Morgan faces Wambach, Heath makes her NWSL debut as Thorns, Flash draw

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PORTLAND, Ore. — When the NWSL schedule came out, it was one of the most anticipated games of the season: Portland-based Abby Wambach visiting JELD-WEN Field with her home town Western New York Flash to face the one team with Major League Soccer backing – Portland Thorns FC. With Portland’s typical standout crowd, the Wambach versus Alex Morgan matchup was sure to be one of the most interesting of the season.

And in front of a 13,201-person audience that was given reason to erupt when Canadian international Karina LeBlanc saved a late Wambach penalty kick, Portland and Western  New York played one of the most entertaining matches of the year, the 34-shot affair ending in a 1-1 draw.

Those who showed up to see Wambach’s first NWSL visit to Portland were rewarded in the 37th minute when the U.S. international reached her right leg around rookie defender Kathryn Williamson to put home a ball from winger Samantha Kerr. One minute later, Thorns midfielder Meleana Shim fired home from 19 yards, the last goal of a game that once promised to be a shootout.

But for all the Abby versus Alex anticipation the matchup once garnered, Sunday’s kickoff had become anticipated for an entirely different reason. After spending the first months of the season in France playing for Paris Saint-Germain, U.S. international Tobin Heath made her much-anticipated Portland debut, starting in midfield for Cindy Parlow Cone’s side.

“She helped us so much today,” Cone explained, her team showing some of the attacking spark fans expected at the beginning of the season. “[Heath’s] a world class player … She’s one of the most tactical players and also one of the most technical, creative players playing the game today.”

The impact was obvious, if ultimately inconsequential. Heath’s skill on the ball helped Portland play a possession game they’ve struggled to implement all season, while her ability to play anywhere across the width of the pitch allowed the Thorns to utilize wide areas that have been neglected throughout much of the season. Even in her physical presence, something for which she’s not especially known, Heath made an impact, her pure soccer instincts helping her win balls for the Thorns.

“Tobin has great mobility,” Cone said after the game, asked about Heath’s various positioning within Portland’s midfield. In the team’s 4-4-2 formation, she started on the left, switched to the right, and played the second half in the middle.

“She has such a great fitness base,” Cone said, “wherever she’s moving, we have other players who will fill in other positions.”

That great fitness Cone alluded to also played into the move centrally, according to Heath. As the central, attacking midfielder, Heath’s need to track back decreased, allowing her to see out a match despite some apparently rubbery legs.

“I think that was kind of the plan: to go 45 (minutes), see how I was feeling, switch me to attacking mid so I didn’t have to do as much up-and-down running,” Heath said after her NWSL debut. “I was a little surprised. My fitness base is pretty good, but taking a few weeks off and coming back , I was pretty happy, especially with the heat. Overall, I was happy to be able to go 90 [minutes].”

The game’s style also represented a transition for Heath, who spent the last six months in France’s Division Feminine. Whereas European soccer is characterized by a more tactical style, Saturday’s Portland-Western New York match embodied the characteristics regularly associated with the North American game.

“Obviously it’s very physical, athletic, fast pace, transitional type game,” Heath said, asked how the NWSL’s level of play compares to France’s. “I think you saw that today, especially with the heat. It gets pretty stretched out.”

That type of game helped leverage Heath’s strengths as well as revitalize Portland’s attack. Despite the presence of Morgan and Canadian icon Christine Sinclair, Portland’s only scored 19 goals in 15 games. Only two teams in the eight-team league have been less productive, yet with Heath in the team, Portland was able to generate 20 shots, including 10 on goal.

“[Cone] gives me a lot of freedom,” Heath said, describing her role. “I think she knows I’m a player that needs a little room to be creative and make something happen. But the midfielders that are around me are very good with the ball. I think it’s just a matter of getting that confidence and belief in one another in the midfield to play, because we really can play.”

That was evident on Sunday. Ultimately, Portland dropped points at home, but compared to the stretch that’d seen them shutout in three straight games, the performance against Western New York  was progress, portending well for Heath’s contributions throughout the rest of the season.

Klopp puts Liverpool’s blown lead down to unwatered grass

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Jurgen Klopp puts Liverpool’s blown two-goal lead at 20th place West Bromwich Albion down to water.

[ RECAP: WBA 2-2 Liverpool ]

The Reds boss, who rested Roberto Firmino, Dejan Lovren, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and his usual fullbacks, is peeved that West Brom didn’t water the Hawthorns pitch at halftime.

Liverpool went ahead 2-0 late in the second half when Mohamed Salah equalled the single season Premier League goal record.

But the Baggies struck twice in the final 11 minutes and out shot the Reds 13-9 over 90 minutes to pluck a point.

That sort of performance can serve them well in the Championship, Klopp said, clearly displeased with both teams.

“It was a difficult game as the pitch got drier and drier,” he said. “West Brom decided not to water the pitch at half-time and that makes it difficult. It makes a massive difference. A team like West Brom do not need a wet pitch, they can do it next year playing on a dry pitch in the Championship.”

This wasn’t about dry turf, but Klopp will have wanted to avoid discussing Liverpool’s quarter-hour regression to a side that struggles to defend and blows lead.

