NWSL Championship - Portland Thorns FC v Western New York Flash

Portland Thorns FC win NWSL title: Moments to remember from league’s first championship game

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At the onset of the NWSL season, the Portland Thorns were widely picked to take home the new women’s league’s first title. Somewhere along the way, that favorite’s status waned, with the team finishing the season in third place despite talents like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath.

But on Saturday in Rochester, that talent — along with inspired play from the team’s defense — won out. Heath’s first half bomb from 30-plus yards gave Portland a lead at regular season champion Western New York. In second half stoppage time, their team playing with 10, Portland saw Sinclair ice the club’s improbable title run, a 2-0 win rendering a season of promise and frustration a distant memory.

Portland stayed near the league lead most of the season, but by mid-August, their hopes of winning the regular season title had faded. Ultimately, they’d have to claim their crown on the road, with matches at FC Kansas City and Western New York — thought to be the league’s two best teams — seemingly setting the team up for a disappointing finish.

But forgetting regular season disappointment to find the type of unity that’s eluded them all season, Portland proved the best team over the two weeks that mattered. They overcame injuries (to Heath and Morgan), two excellent teams, and ultimately, doubt. As a result, the team most picked to claim the first NWSL title fulfilled their destiny, shutting out the regular season champions to do so.

Here are the moments to remember from today’s 2-0 result at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY:

source: Getty Images1. Goalkeepers come up big, early

Karina LeBlanc (right) and Adrianna Franch were tested high all day, the first major chance coming in the 12th minute. When Abby Wambach went left and lobbed a ball far post, right wing Samantha Kerr had her way with Nikki Marshall, out-jumping the Portland left back to head what could have been a goal. But LeBlanc reacted quickly, pushed the shot onto the bar, and managed to grab a rebound that nearly went in off her back in. The Portland keeper kept it 0-0.

Ten minutes later, it was Franch’s turn. Portland right back Marian Dougherty was given all the room she wanted to fire a cross in from the right. Sinclair, streaking across the face of Western New York’s central defense, redirected a ball toward the top of Franch’s goal. But the rookie for Oklahoma State, called on to make a pure reflex save, pushed it over, matching LeBlanc save-for-save early on.

2. Abby Wambach gets Kathryn Williamson sent off

Pity the rookie her opponent — the first year defender from Florida matching-up up against a former Gator who just happens to be the world’s best player — but Kathryn Williamson knew what she was getting into. In two games against Abby Wambach in the regular season, the Thorns central defender had held her own. On Saturday, Wambach targeted her in the second half, eventually drawing two yellow cards.

The first came in the 49th minute, when Williamson was lucky to avoid a straight red after a ball over the top looked set to send Wambach in on goal. Four minutes later, Williamson deservds a second yellow for a nasty challenge on hte Flash number nine, but the official had pity. In the 56th minute, however, that pity ran out, with Portland defender taking down Wambach at the edge of the area, drawing a second yellow card.

Portland would play the final 34 minutes with 10, eventually bringing on former U.S. international Tina Ellertson to partner Rachel Buehler in central defense. Remarkably, the teams was still able to keep the league’s best attack off the board, maintaining their clean sheer despite Wambach getting Williamson sent off.

source: Getty Images3. Carli Lloyd shoots. Again. And again.

Counting her double in the semifinals, Carli Lloyd scored 10 goals this season, one of four players to reach double-digits this year. In Saturday’s first half, she had numerous opportunities to add her 11th, including a 25th minute chance set up by Adriana Martin that saw her push her shot wide right despite being one-on-one with LeBlanc.

As the game went on, Lloyd seemed to single-mindedly look for that 11th goal. A try from the edge of the area set up by Wambach. Dead balls from distance around the Portland area. Predatory runs into the box. Lloyd was an attacking midfielder with a sniper’s mentality, racking up eight shots by the final whistle.

Every time she let loose, there was a chance she would equalize. It was worth a gasp. She has that kind of talent. And as her Olympics performances have shown, Lloyd also has that kind of timing.

Tonight, however, it never happened. Ultimately, Lloyd’s most important goal of the season was the one that never came.

source: Getty Images4. Tobin Heath wins the title for the Thorns

Watch her in warm ups and you’ll see the power in Heath’s shot. Released quickly with a slightly more topspin than a normal player’s, Heath can be a special kind of trouble when given too much room within 24 yards.

In the 40th minute, she was far beyond 24 yards. After a Western New York foul just inside Portland’s attacking third, Heath was closer to 32 yards from Franch’s goal, but with one of the most spectacular strikes of her career, Heath paved Portland’s title path.

Opting for power over precision, Heath straight-on approach launched the ball above the Flash wall with that typical top spin, her heavy strike dipping below Franch’s cross bar as the rookie goalkeeper leapt under the ball. Having set herself up to defend the left side of goal, Franch had no chance, eventually clattering against the opposite post as Heath’s shot bend the net and recoiled out. The most important goal of the season was also the best.

