Alex Morgan, Nate Berry

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.

England: Telegraph alleges Redknapp knew of players betting on matches

AMMAN, JORDAN- MARCH 22: Jordan's latest manager Harry Redknapp speaks during a joint press conference with the president of the Jordan Football Association, Prince Ali Bin Al Hueesin ahead their World Cup qualifiers on March 22, 2016 in Amman, Jordan. Redknapp, the former Tottenham manager has signed a two-game deal to take charge of Jordan's 2018 qualifying matches against Bangladesh on Thursday and Australia next week. (Photo by Jordan Pix/ Getty Images)
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In the wake of Sam Allardyce‘s firing from his post as England manager, the fallout continues to be immense.

[ MORE: Everton, Palace finish scoreless at Goodison Park ]

English media outlet The Telegraph released several details regarding Allardyce’s role in bribery and corruption that could be widespread amongst the English football community.

On Friday, the Telegraph again released information pertaining to another high-profile English manager, however, this time it’s Harry Redknapp that reportedly knew of illegal goings-on when he was managing in the Premier League.

The newspaper alleges that the 69-year-old was aware of his own players betting on matches, including those that they were involved in. Friday’s report reveals undercover journalists filming a conversation between Redknapp and agent Dax Price, as the two men discuss one match in particular that the players had told Price could be very profitable for him given the favorable odds.

From the Telegraph:

“[Player A from Redknapp’s team] phoned me and said remortgage your house ’cause the odds were mental, they were 5/2 at the time,” Price said.

“All my family lumped on, we lumped on, I phoned him after 15 minutes because you had put, you put a good, you put a great side out as well, you put the best side out, and, um, I spoke to [opposition player], he was sitting in the stand… and he went, ‘[Redknapp’s side] ain’t touched the ball yet, first 15 minutes’, and the game ended up [with Redknapp’s side winning].”

Under FA laws, Redknapp would have needed to notify the governing body regarding his players’ actions.

While the Telegraph has left out specific details in the investigation, including teams, player names and particular matches, the FA has reportedly asked that the newspaper hand over all of its information as the England’s football federation looks into the various allegations brought up by the outlet.

In addition to Redknapp’s reported knowledge of his players placing bets, the Englishman was also recorded in discussing third-party ownership of players, which is illegal under both FIFA and FA laws.

“Yeah, absolutely, any way I could help, you know,” Redknapp replied. “Listen I put my money where my mouth is and all you know, if you, if you’re gonna buy players, now, if I’m involved in picking the players then I don’t mind having an investment and having a little bit of a, you know, not a thing obviously but you know, I’d put a few quid in and take a chance with you. I need something to do with my money as well, don’t I? Can’t be fairer than that can you?”

 

 

Everton 1-1 Crystal Palace: Benteke finish keeps Eagles unbeaten in last five

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 30:  Yannick Bolasie of Everton takes on Damien Delaney of Crystal Palace during the Premier League match between Everton and Crystal Palace at Goodison Park on September 30, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Both clubs came into Friday’s meeting with a lot to play for, but finishes on both sides of halftime forced Everton and Crystal Palace to settle for a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park.

[ MORE: Liverpool looks to remain hot on Saturday vs. Swansea ]

The visitors pulled level just five minutes after the halftime whistle as Christian Benteke rose to meet Joel Ward’s cross. The summer signing did well to generate enough power to nod the ball towards the far post, but Palace nearly took the lead just minutes later.

[ MORE: Chelsea travels to Hull as both clubs look to halt poor form ]

Ward was at it again down the right flank in the 56th minute, when he played in a perfect cross to Damien Delaney. Despite another timely header and finish, the goal was called back for offsides, keeping the two teams level once more.

Romelu Lukaku‘s first PL free kick goal gave the hosts a thrilling lead before halftime as the Belgian striker put Everton ahead in the 35th minute.

Palace wasn’t too thrilled with the decision to award the set piece after the half hour had gone, but Damien Delaney was the man called for the foul on Phil Jagielka just outside of the penalty area.

The Toffees move up to third place in the PL with Friday’s result, while Palace remain seventh on 11 points.

Watch: Palace levels match behind Benteke header

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It’s a battle of Belgian strikers at Goodison Park, and we’ve got an entertaining second half on our hands.

[ Watch: Lukaku’s free kick gives Everton halftime lead ]

Watch the video above, as Christian Benteke equalized for Crystal Palace in the 50th minute, building up enough power on his header to get the visitors onto the scoreboard.

Following Joel Ward’s superb in-swinging cross from the right wing, the 25-year-old Belgian leapt to meet the ball and powered it into the far corner past Maarten Stekelenburg.

Premier League preview: Hull City vs. Chelsea

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Eden Hazard of Chelsea (10) celebrates with Nemanja Matic (21) as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Hull has only won four matches vs. Chelsea (4-10-30)
  • Tigers have allowed nine goals in previous two PL matches
  • Chelsea looking to rebound following Arsenal blowout
  • Costa remains tied for league lead with five goals

Both Hull City and Chelsea come into the weekend on a poor run of form, giving both clubs plenty of incentive to push for a result.

The Tigers play host to Chelsea at the KC Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE 

Following a pair of impressive victories to open the Premier League season, Hull has come back down to earth as of late, losing three of its last five matches in all competitions. With nine goals allowed in its last two PL matches (losses to Liverpool and Arsenal), Chelsea enters the fray with another dangerous attack that the Tigers will have to be wary of.

Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea have ironically enough seen their form dip at the hands of the Reds and Gunners, respectively, as well. Last Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium wasn’t ideal for a Blues side that expects to be amongst the top four at season’s end.

Meanwhile, Diego Costa will have to continue to find the back of the net for Chelsea on a regular basis, after netting five times in the club’s first six league matches. The Spaniard has accounted for half of the squad’s offensive output, making the 27-year-old vital up front along with the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian.

INJURIES: Hull — OUT: Alex Bruce (achilles), Allan McGregor (back), Moses Odubajo (knee), Michael Dawson (knee), Brian Lenihan (knee surgery) | Chelsea — OUT: John Terry (ankle), Kurt Zouma (fitness)

What they’re saying

Hull City manager Mike Phelan: “What needs to be resolved is the terms of the deal. It keeps changing. One minute I think I’ve got something and the club are happy with it and the next minute it changes. So it’s just a case of thinking about all these new changes that are on the table and making a decision.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte: “It’s important not to forget the past, because the past is very clear. We finished 10th last season and that means there were problems. We don’t have a magic wand to change the situation in a few months. We must work hard together and we are doing this. We must understand that only through hard work can we close the gap.”

Prediction

The Blues have struggled to play complete matches for much of the season, and this road fixture won’t make things easy for Conte and co. That said, Chelsea will surely be motivated to come out and give a strong performance following last week’s debacle against Arsenal. Hull 1-3 Chelsea