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.

Madrid rallies to beat Al Jazira, reach Club World Cup final (video)

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Gareth Bale scored an 81st-minute winner as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Emirates club Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday and reach the Club World Cup final.

Madrid will try to win its third world title in four seasons when its faces South American champion Gremio on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League Weds. roundup ]

The match had two goals disallowed by video review, one for each team.

Madrid struggled early and allowed the local league winners to open the scoring with a goal by Brazilian forward Romarinho just before halftime.

But Cristiano Ronaldo equalized early in the second half and Bale netted the winner less than a minute after entering the match as a substitute for Karim Benzema.

Paul Clement admits helplessness at facing Man City

Nick Potts/PA via AP
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Swansea City manager Paul Clement may have the enduring quote of the season so far when it comes to facing the behemoth that is Manchester City.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

The suffering Swans have had their share of poor performances this season — Clement later said January transfer spending “is a must” if the club wants to stay up — but he’s throwing his hands up in the air when it comes to Wednesday’s loss at the Liberty Stadium.

The man sounds exasperated, and sorry for his team. From the BBC:

“At times it was horrible to be on the sideline watching that, seeing my side trying but suffering for long periods. They’re not the games that will decide our season but it was hard to watch at times because they were so dominant. For me, one of the best sides I’ve ever come across. So many good athletes, so many intelligent footballers and it’s really hard to pin them down. We actually had some attempts on their goal so I’m disappointed we didn’t get on the score sheet but they were a far superior side to us. We’ve got to put it aside that game. We’ve got Everton away (next) and we’ve got to try and pick something up there.”

All that’s left is for Clement to pick up a clarinet, awkwardly blow into it, then point at Pep Guardiola and say, “He’s good.”

Free message board points to the first one to name the reference.

Premier League roundup: Reds, Gunners stumble

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The Top Four looks set for tumult on a weekly basis, and this week’s seen clubs move in-and-out at the lash of a whip.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Tottenham’s back in. Leicester City would like to come closer.

Burnley’s out. Liverpool and Arsenal, too.

First place might be out of the question, with unbeatable looking Man City 11 points clear of the pack. But nearly everything else is in play.

Manchester United 1-0 Bournemouth — RECAP

United didn’t have it’s A-game, but that was okay thanks to fine defensive play from star backstop David De Gea and some gutsy tackles from Phil Jones. The goal came when Juan Mata‘s cross was nodded home by Romelu Lukaku in the 25th minute, and United rode that marker for all it was worth to stay three points ahead of third place Chelsea.

Swansea City 0-4 Manchester City — RECAP

How good is Man City? Pep Guardiola‘s bunch have now won a Premier League record 15-straight in a single season, and have scored 52 goals while conceding just 11. Markers 49-52 came from David Silva (two), Kevin De Bruyne, and Sergio Aguero. Tottenham is next.

Liverpool 0-0 West Bromwich Albion — RECAP

A ball bounded off Ahmed Hegazi’s body, and off Dominic Solanke‘s body and forearm to give Liverpool its presumed breakthrough, but the call was intentional handball. The Reds had myriad chances to score before that, but instead hand a point to the visiting Baggies.

Newcastle United 0-1 Everton — RECAP

Mikel Merino and Matt Ritchie both hit goal posts as Sam Allardyce‘s Everton rode its luck and a Karl Darlow spillage to a 1-0 win. Wayne Rooney poked home the rebound, and the Toffees’ relegation worries are officially a thing of the past. Newcastle? Not so much, but money’s a-coming to Rafa Benitez at St. James’ Park.

West Ham United 0-0 Arsenal — RECAP

The chances were there for dominant Arsenal, but the winning goal did not materialize at the London Stadium. Marko Arnautovic did everything but score when West Ham did manage the ball, and Javier Hernandez rattled the cage late, but David Moyes men had to settle for a well-earned point.

Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Brighton and Hove Albion — RECAP

Spurs are back in the Top Four thanks to a long Serge Aurier cross that fooled Mat Ryan and a Heung-Min Son deflection of a Christian Eriksen offering. Brighton’s just three points away from the drop zone with the loss.

Southampton 1-4 Leicester City — RECAP

Claude Puel‘s Foxes are flying, scoring goals for fun and encroaching on the Top Four after a horrible start to the Premier League season. Shinji Okazaki bagged his first Premier League brace, while Andy King and Riyad Mahrez also scored for Leicester, who is within five points of fourth and next faces Crystal Palace. Southampton’s goal came from Maya Yoshida.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 17 16 1 0 52 11 41 7-1-0 9-0-0 49
 Manchester United 17 12 2 3 37 11 26 8-0-1 4-2-2 38
 Chelsea 17 11 2 4 31 14 17 5-1-2 6-1-2 35
 Tottenham Hotspur 17 9 4 4 30 14 16 5-3-1 4-1-3 31
 Liverpool 17 8 7 2 34 20 14 4-5-0 4-2-2 31
 Burnley 17 9 4 4 16 12 4 5-2-2 4-2-2 31
 Arsenal 17 9 3 5 30 20 10 7-0-1 2-3-4 30
 Leicester City 17 7 5 5 27 23 4 4-1-3 3-4-2 26
 Watford 17 6 4 7 26 29 -3 2-3-3 4-1-4 22
 Everton 17 6 4 7 21 29 -8 5-0-3 1-4-4 22
 Southampton 17 4 6 7 17 23 -6 3-3-4 1-3-3 18
 Huddersfield Town 17 5 3 9 12 29 -17 4-2-3 1-1-6 18
 Brighton & Hove Albion 17 4 5 8 14 23 -9 2-4-2 2-1-6 17
 Bournemouth 17 4 4 9 15 20 -5 2-2-4 2-2-5 16
 Stoke City 17 4 4 9 19 36 -17 3-2-3 1-2-6 16
 Newcastle United 17 4 3 10 16 26 -10 3-1-5 1-2-5 15
 West Bromwich Albion 17 2 8 7 12 22 -10 1-5-2 1-3-5 14

 Crystal Palace 17 3 5 9 12 28 -16 3-3-3 0-2-6 14
 West Ham United 17 3 5 9 14 32 -18 3-2-3 0-3-6 14
 Swansea City 17 3 3 11 9 22 -13 2-1-6 1-2-5 12

Timbers send Nagbe to Atlanta for allocation money

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have traded midfielder Darlington Nagbe to Atlanta United in exchange for $1.65 million in allocation money.

Portland is also sending defender Gbenga Arokoyo to Atlanta and receiving a 2018 international spot as part of the trade.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

Nagbe, who has become a regular on the U.S. national team, has been with the Timbers since the team joined MLS in 2011. He was selected with the second overall pick in that year’s MLS SuperDraft.

He has 27 goals and 30 assists in 214 matches with the Timbers. His goals are the second-most since the team joined MLS.

“Thank you, Portland, and everyone that supported my family and me the past seven years,” he said in a statement released by the Timbers.

Nagbe, 27, has 24 appearances with the national team and one goal.