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Walking through Week 14 of the NWSL season

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At the onset of the season, Portland and Kansas City were thought to be the league’s measuring sticks, but as of the NWSL’s 14th week, the circuit’s standards might be sitting sixth and seventh. Amid a midseason lull the league’s top four can’t shake, Seattle and Chicago have surged, creating an undue amount of parity within the eight-team league. With seven squads capable of beating each other on any given day, expect an increasingly muddled playoff picture to become even more murky as the season progresses.

The benefits of that parity were seen Sunday in Seattle, during the league’s first ever nationally televised game. For the first time, Reign FC sold out Starfire Sports Complex, the additions of Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe combining with the team’s renewed relevancy to draw 3,855 to the southern Seattle suburb. For a team that had some questioning their viability two months ago, the Reign’s club suddenly looks very strong.

Here’s what else happened in Week 14 of the NWSL season:

Wednesday, July 10

Washington Spirit 0, Chicago Red Stars 2 – Last week, we mentioned this as a must-win for Chicago’s playoff hopes, and the Red Stars came through. A goal and a bicycle kick assist from newly acquired Adriana Leon produced two second half scores, while Washington continued a scoreless run from open play that extends back to May.

Implications: After a year of shuffling players around, accounting for injuries and ineffective play, Rory Dames has finally found a combination that works, and while that has involved moving Ella Masar to the bench, she’s strangely having more of an impact than she had while starting. For Washington, the post-coaching change energy is gone, perhaps predictably so. While they may be competing better than they were under Mike Jorden, the team’s still not very good. The dour atmosphere’s bound to return unless results improve.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 4 Sky Blue 16 31 +10
2 6 Portland 15 27 +5
3 1 Kansas City 16 26 +7
4 5 W. New York 16 24 +8
5 7 Boston 15 20 +1
6 3 Chicago 15 19 -4
7 2 Seattle 16 15 -10
8 8 Washington 15 7 -17

Thursday, July 11

Seattle Reign FC 3, Western New York Flash 2 – Abby Wambach scored twice to move within one of Boston’s Sydney Leroux for the league lead in goals, but it was a late score from emerging Rookie of the Year contender (leader?) Christine Nairn that allowed the Reign’s robust midfield and improving attack to overcome their erratic defense, pushing Seattle’s unbeaten run to five.

Implications: Seattle may need to run the table to make the playoffs, but with this defense, it’s difficult to see it happening. Their disorganization concedes too many penalty kicks and allows opponents to capitalize for opportunistic (read: preventable) goals. For Western New York, they just ran into a good team, one that showed that matching the Flash in the middle of the park will yield chances against a decent but unspectacular defense.

Saturday, July 13

Sky Blue FC 0, Boston Breakers 0 – Two strong goalkeeping performances saw the teams share points in a match that seemed destined to end scoreless. For Sky Blue’s Brittany Cameron, it was her eighth shutout of her remarkably unforeseen season, one that stands in contrast to Boston’s Ashley Phillips, would posted her first clean sheet. With Alyssa Naeher having undergone surgery on surgery on her broken nose, Phillips should get another extended run in Boston’s team.

Implications: Sky Blue continues to look like a team experiencing a dip, but to their credit, their points haul is transcending their form. With this result, Jim Gabarra’s team sat five clear of Portland at the top of the league. Boston, in the mean time, got a valuable road point against the league’s leaders, but the momentum they carried from their Cascadia road trip was slightly blunted. Even though the game ended in a draw, their attack got shut down.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 6
Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 9 Leigh Ann Robinson (FCKC) 5
Diana Matheson (WAS) 6 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 5
Sophie Schmidt (SBFC) 6 Christine Nairn (SEA) 5

Sunday, July 14

Portland Thorns FC 1, Western New York 1 – Wambach went joint-top of the goal-scoring charts with a late first half goal, one that was equalized minutes later by Meleana Shim. The rest of the game was a goalkeeper’s duel, with Karina LeBlanc ‘beating’ Adrianna Franch thanks to a late penalty kick save on Wambach.

Implications: Portland dropped points at home, but they looked like a team that could develop into the Thorns everybody expected at the season’s onset. Tobin Heath deserves some of the credit, but Tiffany Weimer, the return of Christine Sinclair to forward, and Shim in her natural midfield role helped. For the Flash, their four-game road trip ends with a positive result, though only two points in four games curbed their surge toward the top of the league.

