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Walking through Week 16 of the NWSL season

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For the first time since the season’s early weeks, the NWSL has a new leader. The spot Sky Blue FC held down for months was taken by FC Kansas City on Wednesday, the Blues’ win over the Breakers vaulting Vlatko Andonovski’s team from third to first. When FCKC collected three more points at Sky Blue late Sunday night, one of the preseason favorites had consolidated their perch atop the league.

It really is Kansas City’s world, at this point. On form, they’re clearly the best team in the league, carrying a nine-match unbeaten run out of this weekend’s action. They have the league’s best goal difference (+13), are four points clear after their win in Piscataway, and have the league’s best player (Lauren Holiday). They’ve scored the most goals in the league, are tied for the fewest allowed. They’re positioning themselves for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and have no discernible weakness. Even their trouble getting production out of their strikers is offset by the brilliance of Holiday and Erika Tymrak.

The team that has the best shot to catch them is Portland, though the Thorns found a way to stymie their own momentum this weekend. Up two with 15 minutes to play, Portland still managed to drop points at home to Chicago (for the second time this year). Though they’re only four back and have two games in hand on Kansas City, Sunday’s disappointment brings new questions about the league’s other preseason favorite.

Here’s what happened in Week 16 of the NWSL season:

Wednesday, July 24

FC Kansas City 3, Boston Breakers 0 – A game dominated by FC Kansas City didn’t see it’s first goal until past the hour mark, but in that closing third of the match, we saw two unusual things for Kansas City. First, though our Week 16 look ahead worried about the staying power of a team so dependent on two stars, the Blues found goals from other places: Merritt Mathias and Courtney Jones. Second, after spending an hour struggling to see their control payoff, Kansas City switched from their normal 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-2-4-0, bringing on Teresa Noyola for Melissa Henderson. Waves of attacks started hitting a Boston defense that had lost its focal point, leading to three FCKC goals in the final 19 minutes.

Implications: Boston’s playoff hopes were already in critical condition. After this loss, they were on life support. Kansas City, on the other hand, ran their unbeaten streak to eight games, a lopsided result leaving no doubt as to who’s the league’s top team, right now.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 19 35 +13
2 6 Sky Blue FC 18 31 +6
3 4 Portland 17 31 +6
4 3 W. New York 17 27 +11
5 7 Boston 18 23 -0
6 5 Chicago 18 23 -6
7 2 Seattle 18 18 -9
8 8 Washington 17 7 -21

Thursday, July 25

Seattle Reign FC 4, Chicago Red Stars 1 – Seeing their own unbeaten run snapped last weekend in Kansas City, Seattle took out their frustrations on the visiting Red Stars, setting their season high in goals while squelching the momentum behind Chicago’s playoff push. Two goals from Megan Rapinoe, doubling the total she carried into the game, were augmented by Kaylyn Kyle’s second and Liz Bogus’s first, with only the Jen Hoy’s first professional goal keeping Hope Solo from finally collecting a clean sheet.

Implications: Seattle’s playoff hopes remain more mathematical than practical, but the benefits of this late season run can be seen at the turnstiles. If the Reign had just faded away after a disastrous start, it’s unlikely 2,017 would have driven to Starfire on a weeknight.

For Chicago, the loss kept them four back of Western New York with five to play. With no remaining games against the Flash, each dropped point leaves the Red Stars that much more dependent on Western New York hitting a banana peel.

Saturday, July 27

Washington Spirit 2, Boston Breakers 5 – For the first time since May, Washington scored from open play, Diana Matheson recording her seventh goal of the year in the second minute. The Spirit repeated the feet later through Conny Pohlers, the German opening her NWSL account, but a season-high five goals allowed sent them to their 12th loss of the season.

Washington was playing with a makeshift defense, injuries forcing three non-defenders into their back line, but they aren’t the first team to have to take evasive action (Seattle did so for the first two months of the season). But when Mariah Nogueira, Lianne Sanderson, Rhian Wilkinson (below), Heather O’Reilly, and Cat Whitehill got onto the score sheet, Washington did become the second NWSL team to give up five (Boston, vs. Sky Blue, June 1).

Implications: The same week it’s announced goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris will play with Sweden’s Tyresö this fall, she allows five goals, one very clearly preventable. As her public comments precipitated the firing of Mike Jorden and his staff after the Spirit’s June 28 loss in Rochester, it’s worth considering what we’ve learned about the Spirit in the month that’s followed. The team is 0-4-1 with a -7 goal difference in that time, worse results than they were getting before Harris spoke out (1-8-3, -14). Jorden may not have been the right coach for Washington, but it’s also unclear the extent to which he was contributing to Washington’s problems. We should be careful where we drive our buses.

