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State of the NWSL, after Week 16: Homestretch arrives, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 17

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Maybe it’s the calendar. Maybe it’s the state of the standings. Maybe it’s the fact that Western New York, the team currently sitting on the right side of the NWSL’s fourth-fifth divide, is back in action tonight, potentially rejuvenated after nine days off. Whatever the reason, there’s now the distinct feeling that the homestretch has arrived.

For the first time, people are meaningfully considering Sky Blue’s slide. Time’s running out for the former league leaders to correct course. Portland’s lack of consistency’s been seen with new urgency, Boston and Chicago are finally considered playoff long shots rather than parts of a viable race, while FC Kansas City may soon be the consensus favorites to claim the league’s first title. These are the types of conclusions you become comfortable in the season’s final throes.

Just consider the implications of tonight’s games. If Western New York defeats Washington in Rochester (and it would be a mild shock if they didn’t), the Flash would be seven points up on Boston and Chicago, each team left with four to play. The race wouldn’t be dead per se (there’ve been too many times in sports where we see a team get hot, another get cold at the right time), but with Western New York closing their season with three at home, the race would be one in name only.

Then there’s Wednesday’s nightcap in Portland. If Sky Blue can beat Portland for the second time this season, they’ll have stemmed the tide of disappointment and positioned themselves to not only challenge Kansas City for the regular season title but take a huge stride toward a home playoff game. Thorns FC, on the other hand, would move within one of first and have a match in hand on league-leading FC Kansas City as they try to snap the Blues’ nine-match unbeaten run Sunday in Portland.

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

That schedule highlights the extent to which Portland’s up-and-down form will influence the top four. In addition to playing Sky Blue and Kansas City over the next five days, Thorns FC visit the Flash on August 10, making them the only playoff-sitting team with games remaining against the other postseason favorites. If the Thorns can put their Sunday collapse behind them and continue the improvement they’ve shown since Tobin Heath’s arrival, they can win the league. If their uneven performances persist, the future of postseason soccer at JELD-WEN Field will be in Sky Blue’s hands, while a nose dive could see them starting the playoffs in Kansas City, a place where they’ve had almost no success this season.

With the league’s trade deadline passing tonight and only three weeks until the playoffs begin, we’re reaching a what you see is what you get point of the season. And with Sky Blue, Portland, and Western New York all in action tonight, we’ll quickly have a better idea of which teams are capable of competing with Kansas City.

RANKINGS OF POWER

In reverse order. The underlying logic: Tomorrow, neutral site, who do we think is more likely to win:

8. Washington Spirit (last week: 8) – On Saturday, Washington became the second team to allow five goals in a game, but rather than toil on that demoralizing fact, Spirit fans focused on the two goals they scored against visiting Boston, the first time they’d scored from open play since mid-May. For a team that’s struggled more than expected, it’s all about the silver linings.

7. Boston Breakers (7) – The Breakers’ mid-week 3-0 loss in Overland Park was telling. Yes, Kansas City’s a buzz saw right now, but given the point we’re at in the season, that was a back against the wall game for Boston. Though they kept the game scoreless for over 70 minutes, they were second-best for 90 (decidedly so).

6. Sky Blue FC (6) – Their match against FC Kansas City was closer, a converted second half corner all that separated the Blues from their hosts, but it still showed Sky Blue’s limitations. Now that midfielder Sophie Schmidt’s cooled off, striker Lisa De Vanna is the team’s only consistent goal-scoring threat, but if she can’t get her hamstring right, Sky Blue will need a new idea to stop this slide.

5. Chicago Red Stars (5) – One point in two games on the road has killed their playoff momentum, but in Sunday’s second half comeback at Portland, the Red Stars gave their best performance in two weeks.

4. Portland Thorns FC (2) – Who knows with this team? In all likelihood, those final 15 minutes against Chicago were aberrational, but for a team that’s had trouble with consistency throughout the year, it may the latest blip in a scattered, erratic, yet potentially winning pattern.

3. Western New York Flash (3) – Among their final five games, Saturday’s trip to Boston will be their last on the road. If Portland or Sky Blue trip, the Flash are in a great position to catch them.

2. Seattle Reign FC (4) – Chicago’s result in Portland put the Reign’s 4-1, mid-week win over the Red Stars in perspective. Oh for a longer season, Seattle fans lament.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – Four points clear but with only three to play, the Blues can consolidate their first place claim with a result in Portland. Given Portland’s remaining schedule, they don’t necessarily need a win, but particularly if the Thorns beat Sky Blue on Wednesday, they’ll need a draw to defuse a potential surge from Portland.

