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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.

Inexperienced Southgate given first shot at vacant England job

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05:  Gareth Southgate the manager of England U21's looks on during a training session at St Georges Park on September 5, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) After the acrimonious departure of Sam Allardyce, England’s national soccer team is temporarily in the hands of a man who said just three weeks ago that he wasn’t ready for such a high pressure job.

Yet interim coach Gareth Southgate may end up keeping it given the paucity of top-class English managers around.

The English Football Association’s preference is that an Englishman coaches the national team, but there’s hardly a queue of top-quality candidates.

[ MORE: MLS Playoff Picture gets clearer ]

Alan Pardew, Eddie Howe and Steve Bruce are high on the list of bookmakers’ favorites to be the next England coach, yet none of them have managed a so-called big club in the Premier League or coached a team in the Champions League. Pardew and Howe are in charge of unfashionable Premier League clubs (Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, respectively) and Bruce recently quit as manager of Hull.

Glenn Hoddle, England coach from 1996-99, is also on the bookies’ list and a popular call with ex-professionals even though he hasn’t coached in a decade.

So Southgate, who has been given the reins for England’s next four matches – against Malta, Slovenia, Scotland and Spain – can stake a claim for the role on a full-time basis should he impress as a caretaker coach.

Except this was the same man who said as recently as Sept. 5 that he needed more experience to be England manager, having coached only one club (Middlesbrough, from 2006-09) and been in charge of the England under-21 side since 2013. Southgate pulled out of the race to succeed Roy Hodgson after the European Championship for this very reason, with the job going to Allardyce.

“I’m pretty clear on what I’m comfortable with,” Southgate said then, “but also I know to take that role wasn’t something I think I’ve got the experience for.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

“I think it’s one of the ultimate jobs and you want every skill set possible when you go into it. I think with England, there are one or two other things that I would want to have had experience of before I took that role, to be going into it from a real position of strength. Maybe that happens in the future, maybe it doesn’t?”

Less than a month later, he’s been thrust into what some term “The Impossible Job.”

Clean-cut, well-spoken and with no baggage, the 46-year-old Southgate fits the bill for the FA in terms of image. He would be the last person likely to get caught up in the kind of newspaper sting that led to Allardyce losing his job on Tuesday. He also knows the FA and what the national body wants and expects, having been an employee for three years.

“Gareth Southgate will do a good job,” FA chairman Greg Clarke said. “He knows the people, he knows the team, he knows the setup at St. George’s Park. He’ll take over pretty seamlessly.”

Best known for missing a crucial penalty in England’s shootout loss to Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, Southgate was fired after three years at Middlesbrough following its relegation from the Premier League. He has repaired his coaching reputation with England’s under-21s and led the team to a first title in 22 years at the Toulon tournament this year.

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

Bruce is the second-favorite with bookmakers, behind Southgate, and has to be a big contender considering he was interviewed by the FA for the job eventually given to Allardyce. The 38-year-old Howe, who guided unfancied Bournemouth into the Premier League and kept it there, is widely regarded as a future England coach but now may be too soon for him.

The problem for English coaches is they are rarely given the chance to prove themselves at the leading Premier League clubs, who prefer foreign managers. The FA has tried to address the lack of top English coaches by building the sprawling National Football Centre in central England in 2012 and using that as a base from where talented young coaches can be brought through. That will take time, though.

For now, the FA has given itself some breathing space and will look to have a new man in place by England’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in March.

“It wasn’t the plan we had,” Clarke said, “but we’ve now got to make the new plan work.”

MLS Snapshots: Montreal, DC strengthen playoff bids; TFC draws Orlando (video)

Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti, center, is congratulated by teammate Matteo Mancosu (21) following a goal against the San Jose Earthquakes during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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For most of Wednesday’s trio of Major League Soccer matches we had a paucity of goals, Montreal’s potent attack the only thing assuring it wasn’t zero.

[ MORE: Tata chooses Atlanta United ]

But the final half hours in two of our three matches proved fruitful for the box scores.

Montreal Impact 3-1 San Jose Earthquakes

With Didier Drogba resting, the Impact still managed to strengthen their playoff plans while crushing San Jose’s hopes for the second season. Dominic Odoro buried a rebound early before MVP hopeful Ignacio Piatti made it 2-0 before halftime. Piatti later helped Johan Venegas put the game away late.

Chris Wondolowski scored his 11th goal of the season to pull San Jose within a goal with just under a half-hour to play, his 120th in MLS has him 25 behind Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy for the all-time record.

The loss leaves San Jose seven points shy of a playoff spot with four matches to play.

Toronto FC 0-0 Orlando City

There were chances, sure: Michael Bradley looped a gorgeous pass that Jonathan Osorio somehow hit over the net from inside the six, and Cyle Larin was denied by a diving Alex Bono at the other end.