Heath was scoreless in seven regular season games after joining the Thorns from mid-season Paris Saint-Germain. In two playoff games, she scored twice, each time overcoming an injured right foot to help push Portland to their title.

5. Christine Sinclair seals it

As full time approached, there was something about Portland that made you believe they were going to close this out. Despite being down a player; despite the presence of Wambach and Lloyd; despite being on the road; and despite the occasional lapses of their defense this season, it was hard to imagine the Flash finding and equalizer. In the last game of a tumultuous season, Portland had finally looked the part. They finally looked like a team that would pull away from the pack.

One minute into stoppage time they sealed it. Sinclair — a Portland resident and a University of Portland alum — was put in alone on goal after a long throw in deep in Western New York’s half. The huge gap between right back Katherine Reynolds and the next defender was a complete breakdown by a team pressing for the equalizer, one that left Franch with no chance to stop Sinclair as the former Flash forward pulled up from 15 yards.

With the shot headed far post, Western New York’s only hope was for “Sinc’s” shot to catch the post. No chance. The insurance goal nestled against the left side netting as the 30-year-old Canadian ran for the sideboards, celebrating in front of fans silenced by her title-clinching goal.

It was her ninth of the season, and certainly her most memorable. Seeing her team come together after an inconsistent, often frustrating season, Sinclair had captained her hometown club to the NWSL’s first title, the Thorns’ 2-0 win Saturday in Rochester allowing the preseason favorites to finish an improbable if expected championship run.

Klinsmann wants “urgency” as USMNT for crucial World Cup qualifiers

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 21:  United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann (R) walks across the pitch with a group of players after losing their game against Argentina 4-0 during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Semifinal match at NRG Stadium on June 21, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t a man who messes around.

He wants his U.S. national team players to follow his lead.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

After naming a 26-man squad for the USMNT’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines this Friday and Trinidad & Tobago next Tuesday, Klinsmann didn’t spring any real surprises with the injured duo of Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes not available for selection.

Speaking to U.S. Soccer he revealed that although he’s stayed loyal to the players who led the U.S. to a fourth-place finish in the Copa America Centenario this summer, he wants to see added urgency from his team with a qualification to the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup very much in the balance.

“We definitely think that the group that got fourth in the Copa America deserves a certain priority going on to the next World Cup qualifiers because they did tremendously well in the Copa America,” Klinsmann said. “It was an exciting tournament with great games. The whole group learned a lot, playing teams like Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina. This is a big stage, and they deserve to come back and confirm what they did in the tournament in these upcoming, very important World Cup qualifiers. We are preparing for these two games very seriously, with a lot of urgency because we want to finish off our group in first place if possible, and this group of players gets the chance to do that.”

Heading into these final two Group C games in the third-round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the U.S. sits in second place behind T&T and everything is set up for a showdown in Jacksonville, Florida against the Soca Warriors.

[ MORE: USMNT squad in full for WC qualifiers ]

The U.S. should comfortably take care of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines later this week but with Guatemala and T&T squaring off in the other Group C game, there is a scenario where a defeat to T&T next Tuesday would eliminate the U.S. national team from World Cup qualifying before the Hexagonal round. If Guatemala wins its final two games and the U.S. beat Saint Vincent and the Grenadines but either lose or draw to T&T, they will be out of World Cup qualifying.

Right now that’s unthinkable but the fact that Klinsmann has decided to call up 19 of the 23 players who represented him at the Copa America this summer proves that he has finally found his core group of guys and will continue with a settled back four, however in midfield he will be missing the suspended Michael Bradley for the opening game and Jermaine Jones isn’t 100 percent fit.

The big issue for the U.S. over the next 10 days is up top.

Bobby Wood will play a leading role after netting on his debut for Hamburg this past weekend but without Zardes and Dempsey the U.S. needs Jozy Altidore to step up and prove he has once and for all recovered fully from a spate of nagging injuries. After Altidore, youngsters Rubio Rubin, Jordan Morris and Christian Pulisic will provide options, plus veteran Chris Wondolowski will also be around if needed.

You do wonder if the U.S. has enough firepower to break through a stubborn T&T defense next week who will likely come to U.S. soil knowing a draw or a smash-and-gran win will seal them top spot in Group C. Scoring goals will be the main concern nagging Klinsmann for the next 10 days as his squad  are under pressure after a defeat at Guatemala and a draw at T&T earlier in qualifying.

Allardyce explains Barkley omission, yet to name captain

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JULY 25:  Newly appointed England manager Sam Allardyce attends a press conference at St. George's Park on July 25, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce raised plenty of eyebrows with the omission of Everton’s Ross Barkley from his first squad as England manager.

[ MORE: Fabregas wants Chelsea stay ]

Allardyce, 61, named a 23-man squad for England’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Slovakia as he prepares his squad for his first game in charge.

The former Sunderland, West Ham, Newcastle, Blackburn and Bolton manager surprised many with the inclusion of West Ham’s winger Michail Antonio, and in a press conference on Monday he also confirmed he would name his England captain on Tuesday.

