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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.

Klopp warns Liverpool squad after Sakho’s Snapchat outburst

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31:  Jurgen Klopp (R), manager of Liverpool celebrates his team's 3-1 win with his player Mamadou Sakho (L) after the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on October 31, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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LIVERPOOL, England (AP) Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has held talks with Mamadou Sakho following the France defender’s middle-of-the-night comments on social media about his current marginalization from the first team.

FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Sakho took to Snapchat in the early hours of Saturday to question why he is not currently being considered for selection by Liverpool. He hasn’t played since April, first while serving a provisional ban for a failed drug test — that was later dismissed by UEFA — and then being sent home from the preseason tour of the United States because of concerns over his attitude.

He was not available for the start of the season because of a leg injury.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

“Now it’s three weeks since I am fit to play games,” Sakho wrote. “They don’t want me to play also with second team … Why I don’t know. I accept my situation but I can’t accept the lie.”

Asked Thursday if Sakho should just keep quiet and work hard, Klopp said: “That’s not, I would say, a rule for Mamadou Sakho, it’s a rule for every player – work hard, do your best. I spoke to the team and I spoke to Mama and we spoke together and that’s it.”

[ MORE: 18-year-old American Carter-Vickers signs new Spurs contract ]

Sakho made his first appearance of the season for Liverpool’s under-23 side against Wolfsburg on Wednesday. He will continue with the under-23s for a game this weekend.

Sakho was a regular for much of last season.

Editor’s note: Perhaps a reality television series, in which the manager and player see a marriage counselor in order to work out their differences, is required. The name? “Sakho and Klopp-o,” of course.

Lynden Gooch is living the American dream, at Sunderland

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13:  Sunderland player Lynden Gooch in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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SUNDERLAND — Lynden Gooch is living his dream in the Premier League.

From Santa Cruz, California, Gooch left home at the age of 16 in 2012 to join Sunderland’s academy and pursue his dream of becoming a Premier League player.

So far, so good.

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Gooch, 20, made his Premier League debut for Sunderland away at Manchester City on the opening day of the season back on Aug. 13 and from an early age he’s been driven to chase his ultimate dream in England.

The confident yet softly spoken American midfielder has an English father and an Irish mother, something which helped open his eyes to opportunities across the pond, and Gooch began training with Sunderland every summer from the age of 10.

Speaking exclusively to ProSoccerTalk, Gooch revealed that after watching the Premier League throughout his childhood in California, he had to make the move.

“I’ve always wanted to be a Premier League player and I’ve always wanted to play in England. I’m English, you know? I’m Irish as well. I’ve got so many family members over here and it has always been a dream to play in this league,” Gooch said. “It is an amazing place to play. To be here for four years and to be here for another three, it is amazing.”

After being handed a surprise debut by new Sunderland manager David Moyes, Gooch has made six starts so far this season for the Black Cats in all competitions. He admitted in a Facebook live chat with ProSoccerTalk on Thursday, see below, that Sunderland’s fans generate the “best atmosphere in the Premier League” and he is striving to do whatever he can to help the team he supports recover from a poor start to the season which has seen them fail to win any of their opening six games in the PL.

Sunderland square off against West Bromwich Albion this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) in what is being billed a must-win game to kick-start their season.

Gooch said that after making his initial breakthrough into the first team in both central midfield and out wide, he aims for consistency to help his team get back to winning ways. What does he see himself adding to Sunderland’s midfield?

“Getting the ball, giving it and getting it back, committing a player and dribbling past someone. I like to create things. I like to hit long balls. I like to switch the play. I think I’ve got a bit of everything,” Gooch said. “I’ve got that long ball in me and I can play the simple pass but I can dribble past someone and I’ve got a bit of pace. I just try to give as much as I can and be creative and add some flair. I just want to be a positive player and make sure I can make an impact going forward.”

