials. Your team, however, will be happy to have Mrs. Jrue Holiday back into the squad.

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, July 10

Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars (7:30 p.m. Eastern) – If Chicago are serious playoff contenders, they can’t drop points to Washington. It doesn’t matter that this is on the road. It doesn’t matter that Washington’s improving. Chicago need these points. All of them.

Thursday, July 11

Seattle Reign FC vs. Western New York Flash (10:00 p.m. Eastern) – This is a tough matchup for the Flash, with Seattle’s midfield capable of cutting off access to Abby Wambach. But with Western New York more than capable of building wide or going over the top, Laura Harvey’s midfield’s going to have to do more than disrupt the game. They’re going to have to control it.

Saturday, July 13

Sky Blue FC vs. Boston Breakers (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – Boston’s current surge started with a 3-2 win over Sky Blue at Dilboy, Leroux scoring twice as the Breakers defibrillated their playoff hopes. Sky Blue will have de Vanna, Schmidt, Foord, and Brittany Bock available. They’ll be ready.

Sunday, July 14

Chicago Red Stars vs. FC Kansas City (4:00 p.m. Eastern) – Lauren Holiday is back as Kansas City hope their leading scorer will transform strong play from draws to victories. With Chicago coming off a win over Western New York, there’s reason for the Red Stars to be confident, but the Blues are capable of closing the doors on the Lori Chalupny show.

Portland Thorns FC vs. Western New York Flash (5:00 p.m. Eastern) – Alex vs. Abby! Sinclair vs. Carli! And Tobin Heath’s Portland debut. It’s as marquee a matchup as you’ll get all year, must see soccer for anybody with even a tangential interest in the women’s game.

Seattle Reign FC vs. Washington Spirit (8:30 p.m. Eastern) — So brash! So bold! So … why is FOX Soccer debuting their NWSL coverage with this game, again? I mean, who wants to see Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach in front of possibly 14,000 people at a more east coast accessible time when they can watch the league’s seventh and eighth place teams (albeit with Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe) with a night time start?

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.