Walking through Week 17 of the NWSL season

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Certainty. For a league whose top four hasn’t changed for some time, we’ve had a shocking lack of it in the NWSL. Sure, the order of Kansas City, Portland, Sky Blue, and Western New York has changed over the last month or so, but the membership of that group has remained the same for most of the summer. The thing we were really in the dark about: Their order of finish

For most of the season, Sky Blue have occupied the top spot, but their July swoon combined with Kansas City’s 10-match unbeaten run now have the Blues four clear at the top of the league. With Sunday’s 3-2 win at Portland, FCKC became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, providing our first hint as some much-needed clarity. There’s every reason to think the road to this year’s title goes through Overland Park.

That, however, is the only piece of certainty we have. After Week 17, Portland and Sky Blue are tied for second place, and while the Thorns have a match in hand, their inconsistent form means anything can happen (particularly with Thorns FC finishing with three matches on the road). Western New York, three points behind in fourth, may be the best team for the bunch, but a league-leading seven draws shows a tendency to leave points on the table.

At the top, we have more clarity thanks to an increasingly dominant FC Kansas City. Beyond that? It’s still chaos.

Here’s what happened in Week 17:

Wednesday, July 31

Western New York Flash 3, Washington Spirit 0 – Washington’s second straight three-goal loss was actually a type of improvement. The last time the Spirit visited Rochester, they lost 4-0 and changed their coaching staff. This time, Adriana Martin, Sam Kerr, and Carli Lloyd forged the winning margin by the 68th minute. Although the Spirit were able to keep it a 1-0 game for 59 minutes, they were outshot 23-1 on the night.

Implications: 23-1? “What kind of improvement is that, Farley?” Maybe I shouldn’t judge things on score alone, right? Because that’s certainly not a competitive game. I know you could have said that about other Spirit games, and the final margin here wasn’t the most lopsided as other matches we’ve seen this year. But 23-1? How have things gotten to this point for Washington?

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 20 38 +14
2 3 Portland 19 34 +7
3 7 Sky Blue FC 20 34 +5
4 2 W. New York 19 31 +14
5 4 Chicago 19 26 -4
6 6 Boston 19 24 +0
7 5 Seattle 19 18 -11
8 8 Washington 19 7 -25

Portland Thorns FC 3, Sky Blue FC 1 – Sky Blue had been Portland’s bogey team, holding them scoreless over the teams’ previous 180 minutes, and when an early own goal off Nikki Marshall gave the visitors another lead, Jim Gabarra’s club seemed poised to continue their voodoo. But before half, Portland took advantage of a visiting team momentarily down a player (Danesha Adams suffering an injury) to equalize through Alex Morgan. Second half goals from Meleana Shim (fourth in four) and Allie Long fully exorcised Portland’s SBFC demons, helping them to a relatively easy victory.

Implications: For Sky Blue, it wasn’t an unexpected result, but with another player going down, the game exemplified their current state. They’re not playing well, they can’t stay healthy, and even the things they were doing right before seem difficult, now. Portland, however, carried some redemption out of this game, not only defeating Sky Blue for the first time but quelling doubts that had crept in after their late capitulation to Chicago.

Saturday, August 3

Boston Breakers 2, Western New York 2 – Having fired head coach Lisa Cole during the week, Boston took to the field with interim coach Cat Whitehill in central defense, the legendary Kristine Lilly serving as her former teammate’s sideline assistant. The change seemed to inspire Boston to a 2-0 lead, with play off corner kicks leading to goals from Kyah Simon (17′) and Lianne Sanderson (65′).  Then came the collapse, a defensive Breakers side unable to prevent Vicki DiMartino and, five minutes from time, Carli Lloyd from snatching a point for Western New York.

Implications: For the Flash, the comeback is nice, but the result won’t help their quest for a home playoff game. It did, however, eliminate Seattle from the playoffs.

For Boston, Lisa Cole walked the line between being liked and getting results. The organization felt she was underachieving, and although they pulled the trigger on the move three weeks too late to have an meaningful impact on their playoff chances, Boston felt this was their hail mary chance to save their season.

There were questions about her tactics. There were questions about her ability to manage the team’s bigger egos. There were questions about her preferences, carrying over so many Breakers from last year’s WPSL Elite team into this year’s squad. All those quandaries were answered by a bottom line that sees Boston in sixth place, a standing that cost Cole her job.

Chicago Red Stars 3, Seattle Reign FC 1 – Just over one week earlier, Chicago was being routed in Tukwila, 4-1. Consider this the Red Stars’ revenge. Early, dubious penalties converted by Sonja Fuss and Kaylyn Kyle (two central defenders taking PKs) meant a Hope Solo mistake in the 41st minute would be the difference at halftime. The Seattle keeper’s bad pass gifted Inka Grings an easy 41st minute conversion.  In the 72nd, Grings completed her double, keeping Chicago on the fringe of the postseason.

