Alex Morgan, Nate Berry

NWSL Championship: Five storylines to watch

2 Comments

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Western New York Flash and Portland Thorns FC face off on Saturday night in the National Women’s Soccer League Championship, and the league got its star power matchup in its inaugural season. Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd lead the Flash against a Thorns side expected to see Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath return from injury for the final, not to mention Christine Sinclair.

We’ve already given you snapshots of what to know about the Western New York Flash and what to know about Portland Thorns FC. Here are five stories to follow in the buildup to and during the final:

• There’s no escaping talk of Morgan’s health, in particular. The face of the league, Morgan sprained her left MCL on August 7 and hasn’t played since. She hasn’t played since, but was available during Saturday’s 3-2 extra time semifinal win over FC Kansas City. Portland has actually, by their own admission, played some of their best games of the season without Morgan, who is more of a direct player. Whether or not she plays will affect both the marketing hype of the match and the Thorns’ style of play. Morgan trained with a knee brace on Thursday at Sahlen’s Stadium and expects to be ready for the final. Coach Cindy Parlow Cone expects Morgan and Heath, who injured her right foot in the semifinal and did not train on Thursday, to play “significant roles” in the match.

“The knee feels good. I’ve been training now for a couple of days. We came early to kind of get adjusted to the time and recover our legs. I think that was good for my knee, personally, because it didn’t react to well to the flight. So getting on the field feels really good and I’m hoping to be full-go for Saturday.”

The Flash’s dominance of any and every women’s soccer league of the last four years is on the line. Western New York has won three straight championships in three different leagues, including the 2011 WPS triumph with Morgan and Sinclair. Flash head coach Aaran Lines says this Flash team has the most leadership of any of the previous three champions.

“Playing their roles as senior players and being good role models and leaders on and off the field has been an integral part of budding young players into the season,” Lines said.  “It’s been a good ride.”

• Wambach and Morgan will easily dominate the headlines, but the midfield battle will be critical. Carli Lloyd has been one of the best midfielders in the league since returning from injury on May 11, but was snubbed from even an all-league second team selection. She’ll have that chip on her shoulder as she aims to continue her stellar form. Lloyd scored both goals for the Flash in their semifinal win. Allie Long will be tasked with tracking Lloyd through the midfield, but whether or not Heath can play – and how healthy she is – will determine just how much of a counter-punch Portland will have to Lloyd. Heath is the catalyst of the Thorns’ midfield.

• Which Thorns defense will show up? Portland’s back line, anchored by U.S. international Rachel Buehler, breakout rookie Kat Williamson and Canadian goalkeeper Karine LeBlanc, had one of the better defenses in the league, but a late season stretch saw Portland give up nine goals in four games, a stretch in which they went 1-2-1. Issues in the back seemed to have been sorted out in the final two games of the regular season – including a 0-0 draw at the site of the final vs. the Flash – but two goals conceded to FC Kansas City in the opening half hour in the semifinal is yet again cause for concern. The Flash, meanwhile, statistically had the best defense in the league and showed few signs of breaking down during the regular season.

 The Aaran Lines vs. Cindy Parlow Cone coaching matchup is enticing. Lines is the man who has guided the Flash to these three consecutive titles and is well aware of the Morgan-Sinclair partnership, having coached the two alongside Marta to a 2011 WPS crown. Recognition of Lines for the impressive feat continues to be lacking, but the Kiwi continues to put together great teams. This year’s is perhaps the most impressive, having not gotten too much help in allocation beyond Lloyd and Wambach. Parlow Cone meanwhile is in her first final and first full season as a head coach. If she can guide the Thorns to a title after the adversity of what looked mid-season like a big-expectations year set for disappointment. Much of what she’ll be judged on in the final is how she manages Heath and Morgan, who are obvious game-changers.

VIDEO: “The Beast” leads Wimbledon to promotion; leaves club with epic interview

Leave a comment

Adebayo Akinfenwa’s time at AFC Wimbledon may be over, but he will never be forgotten.

The striker scored a penalty kick at Wembley on Monday deep into stoppage time to seal Wimbledon’s promotion to League One after a 2-0 win over Plymouth Argyle.

Headed to League One for the first time in club history, the win caps off a remarkable rise for Wimbledon that started in the ninth-tier of English football back in 2002.

[ MORE: Pellegrini rues Pep announcement ]

Akinfenwa, a journeyman striker in England’s lower leagues, has gained cult-hero status due to his large frame, listed at 5-foot-11-inches and weighing in at over 220 pounds, earning him the nickname “The Beast.”

Speaking to Sky Sports amid the promotion celebrations, Akinfenwa asked for other managers to shoot him a text as his contract expires with Wimbledon this summer.

It’s what dreams are made of. I’m more tired now running around [celebrating] than I was the whole game, but it’s a beautiful feeling.

