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.

NYCFC’s Vieira gets big praise from Houston counterpart

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 22:  Former professional football player and Western Union Pass Ambassador, Patrick Vieira, speaks with press at the Beyond Soccer Series Powered By streetfootballworld at Thomson Reuters Building on June 22, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series)
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series
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How long we’ll continue to see Patrick Vieira in Major League Soccer is anyone’s guess, but it’s taken less than a year at his first managerial gig to impress a whole bunch of people.

One of those is Houston Dynamo coach Wade Barrett, who matches wits with Vieira when New York City FC hits BBVA Compass Stadium for a Friday night match.

[ MORE: JPW catches up with Vieira ]

After a glittering playing career at Arsenal and Inter Milan amongst other sides, Vieira ran Manchester City’s reserves between 2013-15. Now in the dugout leading a senior team for the first time, Vieira hasn’t skipped a beat, leading NYCFC to a playoff spot and a legit chance at a first round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Barrett sees the genius in his 40-year-old opponent.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“You see teams that get stuck just doing one thing over and over again, I don’t want to say they get figured out, but sometimes they run out of options,” Barrett said. “You see a coach like him, he’s made adjustments in games, moved pieces around, and I think that’s really important in this league, is to be able to adjust.

“Patrick’s come in and he’s done very well. He’s got his group playing a very effective style.”

Barrett’s a first-year boss himself, guiding Houston to a 4W-4L-9T record since taking over for Owen Coyle in late May. That’s a significant improvement for the Dynamo, who are still destined to miss the playoffs.

“It’s very special” — Wisconsin defender set to take on USMNT, Mexico

Credit: UW Athletic Communications
UW Athletic Communications
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Macroeconomics. Soccer practice. Portuguese class. Match versus Rutgers.

All that, and then Sam Brotherton can get down to preparing for Giovani Dos Santos and Jozy Altidore.

The University of Wisconsin captain and New Zealand national teamer has one heck of a week ahead of him.

“It’s been pretty tough trying to balance at all, but I’ve had a lot of support from the university and thankfully my professors have been understanding,” the 6-foot-1 center back told ProSoccerTalk.

[ MORE: LA’s Dos Santos gets Mexico call-up ]

Following this weekend’s match between Wisconsin and Rutgers, Brotherton will hop on a plane to meet head coach Anthony Hudson and New Zealand in Nashville. The Kiwis are Stateside for an Oct. 8 match against Mexico in Nashville before heading to Washington for an Oct. 11 date with the USMNT at RFK Stadium.

Credit: UW Athletic Communications
Credit: UW Athletic Communications

This isn’t a bizarre story of a tiny national team finding a college kid with an ancestral tie and giving him a call; Brotherton is off to tangle with two of CONCACAF’s best in a match that will hopefully better prepare New Zealand for the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Brotherton will enter the trip on his 20th birthday, and on the path for caps Nos. 7 and 8. He’s the only amateur player on a team with West Ham defender Winston Reid, Leeds United striker Chris Wood, and Portland Timbers backstop Jake Gleeson.

It’s no secret that Brotherton has the skill set to be a professional player now, and his call-ups to the national team in the summer before his freshman year had pro clubs on alert. But Brotherton had signed to play for head coach John Trask at a very good school at Wisconsin, and that meant something to him.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

“It was a decision I had to make, and I felt that I had made a commitment to the school,” said Brotherton, whose father was educated at Oxford. “I’ve always been passionate about my education and wanted to get my degree so I felt I wanted to give college soccer a try, start off here at Wisconsin and see where it went.”

Brotherton is one of a bevy of young New Zealand players plying their trade in the NCAA Soccer game. Xavier’s Cory Brown was the Big East preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Saint Francis Red Flash senior defender Francis de Vries is an All-American, and Stuart Holthusen was First Team All-MAC at Akron in 2015.

The University at Buffalo has a Kiwi head coach and four players, including goalkeeper Cameron Hogg, who played with Brotherton on the U20 team.

