NWSL Championship: Five storylines to watch

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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.

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.

Toure reportedly set for another year with Man City

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Never say never.

Yaya Toure looks like his season-long peace with Pep Guardiola will stretch into a new season, with Toure’s combustible agent admitting talks with Manchester City regarding a new contract.

Dimitri Seluk is among the worst agents on Earth Toure’s agent, and said, “We are talking. We will see what happens but City is a club that is in Yaya’s heart.”

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

But Seluk has not been in City’s heart, having made numerous poor decisions on when to open his mouth, deepening a rift between Toure and Guardiola that kept the player off the pitch for some time. Earlier this Spring, Seluk also suggested that Toure could join Manchester United.

So, yeah, smart guy. Hates microphones and publicity.

Toure turned 34 this month, and became a fixture for Guardiola once he broke into the lineup. The midfielder made nine-straight starts around the turn of the calendar, scoring five goals in the Premier League.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.