Chicago Red Stars 3, FC Kansas City 3 – Lauren Holiday returned with a goal and an assist, combining with another strong performance from Erika Tymrak (goal) to give FCKC a 3-1 lead headed toward stoppage time. Then another strong performance from super-sub Masar took hold, with a 90th minute goal and an assist on Lori Chalupny’s 96th minute equalizer giving the Red Stars an improbable point.

Implications: It was another tough result for Kansas City, who have had trouble closing out games. With Holiday, Tymrak, and Desiree Scott, they consistently out-play opponents only to drop points near the end, a pattern that extends back to the first game of the season. For Chicago, the draw was noble, but any dropped points at home do serious damage to the team’s thin playoff hopes.

Seattle Reign FC 2, Washington Spirit 1 – Washington scored, but it was from the spot. Although they took an early lead through Diana Matheson, the Spirit still hadn’t scored from open play, a fault that came back to haunt them over the match’s final 79 minutes. Goals four minutes apart from Red Stars cast-off Jessica McDonald sent the Reign into halftime up one, a lead they held through a scoreless second half.

Implications: The score looks nice, but especially compared to their earlier visit to Seattle — a four-goal game that marks the last time they scored from open play — you can see how far Washington’s fallen. The Reign, on the other hand, might be the best team in the league, one that has an outside chance of postseason place. Too bad they dug themselves such a huge hole.

Antonio Conte on Chelsea’s struggles: “We haven’t got a magic wand”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows turning things around at Chelsea will not be easy.

[ MORE: Wenger to coach England?

Especially since, well, waving a magic wand around will do absolutely nothing to solve their defensive frailties.

Chelsea’s Italian manager was seething following their 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal last weekend as his team looked all over the place defensively and they’ve now conceded nine times in their last four games.

For a manager of Conte’s ilk who prides himself on setting up his teams to be tough to beat and stingy at the back, it hurt him. Big time.

Speaking to the press ahead of Chelsea’s game at Hull City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Conte knows the size of the task facing him.

“It is never good when you lose, but I think also in these two games we saw and learnt a lot of important things. We must work very hard to recover,” Conte said. “We finished 10th last season – when you finish 10th it means you have problems. Now we are trying to solve this situation, but we haven’t got a magic wand.

“We faced two teams who were very strong (Liverpool and Arsenal) and for me, these two teams are now at the top. We have a lot to improve, but this is the hope we must have. I see the present and the opportunity to improve, it’s not easy. But we know this.”

The Italian also revealed that captain John Terry will not return for this game so he may well have to continue with the likes of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic in defense, despite both of those long-time Chelsea defenders going through a tough time in terms of their form.

It will be intriguing to see if Conte switches to a 3-5-2 formation this week at Hull. The Tigers usually only play with one man up front, Abel Hernandez, so it would seem unlikely Conte will add an extra man in the center of his defense.

That said, such has been the shocking nature of Chelsea’s defending in recent weeks, the Italian will try anything — expect from magic — to turn this slump around and get back on track after three-straight wins to start the PL campaign had many people touting them as title contenders.

What is Arsenal’s best XI from Arsene Wenger’s 20 years in charge?

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Wow. This was tough.

With Arsene Wenger celebrating 20 years in charge at Arsenal on October 1, tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at all the players he’s managed and pick the best XI during his two decades at the helm of the Gunners.

[ MORE: Wenger to England? ]

Of course his early teams dominated the Premier League, winning three PL titles in his first eight seasons in charge which included the “Invincibles” and going 49 games unbeaten in the Premier League. Arsenal fans won’t need reminding that they haven’t won a title for 12 years but that doesn’t mean plenty more fine players haven’t played for the Gunners in that time period.

Below is my selection of the best XI to play for Arsenal under Wenger, and I urge you to tell us yours in the comments section below.

Remember: At 12:30 p.m. ET, this Saturday, Oct. 1, NBCSN presents a new Premier League Download: Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger, hosted by The Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett to celebrate 20 years at Arsenal. Promo video is above.


