Alex Morgan, Nate Berry

NWSL Update: Western New York, Portland into league’s first title game

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If women’s soccer fans were told five months ago that first NWSL season would end with Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan in the title game, some would have happily taken it. Others would have cried conspiracy. Few would have disputed it as a boon in the league’s first year, when every bit of publicity helps.

After Saturday’s semifinals, the league has their dream matchup, though it’s still unclear if all the stars will be on stage. Whereas Wambach is guaranteed to lead her team onto the field in Rochester after Western New York eliminated Sky Blue (2-0), Morgan has not played since suffering a knee injury in Boston nearly three weeks ago. Without her, Portland upset FC Kansas City on Saturday, Allie Long’s extra time winner giving Thorns FC a 3-2 win, giving FOX Sports license to run a week’s worth of Abby vs. Alex promos ahead of Saturday’s final.

But for anybody who watched Saturday’s game in Kansas, “a 3-2 win” feels like a gross understatement. Here’s how the Thorns (and Flash) advanced to the NWSL’s first championship game:

source:  Semifinal 1: FC Kansas City 2, Portland Thorns FC 3

Favorites coming into the season, Portland slipped to third place by the time the last game was played, meaning their route to the final would go through Overland Park. In two regular season games at FCKC, Portland had only taken one point, generally being outplayed during their trips to Shawnee Mission District Stadium. Yet with Vlatko Andonovski’s team limping into the postseason — a two-game losing streak to non-playoff teams costing them first place — there was reason to doubt Kansas City carried the same quality that troubled Portland during the regular season.

Those doubts irrelevant after 25 minutes. Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak, whose half season starting for Andonovski has earned her a national team call-up, scored from distance in the 12th minute. Melissa Henderson, goalless in 17 regular season games, beat Karina LeBlanc near the half’s mid-point, priming Portland for an embarrassing end to their season. With league MVP-to-be Lauren Holiday pulling the proverbial strings, the Thorns were getting steamrolled. Favorites before game one, eliminated at game 23, Portland’s lopsided elimination would bring joy to the throngs who’ve come to view PTFC as the NWSL’s Galactic Empire. Merritt Paulson’s Darth Vadar, and FC Kansas City were routing his stormtroopers.

Much to their chagrin, the Rebellion wasn’t meant to be. The narrative that won out in Overland Park was Kansas City’s demise, not Portland’s failure to play to their talent. Whereas the Blues once seemed destined to win the league comfortably, a slew of late capitulations over summer months (in New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, and at home against Chicago) served as a wakeup call. Only as Saturday’s collapse showed, Kansas City never woke up.

In the 35th minute Tobin Heath, playing on an obviously ailing right foot, pulled Portland within one. Tiffany Weimer, coming on strong after joining mid-season, pulled Portland even in the 65th, setting the stage for a bit of redemption. Scrutinized all season long for her play in Portland’s midfield, Allie Long forged the match-winner in the first period of extra time (103′) and, as is if to reinforce the Portland’s image as the league’s pantomime villain, spent the rest of the match committing fouls that teased a second yellow card. Like her team, though, she survived, with Portland’s 3-2 win putting them into Saturday’s final.

It was Portland’s best 90 minutes of the season, finally claiming some of their promise while on the verge of bowing out. For Kansas City, however, it was a heart-breakingly appropriate conclusion to their season. Though they seemed like the best team, their inability to finish games killed them. After this week of postseason awards ends, Kansas City will have the league’s best player, defender, rookie, goalkeeper and coach, but they’ll also have an unexpectedly early end to what has to what was ultimately a disappointing season.

source:  Semifinal 2: Western New York 2, Sky Blue FC 0

Sky Blue’s last two months were all about Saturday. Whereas Kansas City slid into the playoffs and Portland had the postseason thrust upon them, Sky Blue had the final four in the sites ever since it became clear the formula vaulted them top of the league in June was not going to carry them through August. While falling to fourth, Jim Gabarra’s team consolidated, forging their best possible formula for playoff success, though their slide left them with a nightmare playoff matchup. Western New York, the regular season champions, had beat them three times in a row, outscoring them 8-1 in the process.

Gabarra, who had played a 4-3-3 formation for most of the year, decided to throw the Flash a curve. He went 3-5-2, a system nobody had played this season in the NWSL. Whether he did that to load up in defense, get more defenders to combat Abby Wambach, or put players wide on to deal with the Flash Sam Kerr-led wing play, it seemed to cause some confusion. While Western New York were better over the first half hour, a stalemate looked possible.

Then Carli Lloyd broke through. It was a big game, so the Flash midfielder, who most know from her two goals in the 2012 Summer Olympics’ final, was obligated to step up. Clutch is what she does. Converting on a cross from fullback Katherine Reynolds in the 33rd minute, Lloyd lived up to her reputation, putting the home side in front.