As for Boston, they’re in the same boat as Chicago: Waiting for Western New York to screw up. Four back with four to go, at least their playoff hopes are alive, even if we the Flash should be planning to travel on August 24.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 8
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Diana Matheson (WAS) 7 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
4 tied at 6 3 tied at 5

Sunday, July 28

Portland Thorns FC 3, Chicago Red Stars 3 – One of the wildest games of the year saw Christine Sinclair finally break through (two goals), Meleana Shim continue her rise from obscurity (three games in a row with goals), but Portland’s defense collapse in the last 15 minutes. Alyssa Mautz completed her unlikely double in the 75th minute, while Julianne Sitch’s 86th minute equalizer gave Chicago an unlikely and needed point.

As entertaining as the match was, the  couple of tantalizing stories were in the details.

  • Lori Chalupny, one of the league’s four best players this year, gave way for Mautz in the 18th minute after one of the worst tackles of the season left the former U.S. international unable to put weight on her right ankle. A clear red card foul was only shown yellow, with Heath going on to record two assists.
  • Alex Morgan was removed from the game in the 74th, which would normally we no big deal, especially with the team up 3-1. But Morgan appeared, shall we say, less than thrilled when replaced by Tiffany Weimer, almost despondently looking on  in isolation from her teammates as Chicago rallied from two goals down. Morgan’s effectiveness has been much debated throughout the season (conclusions vary),  but Sunday’s was a picture’s worth a thousand words moment, snapped up by the cameras covering the league’s weekly national television game. (Morgan wasn’t available to the media after the game.)source:

Implications: At the beginning of the season, people talked about Portland’s defense as a relative weakness, though throughout the campaign, it was one of the team’s only strengths. Now that the attack is improving with the addition of Heath, have the defensive issues finally manifest?

For Chicago, it was a dramatic point but not the best result. They close the week four points behind Western New York but with two games marked off the schedule. Their playoff push is blunted.

Sky Blue FC 0, FC Kansas City 1 – The last time FC Kansas City visited Piscataway, a controlling performance was offset when Monica Ocampo found two late goals. This time, given a chance to put four points between themselves and the former, long-time league leaders, FC Kansas City wasn’t so generous. A typically commanding performance came good when Courtney Jones redirected a Lauren Holiday corner past Brittany Cameron for the game’s only goal, though if it wasn’t for a remarkable late save from rookie defender Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall, Kansas City’s result would have better reflected their control of the game. (Nobody’s gif-ed that one.)

Implications: Sky Blue are still struggling. Almost assured of a playoff spot, they can spent the next four weeks trying to find a formula that will work come playoff time. Unfortunately, that formula won’t include right back Caitlin Foord (initial recovery time of 6-10 weeks for her sprain has her out for the rest of the season).

Kansas City runs their unbeaten streak to nine games ahead of a pivotal match in Portland. By that time, the Thorns could be within a point, depending on their mid-week result against visiting Sky Blue. Regardless, a win a JELD-WEN could pave Kansas City’s path to home-field advantage, with season-ending games against Boston and Chicago giving Kansas City the potential to carry some momentum into the playoffs.

(All GIFs were found searching Tumblr, with Becky Smith laying claim to the Portland grabs.)

Real Madrid 1-0 (1-0, agg.) Manchester City: Lackluster Citizens bow out of UCL

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Gael Clichy of Manchester City and Gareth Bale of Real Madrid challenge for posession during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images )
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  • Kompany lasts just nine minutes
  • Fernando scores own goal
  • Real headed to 14th UCL final

Ninety minutes came and went but Manchester City never showed up, losing to Real Madrid 1-0 and bowing out of the UEFA Champions League in the semifinals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

Fernando’s own goal in the first half was enough to send Real to a record 14th Champions League final, while City must now shift their focus back to the Premier League.

The Champions League final on May 28 will be a rematch of the 2014 final, a Madrid derby between Real and Atletico.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The match got off to a brutal start for Manchester City as Vincent Kompany lasted just nine minutes before going down with a thigh injury. The Belgian center-back has been plagued by muscle injuries all season and Manuel Pellegrini was forced to make an early substitution, bringing in Eliaquim Mangala to replace his captain.

Real Madrid would find the tie’s first goal in the 20th minute, although it would come off the foot of City’s Fernando. Gareth Bale streaked in from the right wing and tried to play a cross into the box, but his attempt deflected off of a sliding Fernando and sailed into the top corner at the far post. Originally given to Bale, it was later ruled an own goal.

