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Walking through Week 15 of the NWSL season

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Just as the playoff picture was on the verge of becoming muddled beyond distinction, the skies have cleared in the NWSL. Three of the league’s top four teams won this weekend, and with only league-leading Sky Blue dropping points, the top four inched slightly closer to confirming their playoff destinies.

It’s par for the course in this inaugural season. The preseason favorites soared, then swooned, and now appear to be rising again. The league’s quality started with a surprisingly high standard, descended a bit in the summer months, but now sees a handful of teams performing at near season highs. And the playoff picture — at one point a clear top four; then muddled over the last two weeks — has again reached a point of clarity.

Teams now have five or six games left in the their seasons, which means the time for tweaking may be done. Soon you’ll have to roll with what you’ve got or start frantically pressing buttons on the controller, provided you’re still in the game. After Week 15 of the NWSL season, a second team may have joined the now eliminated Washington on the outside looking in.

Here’s what happened this weekend in the NWSL:

Saturday, July 20

Chicago Red Stars 1, Washington Spirit 0 – This was a must-win game for the playoff-chasing Red Stars, and although they filled out that bottom line and claimed full points, theirs wasn’t the most convincing effort. Against a team that has the league’s worst defense and hasn’t scored an open-play goal since May, Chicago couldn’t manage a goal of their own, with rookie forward-sum-defender Tiffany McCarty’s own goal the only thing that separated the league’s eighth place team from a squad that’s played its way back into postseason contention. If it wasn’t for Washington goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, the score would have been worse, but ultimately, it was a lackluster show in suburban Chicago.

Implications: For one day, the Red Stars were within two points of a playoff spot, and while their recent form hasn’t exactly been dominant, it has been effective. The one-time bottom dwellers are 6-6-4 with six games to go. With Washington, we can skip over the same story (part of which was reiterated above). There’s little to say until they prove themselves capable of scoring goals, though for McCarty, the second overall pick in this year’s college draft, an already frustrating rookie season may have gone from worse to worst.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 6 Sky Blue 17 31 +7
2 2 Portland 16 30 +6
3 1 Kansas City 17 29 +9
4 3 W. New York 17 27 +11
5 5 Chicago 16 22 -3
6 7 Boston 16 20 +0
7 4 Seattle 17 15 -12
8 8 Washington 16 7 -18

FC Kansas City 2, Seattle Reign FC 0 – Seattle’s six-game unbeaten run was put to rest by Lauren Holiday and Erika Tymrak, currently the league best one-two punch. Holiday’s beautiful opener from distance to the left of goal in the first half gave the Blues a one-goal lead, while a great individual effort from Tymrak in the 86th minute sealed Kansas City’s victory. Tymrak’s sixth goal of the season helped affirm her Rookie of the Year (and U.S. Women’s National Team) credentials, while every time you think a Abby Wambach might be stealing some of Holiday’s MVP buzz, the league’s best player reminds you why the award may be locked up.

Implications: Kansas City is clearly the league’s best team, handling the other club that entered Week 15 with a claim to that ever-shifting title. With Holiday and Tymrak, they have the virtue of having two game-breaking players, something other teams have in name only. Entering the season’s home stretch, Vlatko Andonovski’s mid-season shakeup has the potential to reap huge reward. Seattle, on the other hand, have nothing to hang their heads about, though their snapped streak means the playoff whispers can stop. Given the how much Laura Harvey’s team leans on their midfield, it’s no surprise they struggled against a team capable of matching up with, through the middle. Unfortunately, the matchup left the Reign 12 points out of a playoff spot with 15 games left, and there’s little change they drastically outplay all of Western New York, Chicago, and Boston over the next four weeks.

Sunday, July 21

Western New York Flash 3, Sky Blue FC 0 – Sky Blue has been terrible all season against Western New York. Even their 1-0 win over Aaran Lines’ team on the league’s opening weekend saw them outplayed. Unfortunately for Sky Blues, that pattern continued on Sunday. A dominant first half saw the Flash stake Carli Lloyd and Brittany Taylor to a 2-0 halftime lead, one that grew when Samantha Kerr scored early in the second half. Spoiling Jill Loyden’s NWSL debut, the Flash handed the league leaders’ their fourth loss of the season, one that continues Sky Blue’s string of lackluster performances.

Implications: Only Kelley O’Hara was missing from Sky Blue’s choice starting XI, leaving the squad with few excuses for another down performance. Only two points up on third place, it might be time to shake things up, fitness permitting.  For the Flash, while the win was impressive, they’ve matched up particularly well against Sky Blue all season, outscoring them 8-2 while taking nine points from four matches. There may be only so much we can glean from their performances against Jim Gabarra’s side. Still, the result was progress after coming off a two-point, four-match road trip. And more importantly, it leaves the Flash five points up on a playoff spot with as many matches remaining.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 6
Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
4 tied at 6 3 tied at 5

Boston Breakers 1, Portland Thorns 2 – Portland may not have won last weekend against New York, but the momentum from a much-improved performance carried them to success in Somersville. Despite conceding early to Lianne Sanderson, Portland responded quickly through Alex Morgan and eventually claimed a game-winner through the increasingly prescient Meleana Shim, whose 86th minute goal propelled the Thorns back into second place.

Implications: It’s a huge result for both clubs. All of a sudden, Portland’s a dangerous team again, and one point back of Sky Blue with a game in hand (though not the tiebreaker between the teams), the Thorns can be seen as favorites to take the regular season title (what a difference two games make). For Boston, however, it’s a crushing loss. The Breakers are now sixth in the league, six points back of the playoffs, but even if they do somehow track down Western New York, Boston will also have to outplay the Red Stars to finish in the league’s top half.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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