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.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.