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.)

Stream Live: Arsenal host West Brom

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Arsenal welcome West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Gunners aim to close the gap on the top four.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Wenger will be hoping his side can build on their good performance at Chelsea last time out as they drew 0-0 but had the better of the play, while Tony Pulis‘ men were also involved in a hard-fought goalless draw against West Ham in their last encounter.

In team news Arsenal bring Alexis Sanchez back into the starting lineup but Mesut Ozil is only on the bench, while West Brom start Gareth Barry, who is making his record-breaking 633rd Premier League appearance, and make the former Aston Villa, Man City and Everton midfielder captain.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Bellerin, Xhaka, Elneny, Kolasinac; Ramsey, Sanchez; Lacazette. Subs: Opsina, Mertesacker, Wilshere, Walcott, Matiland-Niles, Ozil, Giroud,

West Brom: Foster; Evans, Dawson, Hegazi; Nyom, Livermore, Barry, Krychowiak, Gibbs; Robson-Kanu, Rodriguez. Subs: Myhill, Yacob, Morrison, Rondon, Phillips, Brunt, McClean

PL Playback: Who is the most complete striker?

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STYLISH STRIKERS

Tall ones. Small ones. Fast ones. Strong ones. Everywhere you look in the Premier League there are different types of strikers ripping it up.

Romelu Lukaku has six goals in six games. So does Alvaro Morata for Chelsea and Sergio Aguero for Manchester City. Harry Kane has six goals in his last four games for Tottenham in all competitions.

The sheer variety of world-class strikers now on show week in, week out in the Premier League is sumptuous. It’s as diverse a finishing school as you’ll ever see.

Morata took most of the headlines in Week 6 and rightly so as he scored a hat trick at Stoke City in Chelsea’s 4-0 win. The Spaniard, 24, has taken a little while to adapt to life in England but he is showing that with elegance and quickness of thought he can be just as destructive as Diego Costa who finally departed for Atletico Madrid last week.

Yet it is Harry Kane who oozes class in everything he does.

In Tottenham’s derby win at West Ham on Saturday he scored twice in the first half, linked play up and hit both posts in the second half. That performance left Kane’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, professing his love for Kane at the London Stadium.

“For me Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world. It is too hard to find the word to describe him. In the last three seasons I am telling you how he is. I am in love, like the fans are in love, like the teammates are in love, not only because he scores goals,” Pochettino explained. “He is professional, humble and he is a very good example in football today that is a big business. He keeps all the values that managers like me appreciate a lot. That is why I say to you I am in love with him for many different reasons.”

Yes, the “I’m in love” part of Poch’s response will get the biggest play but the second part, for me, is the most important. Kane does everything well. He holds the ball up, he battles for every ball, he finds others with crisp passes and he leads from the front with his incessant work rate.

Morata is majestic, a finely tuned ballerina who can turn and accelerate in the blink of an eye before dinking a whirling-dervish of a finish home just like he did for his second goal on Saturday. Lukaku can power past defenders and his persistence saw him grab the winner, at the second attempt, in a gritty United display at Southampton on Saturday. And Aguero is always on hand to snap up the final ball of a flowing City move with his darting, speedy runs.

But Kane, well, Kane has all of that and more. He is the most complete striker in a Premier League which has a vast array of world-class strikers who all score goals in different ways. We haven’t even mentioned Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez, Javier Hernandez or Sadio Mane in terms of their goal-getting ability.

Kane was announced as a nominee for the FIFPro World 11 (only Lukaku of the three aforementioned strikers joined him) last week and the Englishman once again proved why he is considered not only one of the best strikers in the Premier League, but also one of the best on the planet.


LIVERPOOL WILL NOT CHANGE UNDER KLOPP

Life is never dull under Jurgen Klopp. Ever.

Since he took charge of Liverpool in October 2015, no PL club has been involved in more games which have seen five or more goals scored. On 17 occasions Liverpool fans have seen five goals scored in games involving their team and, most worryingly, all too often they’ve been against them.

