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.

CONCACAF & CONMEBOL: Lionel Messi injured in final pre-Copa friendly

LANDOVER, MD - MARCH 27: Lionel Messi of the Argentinian national soccer team sits on the bench as his teammates practice on the field in preparation to take on El Salvador at FedExField on March 27, 2015 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 16 North, Central and South American and Caribbean nations prepare for the 2016 Copa America Centenario…

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Argentina 1-0 Honduras

Gonzalo Higuain, who recently set a brand new record for most goals scored in a single Serie A season (36 goals in 35 games played), continued his scintillating 2015-16 season by scoring the only goal in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday (WATCH HERE).

The result obviously takes a backseat to news that Lionel Messi left the game injured midway through the second half. Following a corner kick that was cleared from the Honduras penalty area, Messi took a blow to the lower back and/or hip on his left side. The Barcelona superstar tumbled to the ground in a heap. He walked off the field under his own power, but was clearly in a great deal of pain before deciding he couldn’t continue.

That says Messi suffered an injury to his left side and that tests (MRI) are being done to determine the severity of the knock. La Albiceleste will kick off their Group D campaign against the reigning Copa holders, Chile, on June 6 in Santa Clara, Calif.

[ MORE: Preview — USMNT faces Bolivia in final Copa America tune-up ]

Uruguay 3-1 Trinidad and Tobago

With Luis Suarez currently on the shelf injured, it’s Edinson Cavani’s time to shine for Uruguay. The Paris Saint-Germain frontman — who’ll coincidentally also be “the man” for his club side with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading for the exit door — bagged a first-half brace in La Celeste‘s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Trinidad and Tobago. His first came from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, followed not long after by another from open play in the 40th minute. Matias Vecino added the third for Uruguay in the 52nd minute. T&T took an early lead through Jomal Williams’ opener on 7 minutes.

Cavani scored 19 goals in 32 Ligue 1 appearances this season, making him the league’s third-highest scorer, behind Zlatan (38) and Alexandre Lacazette (21). Suarez, on the other hand, won this year’s La Liga Golden Boot after scoring 40 goals in 35 league games. Uruguay will begin their Group C campaign against Mexico on June 5 in Glendale, Ariz.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Chile 1-2 Jamaica

No longer content as CONCACAF’s best-kept secret, Jamaica are took their upsetting ways to a different level on Friday, knocking off South America’s reigning champions, 1-2 in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Clayton Donaldson and Simon Dawkins scored for the Reggae Boyz either side of halftime before Nicolas Castillo pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute. Winfried Schäfer’s side will join Uruguay and Mexico in Group C, along with Venezuela, their tournament-opening opponents on June 5 in Chicago, Ill.

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Costa Rica vs. Venezuela (underway)

Reunited in Manchester: The best (so far) of Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 25: Head coach Josep Guardiola (R) of FC Barcelona greets head coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid during the Copa del Rey quarter final second leg match between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou stadium on January 25, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) The rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola is about to be renewed.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

After years of spats and high-profile games between the two rival coaches in Spain, they are set to face off again — this time in England.

Guardiola, who used to thrive with Barcelona, will begin his stint at Manchester City next season. Jose Mourinho, who succeeded with Real Madrid, is on his way to Manchester United after his appointment on a three-year contract was announced Friday.

There was plenty of controversy when the two met while coaching the Spanish powerhouses in the early 2010s, with incidents on and off the field.

Barcelona was doing well under Guardiola when Mourinho arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, and in the first game between the two, Barcelona thrashed Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

In the Copa del Rey final later that year, Real Madrid won the title and Mourinho took his first stab at Guardiola.

After the Barcelona coach lamented a close offside call that ruled out a goal by forward Pedro, Mourinho said that a “new era in football was beginning, one in which coaches criticize the correct decisions made by referees, not the wrong ones.”

Guardiola said he knew Mourinho well and the Portuguese coach was only trying to provoke him. He said such antics would not work, and he would answer them at an appropriate time.

The response came before Barcelona and Real Madrid played in the semifinals of the Champion League in 2011.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal ]

“The teams will meet tomorrow on the pitch, but off the field he has already won, he has won his own Champions off the field,” Guardiola said of Mourinho, using an expletive. “In this press conference room, he is the (big) boss, he is the one who knows it all. I don’t want to even start competing against him here.”

