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.

Sweden announces Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not return for World Cup

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s public flirtation and seeming committal to returning to the Swedish national team for the World Cup was a big tease.

Whether it’s his call or not is up for debate.

The Swedish Football Association reports that it’s spoken with Ibrahimovic and the 35-year-old LA Galaxy striker has declined the chance to return to the fold.

[ MORE: Fulham, NFL owner to buy Wembley? ]

Sweden’s sporting director Lars Richt says Ibrahimovic has not changed his mind on international retirement despite his own words.

Sweden’s current team may have a role in that.

We imagine Richt and Sweden may be cushioning the blow for Ibrahimovic, especially if national team goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson is speaking on behalf of a team vibe when he speaks of Zlatan being “an individualist” who could ruin Sweden’s team-first concept.

Report: Fulham, NFL owner Khan agrees $700m price for Wembley

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Fulham owner Shad Khan also owns a National Football League team, and could have two top-flight teams from different nations playing in England soon.

For Fulham, the Cottagers are currently very much in the race for automatic promotion to the Premier League and at the least will have a chance at qualifying through the playoffs.

[ MORE: TFC loses CCL Final in PKs ]

For the Jaguars, who have rarely needed all the seats in their stadium, it could mean a move to London if Khan goes through with what’s being reported as an accepted $700 million bid to buy Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium was also built with the design to host NFL games.

Here’s how ProFootballTalk’s Michael David Smith puts a bow on it (on one of the biggest days of the NFL calendar, nonetheless):

So it’s possible that there could soon be two iconic soccer stadiums in London with strong NFL ties, one which was built with NFL games in mind, and another that is owned by an NFL owner. The league is pouring serious resources into London.

It seems unlikely Khan would move Fulham from Craven Cottage, but there are other repercussions of this move for soccer in England.

There’s the potential for the England national team to no longer utlizie a permanent home, and the FA Cup and League Cup both potentially requiring new or rotating venues for their final rounds.

A lot to monitor here, and we’ll surely have all the details as they emerge from Khan’s crew.

TFC on CCL loss: “Feels the heart has been ripped from the chest”

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Michael Bradley went 90 minutes at center back, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco scored, and Toronto FC nearly, oh-so-nearly, became the first Major League Soccer side to win a continental title in the CONCACAF Champions League era.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

“We wanted to be the first (MLS side) to lift the CONCACAF Champions League trophy,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono, according to MLSSoccer.com. “We failed in that goal; that’s massively disappointing. … This is the way the game goes, it’s unjust; it feels the heart has been ripped from the chest sometimes.”

Bono made some big saves in regulation as TFC flipped its 2-1 first leg loss on its ear over 90 minutes, but Chivas Guadalajara scored all four of their penalty kick attempts as Jonathan Osorio hit the bar and Bradley set his effort on a path to the moon.

That part was possibly academic, as Chivas could’ve sealed it with their fifth penalty, but Marky Delgado’s miss of a perfect Sebastian Giovinco stoppage time cross is what sent the match into kicks.

Here’s how The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson framed his post-match interview with Delgado, described as one of the few players not to walk past the media after the loss:

“That’s football sometimes,” Delgado searched for words. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it goes in. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s heartbreaking.”

It felt cruel to keep him standing there any longer.

“Wherever we are, we want to win,” the soft-spoken American said. “Unfortunately today we didn’t, but we know we dominated the game.”

And Bradley, in the season after Toronto won a trouble but also 18 months removed from missing a PK in the MLS Cup Final — not to mention marshaling the USMNT midfield in its monumental failure to qualify for the World Cup was mostly good in playing out-of-position.

“In the biggest moments, we threw caution to the wind and played with balls, bravery, and pride in ourselves, in each other, in our club and our city,” Bradley said on Canadian television outlet TSN.

They did, and now they must hope to win the Canadian Championship, MLS Supporters’ Shield, or MLS Cup to get another shot at qualifying for the Club World Cup.

Toronto loses CONCACAF Champions League in PKs

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Chivas Guadalajara scored on all of its penalty kicks to clinch a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League Final, breaking the hearts of Toronto FC in Mexico on Wednesday and earning a berth in the 2018 Club World Cup.

Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore scored in regulation as Toronto FC picked up a 2-1 win to reverse their first leg loss and push it to kicks.

Orbelin Pineda scored Chivas’ goal.

Hometown kid Jonathan Osorio hit the cross bar on Toronto’s second PK and Michael Bradley sent the fifth offering into outer space.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Toronto flew out of the gates, and Rodolfo Cota came flying off his line to deny Altidore a 10th minute chance.

Alex Bono collected a header off a Chivas corner kick earned by a counterattack.

Pineda then made Toronto’s task even harder with a 19th minute goal, cooking Auro’s mark to reach a through ball and dancing around Bono for 1-0.

But Altidore was somehow unmarked for Nic Hasler’s pass despite five Chivas defenders and Cota inside the six-yard box, and TFC leveled the second leg at 1.

And TFC got the next goal through Giovinco, slipped through by Marky Delgado and taking advantage of a yard of space and a second to shoot with his fourth goal of the CCL knockout rounds.

The Reds kept coming in the second half, with Delgado winning a big 50-50 ball deep in Chivas territory and Victor Vasquez ripping a shot that Cota dove to smother.

Chivas found its footing in 58th minute, sending a shot over the bar before Jesus Godinez hit the post in the 61st (though his dive seemingly had the near post covered). Bono the next knocked a free kick over the bar from a similar position as the ball that beat him in the first leg.

Javier Lopez curled a vicious attempt just over the goal in the 72nd. He’d have the next best chances moments after Altidore subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury, but dribbled onto Bono’s lap and fired off the keeper.

Giovinco worked a 1-2 with Osorio and cruised a shot just wide of the far post in the 87th minute. Delgado then mailed a sitter over the bar in the first minute of stoppage time.