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.

MLS Snapshot: FCD lose 2nd in a row; Fire win 4th straight

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The game in 100 words (or less): After starting the 2017 season nine games without a loss, FC Dallas, the longest-lasting unbeaten team in MLS, has lost two straight. Saturday saw their unbeaten start come to an end, against the San Jose Earthquakes, just as Wednesday’s trip to Toyota Stadium saw Oscar Pareja’s side drop all three points to the Chicago Fire. All three of the game’s goals were scored during the opening nine minutes, as FCD fought back from 1-0, but couldn’t find a second equalizer on the night. Nemanja Nikolic bagged the opener, his 11th goal in 13 games to extend his lead in the Golden Boot race to two, in the 3rd minute. Roland Lamah brought FCD back to level terms three minutes later, but David Accam restored the home side’s advantage after three more minutes. Nikolic had every opportunity in the world to take his goals tally to a dozen during second-half stoppage time, but Chris Seitz denied the Hungarian international from the penalty spot. For the first time since Sept. 2012, Chicago have won four straight league games, and sit just two points back of Eastern Conference-leading Toronto FC (26 points).

[ WATCH: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to $10M contract demands ]

Three moments that mattered

3′ — Nikolic redirects past Seitz for 1-0 — Nikolic ran 15 yards straight ahead without a single FCD player picking him up or impeding his path to the near post, and they paid for it.

6′ — Lamah taps it in to make it 1-1 right away — Lamah has been quite the disappointment since arriving in Dallas this winter, but he happened to eb in the right place at the right time in this one, as a failed clearance fell to the five-times-capped Belgian international for an easy tap-in, and his first MLS goal.

9′ — Accam cuts inside to make it 2-1 just as quickly — At some point, Accam will be properly rated by the wider MLS audience, as he’s been Chicago’s best player for two full seasons, and has only hit a new high with capable attackers all around him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Dax McCarty

Goalscorers: Nikolic (3′), Lamah (6′), Accam (9′)

Report: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to contract demands

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While Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has the feel of the player most clearly destined to play in MLS since Thierry Henry, we might have to wait a little while longer before the 28-year-old Mexican international ditches Europe in favor of a return to North America.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to a report from ESPN FC on Thursday, Hernandez is seeking an annual salary “way north of $10 million,” which would shatter the current record contract for an MLS player (Kaka — $7.2 million per year).

Hernandez has one more season left on his contract with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen. During the summer of 2018 he’ll be available for any club in the world to sign on a free transfer. With Los Angeles FC, the team Hernandez has reportedly been negotiating with for months now, set to debut in MLS in March 2018, chances are they’d like the centerpiece of their squad (and the largest annual investment in MLS history) to be involved on opening day, thus a fee will be required, very likely pushing the club’s total investment (salary plus fee) into the neighborhood of $50 million.

[ WATCH: Giovani dos Santos’ jaw-dropping volley vs. MIN ]

You can see pretty quickly why LAFC might balk at such demands.

With that said, 1) LAFC shouldn’t be surprised by this recent development, given Hernandez’s otherworldly allure within the LA market; 2) to piggyback on no. 1, a player should be paid every cent he’s worth to the club, on and off the field, and there might not be a player in the entire world (this side Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) who’d make LAFC a bigger hit in LA from day one.

Enrique “more than satisfied” with Barca tenure, eyes one more trophy

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique is finally saying goodbye to Barcelona, with one last chance at a trophy.

The Luis Enrique era in Barcelona ends after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday, when the coach could cap his three-year stint with a ninth trophy out of a possible 13.

It would be a fitting farewell for him nearly three months after his surprise announcement that he was leaving.

“It would be a special title,” Luis Enrique said.

The former Barcelona midfielder has won nearly everything as the coach, since replacing Gerard Martino in 2014.

He led the team to the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey, and Champions League in 2015. He achieved the league-Copa double in 2016, and began this season with the Spanish Super Cup title, their only trophy so far.

It hasn’t been Luis Enrique’s best season with Barcelona, which was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and lost the Spanish league to Real Madrid last weekend.

“I’m happy and more than satisfied for all the years that I’ve enjoyed with this club,” the 47-year-old Luis Enrique said.

He announced in March he was leaving so he could get some rest.

“I came here to be a leader and I’ve been one. I’m leaving when I think it’s the best time to do it.”

His other titles included the 2015 European Super Cup and the 2015 Club World Cup.

Barcelona has yet to lose a Copa del Rey home-and-away series since he took over, a run of 12 straight triumphs.

“We are all thankful for these three years (with Luis Enrique),” captain Andres Iniesta said. “We have to win one last title to finish the best possible way.”

Barcelona has been in the Copa final in seven of the last nine seasons, including the last four. It has won it a record 28 times, including the last two.

Alaves will be playing in the final of a major tournament for only the second time in its 96-year history. The other was the UEFA Cup 16 years ago, when it lost to Liverpool 5-4 in extra time.

Alaves’ only winner’s trophy is for Spain’s second division. It was a promoted club in Spain’s top division this season after 10 years in the lower divisions, including four in the third tier. It finished ninth in the Liga.

Alaves enters the Copa final boosted from having beaten Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou at the beginning of the season.

The coach touted to replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona is Ernesto Valverde, who left Athletic Bilbao this week. An official announcement is expected next week.

Marco Silva leaves Hull; Premier League clubs lining up

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Marco Silva came to the Premier League, he saw the PL, but he didn’t conquer the PL — at least, not yet.

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It was announced on Thursday that the 39-year-old Portuguese manager, who took over last-place Hull City in January, has left the club after succumbing to relegation from the PL. Silva, whose stock rose quickly during his brief stay in England, signed a contract that ran only through the end of the season should they be relegated, thus he’s not sure on options these days. Hull would have undoubtedly welcomed him back for a run at promotion from the Championship next season.

As recently as Wednesday, Silva was expected to be named the new boss at Porto, though various reports stated that talks between the manager and club had broken down.

[ MORE: Terry “couldn’t care less” about criticism of his farewell ]

Watford and Crystal Palace, both of whom are manager-less after Walter Mazzarri was fired and Sam Allardyce resigned, respectively, are said to be extremely interested in Silva’s services.