[MORE, Looking back: Walking through Week 16 of the NWSL season]

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

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, July 31

Western New York Flash vs. Washington Spirit (7:05 p.m. Eastern) – The last time Washington visited Rochester, the Spirit took a Friday night beating (4-0), leading them to change coaches by Monday. This game could be just as ugly, even if that doesn’t end up reflected in the score. Washington’s back line’s decimated by injuries, while the Flash have had nine days off.

Portland Thorns FC vs. Sky Blue FC (10:30 p.m. Eastern) – Sky Blue’s also has a number of injuries (Caitlin Foord, Kelley O’Hara, and Manya Makoski all out for tonight’s match). Those absences, however, can be accounted for, and against a Portland team that’s been unable to break them down in two previous meetings, organization will be as important as personnel. If, however, Lisa De Vanna isn’t fully healthy, Sky Blue will be left reliant on more wonders from the likes of Taylor Lytle and Monica Ocampo.

Saturday, August 3

Boston Breakers vs. Western New York (3:00 p.m. Eastern) – This is Boston’s last stand. Coming into this game, they’ll likely be trailing the Flash by seven, meaning a loss will mathematically eliminate them from the playoff picture. The other side of that coin gives the Flash a chance to clear the path to a playoff spot (at a rival’s expense). Given Western New York’s quick turnaround from their mid-week game, Boston has a chance to prolong their playoff hopes, even if a win will still leave them waiting for more (and bigger) Western New York stumbles.

Sky Blue FC vs. Washington Spirit (4:00 p.m. Eastern) – Sky Blue has two matches against Washington in their run-in, both of which look like must wins if the Piscataway club hopes to host a playoff game. Both teams, however, are struggling for goals, making a 0-0 a greater likelihood than Jim Gabarra would like. With Washington’s newfound struggles in defense (10 goals allowed in four games), the Spirit may prove a tonic to Sky Blue’s ill. If not, Sky Blue’s problems are even greater than we’ve described.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Seattle Reign FC (6:00 p.m. Eastern) – At what point do the Reign stop caring? Or, said without cliché, at what point do we see a dip in effort commensurate with their games’ reduced stakes? Because nobody would fault them if, traveling to a game that should mean nothing to them (Western New York could eliminate them from contention by the time this game kicks off), they start going through to motions. It’s not that they won’t want to win. It’s more that, having that spark of hope extinguished, they may regress a little. Will that be enough to turn around Thursday’s 4-1 home win over Chicago? Given Seattle’s get to let up, Chicago could see their playoff quest end on Saturday night.

Sunday, August 4

Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City (8:30 p.m. Eastern) – The side have split their three previous meetings, with no team having won on the road. Kansas City, however, is performing an unmatched level. Whatever the previous meetings tell us about this matchup, it’s almost rendered irrelevant by the Blues’ form. If there’s ever a time in the regular season Portland’s going to step up, this has to be it. A win gives them the inside track to home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Watch: Bobby Wood opens scoring account at Hamburg

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Bobby Wood #7 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Bobby Wood set the German second division on fire a season ago, but now the U.S. Men’s National Team forward has turned his attention to the Bundesliga.

Making his debut with Hamburg SV on Saturday, Wood didn’t waste any time in getting on the score sheet, netting just beyond the half hour mark with a tremendous strike.

While it appeared to be a tame long ball into the path of the U.S. attacker, Wood did well to head the ball in front with his first touch, before muscling the Ingolstadt defender off of him and powering his shot into the back of the net prior to halftime.

Check out Wood’s debut goal below.

Jurgen Klopp refuses to comment on Christian Pulisic rumors

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Jurgen Klopp is remaining tight-lipped over any move for U.S. international Christian Pulisic.

Liverpool were linked with a move for the 17-year-old attacking midfielder who is finding it tough to break through at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Spurs 1-1 Liverpool ]

Pulisic was brought to Dortmund by Klopp in January 2015 and it is believed the Hersey, Pennsylvania native is frustrated with the lack of match action he is getting in the Bundesliga. Pulisic has also been linked with a move to Stoke City and RB Leipzig among others.

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Tottenham on Saturday, ProSoccerTalk asked Klopp if there was any interest in Pulisic and what he thought about the player.

The German coach refused to comment.

“No transfer rumors. I have no comment for this. Absolutely nothing to speak about,” Klopp said. “That’s for all the other cases too. When we know something and when we are close to doing something then we will inform you… or a little bit later.”