Implications: Chicago stays in position to take advantage if Western New York stumble, though with the team moving back to “five hundred”  (7-7-5), there was some personal pride to be taken from the result. They can also take heart in their first sellout crowd of the season.

For Seattle, the run had to end sometime, though seeing it end after a couple of preventable goals is unlikely to placate Laura Harvey. This was an unexpectedly sloppy performance from the Reign, but having been eliminated from playoff contention at halftime (by the Western New York result), maybe their run was over before Grings sealed their coffin.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 9
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Alex Morgan (PTFC) 8 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
2 tied at 7 5 tied at 5

Sky Blue FC 1, Washington Spirit 0 – After giving up 23 shots in Rochester, Washington gave up 17 to a Sky Blue team that didn’t even have to break the glass on the hobbled Lisa De Vanna. Monica Ocampo, quietly up to six goals on the year (scoring every 120 minutes), notched the game’s only goal, though it took the home side 58 minutes to break through on the normally generous Spirit. Chantel Jones, stepping in for the injured Ashlyn Harris, helped stem that tide, though with only one shot on Sky Blue’s Jillian Loyden, Washington couldn’t solve their problems going forward.

Implications: Sky Blue snapped their three-game losing streak, but as was the case with Western New York, this game was an obligatory three points. A 1-0 against the Spirit isn’t exactly a rallying point. For Washington, however, the game was an improvement on the battering they took in Rochester, though after scoring twice last weekend, their goal-scoring problems seem to have returned.

Sunday, August 4

Portland Thorns FC 2, FC Kansas City 3 – The most important game of the season saw the league’s top team visit a record crowd at JELD-WEN Field, with the 17,619 attendance hoping to see their Thorns leapfrog Kansas City into first place. Lauren Holiday, however, was having none of that, scoring twice as the Blues counter attack picked apart Portland’s defense, giving FCKC their second win of the year over the preseason favorites. Portland did get goals from Danielle Foxhoven (a second half equalizer to make it 1-1) and Alex Morgan (a late score to make it 3-2), but with a leaking defense that could seemingly be picked apart whenever Kansas City found the initiative, Thorns FC missed their chance to move top.

Implications: There’s no doubt who the best team is in the NWSL, and if Sunday’s any indication, it’s not really close. There’s also little doubt who the league’s best player is, with Lauren Holiday’s double affirming her league lead in goals and assists. If she doesn’t play another game this season, she’s still the league’s MVP.

Portland is subtly experiencing a minor crisis. The team had high expectations coming into the match but found themselves chasing two goals as control of home field advantage slipped away. Despite having the league’s best talent, they’re not the league’s best team, with a small rift in the team undermining their ability to improve.

Foxhoven mentioned the rift post game, something that’s existed since early in the season  (“there’s been a little bit of a separation in our team and that’s why we’ve struggled in the past”). It’s an ideological divide, with a significant number of players believing the team should be playing differently. The late substitute of Elizabeth Guess for Foxhoven only highlighted the chasm’s persistent influence.

With internal attempts to resolve the divide having failed, Portland’s left to hope their talent will win out.

Benevento remains alone in Europe without a point

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ROME (AP) Benevento remained the only club in Europe’s top five leagues without a point after losing at basement rival Hellas Verona 1-0 in Serie A on Monday.

[ MORE: USA U-17s top Paraguay in convincing style ]

Romulo scored with a long volley to conclude a counterattack in the 74th minute.

Benevento center back Luca Antei was shown a direct red card for a sliding tackle late in the first half and Verona striker Giampaolo Pazzini nearly took advantage immediately when he hit the post.

With its first win of the season, Verona moved up to 16th place with six points.

Benevento has lost all eight of its matches.

All of the top-division squads in England, France, Germany and Spain have earned at least a point.

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

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Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

MLS playoff scenarios heading into the final weekend

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Time certainly has flown by, and just like that the MLS Cup playoffs are well within sight.

While the Eastern Conference is all locked up in terms of which teams will be in the postseason, seeding can change drastically on the final weekend.

[ MORE: Tab Ramos confirms interest in USMNT job ]

Meanwhile, the West sees three clubs vying for one final spot in what has proven to be a very intriguing battle over the last several weeks.

All eyes will be on three teams in the Western Conference as the San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake all have an opportunity to move into the sixth spot.

Below, PST takes a look at where clubs can finish in relation to the playoff race.