All that said, he only had one of his preferred back four on the field, and a UEFA Champions League date with Roma ahead on Tuesday. But competitors are competitors and cannot dodge distaste for dropped points.

He’ll be fine given a few days, saying the match stings now but won’t affect their upcoming Anfield night in the UCL.

Watch Live: Watford vs. Crystal Palace

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Crystal Palace can all but clinch Premier League safety with an away win over Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Palace’s twin tower strikers Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth are on the bench against the Hornets, who have captain Troy Deeney and Stefano Okaka up top.

LINEUPS

Watford: Karnezis; Mariappa, Cathcart, Kabasele, Holebas; Hughes, Capoue, Doucouré, Pereyra; Deeney, Okaka. Subs: Gomes, Britos, Femenía, Janmaat, Richarlison, Sinclair, Gray.

Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Ward, Tomkins, Sakho, Van Aanholt, Loftus-Cheek, Milivojevic, Cabaye, McArthur, Townsend, Zaha. Subs: Speroni, Kelly, Wan-Bissaka, Riedewald, Lee, Benteke, Sorloth.

West Brom 2-2 Liverpool: Baggies fight back

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  • Salah equals Liverpool’s club-record of 31 PL goals in a single season
  • Liverpool unbeaten in last 10 PL games v. West Brom
  • West Brom eight points from safety 

West Bromwich Albion fought back from 2-0 down late on to draw 2-2 against Liverpool at the Hawthorns on Saturday as Jurgen Klopp‘s men threw away three points.

Liverpool led 2-0 with goals from Danny Ings and Mohamed Salah but West Brom fought back in the final 10 minutes as Jake Livermore hooked home and Salomon Rondon equalized with a header.

Despite the point West Brom are still eight points off safety with three games to go and remain bottom of the table as they can be relegated on Sunday if results for Swansea and Crystal Palace go against them. Liverpool lost ground in the race for second place with the late collapse.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Liverpool got off to a perfect start as a short corner set Mane free and his cross into the box found Georginio Wijnaldum who set up Ings to slam home his first PL goal for Liverpool since 2015. What a moment for the England international who has been through injury hell.

Soon after Salah cut inside from the right and curled an effort towards the top corner which was deflected just wide.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Ings nodded over a difficult chance, Salah sent a free kick just wide and Ings had another effort well smothered by Ben Foster, but West Brom battled their way back into the game as James McClean‘s effort across goal was almost tapped home by Jay Rodriguez.

Liverpool were just about worthy of their half time lead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The second half featured a few flash points early on as Craig Dawson appeared to bring down Ings in the box but nothing was given, then Ahmed Hegazi appeared to punch Ings off the ball but referee Stuart Attwell missed the incident.

Salah then seemed to put the game beyond doubt as he finished off a through ball from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to give Liverpool a 2-0 lead and take this tally to 41 for the season in all competitions.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

West Brom gave themselves hope late on as a looped ball to the back post found Rodriguez and he hooked it back in for Livermore to make it 2-1.

The Baggies then equalized as Rondon headed home to set up a wild finish, but they couldn’t grab a dramatic winner as their relegation from the Premier League is all but confirmed.

Arsenal reveal plan for Wenger’s successor

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For the first time in almost 22 years Arsenal will have to start a managerial search.

And if you believe the reports, Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis has been busy on this for at least a few months with candidates lined up.

[ MORE: WENGER’S DEPARTURE 

Speaking at a press conference on Friday after Wenger’s announcement that he will step down as Arsenal’s manager at the end of the season, Gazidis revealed the qualities he and the Arsenal board are looking for in a new manager.

“Tomorrow we have to start thinking about how we move forward. We are going to take what Arsene has given us and continue the values he has instilled,” Gazidis said. “It’s going to be a condensed summer with the World Cup in the middle of it. Having clarity sooner is better. We want someone who plays progressive, exciting football that gets people interested and excited in games we play. Another significant piece is how the candidate represents the club and it must be someone who gives youth a chance.”

That’s a pretty long wish list, Ivan.

The crux of this is that Arsenal want to get this sorted quickly but it seems like they may wait until after the World Cup to see who’s available.

Joachim Loew would be the main man they would wait for, but the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Brendan Rodgers could come in soon and get started on LAW (Life After Wenger) ASAP.

Rodgers seems to tick the most boxes out of the candidates mentioned so far, with the current Celtic boss always keen to promote youngster and he has always produced exciting, attacking teams at Liverpool and Swansea in the past.

Yet Ancelotti would be a safe hire with his glut of trophies and his experience of managing huge clubs, something owner Stan Kroenke would surely favor in order to safeguard his investments. Get ready for weeks of speculation about Wenger’s successor but it appears Arsenal want to move on quickly as Gazidis has a big decision to make.

But as we saw when Sir Alex Ferguson was replaced at Manchester United, the man replacing a legendary figure such as Wenger will have a huge task to steady the ship, let alone turn Arsenal back into a top four force.

Perhaps the second manager to come in will have greater success as younger managers, and former Arsenal midfielders, Patrick Vieira and Mikel Arteta have been mentioned.