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

1 Comment

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.

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace

Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • Liverpool will still be without Philippe Coutinho due to a back injury.
  • Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne also miss out, but Daniel Sturridge is fit.
  • Crystal Palace has won three-straight games against Liverpool in the Premier League.
  • Both teams have scored in each of the last 10 meetings in all competitions between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, averaging 3.9 goals per match.

For the second-consecutive week, Liverpool will have to play without Philippe Coutinho, who is still missing with a back injury.

However, that didn’t seem to be an issue last week against Watford as Liverpool scored three goals, but it was the leaky defense that allowed Watford to score three goals themselves. (Watch live at 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Crystal Palace meanwhile also allowed three goals last week but couldn’t score any of its own as it was humbled, 3-0 to Huddersfield. Crystal Palace’s squad is still struggling to adjust to manager Frank De Boer‘s free-flowing style of play and Wilfried Zaha will miss Saturday’s encounter.

But working in Crystal Palace’s favor is Christian Benteke and the club’s three straight wins over Liverpool. It will surely be an open and exciting match at Anfield.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Crystal Palace: “We played Crystal Palace a few weeks ago. I’m not 100 per cent sure about the line-ups in that game, but Phil and Zaha were on the pitch and they will not be [this weekend]. I’m not sure if Adam played in this game, but that’s how it is…The only thing we know is it’s a tough game, probably both teams were not overly happy – we were not really disappointed about our first game, but it was how a first game can be, there are things to improve and it’s always like this, but even then we could’ve won which I think everybody knows.”

Crystal Palace manager Frank De Boer on his system of play: “I am not a manager who suddenly after a defeat decides to change things around and as I say I did see some very positive points so I am not going to change the system. We don’t need to use adapting to a change in style of our play as an excuse, it’s not so difficult and quite easy to play. The Premier League is so competitive that you have to work hard as a team to get a result because if you don’t you get punished. The players don’t want to use the new system as an excuse and I think everybody understands what we want but we have to execute it better.”

Video Preview

Prediction

Liverpool’s centerback pair of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren looked better midweek in the UEFA Champions League against Hoffenheim, but it’s another challenge to face Benteke and a motivated Crystal Palace team. Still, the speed of thought and pace on the field of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane should prove to be the difference. Liverpool 3-2 Crystal Palace

Blaise Matuidi completes move from PSG to Juventus

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) France midfielder Blaise Matuidi completed his move from Paris Saint-Germain to Juventus on Friday.

Matuidi arrived in Turin for a medical on Wednesday but the move finally went through Friday, PSG said in a statement.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

No financial details were given, but Juventus will reportedly pay PSG 20 million euros ($23 million) plus bonuses for the player, who had a year left on his contract. PSG did not say how long Matuidi’s contract is with the Italian champion.

The French club, runner-up to Monaco last year, is trying to balance the books after buying Neymar for 222 million euros ($261 million) and could not afford to lose Matuidi on a free transfer.

(more…)

Premier League Preview: Swansea City vs. Manchester United

Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • Manchester United have won two of its last three Premier League meetings with Swansea City (D1), this after losing the previous three all by a 2-1 scoreline.
  • Romelu Lukaku is looking to become the fifth player to score in his first two PL apps for Man Utd (also Ibrahimovic, Martial, Macheda, Saha).
  • Swansea City will be without forward Fernando Llorente (transfer) and playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson (transfer to Everton)
  • Manchester United are still without Luke Shaw and Ashley Young, both of whom are injured.

Two teams on two completely different trajectories meet up in South Wales as Swansea City hosts Manchester United (Watch live at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Manchester United are trending up, coming off an impressive 4-0 win over West Ham in the opening weekend in which new signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic starred and dominated the game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Swansea City on the other hand are trending down, slumping to a scoreless draw last week and this week seeing the club lose its top player, Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton.

What they’re saying

Man United manager Jose Mourinho on his team’s start to the season: “It’s just the beginning. Last season, we started with three matches and nine points and we finished sixth. So it’s not because of a very good first day that I’m going to lose my stability and my discipline and let the players think differently from myself.”

Swansea City manager Paul Clement on facing Man United: “We have confidence because of what we did against Manchester United last season, while the record between these two clubs is quite interesting. Our record in the Premier League against Southampton, for example, is not very good, but against United it’s quite encouraging.

“We are looking forward to playing in front of our fans again and hopefully we can do well for them.”

Video Preview

Prediction

Swansea City will have the force of its fans behind it as well as recent good performances against Man United. However, Jose Mourinho’s men should buck the trend and win this one without too much of a fight. Manchester United 3-0 Swansea City

Reports: Liverpool reject latest Barcelona offer for Coutinho

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Barcelona has reportedly upped its offer for the services of Philippe Coutinho. But the response from Liverpool has remained the same.

According to multiple reports, Liverpool has rejected a third Barcelona offer for Coutinho, believed to be worth up to $151.5 million. Coutinho put in a transfer request a week ago but Liverpool has remained firm on its desire to keep Coutinho for this season. Liverpool has not yet publicly commented on Barcelona’s latest transfer bid.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Coutinho meanwhile is still off the field for Liverpool due to a back injury, the club states.

“Phil is not available; he is not training so far, so there is nothing new,” manager Jurgen Klopp told reporters. “It is always how it is with injured players, there is no real time on when he is back.”

The Brazilian midfielder signed a new five-year contract with Liverpool just last January and the deal doesn’t have a buy-out clause. But should Liverpool accept a new bid for Coutinho, he’d become the second-most expensive transfer behind fellow Brazilian Neymar.

It’s unclear whether Barcelona will shift focus to other targets such as Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele or Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann as a replacement for Neymar.