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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.

Bayern can’t break down Simeone’s Atleti: “We played too slowly”

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Carlo Ancelotti, Manager of Bayern Muenchen looks on before the UEFA Champions League group D match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 28, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich sits second in Group D of this season’s UEFA Champions League after losing its toughest match of the bunch: a trip to the Vicente Calderon.

Atletico Madrid won 1-0 when Antoine Griezmann linked up with Yannick Carrasco for a first half goal and Diego Simeone’s stubborn defense lived up to its reputation in blanking the Bavarians.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Manager Carlo Ancelotti has been frustrated by Simeone in the past, perhaps most notably in his brief stint at Real Madrid. But the Bayern boss says the loss was down to speed.

“We tried to get back into the game but we played too slowly, which is why we did not have many chances to equalize,” Ancelotti said. “It’s never nice to lose.”

Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer also acknowledged a lack of speed in a way, pointing at urgency when he said, “Atlético showed a killer instinct tonight and we didn’t.”

Bayern hosts PSV Eindhoven in its next UCL match on Oct. 19.

Guardiola, Rodgers left to unpack thrilling Celtic-Man City draw

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Brendan Rodgers, Manager of Celtic issues instructions to his players next to Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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What a match in Glasgow.

The UEFA Champions League group stage returned to Celtic Park on Wednesday, where the hosts thrilled their crowd by taking a trio of leads before settling for a 3-3 draw with mighty Manchester City.

[ MORE: JPW on Walcott’s Arsenal heroics ]

The draw is the first competitive game City hasn’t won under Pep Guardiola, but the manager didn’t feel much like complaining after his team rallied.

From the BBC:

Guardiola: “It was difficult for us. I’m happy with the reaction from the players, it’s not easy to score three goals away.

“I don’t know how many the chances they had after the third goal. We should have won it.”

As for Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers, he was tickled. After all, Celtic had fallen 7-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou during their first outing.

From the BBC:

Rodgers: “We were brilliant, the pressing and the energy. Every time we went forward we looked like we could score.

“Apart from the Barcelona game these players have been operating at a high level this season. Now, to do it against that team, it was a magnificent performance.”

Celtic Park was loud on Wednesday, and both sides gave the crowd plenty of oohs and aahs. It’s hard to imagine Celtic could do the same again, and City did give away a pair of goals (one own goal from Raheem Sterling, one gaffe from Aleksandar Kolarov).

But for one afternoon, who cares about anything other than an entertaining 90 minutes?

Theo Walcott remains rampant after going back to basics

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Theo Walcott of Arsenal scores his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Arsenal FC and FC Basel 1893 at the Emirates Stadium on September 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Theo Walcott scored both of Arsenal’s goals in their 2-0 win over FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday and the English winger is back to his best.

[ RECAP: Arsenal destroy Basel ]

Walcott, 27, is in fine form with four goals in his last three games as Arsenal have won four straight in all competitions.

Against Basel he simply ripped their defense apart in the first half, cutting in from the right wing to combine with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and wreck havoc.

What has been the big change in Theo’s game this season?

Following Arsenal’s win against Chelsea last weekend (Walcott scored in the big 3-0 win) I asked his manager Arsene Wenger exactly that.

“I believe the change in Theo Walcott is his attitude this season,” Wenger told ProSoccerTalk. “He is ready to fight, commit and you know straight away he gets the crowd behind him. Theo Walcott of that stature is a completely different player.”

That is what we are seeing this season as Walcott spoke before the game against Basel about focusing more on himself and finally giving up on trying to be a central striker.

He looks sharp, focused and angrier (especially when tracking back defensively, something the fans are loving) than he has been in recent years and Wenger will be hoping Walcott stays clear of the horrendous injuries which have peppered his 10-year career at Arsenal.

Sometimes we forget just how long Walcott has been around.

When you look at the stat above, it hits home that he’s no longer a youngster we are waiting to explode into life. It is time Walcott started to deliver and seems like the penny has dropped somewhere along the line and he has gone back to basics. With his pace and power, when he’s on it there’s few defenders who can slow him down.

Now, the only thing Wenger and Arsenal’s fans will be hoping for is that Walcott can stay injury free and finally fulfill the massive potential many have always believed that he had.

