State of the NWSL, after Week 15: Clock’s ticking on Sky Blue, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 16

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We many finally be ready for a change at the top of the NWSL, though if the resiliency Sky Blue FC’s shown throughout the season is any indication, those words may prove foolish in four days time. That’s when Sky Blue welcome FC Kansas City to Yurcak Field, and while the Piscataway club sits two places higher in the standings, the teams’ trajectories tell a different story of their current strengths.

Sky Blue has not beaten a team in the league’s top five since May 25, a 1-0 win in Kansas City. Factor in Lauren Sesselman’s early red card in that match, and Sky Blue’s drought against playoff-caliber competition extends back to May 16 – their attention-grabbing upset in Portland. Still, propelled by the five-game winning streak they mustered from May 11 through June 1, Jim Gabarra’s team sits on top of the league, even if their one-point lead on the Thorns is undermined by Portland’s game in hand.

Contrast that with FC Kansas City, who are coming off an impressive 2-0 win over previously surging Reign FC. Lauren Holiday remains the league’s best player, but since being inserted in the starting lineup in June, rookie Erika Tymrak has nearly matched the U.S. international’s form. The result is a seven-match unbeaten run, establishing the Blues as the team currently most likely to claim the league’s first title.

Beyond FCKC’s form, the matchup presents a huge problem for Sky Blue. With their early success built on a deep setup and staying compact in their 4-3-3 formation, Sky Blue always seemed set to have trouble against teams with significant wide play – talents that could beat their wingers and take advantage of the setup behind them. It explains why Western New York has had so much success against them (outscoring them 8-2 over four games) and why the Blues, despite only taking one point from two games, have looked the better team for most of those 180 minutes.

If that head-to-head form is replicated on Sunday is Piscataway, FC Kansas City could be on top of the league by the end of the weekend. A mid-week visit from Boston gives them a chance at a six-point week. Sky Blue, on the other hand, could be third come Monday, depending on what happens in Portland.

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

RANKINGS OF POWER

8. Washington Spirit (last week: 8) – At this point, you just feel bad for Spirit players and fans. Yes, they’re not that good, and this team looked destined for this kind of season when the squad was put together in March, but that doesn’t mean the effort hasn’t been there most of the time. And that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for a team that can neither win nor score open play goals.

7. Boston Breakers (7) – Boston players may be convincing themselves their playoff hopes are still alive, but letting Chicago pass them in the standings was a major blow. Now they need to out-perform two teams to make the playoffs.

6. Sky Blue FC (4) – Credit to Jim Gabarra and Christie Rampone for fueling the team’s hot start, but at this point, there needs to be some refactoring before the playoffs.

5. Chicago Red Stars (3) – Rory Dames’ team has been getting results without ever looking that good. Credit to them for finding some way to pull themselves back into the playoff picture, but facing Seattle, Portland, and Seattle over their next three games, Chicago may need more than opportunism and opponent own goals.

4. Seattle Reign (2) – Their unbeaten run came to an end, but few teams are going to get a result at Kansas City right now. Unfortunately, the loss may have killed the momentum they needed to pull off their postseason miracle, an outcome that seems impossible now.

3. Western New York Flash (5) – How much do we take from their lopsided win over Sky Blue? Ending a (minor) slump is always valuable, but given the extent to which they’ve dominated Sky Blue this year, we didn’t learn much.

2. Portland Thorns FC (6) – Portland’s win at Dilboy wasn’t that impressive, but it served as validation for the form they showed in their 1-1 draw two weeks ago against Western New york. Combine the two performances and you have a team that may develop into the squad we expected at the season’s onset.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – Should Blues fans be concerned that this is basically a two-woman attack? If Tymrak proves her current form is more than a streak, they could be fine. Ideally, though, FCKC would be getting more out of their non-Holiday/Tymrak attackers. Heaven forbid either have an off-day in the playoffs.

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

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, July 24

FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers – If Boston’s postseason hopes weren’t crushed with Sunday’s loss to Portland, tonight’s visit to Overland Park should do it. The Breakers could be emboldened by that wall against their back, but if FC Kansas City are truly the team that’s stepped up over the last few weeks, they’ll win this game.