He also spoke about his decision to leave Barkley out.

“We’ve had to make some very, very difficult decisions. None more so than Ross Barkley. It’s disappointing for him,” Allardyce said. “The door will always be open for Ross but at this moment I think the squad I’ve named is right.”

Of course this is the right approach to take from Allardyce when it comes to dropping Barkley from the squad. He is still only 22-years-old and has considerable experience in the PL and with England at two major tournaments, even though he didn’t lay a single second at EURO 2016, he will get another chance. Allardyce would be foolish to complete cast the Everton playmaker aside and he knows it.

[ MORE: Allardyce’s first England squad in full ]

Barkley’s confidence may have been impacted by not being used by Roy Hodgson this summer but there is Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana and Dele Alli to compete with in that central attacking area.

Ronald Koeman has given Barkley a central role for the Toffees since taking charge and it is now down to the Liverpool born playmaker to become more productive in the final third and turn his undoubted potential into goals, assists and become the main man at Goodison Park. He has all the tools to succeed but maybe this snub will help Barkley refocus and go back to basics as he tries to impress Big Sam.

Fabregas denies rift with Conte, says he’s not leaving Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15:  Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea looks on from the sidelines during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Cesc Fabregas has not started a single Premier League game for Chelsea so far this season under new manager Antonio Conte.

[ MORE: Boufal signs for Saints ]

The Spanish midfielder, 29, is seen by many as far too good to be sitting on the bench somewhere and coupled with reports that Fabregas had a falling out with Conte, many thought he could move on elsewhere in the final days of the window.

Apparently that is far from the truth.

After seeing widespread media speculation regarding a “bust up” with Conte, the former Arsenal and Barcelona playmaker has moved to quell the notion of him leaving Stamford Bridge.

Fabregas led the PL in assists in 2014-15, getting off to a flying start in Chelsea’s title-winning season. However his form dipped as that season closed out and last season he was a shadow of his former self as Jose Mourinho was fired and Chelsea ended up finishing in 10th place in the Premier League table.

With N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic the first-choice central midfield pairing for Conte, he has seen great balance in his side as they’ve won all three of their opening PL games.

Fabregas did provide a sumptuous assist on Diego Costa‘s late game-winner at Watford last weekend with a beautifully weighted 50-yard through ball but his lack of power and speed seem to mean he’s on the outside looking in when it comes to Conte’s starting lineup.

If he has aspirations of playing for Spain and playing regularly, surely Fabregas should move on. His qualities are undoubted in the right team but Conte’s Chelsea clearly won’t suit his strengths and vice versa.

Below is the message which Fabregas posted on Instagram.


Southampton sign rising star Sofiane Boufal for club-record fee

Sofiane Boufal signs for Southampton FC, pictured at The Staplewood Campus, Southampton, 29th August 2016, pictured with Executive Director of Football Les Reed
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Southampton have made a huge statement by signing Sofiane Boufal from Ligue 1 side Lille.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights 

After the deal was all but secured last week Saints announced the acquisition on Monday and it is believed Boufal initially cost over $21 million, a club-record transfer fee.

The Moroccan international attacking midfielder, 22, has signed a five-year deal with the club as Claude Puel has added an exciting, dynamic player to his ranks.

In the past Boufal had been linked with many of Europe’s top clubs but speaking to Southampton’s website after signing, Boufal revealed why he chose to move to St Mary’s.

“I’m very, very happy to sign for Southampton and I am really excited to play in St Mary’s Stadium in front of the fans,” Boufal said. “Southampton showed big interest in signing me, and I can see that this club is the best place for me to continue my progression as a footballer. I hope I can achieve many great things with Southampton. It is a very good club, with excellent facilities, and I feel it is the perfect environment to continue my development.”

This is a huge signing for Saints and one that should breath new life into their attacking unit, although Boufal may not be ready until a few weeks from now as he continues his recovery from a knee injury suffered at the end of last season.

Puel’s men have scored just two goals in their opening three games of the season and although they’ve looked confident in possession, they’ve run out of ideas in the final third. Boufal’s trickery, pace and direct running will help out with that.

After selling Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle this summer, Saints lost their top two goalscorers from last season. With Shane Long energetic but hardly prolific and both Jay Rodriguez and Charlie Austin injury prone in recent years, Puel’s options up top needed boosting. Boufal can operate centrally or on either flank and alongside Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond he will provide plenty of competition in the attacking areas.

At Lille he showed plenty of productivity last season with 12 goals in all competitions after making the step up from second-tier Angers in January 2015. Many in France have compared him to Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez.

It may have taken Saints a while to get this deal over the line but just like in previous windows they’ve sealed a gem close to the transfer deadline day. In the past two seasons they’ve picked up Mane and Virgil Van Dijk in the latter stages of the summer window and both of those buys turned out to be great players, and business, for the south coast club.

Boufal is expected to make a major impact in the PL and Europa League for Saints. Turns out that they aren’t just a selling club after all…