Holiday, Tymrak leading FC Kansas City’s stylish surge

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Tucked away in the outskirts of Kansas City, the best team in the National Women’s Soccer League is led by a pair of names unfamiliar to the casual soccer fan.

One, Lauren Holiday, is better known as Lauren Cheney – the name under which she claimed two Olympic gold medals prior to her 25th birthday – before marrying NBA all-star Jrue Holiday earlier this month.

The other, Erika Tymrak, is a second round college draft pick who has burst onto the scene in her first few months as a professional.

Together the pair accounts for the most goals (16) of any two players from the same team, and they have Kansas City in first place after Wednesday night’s 3-0 thrashing of the Boston Breakers. Tymrak leads all rookies with six goals, and Holiday co-leads the league in goals (10) while leading the NWSL with eight assists.

“With Tymrak and (Holiday), it’s a different game,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “They are looking for each other – even in practices they are looking for each other. They try to think ahead. They enjoy it. They love the style; they believe in the style and they are the ones encouraging everyone else to maintain the style.”

Andonovski has cheekily dubbed Kansas City’s style of play as ‘Triple A’: Attractive, attacking and aggressive.

Kansas City has executed all three of those to perfection in its ascension to the top of the table, heading into Sunday’s road match against Sky Blue FC – previous league leaders since May 16 – on an eight-game unbeaten streak that has included as much possession-oriented play as it has highlight reel goals.

Holiday’s successes are not surprising. The likely leading candidate for inaugural MVP went from a 20-year-old who was a last-minute addition to the 2008 Olympic gold medal team to one of the best players at the 2011 World Cup. She’s a shoe-in midfielder for every United States women’s national team training camp.

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Erika Tymrak could be on the verge of a U.S. women’s national team callup. (Photo courtesy FC Kansas City/John Rieger)

Tymrak, on the other hand, entered the league as the No. 11-overall college draft pick following a good but not necessarily headline-grabbing college career at Florida. Her impact in Kansas City has been immediate.

“The special thing about this league is that I think it is definitely for players like an Erika Tymrak,” Holiday said. “Sometimes in college they get overlooked, and in a league like this they are able to really shine.

The connection between Holiday, 25, and the 21-year-old Tymrak isn’t forced; it’s natural and it comes with ease. Their styles mesh and they “have the same mindset,” Tymrak says.

Just look to the first goal in Wednesday’s win over Boston: Tymrak was fouled near midfield and before she was even fully back on both feet, Jen Buczkowski tapped the ball to Holiday in order to play quickly – attacking and aggressive, remember – and Holiday found Tymrak, who dribbled, played a give-and-go with Holiday and then played a through ball to Merrit Mathias, whose cross deflected off a Boston defender and into the net (watch the play from the start here).

The entire sequence was like a walk-though – a dance, even, as Tymrak draws from some of the skills she picked up as a child in ballet, figure skating and gymnastics.

“I’m still a student of the game,” Tymrak said. “I’m learning new things every practice from my coaches and the players around me, who obviously have a lot more experience than me.”

Holiday, who serves as chief role model to Tymrak, says her understudy “has some of the best feet that I have seen a U.S. player have.” The rookie’s technical ability is the kind that is still an anomaly on the U.S. national team, outside the likes of Holiday, Megan Rapinoe or Tobin Heath. That has more than a few people paying attention to Tymrak.

“I know coach Sermanni has been following her lately and has interest in her,” Andonovski said. “If she keeps playing the way that she is playing, I think it is almost a no-brainer.”

And for FC Kansas City, the play of the dynamic duo, along with a rock of a defensive unit that includes defensive midfielders Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott (who Holiday calls “their saviors”) have the Blues on track for a playoff run and arguably in the role of favorites, an unpredictable position for a franchise that nine months ago emerged from the unknown and whose coach is leading his first women’s professional team.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.

Mata seems to confirm Champions League is Man United’s priority

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With the Premier League title all but wrapped up, English top flight teams are beginning to put their true focus onto competitions they still have a realistic shot of winning.