Thursday, July 25

Seattle Reign FC vs. Chicago Red Stars – Seattle are the better team right now, but the Red Stars need this more, particularly with Western New York likely to claim three points next Wednesday from visiting Washington. Seattle’s Jessica McDonald, waived earlier this year by Chicago, could play a key part in seeing them out of that playoff hunt.

Saturday, July 27

Washington Spirit vs. Boston Breakers – This could be one of the first inconsequential games on the NWSL schedule. Boston may not be mathematically eliminated by the time they visit Boyds, but unless they win in Kansas City, the math will be severely stacked against them.

Sunday, July 28

Portland Thorns FC vs. Chicago Red Stars – Chicago’s first victory of the year game June 1 at JELD-WEN, though as opposed to that match, the Thorns will be at full strength on Sunday. They’ll also have as much positivity as they’ve carried all year, the addition of Tobin Heath fostering a continuity Portland’s lack all season.

Sky Blue FC vs. FC Kansas City – Caitlin Foord will be out. Kelley O’Hara will be out. Lisa De Vanna will be questionable. That’s not the injury report you want going into a match against the league’s hottest team.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.

Running Away With It

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Christian Pulisic scored and played a part in three other goals as the United States rained goals down on Honduras in a 6-0 win at Avaya Stadium in San Jose early Saturday morning.

Clint Dempsey scored two goals, and Michael Bradley and Sebastian Lletget also scored as the U.S. moved into fourth place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Their next match is Tuesday in Panama.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things ]

The United States men’s national team’s bid to recover their 2018 World Cup hopes got off to a flying start.

Sloppy Honduran defending caused a turnover outside the 18, and Jozy Altidore played Christian Pulisic in on goal. Keeper Donis Escober got a piece of Pulisic’s shot, but no one followed Lletget to the back post and the ex-West Ham and current LA Galaxy man quickly put the Yanks up 1-0.

The Yanks didn’t stop, and Lletget drew a yellow card when he beat Ever Alvarado down the right flank and forced a take down from the Honduran defender.

Alberth Elis slipped John Brooks’ mark, and the Houston Dynamo man turned to fire on goal. Tim Howard was well positioned to scoop it up.

Lletget turned out to be injured by the Alvarado foul, and Bruce Arena turned to Alejandro Bedoya in the 17th minute.

Geoff Cameron was given a yellow card in the 25th minute for a foul on Roger Espinoza. That gave a free kick to Honduras from 30 yards out, and Romell Quioto fired right at Tim Howard.

Then it was the captain who doubled the lead, as Honduras inexplicably gave him the room to walk across the arc of the 18 to rip a shot across goal. 2-0.

It was Clint Dempsey’s turn in the 33rd minute, after an otherworldly scooped pass from Pulisic.

What. A. Pass. Kid.

Honduras then took a bigger hit: the loss of star attacker Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo) to an apparent shoulder injury.

Brooks bailed out an out-of-position Gonzalez just before halftime to keep the lead 3-0.

The Yanks needed 15 seconds to make it 4-0, with Dempsey winning a 50-50 tussle and finding Altidore for a flick to Pulisic. He netted his fourth USMNT goal. He’s 18.

Pulisic then won a free kick 25 yards out from goal by embellishing a foul, and Dempsey’s free kick tricked Escober. 6-0. For real.

A scary moment late as a dazed and wobbly John Brooks was forced off despite no apparent injury. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

LINEUP

USMNT: Howard; Villafana, Gonzalez, Brooks (Ream, 70′), Cameron (Zusi, 58′); Bradley, Lletget (Bedoya, 18′), Nagbe; Pulisic, Dempsey, Altidore.

Goals: Lletget (5′), Bradley (27′), Dempsey (33′, 49′, 54′), Pulisic (46′)

 

Player ratings from USMNT’s pounding of Honduras

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Battered. Throttled. Eviscerated.

Pick your verb of dominance, the United States likely fit it well in a 6-0 destruction of Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

[ MORE: Recap + video | Three things ]

The win boosts the U.S. in World Cup qualifying after their 0-2 start, but how did the individuals fare? Obviously well.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — The team just feels in a safer place with the veteran back there. If the U.S. goes to the 2018 World Cup, Howard remains their No. 1 (and there probably never should have been a question. Sorry Brad).