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As we chat in the players lounge at Sunderland’s Academy of Light training ground, with a strong breeze whipping up outside the window as trees creaked in England’s north east, there are pictures on the wall behind us of scholars who have made the grade at Sunderland. Jordan Henderson, Jack Colback and Jordan Pickford are among them and there was Gooch, signing on with former manager Martin O’Neil smiling widely. Gooch had a huge grin on his face too. “That was one of the best days of my life,” said the self-confessed Mackem.

The debate about innate ability vs. learned ability arose. Gooch grew up in a soccer mad family in Santa Cruz and played for PDA center of excellence which went to Sunderland when he was 10. On that tour of England he played in a trial game against Sunderland’s academy and scored a hat trick in the first half. The Black Cats kept tabs on him ever since and he trained with the club each summer until he signed a two-year scholar deal in 2012 and then a new three-year pro deal in April.

Can you teach how to ghost past defenders and pick out passes?

“Players just have that. You either see it or you don’t,” Gooch said. “I think I’ve had that since I was a kid and I’ve always been brought up by my dad to play with both feet. I’m very strong with both feet and always have been. I think that is really important, to be able to go either side of where a defender is or play a pass. You have to be able to do that if you want to play in this league.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Lynden Gooch of Sunderland challenges David Silva of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

When you watch him play, Gooch reminds you of a certain U.S. national team legend.

With his ease on the ball, ability to dribble and penchant for scoring and creating goals (that helped him win the Premier League U-21 Player of the Month last September) you can see a similarity to Landon Donovan. That’s probably because Gooch grew up idolizing him when Donovan played for the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer.

“I was at Spartans Stadium every week watching him play,” Gooch said of Donovan. “He was my idol as a kid, as much as probably every American kid who was playing. It’s amazing to see him come back and continue playing and score a goal against Kansas City. He has definitely been a role model. I actually got to meet him last year in Manchester which was really nice. It was good. He is a nice guy and nice to meet him but I was a bit starstruck. It was amazing to meet him.”

There’s another goalscoring hero who is an idol of the Californian’s too.

“I’ve always looked up to Wayne Rooney,” Gooch said, nodding his head. “I think I was watching the game when he scored against Arsenal for Everton, his first goal, and now I am working with the same manager [David Moyes] so it is funny how things work out like that. I see a lot of myself in Wayne. Obviously he is in a different league with the career he’s had but in terms of strength and being able to play in so many different positions, I’ve always looked at him as a role model and to try and be like him.”

Tales of Gooch’s rise is music to the ears of U.S. national team fans as many salivate over the prospect of a USMNT young talent playing regularly in the Premier League. Jurgen Klinsmann has already reacted positively to Gooch becoming a starter at Sunderland and it would not be surprising to see him play for the full U.S. national team in the coming months.

He admits that he wants to play for the USA, despite qualifying for both the English national team and Republic of Ireland, but being left out of the U.S. U-20 World Cup squad in 2015 by Tab Ramos was not only a tough pill to swallow but something which spurred him on.

“That really hit me quite hard,” Gooch said. “I thought that without a doubt I deserved to be in that squad. I’d been in every single squad up until that point. That was very hard to take but it definitely made me want to prove them wrong even more and show them that they made a mistake.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Bacary Sagna of Manchester City (L) attempts to black Lynden Gooch of Sunderland (R) shot during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

On the U.S. front, Gooch is one of a number of promising attack-minded midfielders coming up through the ranks. Christian Pulisic has stolen most of the headlines at Borussia Dortmund with his stunning breakthrough, and that success is spurring Gooch on to reach new heights.

“I played against him [Pulisic] in preseason when we played Dortmund but obviously I’ve heard and I’ve seen him play. Even here people are talking about him in the dressing room so everyone can see how good he is and what he brings,” Gooch revealed. “Being so young, he just turned 18 years old, he is doing fantastic and it will be great to play with him as well.”