[ MORE: Joel Matip speaks to Pro Soccer Talk ]

Liverpool’s 3-2 win at Leicester City on Saturday summed up everything which should concern the Reds.

They led 2-0 early on and looked to be on their way to a routine win. Then, right on half time, came a mistake from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to make it 2-1. At 3-2 he then gave away a penalty kick but saved it as the maddening world of watching Liverpool was encapsulated in a nutshell.

Last week I sat down with Liverpool’s center back Joel Matip who told me why he believes the Reds should not change the way they play.

“Both parts only work together. I cannot stand at the back and our attackers go forward and there is so much big space. We all have to fit together. It is not always easy but this is our way of play but I think that is a good way of playing,” Matip said. “Everything has its positive and negative sides but I have no doubt about our way of playing.”

Plenty of Liverpool’s fans, pundits and neutrals doubt their defensive solidity and even though it is fun to watch Liverpool rip open opposition defenses with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, their inability to defend simple set pieces situations will cost them any chance of challenging for major trophies.

Klopp’s style of play is only one part of this. Simply put: he has to invest in better defenders and goalkeepers if his time at Liverpool is to be considered a success.

If he doesn’t do that the German coach will soon come under pressure from some fans even though his team entertains and delivers plenty of drama. Liverpool had enough drama under Brendan Rodgers. The majority of the fanbase want silverware and Klopp’s current defensive unit will cost them that.


RELEGATION DARK HORSES

Crystal Palace is in a dark, dark place heading into Week 7 with no points and no goals to their name so far this season. Roy Hodgson knows he has a big task to turn the Eagles around but perhaps he feels like it is doable as plenty of perennial midtable teams look like they will struggle this season.

Newly-promoted teams Newcastle United, Brighton and Huddersfield have had very good starts and all three have won at least twice in their opening six games but that bubble could burst soon and its very rare that the three new boys all survive or at least push away from the drop zone in their debut campaign in the PL.

Add to that the likes of Bournemouth, Stoke City, Swansea City and West Ham United all looking a bit of a mess right now and there are plenty of early-season contenders for those three relegation spots.

Bournemouth have lost five of their opening six games and the worrying thing for Eddie Howe‘s side is that they don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes. They led against Manchester City but lost 2-1. They led against Everton but lost 2-1. With more experienced campaigners on board this season you’d expected less naivety from the Cherries. Their next four games are against Leicester City, Tottenham Stoke and Chelsea. All of a sudden the man with seemingly the safest job in the PL could be under serious pressure.

Stoke have been hit, very hard, by injuries, especially in defense as Geoff Cameron, Ryan Shawcross and Kevin Wimmer were all out for the 4-0 hammering to Chelsea at the weekend and then Bruno Martins Indi was injured late on. Mark Hughes‘ men have one win from their first six games and even though they are usually slow starters, recent displays have been worrying.

Swansea are struggling to put away chances as Paul Clement‘s men have lost all three games at home so far and Watford won late at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday after the Swans dragged themselves back into the game. Like Stoke it is perhaps a little too early to worry but Clement will be far from impressed with the start.

West Ham United are in a real mess and their creaky defense looks like shipping goals galore. Slaven Bilic‘s situation is unsettling the entire club with the Croatian only contracted until the end of the current season and his players appear to have plenty of fight and spirit to drag themselves back into games late on, yet whether or not they’re fighting for themselves or Bilic remains to be seen. With four points from their opening six games the Hammers are in trouble.

With the PL’s top six, plus Everton, spending big and seeming to be head and shoulders above the rest, the scramble to stay out of the bottom three may be the best (or most nerve-wracking, depending on who you support) in recent memory. If Crystal Palace can somehow recover from the worst start in league history they will drag a heck of a lot of teams into the relegation mire.


CHICHARITO MISUSED?

After West Ham’s spirited, yet deeply flawed, 3-2 defeat against Tottenham in a big London derby on Saturday, I asked Hammers boss Slaven Bilic if getting the best out of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in the right areas was a big challenge.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Spurs v West Ham ]

His answers was just as confusing as why Chicharito isn’t been played in his natural position.

