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.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.