Manchester United sits in second place in the Premier League table, but they are a full 18 points back of rivals Manchester City, as so with a Champions League match against Sevilla on Wednesday afternoon, Juan Mata all but confirmed that the Red Devils are putting their main efforts into Europe’s largest competition.

[ MORE: Messi pegs back Chelsea despite winning tactics ]

“If we had less of a gap with respect to the Premier League leaders and we had a chance to fight for it, it wouldn’t be so tough to be eliminated from the Champions League, but now our aim is to progress from every round,” Mata said to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. “It would be a big blow to be eliminated in the last 16.”

Last season, a similar story played out. Manchester United was out of reach of a top four finish in the league, so manager Jose Mourinho publicly admitted they were putting their main focus on the Europa League due to the automatic berth the competition’s winner received into next year’s Champions League. The gamble paid off, as Manchester United won the competition and earned their spot in the Champions League this season.

Sevilla has not progressed past the Round of 16 since 1958. Manchester United, meanwhile, has not made it past the Champions League quarterfinals since their runners-up finish in 2011, when they lost to Barcelona in the finals at Wembley Stadium.

Wenger confirms Ospina will start pair while Ozil, Ramsey miss out

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Arsene Wenger confirmed in his pre-match press conference that goalkeeper Petr Cech will get an extended rest with a pair of Cup games on the horizon for Arsenal.

In his place, David Ospina will start both Thursday’s Europa League Round of 32 match against Ostersund and Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Manchester City. Ospina is no stranger to this type of rotation, with the Colombian owning just 30 starts over the last three seasons in national and international Cup competitions compared to just seven Premier League appearances.

In addition, Wenger also confirmed that Mesut Ozil will miss out for Thursday’s match due to illness, but is expected back for Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Arsenal has a 3-0 lead over Swedish club Ostersund after the first leg, with the second leg to be played at the Emirates.

Wenger said Aaron Ramsey is back in training, and while he will not be risked in the Europa League match in his return from a groin injury that saw him miss the North London derby loss, he could be in contention to play against Manchester City. [Ramsey] is not in the squad tomorrow, he had a good training session. We will see how his evolution goes between now and Sunday. I don’t rule him out.”

Ramsey scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Everton in early February, but has played just 181 minutes since picking up a hamstring injury in mid-December.

Finally, Wenger said that Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will both receive starting spots against Ostersund, as will some unnamed youth products. Welbeck has been out of Premier League action since mid-January, stuck behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he received four minutes off the bench in the North London derby and will get another opportunity in the Europa League to prove his worth.

Conte admits job security speculation will always exist at Chelsea

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Antonio Conte admits that he will always face speculation about his tenure as manager while he is employed at Chelsea, but dismissed it as “no problem for me.”

There is a general acceptance that Conte will part ways with Chelsea at the end of the season given the tough times the club has seen this campaign. The Blues are hanging on to a Champions League place by a thread, and struggled through a January that included just two wins across all competitions in six matches.

“I’ve said it very clearly: I’ve got a contract until 2019 and I intend to respect this, but you know anything can happen in football,” Conte told Italian publication Mediaset. “It takes two to be happy and continue a marriage. Our work is unique because we’ve always got our suitcase in our hands.”

Conte did issue somewhat of a warning to Chelsea, however, that if he were to be fired, it could come back to haunt the club, as he would have no shortage of offers. “My intention is to respect my contract, but if something were to happen, it would open up different scenarios.” Big clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid could have job openings this summer if their lofty goals aren’t met, and those places would be attractive destinations for Conte, who won the Premier League title with Chelsea just last year.

“It’s a bit the history of Chelsea and inevitable when, in the past, in 14 years, 10 coaches have been changed,” he said. “Clearly when there is this habit, let’s say, the press play on it and as soon as there is a result or two which don’t go your way, they try to put the pressure on.

“But it’s no problem for me. I hope that this pressure doesn’t harm the players, not me, because I go looking for pressure.”