Real thought they had a second when Pepe put the ball in the back of the net off a scramble in the box, but the defender was correctly ruled offside as City remained just a goal behind.

It took nearly the entire first half, but City finally created a chance in the 44th minute. Fernandinho found himself upfield and took a pass from Kevin De Bruyne towards the box. The Brazilian cut onto his right foot and fired a shot on goal, but it hit the outside of the post and deflected wide.

[ RELATED: Has Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern Munich been a failure? ]

After the break it was more Madrid pressure, with Joe Hart making a massive stop on Luka Modric just minutes into the second half to keep City alive. Gareth Bale also saw a header rattle off the crossbar as Real continued to control the match.

Just one goal would put City through to the final, but Pellegrini’s side never threatened Keylor Navas, registering just one shot on target. In City’s biggest match in recent history, they were simply not good enough as they must now focus on a top-four finish in England.

Vincent Kompany forced off just nine minutes into Man City’s UCL semi

MADRID, ENGLAND - MAY 04: Pepe of Real Madrid checks on the injured Vincent Kompany of Manchester City  during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Vincent Kompany managed just nine minutes in Manchester City’s Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid before going down with a thigh injury.

The City captain pulled up around midfield and immediately went down, replaced by Eliaquim Mangala.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Real Madrid vs. Man City ]

Earlier this season in the Champions League, Kompany lasted just six minutes before leaving the pitch with a calf injury against Dynamo Kiev.

At 30-years-old, injuries have been Kompany’s biggest enemy this season, with the Belgian center-back managing just 13 starts in the Premier League.

Anfield nights: Liverpool prepares for second leg vs Villarreal

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 04:  Dejan Lovren (L) and Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool arrive for a press conference ahead of the UEFA Europa League Semi-Final Second Leg match against Villarreal at Melwood Training Ground on May 4, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Denis Suarez found Adrian Lopez on a streaking counter attack in the last gasps of stoppage time, breaking 90 minutes worth of stern resilience from Liverpool.

What a difference a minute can make.

Villarreal enters the second leg of its UEFA Europa League semifinal against Liverpool with a 1-0 lead and the knowledge that a draw or one-goal scoring loss will put it into the final.

[ PL PLAYBACK: What does Leicester’s title say for the future? ]

For their part, the Reds will be amped up by the Anfield faithful on Thursday, and Jurgen Klopp will hope to make amends for a Starting XI and substitution set that left Liverpool fans asking, “Why no Sturridge, boss?

Liverpool won’t be too worried, though, given its Europa record when in need of a comeback. The Reds came back to topple Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals, one of the most enthralling matches in recent memory.

Suffice it to say that Reds don’t want to go down 2-0 again, and expect a bit more of a chess match this go-round. Here’s Dejan Lovren, from LiverpoolFC.com:

“[It will be] maybe even more than 90 minutes, so like I said – we need to be clever enough. We don’t just have 20 minutes to play the game, we have 90 minutes so everything is possible. The fans know and are expecting a massive game, but we will take it smarter than the last time [against Dortmund]. It would be a great season for us if we go to the final and win it.”

Klopp opted to rest several regulars in Sunday’s loss to Swansea, with names like Smith, Stewart, Ojo, Chirivella and Ward on the pitch. Those will likely give way to more established names Mignolet, Lucas and Lallana come Friday.

Villarreal is coming off a 2-0 win over Valencia, and holding onto a shutout streak of more than three matches (including Thursday’s win over Liverpool). They’ll have to do very well to hold Liverpool scoreless, but perhaps a road goal will be all “The Yellow Submarine” needs to advance to the final in Basel.

UCL FOLLOW LIVE: Man City looks to upend Real Madrid in Spain

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 26:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City and Pepe of Real Madrid CF battle for the ball during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Manchester City FC and Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium on April 26, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Real Madrid needs a win at home against Manchester City to give the UEFA Champions League its second Madrid Derby final in three years.

Kickoff is at 2:45 p.m. ET from the Bernabeu and, unlike the first leg, Cristiano Ronaldo will be in the lineup for Real Madrid.

[ UCL: Pellegrini hails road record | Ronaldo in ]

Man City has Yaya Toure back in the fold, and Vincent Kompany will captain the unit.

To follow live, click here.

LINEUPS

Real Madrid: Navas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos, Modric, Bale, Jese, Isco, Ronaldo. Subs: Casilla, Varane, James, Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez, Danilo, Borja Mayoral.

 Manchester City: Hart, Sagna, Kompany (C), Otamendi, Clichy, Fernando, Fernandinho, Toure, Navas, De Bruyne, Aguero. Subs: Caballero, Mangala, Kolarov, Delph, Sterling, Bony, Iheanacho.