NWSL Final: What to know about Portland Thorns FC

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On Saturday, the NWSL crowns its first champion, with preseason favorites Portland Thorns traveling to Rochester to face the Western New York Flash. Led by Abby Wambach, the Flash finished the regular season in first place, defeating Sky Blue FC 2-0 in their Saturday semifinal. After beating second place finishers FC Kansas City 3-2 in Overland Park, Portland will hope Alex Morgan, out for the last three games with a knee injury, will be back for this Saturday’s final.

Having broken down Western New York earlier today, here is a look at Portland Thorns FC:

Defending: After Portland received a talent-rich attack in allocation, defending was supposed to be the relative problem, aside from Rachel Buehler. Though the U.S. international was expected to be one of the more competent central defenders in the league, the backline’s other three spots needed to be filled, and although Canadian international Karina LeBlanc was a popular figure, she hadn’t held down a team’s number one spot since her 2009. Portland seemed to have enough talent to out-gun opponents; unfortunately, some suspected they would have to.

source:  Over the season’s first half, the opposite turned out to be true. As Portland’s midfield struggled to supply the team’s talented forwards, the defense that kept Portland in games. LeBlanc turned out to be one of the league’s better goalkeepers, while Kathryn Williamson (right), a rookie out of Florida, often out-shined her national team partner in central defense. With Marian Dougherty and Nikki Marshall, Portland had one of the league’s better fullback tandems, while defensive midfielder Becky Edwards protected the entire group.

Come mid-season, though, the whole dynamic changed, Cindy Parlow Cone losing Edwards for the year with a torn ACL. Without another starting-caliber defensive midfielder in the squad, Portland not only lost the league’s best pivot player but became susceptible in transition. Before Edwards’ injury, Portland gave up 0.70 goals per game. After: 1.50. Come late in the season, while Portland was losing their chance to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs, the team was finally conceding the defense was being left exposed.

Allie Long’s been asked to fill Edwards’ role, but naturally suited to a more attacking roles, it’s been a difficult adjustment.  The Thorns have been a much different team without a destroyer to protect their defense.

Attacking: They were allocated Alex Morgan, thought to be among the best players in the world. The same description applies to Canada captain Christine Sinclair, the Portland resident playing at home for the first time since starring at the University of Portland. With taht firepower up top, the Thorns’ biggest problem seemed to be forging a connection to their forwards. With Edwards and Long in midfield and Tobin Heath set to join the team mid-season, they seemed to have the talent to do so.

source:  But that connection never hapened. At least, progress was slow before Heath’s July arrival. Not only did Edwards go down, but Long, Nikki Washington, and Angie Kerr were never productive as a unit. Though Meleana Shim (right) stepped up and became one of the season’s better rookies, Portland’s high-powered attack finished with 32 goals, tied for fourth in the NWSL.

The problem’s more nuanced than merely “the midfield.” For much of the season, Shim (a midfielder) was played as a forward. She didn’t start a scoring until she was moved back to midfield (she finished with five goals). That switch allowed Sinclair, played as an attacking midfielder for much of the season, to move back to her natural position, with a late surge pushing her to eight goals. Morgan, in the mean time, finished fourth in the league in goals despite leading the circuit in shots and shots on goal. Noticeably worn down before her early-August injury, the superstar’s first season as a full-time starter has been a learning experience.

Without her over the last three games, Portland hasn’t had the route one outlet she provides, something that’s actually helped the team. Forced to rely on building play rather than Morgan’s athleticism, the Thorns seemed to be more cohesive, with a reinforced midfield also helping the team’s defensive issues. It’s an approach that better suits Sinclair, allowing her creativity to thrive as a focal point of the attack, yet it’s also unclear how that style suits Morgan’s. Over the team’s first 20 games, Portland averaged 1.5 goals per 90 minutes, the exact same rate they’ve scored at over the last three games, with Morgan on the sidelines.

Overall: It’s been a difficult year. The defense was strong but suffered after the loss of one of the team’s most valuable players. The attack remains potent but defined by potential, with the team never meeting preseason expectations. Even as they enter the season’s final game, one that could see them crowned champions, it’s unclear what we can expect from the Thorns.

If, however, Portland plays like they did over the last 60 minutes of their semifinal, they’ll likely end the season on top. Coming back from a 2-0 deficit, the Thorns played their best soccer of the year, a reminder that the potential we saw in preseason still exists. As FC Kansas City found out, Portland has the talent to ruin seasons.

We’ve seen enough of Thorns FC to know they’re underdogs on Saturday. We’ve also seen enough to know they’re capable of anything: from being run out of Rochester; grinding out a win; being disappointed by a late breakdown; or exploding in for a rout of Western New York .

Nothing should surprise us when it comes to the Thorns.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.