Tobin Heath

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.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.