“Sam has always been a leader in any side he stepped into,” Hogg said. “From Auckland to the national U20s, he’s always been a leading voice even if he wasn’t wearing the armband.”

Wisconsin is 4-2-1, the longtime MLS assistant Trask running the Badgers program to a solid start. Trask has started the sophomore in 24 matches, including a freshman season that saw Brotherton named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and had his teammates recognizing a leader.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“Sam is one of the few sophomores that I’ve named captain,” Trask told PST. “It’s rare in a team. Sam has just got it. His presence as a person and the quality of his play, every guy on the team said he should be our captain. I’ve got a ton of time for him.”

“Sam is an excellent center back and he’s incredible in the air,” said Adam Lauko, who graduated from Wisconsin in 2015. “On top of that he is mature beyond his years and a well-respected leader. He’s a great guy to be around as well.”

2015 was an insane ride for Brotherton, as the kid went from scoring at the U20 World Cup to his freshman year in Madison. Two days after that season ended, he earned his first full national team cap when he played in a 1-0 win over Oman.

“It was amazing,” Brotherton said. “It’s really quite hard to put into words. It’s very special. I was so fortunate that it happened so young in my career. It’s an honor, but it makes you want to work even harder.”

Being a center back means having the opportunity to learn from Reid, a man with 19 caps and 175 appearances for West Ham. All but 28 of those have come with the Irons in the Premier League, and Reid was chosen the Hammer of the Year in 2012-13 and the New Zealand Footballer of the Year for 2014.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

“Rugby is the main sport in New Zealand, but Winston has increased the awareness and popularity of football,” Brotherton said. “He’s a great player and a great guy. A lot of guys look up to him, and every time you get in camp with him it’s great to learn off someone like that.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 10: Chris Smalling of Manchester United looks dejected as Winston Reid of West Ham United celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on May 10, 2016 in London, England. West Ham United are playing their last ever home match at the Boleyn Ground after their 112 year stay at the stadium. The Hammers will move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Fellow New Zealand defender Reid (center) celebrates scoring the match-winner in the final match at the Boleyn Ground (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

When New Zealand won the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Brotherton started all five matches. He went 120 minutes in the final as the Kiwis won in penalty kicks, but still came back to school at Wisconsin.

“With all his international call-ups and how difficult our business school is, we’re still optimistic he’s going to be an Academic All-American in addition to a soccer All-American,” Trask said. “He knows I won’t stand in his way when the moment’s right. I still think he can learn at the collegiate level while also pushing his degree. It’s a very unique situation.”

Brotherton said he’s grateful to Trask, who he calls “a winner”, and Wisconsin for allowing him to pursue his international career. He praises Hudson’s preparation and tactical acumen, and admits that he’s open to playing professional in Europe, North America, or wherever the best opportunity lies.

[ MORE: Southampton draws in Israel ]

And if that’s home?

“I love going to the beach,” Brotherton said. “I spearfish a little bit, and I definitely miss being close to the sea.”

That’s all in the future, though. Brotherton has a busy week ahead of him, as Wisconsin looks to go 3-1 in Big Ten play with a home win over Rutgers before he goes to hopefully start in front of thousands of passionate Mexico and USMNT fans in two gigantic stadia.

“All players look forward to playing in big games in front of some good crowds,” Brotherton said. “It’s exciting and those opportunities don’t come around too often, so it brings the best out of you as a player.”

Premier League storylines: First vs second at WHL, Saints meet Foxes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City tackles Mousa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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My goodness, do these European weeks allow the Premier League to just reach out and smack you in the face or what?

The PL returns Friday with a match-up of two team on the precipice of the Top Four, and doesn’t stop until a thrilling Sunday leads us into an international break.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

Let’s dig into our Top Five storylines for the PL weekend.

First versus second at White Hart Lane

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Pep Guardiola has already presided over a Manchester City win across town at Old Trafford, and scooping three points at White Hart Lane would be yet another gorgeous feather in his new sky blue cap. Want more insight into this 1v2? Here’s JPW with a PST Extra.

