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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.

VIDEO: Sinclair passes Mia Hamm as 2nd-highest scorer in history

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Christine Sinclair scored her first goal for Canada in 2000, and today, she scored the 159th goal of her international career.

With goal #159, Sinclair passes Mia Hamm as the second-highest scorer in international soccer history, men or women. Abby Wambach’s record of 184 goals is the all-time mark.

[ REPORT: Obafemi Martins to China ]

Playing for Canada in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, Sinclair gave her country a 3-0 lead over Trinidad & Tobago to reach 159 goals. They would go on to win the match 6-0.

Sinclair, 32, will look to continue her scoring ways and lead Canada to Rio 2016, as the Canadians search for another medal after taking home bronze in 2012.

Report: Sounders’ Obafemi Martins to join Shanghai Shenhua

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 08:  Obafemi Martins #9 of the Seattle Sounders FC warms up prior to the match against the New England Revolution at CenturyLink Field on March 8, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Obafemi Martins
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The Chinese Super League continues to buy top talent, as Obafemi Martins looks set to join Shanghai Shenhua.

According to a report from the BBC, the Seattle Sounders’ striker will leave Major League Soccer for a “multi-million dollar deal” in China.

Should this deal go through, Martins would join a list of top talents who have moved to the Chinese Super League this winter, including Chelsea’s Ramires.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Martins has scored 43 goals in 84 appearances for Seattle since joining the club in 2013, named to the MLS Best XI in 2014 and the All-Star team in 2015.

If the 31-year-old was to leave, it would open up a potential starting spot for the USMNT’s Jordan Morris, who signed a record-breaking homegrown player contract with the Sounders last month.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Leicester City ]

Before moving to America, Martins played throughout Europe, spending most of his career with Inter Milan and Newcastle. He has earned 41 caps for the Nigerian national team.

At Shanghai Shenhua, Martins would line-up alongside former Premier League players Tim Cahill and Demba Ba, as wells as Fredy Guarin, who joined Shenhua in January from Inter Milan.

VIDEO: Barcelona work brilliant penalty as Messi dishes to Suarez from the spot

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 14:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his teammates Neymar (L) and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Celta Vigo at Camp Nou on February 14, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Barcelona is really, really good.

With their last loss coming all the way back on October 3, Barca remained unbeaten and put on a Sunday show in La Liga action, thrashing Celta Vigo, 6-1.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

The highlight of the match came in the 81st minute when Barcelona was awarded a penalty. Lionel Messi stepped up to the spot, and did this:

The classic Cruyff penalty kick, it looks so good when it works, but is very risky and could end in disaster. Just ask Robert Pires…

The goal gave Luis Suarez a hat-trick and showed the ridiculous amount of confidence this Barcelona side has right now, as no one in the world has an answer for the Messi-Neymar-Suarez trio.

Pellegrini rues “absolutely wrong” penalty decision in City’s loss to Spurs

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Raheem Sterling of Manchester City protests with referee Mark Clattenburg after he awarded a penalty for his hand ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Manchester City fell 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday in a massive battle in the Premier League title race.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-1 Spurs ]

While Christian Eriksen‘s late winner was the game’s deciding goal, it was Harry Kane‘s opener from the penalty spot that has caused some controversy.

Tottenham’s Danny Rose whipped in a cross that was blocked away by a jumping Raheem Sterling in the 54th minute. Sterling had his back to the ball, but the cross took a deflection off his elbow and referee Mark Clattenburg signaled for a penalty.

Speaking after the match, City boss Manuel Pellegrini was extremely angered by the decision, saying City were the better side until the penalty changed the flow of the match. Pellegrini also thought back to Tottenham’s win over Man City in September when the same official was in charge when Spurs scored two goals that looked to be offside.

It was a penalty that referee Mark Clattenburg wanted to sign for and he gave the sign. It was absolutely the wrong decision, it hit the back of Raheem Sterling then his elbow. Sterling was not even seeing the ball. It was the same referee in the first game where there were two clear goals in offside and we lost 4-1.

It was the key moment that decided the game; before that they did not shoot towards our goal and did not have any chances. We took the risks, the spirit of the team was good but it was not enough.

The rules regarding a hand-ball have been the topic of much conversation this season, as there seems to be a gray area where officials are forced to make judgement calls, with this decision very harsh.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Tottenham’s win over Man City ]

Now six points behind leaders Leicester, Manchester City will take a break from Premier League action and play a string of important cup ties. First up is a fifth-round FA Cup match against Chelsea before a long trip to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League, followed by the League Cup final against Liverpool.