That burning desire to push on to bigger things with Sunderland and the U.S. national team drives Gooch on. Even if many still question his decision to leave the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Cruz behind to pursue his dream in the chilly, windswept city of Sunderland in the far north east of England. He lives with his girlfriend and her family (who Gooch says he owes so much too for taking him in over 5,000 miles from his home) and he and Talia are moving in together for the first time in November.

Even with his entire family now back in Santa Cruz (including his brother who is, of course, a professional surfer), life is good for Gooch.

“People still ask me ‘why have you come to Sunderland from California!?’ Well, I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be a professional footballer. I wanted to play in the Premier League and I want to play for this football club. Hopefully I can do that for a long time,” Gooch said, proudly. “Some people are still surprised at how far I’ve come. It was a no-brainer for me. As soon as I could’ve come to this club. I would’ve come early at aged 14, or 12, whenever… I would’ve came.”

Is he surprised how fast all this has happened?

“The start of the season has been surprising not only for me but for everyone around the world, in the States and here at the club as well. It came as a shock to start the first game and to continue playing. I’ve started six games so that’s been amazing so far. It is something I didn’t see coming but I’ve worked really hard to get this opportunity.”

FOLLOW LIVE: Man United back at Old Trafford; Southampton away in Israel

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Manchester United and Southampton, the only Premier League sides in the group stage of the 2016-17 Europa League, suffered and enjoyed, respectively, on matchday no. 1 two weeks ago.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Thursday’s Europa League action ]

Man United suffered defeat at the hands of Feyenoord on the opening day of the group stage, losing 1-0 abroad, with a mostly first-team squad just days after the Manchester derby defeat to Manchester City. Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils currently sit bottom of Group A.

Meanwhile, Southampton opened their European campaign with a home victory over Sparta Prague. Charlie Austin scored twice on the day, and Jay Rodriguez provided the other goal. Saints enter matchday no. 2 top of Group K.

Today’s notable Europa League fixtures

Manchester United vs. Zorya — 3:05 p.m. ET
Hapoel Beer Sheva vs. Southampton — 1 p.m. ET
Steaua Bucuresti vs. Villarreal — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Rapid Vienna — 3:05 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Panathinaikos — 1 p.m. ET
Roma vs. Astra Giurgiu — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sparta Prague vs. Inter Milan — 1 p.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. Qarabga — 1 p.m. ET
Genk vs. Sassuolo — 3:05 p.m. ET
Schalke vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 1 p.m. ET

18-year-old American Carter-Vickers signs new Tottenham contract

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 29:   Cameron Carter-Vickers of Tottenham Hotspur headers the ball during 2016 International Champions Cup Australia match between Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico de Madrid at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 29, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)
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It’s been a decent eight days for Cameron Carter-Vickers, to say the least.

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Just last Wednesday, the 18-year-old United States and England dual international made his first-team debut for Tottenham Hotspur in the club’s rout of League One side Gillingham in the third round of the 2016-17 EFL Cup.

Barely a week later, it was announced by the club that Carter-Vickers had put pen to paper on a brand new contract that will keep him at Tottenham until the summer of 2019.

Carter-Vickers, who is yet to make his Premier League debut for Spurs, has been a part of the club’s youth academy for eight years now, progressing through the ranks and arriving onto the periphery of the first-team squad this season. Available off the bench for just about every game Spurs have played this season, the Essex-born youngster has seemingly surpassed 23-year-old Austrian international Kevin Wimmer along Mauricio Pochettino‘s pecking order.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

The son of an American father, former professional basketball player Howard Carter, CCV is eligible for both the English and U.S. national teams. With his rise to the Spurs first team, rumors have begun to circulate that England would come calling soon, though SI.com reported on Wednesday that he is “all USA” regarding his international allegiance.

CCV spoke exclusively and extensively to PST’s Joe Prince-Wright last September. You can read JPW’s feature about the then-17-year-old, right here.