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.

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

Follow AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf on Twitter:

VIDEO: Southampton’s Boufal scores stunner on home debut

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Sofiane Boufal of Southampton in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sofiane Boufal, take a bow.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw

Southampton’s club-record signing has had to hang around at St Mary’s for two long months while he recovered from injury.

But, on his home debut, the Moroccan international wasted no time in opening his account for Saints in stunning fashion.

Boufal arrived in August for $19.5 million from French side Lille but was nursing a knee injury from the end of last season. He had appeared off the bench against Inter Milan and Manchester City over the past week but on Wednesday he made his first start for the club and his first appearance at St Mary’s.

He didn’t disappoint.

In the 66th minute of a largely unforgettable game, Boufal scored the game-winner as Southampton beat Sunderland 1-0 to move onto the EFL Cup quarterfinals where they’ll face Arsenal.

The 23-year-old took a mesmerizing first touch out of the air, then jinxed inside and sent an unstoppable shot into the far top corner.

I was at St Mary’s last night and was right behind this strike. It has to be one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live.

See it for yourself, below.

First the touch…

Then the finish…

And why not have another look from another angle…

Jose Mourinho charged over referee comments

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho is never far away from controversy.

[ MORE: Crowd trouble in EFL Cup ]

On Thursday the English FA announced the manager of Manchester United had been charged for comments about referee Anthony Taylor before their game against Liverpool last Monday.

Ahead of the 0-0 draw at Anfield, Mourinho had questioned the appointment of Taylor as referee given the fact that Taylor resides close to Manchester and some may influence some of his decisions.

This is what the FA had to say, as there is a clear rule in place which bans managers from talking about refereeing appointments before the game.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has been charged with misconduct, in respect of comments he made relating to the appointed match referee prior to the Liverpool FC v Manchester United FC fixture on Monday 17 October 2016.

It is alleged his comments were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute contrary to FA Rule E3(1).

Mr Mourinho has until 6pm on Monday 31 October 2016 to respond to the charge.

So, what did Mourinho actually say about Taylor’s appointment as the referee?

“Somebody with intention is putting such a pressure on him. I feel that it will be difficult for him to have a very good performance.”

Mourinho went on to say he thought Taylor was a very good referee but still, those comments have landed him in hot water with a potential touchline ban and/or fine heading his wau.

No contentious decisions were made by Taylor during the derby game and after the match Mourinho asked his press officer what he could say to the media about the referee for fear of further action.

Mourinho is no stranger to being charged by the FA when it comes to comments against referees.

In October 2015 he was fined for his post-game comments in Chelsea’s loss to Southampton where he said referees were “afraid” to give decisions for his team. Then in November he was fined and handed a one-game touchline ban after going into the referees dressing room at half time of a defeat at West Ham to contest their decisions.

FA to investigate crowd trouble between West Ham, Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  A Chelsea fan (C) gets past the police line and walks over to West Ham United fans during the EFL Cup fourth round match between West Ham United and Chelsea at The London Stadium on October 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Ugly scenes marred the end of West Ham United’s 2-1 EFL Cup win against London rivals Chelsea on Wednesday night.

Fans at the London Stadium clashed in a walkway separating the two sets of fans.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw ]

So far seven individuals have been arrested and now the English FA has opened an investigation into what occurred.

Here is the statement they released on Thursday morning.

“The FA is investigating crowd disturbances at last night’s EFL Cup match between West Ham United and Chelsea. We are in dialogue with all relevant authorities.”

Before the London derby, the first to played at the London Stadium, both teams issued statements asking for fans to behave but as we have seen on numerous occasions this season at West Ham’s new home, trouble flared up.

Although it was a small minority of fans who ripped up seats, hurled coins, threw punches at each other and had to split up by riot police, the scenes highlight the severe issues West Ham are having with segregation.

After moving into the stadium this summer, there have been incidents of in-fighting between West Ham’s own fans, clashes with supporters of Middlesbrough and Watford and now this latest unrest suggests there are serious problems to fix after the venue was transformed from an athletic stadium into a soccer stadium.

London’s Metropolitan Police were on site for this game and extra stewards were present but they still couldn’t stop fans clashing. Expect a larger police presence for the upcoming games and especially for derby games against London rivals.

It is truly sad to see the video footage below.