Alex Morgan, Nate Berry

NWSL Championship: Five storylines to watch


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.

Gerard Pique continues to be booed by Spain supporters

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21:  Gerard Pique of FC Barcelona looks down dejected after missing a chance to score during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Malaga CF at Camp Nou on February 21, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Spain secured qualification to EURO 2016 today with a 4-0 win over Luxembourg, but once again a good performance was overshadowed by the rift between fans and Gerard Pique.

The center-back continues to be booed and whistled by his own fans, despite ongoing calls from the manager, players, and Pique himself to stop the jeers.

[ MORE: EURO 2016 roundup ]

The boos started when Pique, who plays for Barcelona, made some joking comments about Real Madrid while celebrating Barca’s treble winning season last year. Ever since then, Pique has been the subject of boos from Real Madrid fans while playing for the national team.

Before the match against Luxembourg, Spanish legend Xavi called for a stop to the antics, saying supporters should put their club allegiances aside when rooting for the national team. However, they paid no attention to one of Spain’s greatest players, as Pique was whistled at throughout the match.

Following the win, Pique was pleased with the result that booked Spain a place in the final tournament, but was still upset over his treatment by his own fans.

I’d like to resolve this situation with the whistling, of course I do but that depends on the fans. I am going to give all I’ve got to do my job. We’ve reached our objective which was to qualify. I think we’re changing the dynamic; the whistling is louder than the applause but we will improve.

I seem to have explained myself a thousand times on this… no one should be in any doubt about me and my commitment; I’ve been with the national side since I was 16. People can take a look through the archives and see everything I have said in the press since I was a kid. You won’t find anything bad, or comments I’ve made against the national team or this country for people to get upset about.

While the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid is one of the biggest in the world, it shouldn’t carry over into the national side. Pique has made more than 70 appearances for the Spanish team, and started every match at center-back in Spain’s 2010 World Cup run, which was the country’s first major trophy in nearly 50 years. He also played every minute of Spain’s EURO 2012 campaign, which resulted in another title.

[ RELATED: Sergio Aguero suffers torn hamstring playing for Argentina ]

With Spain now into EURO 2016, it’s time for fans to move on and start showing Pique the respect he deserves as one of their most consistent and important players over the past five years.

FIFA presidential election could be postponed

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MAY 30:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter talks to the press during the FIFA Post Congress Week Press Conference at the Home of FIFA on May 30, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Alessandro Della Bella/Getty Images)
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For months now, the footballing world has been waiting for February 26, the date on which the FIFA presidential election is scheduled to take place, which will finally put Sepp Blatter out of power.

However, that election may not take place as scheduled, as FIFA has called an emergency meeting amidst the suspensions of some top officials.

[ RELATED: Klopp introduced as Liverpool boss ]

The emergency meeting will be held on October 15, just a few days before the October 26 deadline for candidates to officially declare their intent to run for the presidency.

On Thursday, FIFA announced bans on multiple executives, including Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and Chung Mong-joon. Platini has been the odds-on favorite to succeed Blatter as FIFA’s leader, while Mong-joon has also announced he will run for president.

Because of the current investigation and suspension revolving around Platini, he would not be allowed to run for the presidency if the election were to take place as scheduled in February. If the election was pushed back, it would give time for the investigation to come to a conclusion, which could possibly absolve Platini of any wrongdoing and allow him to re-enter the race.

Issa Hayatou, who has been the president of the Confederation of African Football since 1988, is currently serving as the acting FIFA president following Blatter’s suspension, and will preside over the meeting next week.