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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.

Messi returns ahead of schedule, sporting golden hair (photo)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26: Lionel Messi #10 of Argentina looks on 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)
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Lionel Messi is back with Barcelona a week earlier than expected, as the Camp Nou set prepares to defend another La Liga title.

That means Messi will be on the roster for the International Champions Cup, as Barcelona is slated to play Celtic, Leicester City, and Liverpool.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby in China on Monday ]

That’s not the only surprise from the 29-year-old, who has pulled an Aaron Ramsey and dramatically altered his ‘do.

Glad to have him back on our screens a bit earlier than planned, and — although I’m far from a style icon — I’ll be just as glad when the blonde grows/washes out of his head.

Ronaldo seeking new contract, says he’ll miss UEFA Super Cup

FUNCHAL, MADEIRA, PORTUGAL - JULY 22: Dionisio Pestana, Cristiano Ronaldo and Miguel Albuquerque (President of the Regional Government of Madeira) during the opening of the new 'Pestana CR7 Funchal' Hotel owned by Cristiano Ronaldo on July 22, 2016 in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)
Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images
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Cristiano Ronaldo’s long summer has earned him an extended vacation, but the knee injury he suffered in the EURO 2016 Final would’ve kept him from this season’s first big club match anyway.

The 31-year-old star will not be available for the Aug. 9 UEFA Super Cup match between Real Madrid and Sevilla, saying he’ll be back in the mix just one day later.

[ MORE: Discussing Yedlin’s future ]

Ronaldo also said he’s going to speak with the club about extending his contract, which runs through the 2017-18 season. He’s very been vocal about his desire to finish his career at the Bernabeu, and will put pen to paper in order to prove it.

From Sky Sports:

“I spoke to the president on the phone and when I get to Madrid, we will talk about it.

“Obviously it’s something I want, I have mentioned it many times, and the club also wants it. But we only spoke briefly, and there will be more concrete things to come.”

No surprises here, though it would’ve been nice to have Ronaldo on our screens for the match-up between his Champions League winners and the Europa League champions.

Guardiola, Mourinho prepare for derby in China, shake off personal rivalry

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 16: Barcelona manager (L) Josep Guardiola shakes hands with head coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid before the start of the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 16, 2011 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Preseason matches rarely have legitimate hype, let alone live up to it.

Yet Monday will see Manchester United and Manchester City tangle outside of England for the first time in history, and there are a lot of fans looking forward to the early morning match in China.

[ MORE: Discussing Yedlin’s future ]

A lot of that has to do with it being the first match-up between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho as bosses of City and United, to the extent where journalists asked whether the longtime rivals would shake hands (admittedly a weird question, as if to say, “Are you a grown-up?”).

They essentially issued the same answer, and here are Mourinho’s comments, from ManUtd.com:

“Of course I will shake his hand – why wouldn’t I? I don’t understand the question to him or to me. We were opponents for three years [in Spain] but we are professionals. I don’t see why I wouldn’t shake his hand.”

Both managers also talked, understandably, about fitness and health being their No. 1 goal of the match, and there are concerns about the pitch in China due to heavy rains.

Guardiola also gave insight into Vincent Kompany‘s continued struggles with recovery from the injury that hampered him for much of last season, refusing to give a timetable for the captain’s return.

MLS Snapshot: Colorado Rapids 1-1 FC Dallas (video)

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 23: Marlon Hairston #94 of Colorado Rapids celebrates after scoring a first half goal past Chris Seitz #18 of FC Dallas during a game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 23, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): In keeping with the the theme of “we never really learn anything in MLS, it just kind of happens,” both the Colorado Rapids or FC Dallas had the chance to make a massive statement in the two sides’ ongoing race for the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield (FCD entered Saturday’s clash at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park with a three-point lead), but they ultimately settled for a 1-1 draw, and we settle for “wait until next week, maybe we’ll actually learn something then.” At least the goals were great, though — Marlon Hairston opened the scoring by rounding the goalkeeper with traffic in all directions, and Victor Ulloa unleashed a rocket from well outside the penalty area to equalize late on. In that sense, the 90 minutes were befitting a first-versus-second matchup. The draw means the Rapids are unbeaten in their last 15 league games, but the LA Galaxy, who won away to the Portland Timbers and inched two points closer to the league’s elites, are ultimately the day’s biggest winners.

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

26′ — Akindele goes inches wide of the far post — Quick, decisive movement around the penalty area is the only way to create that half-yard of space needed to fire a shot off.

33′ — Hairston breaks out, Zimmerman makes the dramatic block — Hairston was thisclose to having a one-on-one chance on goal, but Walker Zimmerman made a spectacular recovery run and an even better last-second sliding tackle to deflect Hairston’s shot narrowly wide of the post.

44′ — Hairston rounds Seitz to make it 1-0 — Composure, quickness, finesse. Hairston displayed it all on this goal, his second in as many games.

82′ — Ulloa unleashes a blast from 25 yards out f0r 1-1 — If not for the net on the goal, Ulloa’s strike might still be traveling at an ever-so-slightly upward trajectory for the rest of time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Sam Cronin

Goalscorers: Hairston (44′), Ulloa (82′)