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.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-1 New England Revolution (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): For nearly 75 minutes, NYCFC couldn’t muster up any chances in the attacking third, but thankfully their captain did what he does best. David Villa scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday night to pull out a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution, but it was rookie Jonathan Lewis that notched the winner. The visitors took the lead 20 minutes prior after Sean Johnson spilled a shot in front of his own goal, allowing Teal Bunbury to pounce on the rebound. NYCFC now moves to within four points of Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC with nine matches remaining in the regular season.

Three four moments that mattered

16′ — Harrison breaks ankles, but Villa can’t finish — This might be the only time all see you’ll see David Villa miss a chance like this…

38′ — Johnson gets a finger tip to Rowe’s blast — Sean Johnson had no work to do in the first half, at least until Kelyn Rowe decided to rip a shot from distance just before halftime.

57′ — Johnson’s error grants Bunbury, Revs the lead — Look away, NYCFC fans.

77′ — Villa find the back of the net — When you need a goal, who you gonna call? That’s right. David Villa. The NYCFC captain is now up to 19 this season.

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Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Teal Bunbury (57′), David Villa (77′), Jonathan Lewis (90+4′)

Honoring victims of attacks, Barcelona wins league opener

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Wearing shirts honoring victims of the recent attacks in Spain, Barcelona opened its Spanish league season with a comfortable 2-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Neymar double helps PSG cruise past Toulouse ]

Players had the word “Barcelona” instead of their names on the back of their shirts, and the Catalan hashtag “TOTSSOMBARCELONA” (We are all Barcelona) was on display around the Camp Nou stadium. The message was also shown on the stadium’s large screens, as well as on many banners carried by fans.

An emotional minute’s silence was held before the game as the music of Catalan cellist Pau Casals played in the background.

Before the minute was up, the more than 55,000 fans at the stadium broke into a round of applause and began chanting “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid), a chant which has become a symbol of people’s reactions to the attacks that killed 14 people and injured more than 120 in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.

Extra security was implemented in and around Camp Nou.

There was a minute’s silence before every Spanish league match this weekend.

Without Neymar and the injured Luis Suarez, Barcelona got off to a winning start in the league after consecutive losses to rival Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

It scored two goals three minutes apart near the end of the first half – an own-goal by Betis defender Alin Tosca and a close-range shot by Sergi Roberto. Both goals came after plays started by Gerard Deulofeu, one of the players expected to try to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

“We lost depth with Neymar’s departure and we have to find a way to overcome that,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Lionel Messi looked lively but wasn’t able to score his 350th goal in La Liga. He came close, though, being denied by the woodwork three different times.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Brighton breaks club record with signing of winger Jose Izquierdo

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Brighton hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start in its debut season in the Premier League, but a key reinforcement is on the way.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Spurs at Wembley behind Alonso’s brace ]

After starting the 2017/18 campaign with back-to-back defeats, the Seagulls announced on Sunday the signing of Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge in Belgium for a record fee.

The 25-year-old spent three seasons in Belgium’s top flight and totaled 38 goals across all competitions for Brugge, prior to making the move to England.

Additionally, Izquierdo has worked his way into the Colombia squad as of late, and scored his first international goal for his country in June 2017 in a friendly against Cameroon.

MLS Follow Live — NYCFC hosts Revs, Minnesota meets Sounders

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Only two matches will feature on the MLS docket Sunday evening, but luckily two of the league’s most exciting teams will take to the pitch.

[ MORE: Toronto tops Fire as East leaders reach 50 points on season ]

First, New York City FC will attempt to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder when they host Kei Kamara and the New England Revolution.

In the night cap, the Seattle Sounders look to extend their unbeaten streak to nine matches when they welcome newcomers Minnesota United to CenturyLink Field.

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Here’s the schedule and kick-off times for Sunday’s two MLS fixtures.

New York City FC vs. New England Revolution — 6 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 10 p.m. ET