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.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.