Gunners look to keep firing in classic trap game

Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Arsene Wenger has Theo Walcott and the Gooners humming, with three-straight clean sheets and just four goals allowed in their last eight contests. With an international break coming, Arsenal just has to do what’s expected of it and take a week to revel in its fine form.

That’s kinda the problem. In the past, Arsenal would make a trip like this much harder than it looks on paper. If the Gunners are truly on the path to something special, that doesn’t happen at Turf Moor.

Will Chelsea responds to furious Conte?

Hull City vs. Chelsea — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As good as Chelsea has been at times this year, there are still lingering worries that the group that quit on Jose Mourinho is lacking the leadership necessary to make a title push (and yes, we know that group won the title one year previous).

Manager Antonio Conte was ticked off after the Blues were bounced all over the Emirates by Arsenal, and are supposed to making the most of this season without a congested European schedule. That should mean a win at Hull, right?

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: Gaston Ramirez of Hull City challenges Nemanja Matic of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Pretender alert, pretender alert

Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9 a.m. EDT Sunday (CNBC)

Here’s a tale of four teams in one two-team game. Leicester and Southampton have been solid, if not terrific, in Europe, and look threats to advance into the knockout rounds of both the Champions and Europa League.

Leicester and Southampton have also combined for a mere 15 points though 12 Premier League games, far off the pace for fans hoping both could become European fixtures. At least one, or two, maybe four of these teams will feel better come 11 a.m. Sunday. Not three, though. Definitely not three.

Last stop for Guidolin?

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As the rumor vultures circle above Francesco Guidolin crowing, “Bob Bradley, Bob Bradley“, the Swansea boss looks to engineer a home win over Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that could save his job. That won’t worry Klopp too much, who is hoping to lead his Reds into the international break as high as second in the PL table.

Second coach in England loses job after newspaper sting

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Tommy Wright assistant head coach of Barnsley during the pre-season friendly match between Barnsley and Everton at Oakwell Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Barnsley, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n
Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images
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BARNSLEY, England (AP) A British newspaper investigation led to a second soccer coach getting fired in England on Thursday.

Two days after Sam Allardyce lost his job as England manager following an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph, second-tier club Barnsley fired assistant coach Tommy Wright.

Wright was filmed apparently accepting an envelope which the Telegraph said contained 5,000 pounds ($6,500) from a fake Asian firm to help place players at the northern club. Video footage was released by the newspaper late Wednesday and Wright was immediately suspended by Barnsley.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“After considering Mr. Wright’s response to allegations in today’s Daily Telegraph about breaching (Football Association) rules over player transfers, Mr. Wright was dismissed,” the club said after a meeting with the coach on Thursday.

Barnsley said it was “unaware of such matters or involved in any wrongdoing.”

The English Football Association decided to terminate Allardyce’s contract on Tuesday after video showed him appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice and also negotiating a 400,000 pound ($519,000) public-speaking contract to top up an annual England salary of 3 million pounds ($4 million).

English soccer is reeling after three days of accusations by the newspaper following its months-long investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the game.

Second-tier Queens Park Rangers is investigating footage that appeared to show its coach, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, seeking a fee of 55,000 pounds ($71,600) to work for a fake Far Eastern firm that had suggested selling players to the second-tier London club.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Hasselbaink denied any wrongdoing, saying he was only offered a fee to make a speech in Singapore and did not ask QPR to sign players said to have been represented by the fake firm. QPR said it had “every confidence” in Hasselbaink, and its chief executive and director of football spoke to Hasselbaink on Thursday to get his version of events.

QPR said it wanted to view an unedited version of the video footage and a full transcript.

Hasselbaink, a former Chelsea and Leeds striker, will prepare the QPR team for the league match against Fulham on Saturday.

The Daily Telegraph also filmed an agent accusing 10 managers, which it did not name, of taking bribes linked to player transfers.