Eastern Conference

#1 seed: Toronto FC is locked into the top spot

#2 seed: NYCFC — clinches the two seed with a win; Chicago Fire — clinches two with win and NYCFC draw or loss; Atlanta takes two with win plus NYCFC loss/draw and Fire loss/draw

#3 seed: Fire — finishes third with win; NYCFC — takes third with loss to Crew and Fire win; Atlanta — third with win and Fire loss; Crew — finish third with win over NYCFC and don’t overtake NYCFC on GD, plus losses by Fire and Atlanta

#4 seed: NYCFC — fourth with loss to Crew and overtaken on GD, plus Fire win; Fire — finish fourth with loss and Atlanta win, plus NYCFC win or draw; Atlanta — takes fourth with loss and NYCFC/Fire wins; Crew — fourth with win over NYCFC, Fire win and Atlanta loss/draw

#5 seed: Crew — finish fifth with loss/draw; Atlanta — finishes fifth with loss and Crew win; Fire — takes fifth with loss and Atlanta/Crew victories; NYCFC — drops with loss to Crew, Atlanta win and Fire win/draw

#6 seed: New York Red Bulls are locked into sixth spot

Western Conference

#1 seed: Whitecaps — clinch top spot with win; Timbers — finish first with win and Whitecaps loss

#2 seed: Whitecaps — finish second with loss to Timbers; Timbers — second with loss/draw and Sounders/Sporting KC losses; Sounders — finish second with win and Whitecaps win

#3 seed: Timbers — third with loss and Sounders win; Sounders — loss to Rapids and Sporting KC/Dynamo losses; Sporting KC — finish third with win, Sounders loss and Whitecaps/Timbers draw; Dynamo — third with win, Sporting KC loss and Sounders loss

#4 seed: Whitecaps — finish fourth with loss to Timbers, Sounders/Sporting KC wins; Timbers — loss to Whitecaps, plus Sounders/Sporting KC victories; Sounders — finish fourth with loss/draw and Sporting KC win; Sporting KC — fourth with loss and Dynamo loss/draw; Dynamo — finish fourth with win and Sporting KC loss

#5 seed: Timbers — fifth with loss to Whitecaps and Sounders/Sporting KC/Dynamo wins; Sounders — loss to Rapids, plus Sporting KC/Dynamo victories; Dynamo — finish fifth with loss; Sporting KC — fifth place with loss and Dynamo win

#6 seed: San Jose Earthquakes clinch with win; FC Dallas takes sixth with win/draw and Earthquakes loss/draw; Real Salt Lake clinch with win/draw, Earthquakes loss and Dallas loss/draw

The next Pulisic? A 10-year-old American is heading to AS Roma

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With everything that has transpired since last week’s U.S. Men’s National Team debacle, American soccer fans can use a pick-me-up.

What better could there be than perhaps another young star-in-the-making? Dare I say, the next Christian Pulisic?

[ MORE: Bruce Arena is out as USMNT manager ]

Perhaps, but it’s way too early to say that.

His name is Alessandro Cupini, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri that is about to complete a dream that a soccer player of any age would be thrilled to achieve.

Less than two weeks ago, Cupini and his family announced that the Kansas City Fusion midfielder/striker would be accepting a spot in the AS Roma academy starting in the Spring 2018, after having trained with the club for the better part of two years off and on.

Pro Soccer Talk had the opportunity to speak with Cupini’s father, Eddie, ahead of his son’s big move to Italy.

“This is something that Alessandro has worked really hard for,” Eddie Cupini told PST. “There are times where I tell him that he needs to take a step back and be a normal kid, but he doesn’t have any of that. He’s an incredibly hard-working and driven kid that does more than most people regardless of his age.”

Alessandro — who recently turned 10 years old — isn’t the typically American youngster though, according to his father.

“There are times where I wish Alessandro would take a break and be a kid, but that’s just not in his desire,” Cupini said. “We built him a mini stadium downstairs where he trains basically every day after school. As soon as he gets home from school he’s doing work down there and always looking for other kids to come over to practice with.”

That’s where the comparisons to Pulisic can be worked into the conversation.

Pulisic followed a very similar path to the professional level when he left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania at the age of 16 to sign with Borussia Dortmund. Now, he’s U.S. Soccer’s most promising star as the USMNT looks to rebuild.

“We’re very familiar with Christian’s story, and he’s certainly somebody that Alessandro looks up to,” Cupini said.

Cupini is already on the radar of U.S. Soccer and the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which helps identify young talent in the United States starting at the Under-12 level.

However, because of Cupini’s Italian heritage and his unique opportunity to move to Italy next year, Alessandro could potentially have the chance to represent either the USMNT or the Azzurri in the future.

“It’s a long ways away and we’re taking things slow in that regard,” Cupini said in regards to his son’s international plans. “We’d certainly be willing to explore our options, but I think it would be a real dream and his main goal to play for Italy.”

New Jersey-native and former Italy international Giuseppe Rossi made a similar career choice when it came down to choosing a national team. Despite living in the United States for much of his youth years, Rossi appeared for a number of Italy’s youth teams before holding a stint with the senior side from 2008 to 2014.

Prior to making the announcement that Roma would be where Cupini will ply his trade next year, the young American also had the opportunity to train with Italian academies Empoli and Atalanta.

“My father is from Rome, so for Alessandro to have the opportunity to play for his hometown club it was almost a no-brainer,” Cupini said. “We were very grateful to the other clubs for the chance Alessandro had to train with them, but Roma is a club that is very close to our family.