“I spoke to him after West Brom game and today he started as a center forward and then he had to change the position because we wanted to stay in the same system as it was working well. Even then, he was in good areas so you can’t say he was out wide,” Bilic explained. “Against top teams everyone has to defend and he was in a position where he would have been if we were playing two strikers. When we were attacking he was not playing on the wing, he was a striker. It’s not very easy to play with him, Andy, Antonio and Arnautovic and play with three center backs.”

Hernandez headed home to make it 3-1 with 25 minutes to go and had another chance to make it 3-2 which was well saved by Hugo Lloris but he was unable to impact the game from wide positions as Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer cut a frustrated figure at the final whistle.

He was involved in a large scuffle near the end of the game and he carried on his spat with Fernando Llorente after the final whistle too. Bilic has to find a way of playing Chicharito in his best position, which is through the middle, because early on it was working very well for the Hammers.

It is easy to see why Hernandez is frustrated. After three goals in six games he is still being shunted out wide by Bilic and when Michail Antonio was injured early in the loss to Spurs, Andy Carroll came off the bench to take his central role and Hernandez was told to play out on the right.

With Andre Ayew on the bench, did it not make more sense to put him out wide and leave Hernandez up top to stick to the same game plan which had actually caused Spurs plenty of problems?

That’s what Hernandez will be asking himself and it would be legitimate for Hammers fans to ask themselves exactly why they signed the former Manchester United striker if he’s going to be played out wide.


USMNT UPDATE

DeAndre Yedlin was at the center of controversy in Newcastle United’s 1-0 defeat at Brighton on Sunday.

The right back was involved in a coming together with Tomer Hemed and the big Israeli striker, who scored the winner for Brighton, appeared to stamp on Yedlin’s calf as the former Seattle Sounders star led on the ground. The FA is said to be reviewing the images and could hand Hemed a ban for his stamp. It certainly looked deliberate as Yedlin had a tough afternoon trying to lock down Solly March on Brighton’s left flank.

In other USMNT news both Geoff Cameron and Danny Williams are out injured. Cameron remains missing with a hamstring injury he suffered against Manchester United two weeks ago, while Williams has suffered an injury to his foot.

Pro Soccer Talk understand Williams has not broken a small bone in his foot, as his manager David Wagner first feared, but he is still expected to be out for two to three weeks. That is incredibly frustrating as the German-American had just worked his way into the starting lineup and played well in the Terriers’ 1-1 draw against Leicester City and many were calling for him to be recalled for the USMNT for the key 2018 World Cup qualifiers next month.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

VIDEO: Borussia Dortmund condemn rise of AfD party

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Borussia Dortmund is not a club which “sticks to sports” and it has released a video urging people to fight together against racism.

[ MORE: Bundesliga schedule

During the German election on Sunday, which saw Angela Merkel elected for a four term as the chancellor, Germany’s far right nationalist AfD party won its first seats in parliament.

The AfD party took 13% of the vote in the German election and have vowed to fight the open border policy introduced in 2015 when Germany decided to help refugees and asylum seekers.

AfD have become the first hard-right German political party to sit in parliament for over 50 years.

In the powerful video below Dortmund have two key messages at the end of the footage: “Football and Nazis just do not fit together” and “Borussia connects. Together against racism.”

Napoli’s Milik out four months with another knee injury

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NAPLES, Italy (AP) Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik will again be sidelined for about four months after another knee injury.

[ MORE: Serie A stats, schedule ]

Milik had an operation in Rome on Monday after injuring his right knee in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Spal.

The Poland international missed four months of last season after damaging ligaments in his left knee on World Cup duty.

Napoli says it is not “an isolated injury but a complex one,” adding “the surgery was perfectly successful.”

The club says Milik’s recovery time will be “similar to that of his previous injury.”

The 23-year-old Milik scored in Napoli’s opening match, a 3-1 victory at Hellas Verona, and also converted a penalty in its Champions League loss to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Before his injury last season, Milik scored seven goals for Napoli after joining from Ajax.