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.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).

After the swap: Alexis, Mkhi-infused XIs for Man Utd, Arsenal

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The deal is done: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has moved to Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez going the other way in a monumental January move.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

How will it look for each side once the shape’s settled?

Arsenal

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at his very best — for Borussia Dortmund in 2014-15 — he was deployed as a left or right wing. He contributed 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 matches during his final season at the Westfalenstadion, and predictably saw those numbers drop as Jose Mourinho consistently moved him toward an attacking center midfield role.

He’ll get the chance to go out wide again at the Emirates Stadium, though perhaps not always to the extreme flanks. Expect Alexandre Lacazette‘s numbers to explode with this move.

Arsene Wenger used a 4-3-3 to batter Crystal Palace 4-1 at the weekend, with Ozil on the right wing and Alex Iwobi on the left. The club still needs better at center defensive mid while Aaron Ramsey is out, so that will likely keep the lineup similar until he returns (at a minimum):

Cech

Bellerin — Mustafi — Koscielny — Montreal

Elneny (Ramsey, eventually)

Xhaka — Wilshere

Ozil — Lacazette — Mkhitaryan

By the way, a lot of Arsenal supporters aren’t feeling great about this (understatement alert):

Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez prefers left wing, too, and Mourinho has a trio of in-form players who like that side of the field. Anthony Martial is red hot but plays wider than Jesse Lingard, and it seems one of them will take the slot of Juan Mata to the right of Paul Pogba in a 4-1-4-1. Marcus Rashford could also see the far right positioning.

But against top competition — continued apologies to Burnley — it’s usually a 4-2-3-1 for Mourinho with Pogba dropping next to Nemanja Matic a little deeper in the formation. Lingard has been getting the run as CAM here, usually to the detriment of Juan Mata. With Alexis as the clear-cut left wing in this formation, it causes real combat for the two other slots between Mata, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial.

So while it’s likely we’d see something like this in a big game for Manchester United…

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Pogba

Martial — Lingard —  Sanchez

Lukaku

… We’d love to see something more like this:

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Herrera

Pogba

Martial — Lukaku — Sanchez

How do you think Wenger and Mou will run ’em out?

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…