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.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen miss out as sickness-hit Tottenham Hotspur visits struggling Southampton at St. Mary’s on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

That opens up spots in the lineup for Michel Vorm and Moussa Sissoko, as Spurs aim to go level on points with fourth-place Liverpool.

Saints dipped into the drop zone when Stoke City won on Saturday, but will sit 14th if they can spring a home win over Spurs.

Mauricio Pellegrino is giving Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini, as well as in-form James Ward-Prowse, the starters’ chance to stop the rot. Southampton is winless in 10 league matches, but has drawn three of the last five.

LINEUPS

Southampton: McCarthy, Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand, Lemina, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Hojbjerg, Gabbiadini. Subs: Forster, Pied, Bednarek, Davis, Boufal, Redmond, Obafemi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Vorm, Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Dembele, Sissoko, Dele, Son, Kane. Subs: Gazzaniga, Foyth, Trippier, Walker-Peters, Wanyama, Lamela, Llorente.

Making sense of the Silva firing: Should’ve let him walk?

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Watford fired manager Marco Silva on Sunday, blaming Everton’s recruitment of the Portuguese boss for his failure, and it seems his replacement has already been identified as Javi Gracia.

I mean, holy smoke: So much for “easy like Sunday morning.”

The Hornets have been poor for some time, and their drop from chasing an unlikely European position to a spot on the fringes of the relegation race does stretch back to time Everton was repeatedly asking to hire Silva.

Funny thing: Perhaps letting him walk would’ve been the right decision.

What Silva did in the first quarter of this season and his lauded attempt to save Hull City last season may recall his overachievement at Estoril in Portugal, but the 40-year-old worked wonders at league powers Sporting CP and Olympiacos.

In the case of the latter, Silva led Thrylos to an absurd record of 38W-3D-7L before quitting after one season.

There’s another piece of the puzzle to consider, too: Watford under owner Gino Pozzo has been quick to change manager, which is a sign the club values — to quote longtime Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon — “Jims and Joes more than x’s and o’s.”

As Sam Allardyce, the man who was hired by Everton, has joined Ronald Koeman as bosses unable to get the Toffees’ talented roster humming, it’s worth asking whether both Watford and Everton would’ve been better off had the Silva “transfer” went down at Goodison Park.

Watford has eight losses in 11 matches, handing three points to a variety of teams who’ve struggled to find wins this season: Swansea City, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Huddersfield Town. The Hornets have also drawn Southampton.

Everton under both Koeman and Allardyce has done the opposite: the Toffees have too much talent to religiously fail against the lower clubs. This season, which also saw a short run for caretaker boss David Unsworth, their wins are over Stoke City, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Swansea.

The Toffees big slump has seen a pair of draws with woeful West Bromwich Albion and a loss at Bournemouth.

Which brings us back to Watford under Silva. Despite its long slump, the club is performing in a way more suited for Everton’s talent than the Hornets’ bunch (which certainly isn’t poor). Consider:

Consider that Watford has 49.5 percent possession on the season, behind only Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Southampton (Everton has 46.4 and that number has regressed under Allardyce).

Also, Watford is ahead of Everton in pass completion percentage, shots per game, goals, shots allowed per game, and dribbles per game.

All this with the Toffees getting some of the finest goalkeeper performances in the league from Jordan Pickford. His 81 saves are second to Lukasz Fabianski and his seven in the six-yard box are joint-top with Mat Ryan.

So, yeah, Everton probably had the right idea in trying to get Silva, who was obviously interested in the job. The Toffees’ buys of Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott are only going to up the ante at Goodison Park, and Allardyce does not have the record of getting talent to reach its potential (at least not in a decade).

Everton’s top performers this year according to advanced stats sites WhoScored and Squawka are ranked 82nd in the Premier League (Mason Holgate) and 103rd in the league (Ashley Williams), respectively.

All this goes to not just say that Silva has done a decent job at Watford, but beg why they’ve decided to fire the boss midway through a transfer window. And considering the Hornets would’ve received compensation of some sort for the move, it’s even more of a head scratcher

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

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Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Latest: Sunday medicals for Mkhitaryan, Sanchez

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan has agreed to join Arsenal from Manchester United, clearing the path for Alexis Sanchez to join the Old Trafford set.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on the deal ]

The BBC is reporting that both players will undergo medicals at their proposed new clubs on Sunday ahead of a straight swap deal.

Sanchez, 29, has scored 80 goals for Arsenal since arriving before the 2014-15 campaign, including 30 last season.

Mkhitaryan turns 30 this summer, and has struggled at Manchester United since posting five assists in his first three matches of the season.

[ MORE: Watford sacks Silva ]

He was, however, a combination of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 23 goals with 32 assists.

This could be win-win, as Mkhitaryan at his best is a like-for-like replacement for Mesut Ozil should the German leave in the summer and Sanchez is a more proven PL commodity (though his attitude should be a major question for the United room).