Sidebar, I think I’m technically unemployed. So any managers, hit me up on the WhatsApp and get me a job.

There ain’t no better way to leave this club than to leave them promoted, it’s beautiful. For all them who said I was too big to play football, come on now.

Akinfenwa also joked about his late-match penalty, in which he was seen wrestling the ball away from teammate Callum Kennedy. When asked about the situation, Akinfenwa responded “It was just set up too beautifully, and I’m bigger than Cal, so Cal was unlucky. I’m sorry Cal K, I love you though.”

Saints to offer Shane Long new deal as Liverpool, Spurs show interest

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 08:  Shane Long of Southampton is chased down by Kyle Walker of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton at White Hart Lane on May 8, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

After scoring ten Premier League goals this season, Shane Long looks set to be rewarded with a new contract at Southampton.

Despite having two years remaining on his current contract, multiple reports state he will get a new deal to fend off interest from Liverpool and Tottenham.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO 2016 coverage ]

Spurs’ boss Mauricio Pochettino was in Dublin this past weekend to watch Long play for Ireland, where he was pictured sitting with the player’s agent Pat Dolan. The Saints’ striker scored Ireland’s only goal in a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands.

Liverpool had also reached out to Southampton back in January about a possible move for Long, and it is believed Jurgen Klopp is quite fond of the Irish striker.

[ MORE: Klinsmann aiming for top-four finish at Copa America Centenario ]

Having already inked Virgil Van Dijk, James Ward-Prowse, and Fraser Forster to new deals, Southampton will be eager to lock up Long before EURO 2016 kicks off.

Likely to be the top striker for Ireland at the tournament, a good showing for Long on Europe’s biggest stage could lead to even more interest in the 29-year-old.

Arsenal’s Bellerin set to make Spain EURO squad after Carvajal injury

ST GALLEN, SWITZERLAND - MAY 29:  Hector Bellerin of Spain competes for the ball with Sead Kolasinac (L) and Ervin Zukanovic of Bosnia during an international friendly match between Spain and Bosnia at the AFG Arena on May 29, 2016 in St Gallen, Switzerland.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

With just one cap to his name, Hector Bellerin looks poised to make Spain’s final 23-man roster for EURO 2016.

The Arsenal right-back will take the spot of Dani Carvajal, who tore his hip flexor in Real Madrid’s win in the Champions League final.

[ MORE: Pulido safe after kidnapping ]

Bellerin, 21, made his debut for the Spanish first-team this past weekend, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 win over Switzerland.

Speaking before the extent of Carvajal’s injury was revealed, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque had said “We have two days until I name my list of 23 players. While we are waiting to hear from the medics [about Carvajal], Bellerin stays with us.”

[ REPORT: Barcelona interested in Manchester United’s Juan Mata ]

Despite a lack of experience with the national team, Bellerin has played more than 50 Premier League games with Arsenal, named to the PFA Team of the Year this season as the league’s best right-back.

Spain’s first match of EURO 2016 is on June 13 against the Czech Republic, also paired with Turkey and Croatia in Group D.

Switzerland picks 3 teenagers in final Euro 2016 squad

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 29: Breel Embolo of Switzerland (R) fights for the ball with goalkeeper Jasmin Buric of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the international friendly match between Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina at Stadium Letzigrund on March 29, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LUGANO, Switzerland (AP) Switzerland has three 19-year-olds in its final European Championship squad of 23 players that features new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka.

Coach Vladimir Petkovic was expected to pick Basel forward Breel Embolo, and on Monday also selected teenagers Nico Elvedi and Denis Zakaria.

Elvedi, a defender with Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Young Boys midfielder Zakaria both made international debuts on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to Belgium in Geneva.

[ MORE: Barcelona will chase Mata if available from United ]

Zakaria takes a holding midfielder’s place left vacant when Petkovic left out former captain Gokhan Inler over a lack of playing time at Leicester.

Petkovic also omitted defenders Philippe Senderos and Silvan Widmer, and midfielder Luca Zuffi, who had been on the provisional squad.

Switzerland’s final warmup match is against Moldova in Lugano on Friday.

Switzerland is in host France’s group at Euro 2016 along with Albania and Romania.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Yann Sommer (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Roman Buerki (Borussia Dortmund), Marwin Hitz (Augsburg)

Defenders: Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Nico Elvedi (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Michael Lang (Basel), Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV), Steve von Bergen (Young Boys), Fabian Schaer (Hoffenheim), Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg)

Midfielders: Valon Behrami (Watford), Blerim Dzemaili (Genoa), Gelson Fernandes (Rennes), Fabian Frei (Mainz), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke), Denis Zakaria (Young Boys)

Forwards: Breel Embolo (Basel), Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), Eren Derdiyok (Kasimpasa), Shani Tarashaj (Everton).