Guardiola said he was surprised by Mourinho’s animosity toward him considering they worked together for four years at Barcelona, when Guardiola was a player and Mourinho an assistant coach.

“He knows me and I know him,” Guardiola said. “If he prefers to pay more attention to the point of view of the (Madrid-friendly) media and not to the relationship that we had, then he can do it. It’s his decision and it’s his right.”

Later in 2011, during a brawl in a Spanish Super Cup game between the rival teams, Mourinho was caught by television cameras poking the eye of Tito Vilanova, then an assistant to Guardiola at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Klopp to pick between signing Gotze or Mane this summer ]

Guardiola’s Barcelona won most of the “clasicos” against Mourinho’s Madrid during the three seasons the Portuguese coach was in Spain.

In addition to winning the league in 2011-12, Mourinho also won the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup titles before ending his stint with Madrid. He and the club parted ways after what Mourinho called his worst season ever in 2012-13.

He was without a job since December after leaving Chelsea following a poor start to the season.

Guardiola won nearly every title possible with Barcelona before leaving the club to join Bayern Munich in 2013.

Gotze’s Bayern future remains uncertain; Sadio Mane still Liverpool’s Plan B?

MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 14: Mario Goetze of Muenchen celebrates after the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Hannover 96 at Allianz Arena on May 14, 2016 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN)
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Sadio Mane has been an extremely in-demand commodity since last summer, when Manchester United and a handful of other Premier League and foreign clubs failed to pry the Southampton winger away from the South Coast in either one of the summer or January transfer windows.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Great players will always be in demand, though, which means another summer full of transfer rumors linking the ever-dangerous 24-year-old to clubs across England and Europe.

Enter stage left: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who’s eager to undertake his first summer transfer window since taking the Anfield job last October.

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Mario Gotze is said to remain Klopp’s no. 1 target this summer — the 23-year-old has said he intends to remain at Bayern Munich and fight for his place under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, but the Bayern hierarchy (Ancelotti included) perhaps see it differently — with Mane a not-so-terrible Plan B should Gotze remain at the Allianz Arena or land elsewhere. Gotze has scored just 22 Bundesliga goals in three seasons at Bayern (36 in all competitions) since making a big-money move from Borussia Dortmund three years ago.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal

After a promising debut in England saw Mane score 10 goals in 30 PL games two seasons ago, the Senegalese dynamo followed up with an 11-goal haul in the PL season just completed (15 goals in all competitions), much of which was shrouded in transfer rumors and clear discontent at St. Mary’s Stadium. Mane will cost anyone a great deal more — think 10 to $15 million more — than the $30 million Bayern hope to recoup in their sale of Gotze (they paid roughly $40 million for him in the summer of 2013).

Pre-EURO int’l friendly roundup: Rooney, Rashford score as England win again

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England scores his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 24 European nations prepare for EURO 2016…

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

England 2-1 Australia

Roy Hodgson seems to have one of those good dilemmas on his hands: with Danny Welbeck already out for EURO 2016, and Daniel Sturridge injured yet again, does he take 18-year-old Marcus Rashford to France next month? The Manchester United striker is certainly making his case after a breakout finish to the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, which he followed up on Friday with a goal all of three minutes into his England debut (WATCH HERE).

Wayne Rooney doubled England’s lead 10 minutes after he entered the game as a halftime substitute (WATCH HERE), extending the England and Man United captain’s record goal haul to 52 in his international career. Eric Dier scored an embarrassing header to pull one back for the Australians in the 75th minute (WATCH HERE).

England will host Portugal at Wembley Stadium next Thursday in either side’s final pre-EURO friendly.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores another debut goal

Ireland 1-1 Netherlands

The Dutch aren’t headed to EURO 2016 themselves, but the Irish certainly are, and Martin O’Neill’s side picked up a bit of positive momentum in the form of a 1-1 draw with the 2014 World Cup semifinalists.

Southampton’s Shane Long put the Irish ahead when he cleaned up a goal-line scramble on the half-hour mark, but former Newcastle United striker Luuk De Jong turned home a free kick to equalize for the visitors with five minutes remaining in regular time.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Northern Ireland 3-0 Belarus
Croatia 1-0 Moldova
Czech Republic 6-0 Malta
Slovakia 3-1 Georgia