So, a flat out denial from Klopp and you can read into that however you want.

The German manager is usually quite tight-lipped when it comes to transfer rumors and with the summer window shutting on Aug. 31, there will be no more word from him in public about potential signings.

To add further fuel to the fire, Pulisic was left out of the 18-man squad for Dortmund’s opening game of the 2016-17 Bundesliga season on Saturday.

STREAM: Watch Premier League “Goal Rush” live at 10am ET

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At 10 a.m. ET this Saturday you will be able to access NBC Sports Digital’s newest product, Premier League Goal Rush.

It will be available on the NBC Sports App and on NBCSports.com as goals from all six matches in the 10 a.m. ET window will be shown simultaneously as live look-ins occurs around all the grounds in the Premier League.

STREAM “GOAL RUSH” HERE

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of NFL RedZone-like action from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window.

More info is available here, plus the schedule for all six games at 10 a.m. ET is below.


10 a.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Burnley 
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Arsenal 
10 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Stoke City 
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Bournemouth  
10 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Swansea City
10 a.m. ET: Southampton vs. Sunderland

Three things we learned from Tottenham vs. Liverpool

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Mauricio Pochettino, Manager of Tottenham Hotspur L) and Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool (R) embrace prior to kick off during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool drew 1-1 at White Hart Lane on Saturday as a first half penalty from James Milner was canceled out by Danny Rose‘s equalizer with less than 20 minutes to go.

[ MORE: Spurs 1-1 Liverpool ]

In a breathtaking encounter both teams had multiple chances but a draw was probably a fair result.

Here’s what we learned from an epic encounter at the Lane.


BATTLE OF THE HIGH-PRESS

This game was played at a breathtaking pace from start to finish.

With both Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp proponents of high-pressing, their teams delivered that approach on the pitch. There were chances galore for both teams and both managers will need a lie down after going toe-to-toe on the sidelines, sharing the occasional hug and then roaring their players on.

Neither teams look fine-tuned at this point but the effort and endeavor was their for all to see. Both Liverpool and Tottenham will be relatively pleased with their starts to the season as we head into the international break as Spurs have five points on the board and Liverpool have four.

As the season wears on the toll of this high-pressing tempo will impact both teams though. Without the rigors of a European campaign, Liverpool may have an edge this season but this clash showed there’s nothing between these two teams who not only have top four aspirations but dream of winning the title.

Both teams look a little disjointed for title-winning talk right now but with plenty of players returning late from a summer full of international duty, these two teams full of incredible athletes will soon be up to full speed. The fact they weren’t on Saturday is quite frightening.


KLOPP’S BOYS GETTING THERE

Three games into the new Premier League season we’ve so far seen the best and worst of Liverpool. Saturday’s win at Tottenham was a bit of both. They looked much more solid defensively than they did in their opening 4-3 win at Arsenal and away at Burnley in their shock 2-0 defeat last weekend, but the midfield area is still one they need to improve on.

With Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield, they saw plenty of the ball but didn’t force the issue. Too often there were sideways passes and they couldn’t get Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana involved in the game for large periods.

Klopp’s project has now been in place for 10 months and we now see that Liverpool has a clear playing style under him. The dynamic cutting edge to make the most of their counter attacks will come, especially with Daniel Sturridge returning to full fitness soon and only fit enough for a late cameo role against Spurs.

We are all still waiting for Klopp’s revolution to kick in for good but the signs are, once again, promising that his team understands how he wants them to play. Slotting everything together for a full 90 minutes is the hard part.


MISSING MOUSA

It is clear that there’s a Mousa Dembele sized hole in Tottenham’s midfield.

The Belgian international is serving a six-game ban for gouging Diego Costa in the eye in a heated London derby at Chelsea last May, as their title hopes were ended in the 2-2 draw and the red midst descended on the two-way midfielder.

Dembele, 29, will be available for Spurs’ game against Sunderland on Sept. 18 and his return can’t come soon enough.

With Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama in the two central positions Spurs looked solid but cumbersome and couldn’t provide Harry Kane with the service he needed. When Kyle Walker went off and Dele Alli moved into midfield with Wanyama they suffered even more.

Dembele is so smooth on the ball and was the unsung hero of Spurs’ third-place finish last season. He is able to slow things down when Spurs need it and it stops them from just flying back and forth without control on the game. When Dembele returns it will knit everything together rather nicely. Until then, Spurs look disjointed in an area of the field they never struggled in last season.