JPW’s best Arsenal XI under Arsene Wenger

—– Seaman —–

— Dixon — Adams — Campbell — Cole —

—- Pires — Vieira — Fabregas — Sanchez —-

—– Henry — Bergkamp —– 

Iniesta in, Fabregas out as Spain seeks to avenge loss to Italy

TOULOUSE, FRANCE - JUNE 13: Andres Iniesta of Spain shoots at goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Spain and Czech Republic at Stadium Municipal on June 13, 2016 in Toulouse, France.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Andres Iniesta will lead Spain in its World Cup qualifying matches against Italy and Albania after returning from injury.

[ MORE: Wenger to coach England?

Spain will be seeking to avenge a loss to Italy at the European Championship that ended the team’s bid for a third consecutive continental title.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui named Iniesta to his squad on Friday for the upcoming away qualifiers Oct. 6 and 9.

“The return of Andres is very good news for us,” Lopetegui said. “He has played consistently for the past month. We are happy he is here, above all given the rivals we have to face.”

Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas was not included in Lopetegui’s squad after losing his place in Antonio Conte‘s starting lineup for most of this season.

The most notable inclusion was Napoli forward Jose Callejon in place of new Barcelona striker Paco Alcacer, who was dropped. He will join an attack consisting of Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata, Manuel “Nolito” Agudo and Victor “Vitolo” Machin.

Midfielder Francisco “Isco” Alarcon returned to the squad in detriment of Real Madrid teammate Marco Asensio. Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez and Sevilla goalkeeper Sergio Rico were also back after missing Lopetegui’s first list.

The 2-0 loss to Italy in the round-of-16 of Euro 2016 marked the end of Vicente del Bosque’s long and successful stint as Spain’s manager. Lopetegui has since been tasked with rejuvenating a team that won the 2010 World Cup and 2008 and 2012 European Championships.

Under Lopetegui, Spain beat Lichtenstein 8-0 its first qualifier for the 2018 World Cup after beating Belgium in a friendly in his debut. Iniesta missed those two matches with a knee injury.

Both Italy and Albania won their opening qualifiers in Group G.

While Italy is clearly Spain’s main rival for the group, Albania is riding high after winning its first match at a major tournament at Euro 2016.

“These are two important matches, but they are not definitive,” Lopetegui said. “We know how tough they will be and we are motivated to meet the challenge. We will not settle for draws.”

Spain:

Goalkeepers: David De Gea (Manchester United), Pepe Reina (Napoli), Sergio Rico (Sevilla).

Defenders: Nacho Fernandez (Real Madrid), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich).

Midfielders: Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion (Atletico Madrid), Sergi Roberto (Barcelona), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Francisco “Isco” Alarcon (Real Madrid).

Forwards: Jose Callejon (Napoli), Victor “Vitolo” Machin (Sevilla), Alvaro Morata (Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Chelsea), Manuel “Nolito” Agudo (Manchester City).

Why is Jose Mourinho upset with his Man United coaching staff?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United looks on prior to kickoff during the UEFA Europa League group A match between Manchester United FC and FC Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford on September 29, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho was visibly upset during Manchester United’s 1-0 Europa League win against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday.

Why, I hear you ask?

[ MORE: Wenger to coach England? ]

Well, it all centers around his coaching staff as Zorya’s lineup surprised Mourinho and his players, most notably Paul Pogba, were incredible confused.

At the beginning of the game Mourinho yelled towards his coaches and looked bemused alongside Pogba. After the game, which Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s lone goal decided, Mourinho explained what the problem was all about.

“It was set pieces, organisation, they changed their team before the game,” Mourinho said. “Paul Pogba was a bit confused with the changes and obviously I want my assistants to take care of all the details.”

Mourinho was in discussions with assistant manager Rui Faria and Pogba but he was seen staring moodily at analyst Giovanni Cerra and then he took his frustration out on the bench.

The former FC Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid manager is a stickler for details and after spending many years as an assistant manager himself, he expects every meticulous detail to be spot on from his assistants.

Turns out there is a small margin for error when Mourinho is your boss.

With United winning three games on the spin after losing three in a row, Mourinho isn’t getting ahead of himself but anything other than a convincing win over Stoke City this Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m ET online via NBC Sports) will not be greeted warmly.

One final note: it’s worth remembering that Mourinho has turned on his staff at other clubs before when things weren’t going so well…