Right now, Walcott is rampant for the red-hot Gunners.

UEFA Champions League wrap: Bayern falls at Atleti; Arsenal, Barca win

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Muenchen reacts after conceding a goal during the UEFA Champions League group D match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 28, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Oh, there were goals to be had in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, where Arsenal, Napoli, and PSG cruised to multi-goal wins while other powers had tougher times.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Manchester City needed to battle for its point at Celtic, while Barcelona came back to topple Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany. And Bayern Munich, well, they found it just as tough to score vs. Atletico Madrid as it did in last year’s semifinal.

Celtic 3-3 Manchester CityRECAP

The Scots opened up a pair of leads through Moussa Dembele‘s third-minute redirection of a Erik Sviatchenko attempt and a Raheem Sterling own goal, but Fernandinho pulled one back for City and Sterling made amends with a goal of his own to level things at half of a thriller at Celtic Park.

Dembele added a second shortly after halftime to put the hosts back on top, and Craig Gordon made a pair of fine saves to keep Celtic’s lead. That’s when Nolito found a loose ball.

Arsenal 2-0 BaselRECAP

A Theo Walcott brace had the Gunners rolling at the Emirates in a match which pits Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka against older brother Taulant Xhaka.

Napoli 4-2 Benfica

Marik Hamsik scores a first goal for the the Italians, and Dries Mertens gave Napoli insurance with a pair of second half goals and Arkadiusz Milik converted a penalty in between. Young Gonçalo Guedes and Eduardo Salvio scored for Benfica late.

Borussia Monchengladbach 1-2 Barcelona

The middle Hazard brother, Thorgan, staked the German hosts to a 1-0 lead over Lionel Messi-less Barcelona with his 34th minute tally.

Arda Turan took advantage of hesitant goalkeeping from Yann Sommer and a chipped pass from Neymar to tie the match in the 65th minute. Sommer then left a Luis Suarez shot on the foot of Gerard Pique, and the big Barca defender scored to make it 2-1.

Napoli 4-0 Benfica

Marik Hamsik scores a first goal for the the Italians, and Dries Mertens gave Napoli insurance with a pair of second half goals and Arkadiusz Milik converted a penalty in between.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Bayern Munich

Yannick Carrasco has the hosts up at the Vicente Calderon, on a nice shot to boot. Antoine Griezmann had the assist, and Atleti recorded more shots than the visitors despite a massive possession advantage for Bayern. The Bavarians also came close to doubling the amount of passes completed by Diego Simeone’s men, but goals are what matter here and Atleti has claimed the rematch of last year’s semifinal. Griezmann missed a late penalty for the hosts.

Ludogorets Razgrad 1-3 Paris Saint-Germain

Blaise Matuidi nabbed an equalizer after the Bulgarians surprised PSG with a Natanael goal in the 16th minute. Edinson Cavani scored twice after halftime to put the French powers in a favorable position.

Besiktas 1-1 Dynamo Kyiv

Portugal’s Ricardo Quaresma gave the hosts a first half lead, but 18-year-old Viktor Tsygankov played hero for the visitors when he scored in the second half.

FC Rostov 2-2 PSV Eindhoven

This was another first half thriller, with Dmitri Poloz netting twice for the hosts. Davy Propper scored the first equalizer, while Luuk De Jong made it 2-2 at the break.

Standings

Group A
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Arsenal 2 1 1 0 3 1 2 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Paris SG 2 1 1 0 4 2 2 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Ludogorets 2 0 1 1 2 4 -2 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
FC Basel 2 0 1 1 1 3 -2 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Group B
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Napoli 2 2 0 0 6 3 3 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
Besiktas 2 0 2 0 2 2 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2
Dynamo Kiev 2 0 1 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
Benfica 2 0 1 1 3 5 -2 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Group C
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 2 2 0 0 9 1 8 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
Manchester City 2 1 1 0 7 3 4 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Celtic 2 0 1 1 3 10 -7 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Mönchengladbach 2 0 0 2 1 6 -5 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group D
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Atlético Madrid 2 2 0 0 2 0 2 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
Bayern Munich 2 1 0 1 5 1 4 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
PSV Eindhoven 2 0 1 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
FC Rostov 2 0 1 1 2 7 -5 0-1-0 0-0-1 1