Two yellow cards to Tosaint Rickets in a 14-minute span left TFC down a man for the final 20 minutes, but the Reds held on for a point at home. Orlando is now five points shy of the East’s final playoff spot, while Toronto used its game-in-hand to pull ahead of New York Red Bulls and New York City FC for the top spot in the East.

DC United 3-0 Columbus Crew

This one saw the chances evenly distributed but the ball mostly with the visitors. Fortunately for DC’s playoff hopes, Lloyd Sam’s third goal of the season opened up a 1-0 lead in the 71st minute off a slick feed from Luciano Acosta. Lamar Neagle had a classy finish to make it 2-0, then assisted Alvaro Saborio to end this game and Columbus’ playoff hopes.

Tata Martino on choosing Atlanta: Project “worth more than money”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26: Gerardo Martino of Argentina clls out against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match at MetLife Stadium on June 26, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Chile defeated Argentina 4-2 in penalty kicks. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Paraguay.

Newell’s Old Boys.

Barcelona.

Argentina.

Atlanta United.

That’s the career path for new Atlanta boss Tata Martino, announced Wednesday as the first manager in United history.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

It’s a fascinating hire for the club and its league, Major League Soccer, as United prepares to debut in 2017.

And it’s also interesting on account of the coach. The 53-year-old Argentine remains in his prime, a three-time Copa America runner-up who was organizing Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and company just three years ago.

Timothy Pratt filed a report on the hiring for the New York Times on Wednesday, one that speaks to Martino’s excitement at helping start a club from the ground up. The coach is excited to aid technical director and USMNT legend Carlos Bocanegra in guiding players from youth on up, similar to what Oscar Pareja has done at FC Dallas.

From NYTimes.com:

Martino underlined the importance of youth player development at his new club “based on how I became a player at Newell’s.” The club is known for grooming players, including a young Lionel Messi, who played for Martino with Barcelona and Argentina. “Working with the youth teams is fundamental for me, no matter where in the world I’m coaching,” he said.

“But the proposal they’re offering me — to install my style of play and build from the ground up — is worth more than money,” he said.

That’s the kinda hire that should be high-fived. Let’s see how it plays out.

Europa League: Mourinho says targeted Man Utd must win; Saints shorthanded

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United makes his way to the tunnel after the final whistle  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Europa League goes into its second day of group play with the onus on the biggest club in the tournament to pick up a win.

Don’t believe us? Ask Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

“To be honest, I think we have to win,” Mourinho said at his pre-match press conference. “If we don’t win, I would say we’d have to win all the last four matches, which is difficult, so I think it is very important that we win this game.”

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

United fell 1-0 at Feyenoord to open the group stage, and now hosts Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday. He knows its the equivalent of a massive Cup match for the visitors.

“The Europa League is a competition Man United isn’t normally in, so when these teams have a giant like Man United in front of them, it’s a huge moment for them and they come to the game with incredible motivation.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start for United, as there’s a chance that Anthony Martial will rejoin the side. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out, and Wayne Rooney (back) and Luke Shaw (illness) may not play.

The other Premier League side in play is Southampton, as the Saints take a long flight to Israel for a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff against Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Saints handled Sparta Prague at home, and now face the Camels, who went to Inter Milan and won. Southampton is without Charlie Austin, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand, and Steven Davis.

Should be a very decent match from Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva.

Elsewhere

all times ET

Mainz at Gabala — 11 a.m.
Young Boys at Astana — 11 a.m.
Osmanlispor at Zurich — 1 p.m.
Red Bull Salzburg at Schalke — 1 p.m.
PAOK at Liberec — 1 p.m.
Qarabag at Fiorentina — 1 p.m.
Villarreal at Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m.
Nice at Krasnodar — 1 p.m.
Standard Liege at Ajax — 1 p.m.
Braga at Shakhtar Donetsk — 1 p.m.
Panathinaikos at Celta Vigo — 1 p.m.
Inter Milan at Sparta Prague — 1 p.m.
Konyaspor at Gent — 1 p.m.
Sassuolo at Genk — 3:05 p.m.
Zorya at Manchester United — 3:05 p.m.
Anderlecht at Saint-Etienne — 3:05 p.m.
Apoel Nicosia at Olympiacos — 3:05 p.m.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Dundalk — 3:05 p.m.
Feyenoord at Fenerbahce — 3:05 p.m.
Rapid Wien at Athletic Bilbao — 3:05 p.m.
Viktoria Plzen at Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m.
AZ Alkmaar at Zenit Saint-Petersburg — 3:05 p.m.
Astra Giurgiu at AS Roma — 3:05 p.m.