Jorge Villafana — 7 — Tidy passing and a low-risk game from the Santos Laguna man.

John Brooks (Off 70′) — 7 — An early error before recovering to be his usual free-clearing, athletic self. Scary injury took him out late, as he looked dazed. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

Omar Gonzalez — 5  — He wasn’t bad, but Gonzalez is still a positional question mark. Bailed out a couple times by Brooks.

Geoff Cameron (Off 59′) — 6 — Out of position and a bit hobbled, he wasn’t at his best.

Michael Bradley — 7 — One of his better USMNT games in a long time.

Sebastian Lletget (Off 17′) — 8 — Scored, then got hurt on a roasting run down the right.

Darlington Nagbe — 6 — One or two electric moments in the first half, but overall a quiet enough night for the Timbers man.

Christian Pulisic — 9 — Hard to not to hand the kid a 10. He’s quite frankly the most exciting American talent in the history of the program.

Clint Dempsey — 10 — Along with Howard, the sort of player you knew would make sure this game ended with three points. The fact that he nabbed three goals, too, is just a bonus.

Jozy Altidore — 7  — Pretty darn good night holding up the ball, and passed as well as ever, but did he drop a bit too deep too often? The answer is probably, “Who cares? They won 6-0, dude.”

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 18′)  — 6 — Typical high energy, space eating job in the middle of the park from the Union man.

Graham Zusi (On 58′)  — 6 — Good late clearance preserved the shutout.

Tim Ream (On 70′)  — 6 — Interesting to note that Arena went to him over Walker Zimmerman or Matt Besler.

Three things to take away from USMNT 6-0 Honduras

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The United States men’s national team pulled a Leicester City.

[ MORE: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

That’s a joke with truth wrapped around it, because the Yanks have had plenty of time and even a pair of friendlies to respond from the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.

But in their first serious match without their old coach, the U.S. looked a team renewed and unleashed. Now the Americans may find themselves back in an automatic World Cup qualifying spot with a win on Tuesday in Panama.

Things change.

Vindicated

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and all of the USMNT players waited months and months to get the chance to answer their critics following a pair of embarrassing losses to open the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Sure, having Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, and Tim Howard back helped a whole lot, and the seasoning Christian Pulisic is getting at Borussia Dortmund is unquestionably good for an 18-year-old.

But there’s little doubt Michael Bradley and Co. were fired up to silence their critics. Whether they admit it or not, this is a bunch that was stung by those who said they failed their old coach.

Most expected the U.S. to get a point or better against Honduras, but to do it the way they did is an unexpected bonus. A win in Panama on Tuesday would boost them into the Top Three.

And don’t worry, the old boss was pleased for his former charges.


The future is now…

I Tweeted the following after a late second half pass from Pulisic, and there was little disagreement.

Pulisic won’t be credited with an assist for his shot which rebounded to Sebastian Lletget for the opener, but he will walk away with his fourth international goal and two proper assists.

One was an absurd scoop to Clint Dempsey’s chest, and the other was a long avenue that shouldn’t have existed. Still, Pulisic found that street and provided an absolutely dynamic force all over the park.

There have been U.S. teens at big European clubs, and U.S. teens who’ve made impacts on the national team, but never both at the same time and never both at this level. Pulisic is for real, and finding his ceiling is an adventure we’re all undertaking with great enjoyment.


…But the legends sure helped

Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard will go down as two of the most important players in United States men’s national team history.

Actually, they may be duking it out for Nos. 1 and 2 when it’s all said and done.

Dempsey’s hat trick was his career in a nutshell. The first saw him body off a defender while collecting a Pulisic pass off his chest, then lashing a shot with power despite said defender dragging him down.

The second was a burst of speed to run onto Pulisic’s through ball and classic calm in the face of an onrushing keeper, holding onto the ball before sliding it home from an acute angle.

The third was this free kick. A bit aided by goalkeeper Donis Escober, but such is life.

And don’t sleep on Howard’s early performance as Honduras tried to find some sort of foothold in the match. Always well-positioned, the team just feels safer with the Colorado Rapids man between the sticks.