Sky Blue held on for the next hour, fostering the impression they could nick an equalizer at any time, but against the league’s best defense, an attack that had come reliant on one player (forward Lisa de Vanna) never broke through. They finished the game outshot 15 to 5, losing 2-0 after Lloyd’s 93rd minute goal completed the U.S. international’s double.

Ultimately, and despite Gabarra’s attempt to change it up, the game played out exactly as expected. While Sky Blue had recovered  from their summer funk, they still didn’t have an answer for the Flash. Their new formation stalled the inevitable, but come full-time, the Flash had still controlled play, won a relatively straight forward game, and looked every bit the title favorite. They finished the regular season number one, and come kickoff in Rochester on Saturday, they’ll be favored to retain that mantle.

Final: Western New York vs. Portland Thorns FC

Ever since Kansas City’s slide began, Western New York has been the scariest team in the league. Now, with Lloyd clicking while  Wambach continues to demand the defense’s focus, the Flash are on track for their fourth title in four years (across four leagues: W-League, WPS, WPSL Elite, NWSL). In a league down to two teams, they have the best defense, the best attack, the best coaching, and home field advantage. Despite drawing both their meetings with the Thorns this season, Aaran Lines team will be deserved favorites Saturday night.

The threat Portland poses depends on their health. Heath had to leave Saturday’s game after Kansas City’s Desiree Scott stepped on her foot. She’s expected to play, but her exact status won’t be known until later this week. Likewise, what Cindy Parlow Cone can count on from Alex Morgan depends on how much the Thorns star improves. The team’s optimistic, though if she’s healthy, the coaching staff face a challenge integrating her into a team that’s gone 2-0-1 without her.

That draw came two weeks ago, when Portland visited Western New York. Both teams seemed willing to accept the stalemate, the 0-0 result playing out as one of the league’s least compelling games of the season. But without Morgan, Portland were emboldened by the shutout, their improvement in defense giving them confidence going into their season finale.

Two wins later, the Thorns have a shot at the title. And with any luck, the NWSL will get an Abby vs. Alex matchup in its inaugural final.

Report: AC Milan negotiating new deal for keeper Donnaumma

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Gianluigi Donnarumma has quickly become one of the most coveted goalkeepers in the world, and he’s only 17 years old.

[ MORE: Gameiro nets hat-trick in five minutes for Atletico ]

And that’s why AC Milan plans on doing everything in its power to hold on to the Italy international.

[ MORE: U.S. U-20s fall to Panama to begin CONCACAF Championship ]

According to CalcioMercato, the Rossoneri are preparing to lock up Donnarumma to a big deal once he turns 18 next week in order to fend off the likes of Premier League duo Chelsea and Manchester United, as well as Real Madrid.

However, agent Mino Raiola could stand in the way of Milan as they attempt to negotiate with the promising shot stopper out of fear that the club won’t be able to compete with Europe’s best teams.

Also, it has been suggested that Raiola is seeking at least $4.25 million per season for Donnarumma plus add ons, while Milan is said to be willing to go as high as $2.1 million annually.

Donnarumma is currently in his second professional season with Milan and has risen to the Italian national team level over the past year as well. The young keeper is seen as the logical successor to Gianluigi Buffon once his international career concludes.

Baggio marks 50th birthday by visiting quake victims

ROME, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 01: Roberto Baggio (L) is challenged by Diego Lugano during the Interreligious Match For Peace at Olimpico Stadium on September 1, 2014 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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AMATRICE, Italy (AP) Italian great Roberto Baggio marked his 50th birthday on Saturday by visiting towns devastated by earthquakes last year.

[ MORE: FA Cup Saturday wrap — Man City held against Huddersfield ]

Baggio opted not to celebrate his milestone surrounded by celebrities, and instead spent the day in Amatrice, which was almost wiped out by the Aug. 24 earthquake.

The former world footballer of the year, who met children and others from the central Italy region, said “it was very emotional,” and he went there with his family “to fully understand what so many people are going through.”

Baggio also met the mayor of Amatrice, Sergio Pirozzi, and said they will remain in contact, “and we will try to do something concrete.”

Baggio was moving on to nearby Norcia, which was also damaged, and there was a party organized with a birthday cake.

The Aug. 24 quake killed nearly 300 people and left a further 4,000 homeless. There were aftershocks for several days as well as more quakes in October and January.

Baggio, who was nicknamed “Il Divin Codino” (The Divine Ponytail) for the hairstyle he wore for most of his career, scored 27 goals in 57 appearances for Italy and helped the Azzurri to third place in the 1990 World Cup and runner-up four years later, when he famously missed the last penalty kick of the shootout in the final with Brazil.

He won the Serie A title with Juventus in 1995 and with AC Milan the following year.

FA Cup preview: Spurs, Man United face Championship opposition

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United leaves the pitch with the match ball after scoring a hat-trick during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 first leg match between Manchester United and AS Saint-Etienne at Old Trafford on February 16, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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As the Premier League sides have dwindled down in this season’s FA Cup, two of England’s big boys will hope to avoid upsets on Sunday.

At the moment, six PL clubs remain in the competition after Chelsea and Middlesbrough advanced on Saturday and Manchester City was held to a draw against Huddersfield. Arsenal will meet non-league affiliated side Sutton United on Monday.

[ MORE: FA Cup Saturday wrap — Man City held against Huddersfield ]

Fulham vs. Tottenham — 9 a.m. ET

While Spurs have come away victorious in five of their six FA Cup encounters against Fulham in the past, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will face a tough test on Sunday. Fulham is currently battling to stay in the race for promotion next season to re-join England’s top flight but the Craven Cottage side will have a legitimate chance to make some noise after knocking off Hull City and Cardiff in the past two rounds.

Meanwhile, Spurs will likely be without striker Harry Kane, who picked up an injury in Thursday’s defeat against Gent in the Europa League. Tottenham has struggled away from home as of late, having won just two of their last 14 fixtures away from White Hart Lane.

Blackburn Rovers vs. Manchester United — 11:15 a.m. ET

The two sides haven’t met in the FA Cup since back in the 1980s, a win for Manchester United, and Sunday’s encounter likely won’t be much a walk in the park for Rovers. Blackburn is fighting for survival in the Championship, making their performance in the FA Cup all the more critical for morale over the second half of the season. However, key suspensions to both Hope Akpan and Elliott Bennett will leave Blackburn shorthanded.

Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils will be missing several key players as well, including Wayne Rooney and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, both of whom are injured. United has done well away from home recently, only falling once in its previous nine encounters away from Old Trafford.

Nice holds on to beat Lorient despite Balotelli’s red card

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) Nice striker Mario Balotelli has more red cards away from home than goals this season.

[ MORE: Marseille beats Rennes to stay in hunt for top four ]

The Italian has scored nine in the French league so far, but all have been at home. On Saturday he was sent off for the second time on his travels, and for the third time overall during his first campaign in France. However, despite his red card, Nice won at Lorient 1-0 to move up to second place behind Monaco.

[ MORE: Gameiro nets hat-trick in five minutes for Atletico ]

Balotelli returned to the side after missing last weekend’s action with a fever, but was shown a straight red following an altercation with Lorient defender Zargo Toure. From initial video replays, it seemed difficult to ascertain what Balotelli did wrong other than backing into Toure with his arms up as they challenged for a ball.

Nice coach Lucien Favre was no closer to an explanation after the game, although he suggested Balotelli may have spoken out of turn to referee Tony Chapron.

“I didn’t see what happened. All of a sudden he was coming off and I said to myself, `What’s happened?”‘ Favre said. “I didn’t see when he (the referee) gave the red card and I don’t know why. It seems that he talked back to the referee.”

Favre refuted any notion that Balotelli might be getting singled out unfairly by referees.

“He’s not on referees’ radars. They are totally neutral,” Favre said. “If there is reason to send a player off, then they will.”

Midfielder Wylan Cyprien scored his seventh in the league after being set up by right back Arnaud Souquet early on.

Nice is three points behind Monaco, and one point ahead of defending champion Paris Saint-Germain, which is at home to Toulouse on Sunday. Lorient is in last place.

MARSEILLE 2, RENNES 0

Marseille showed it can cope without top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis, as it maintained its push for a top-four finish and place in the Europa League next season.

Gomis has been Marseille’s best player, scoring 16 league goals, but injured a knee last weekend and is expected to be out for up to six weeks.

In his absence, wingers Clinton N'Jie and Florian Thauvin grabbed second-half goals as Marseille moved level on points with fifth-place Saint-Etienne and one point behind fourth-place Lyon. They are both playing on Sunday.

France playmaker Dimitri Payet went close three times – hitting the crossbar with a rasping shot – before starting the move that led to N’Jie’s goal in the second half.

Five minutes later, Thauvin scored a powerful swerving shot into the top corner from 20 meters after running onto a neat back heel from midfielder Morgan Sanson.

Inconsistent Marseille has won its last three home games but lost its last three away.

Next Sunday comes bitter rival Paris Saint-Germain, a must-win game in the eyes of the passionate Marseille fans at Stade Velodrome.

“We’re confident when we play at the Velodrome, but I’d like to us to do the same away from home,” Marseille left back Patrice Evra said.

OTHER ACTION

Mid-table Angers won 1-0 at home against Nancy, which is one place above the relegation zone.

Lille, down to 10 men, beat Caen 1-0 in Lille coach Franck Passi’s first match in charge. Attacking midfielder Anwar El Ghazi, who came from Ajax last month, struck shortly after Lille center half Adama Soumaoro was sent off.

Also, Metz drew with Nantes 1-1.

In Sunday’s other games, it is: Lyon vs Dijon, Montpellier vs. Saint-Etienne, and Bordeaux vs. Guingamp.