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.

EFL Cup Weds preview: East Lancashire Derby highlights slate

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Eighteen teams booked spots Tuesday in the League Cup’s third round, with Watford the lone Premier League side to take a fall.

Six more try their luck on Wednesday, the last day of tournament play before the big boys join up.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. wrap ]

A sleepy big affair is the East Lancashire Derby between Burnley and now League One side Blackburn Rovers, a rivalry which has been staged in three leagues or competitions since the turn of the century. This makes it four, joining the Premier League (2009-10), FA Cup (2004-05) and Championship (six times since 2012-13).

Burnley has three wins and three draws since its last loss to Blackburn, which came via David Dunn penalty at Turf Moor in a Premier League match on March 28, 2010.

Make no mistake, Clarets goalkeeper Tom Heaton thinks it’ll be a fantastic affair (from burnleyfootballclub.com):

“And for the players. Make no mistake, we were all delighted when the draw came in,” said Heaton. “It’s a fantastic match we are all looking forward to. It’s a fantastic night as players, fans and for the club.

“We’ll be going there geared up to win the game and give it everything we’ve got. The new lads coming in will certainly get an eye opener for the atmosphere and how good it is. They’re brilliant games to play in, I’ve enjoyed every minute of them.”

If you’re surprised by the rivalry, you have company in Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray. From Rovers.co.uk:

“I have to say living in the north east of England, Suffolk and Scotland most of my life I never would have grasped that Blackburn and Burnley and the geography of how close they were to be honest,” he said.

“It is not something that has hit me in the face before of a huge rivalry and yet I can feel it from the people around the building who have lived here all their lives how important this game is to them. … We’ll give it our very best shot and leave no stone unturned in trying to get a result.”

Elsewhere…

Southampton, fresh off adding $19 million Dutch center back Wesley Hoedt, will host Wolverhampton Wanderers at St. Mary’s, one of four 2:45 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Also kicking off at that time is Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest at St. James Park, with USMNT fullback Eric Lichaj likely to feature for the visitors, as well as Rotherham United’s visit to Huddersfield Town and Cheltenham Town’s trip to West Ham United.

A quarter-hour later, the final two second round matches kickoff when Burnley hosts Blackburn Rovers and Rochdale heads to Stoke City.

Southampton lands $19 million Dutch CB Hoedt

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Southampton’s added another defender who checks all the boxes, and used its press release to cement its status on the future of want-away center back Virgil Van Dijk.

Saints added Lazio center back Wesley Hoedt on Tuesday, with the reported fee in the neighborhood of $19 million for the 4-times capped Dutch international.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gooch scores for Sunderland ]

The 6-foot-2 defender is 23 years old, and played 23 matches for i Biancocelesti last season.

Here’s Saints vice chairman Les Reed:

“Finding a naturally left-footed player is even more difficult. We have been tracking central defenders on our target list for the past 12 months and Wesley has always been at the top of that list, so it was important to act when the opportunity came.”

As our own Joe Prince-Wright pointed out, Saints aren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for Van Dijk’s departure.

Saints also have Maya Yoshida — who won a penalty for Saints this weekend — Jack Stephens, Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Florin Gardos in their corps.

Will Van Dijk stay? Betting sites have him at 5:6 odds to stay at Southampton, but somehow 1:1 to join Liverpool and 7:1 to head to Chelsea (Man City gets 24:1 odds).

At this point, we’d love to see Van Dijk stay and buck the summer’s (actually much longer than that) gossip as Saints fight for a Top Six place.

UCL preview: Three keys to Liverpool-Hoffenheim

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A pair of away goals are under Liverpool’s wing as the Reds prepare for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League playoff round second leg versus Hoffenheim at Anfield.

That’s great, but it’s Mark Uth’s late concession goal for Hoffenheim that will have Liverpool supporters wary ahead of the return match.

Three keys to the match for Liverpool? Well, let’s start with an easy one.

1) Avoid these score lines: The 2-1 score line works for the Reds, of course, who will only fail to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League through some unlikely scenarios:

  • A two-goals or worse loss at Anfield
  • A 2-1 loss plus failing in penalty kicks
  • A one-goal loss while conceding three or more times

2) Don’t allow gaps in the midfield: Kerem Demirbay was being a little cheeky when he said, “We play better football than Liverpool,” and the sides have one major similarity: If you give them room, they can kill you.

Demirbay is a great example of this. The Confederations Cup winner can rip teams apart in the middle of the pitch, and giving him room allows him to choose between unleashing a cannon from distance and spotting Serge Gnabry, Andrej Kramaric, Sandro Wagner, or even Uth for chances on goal. Heck, even Adam Szalai on the bench is a very good option.

Gnabry and Kramaric played less than a half hour each in Hoffenheim’s 1-0 Bundesliga win over the weekend, while Wagner didn’t play at all. Game on.

3) Embrace the occasion: Jurgen Klopp branded Wednesday’s match and the presumed entry into the UCL group stage “the next step” in the club’s evolution under his watch.

This is Liverpool’s second UCL campaign of this decade, and the first UCL night at Anfield since a 1-1 draw against Basel on Dec. 9, 2014.

That night, Brendan Rodgers trotted out this XI: Mignolet, Johnson, Lovren, Skrtel, Enrique, Gerrard (who scored), Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Sterling, Lambert. His subs used? Coutinho, Moreno, Markovic (the last name earned a red card).

In previous home group games against Real Madrid and Ludogorets Razgrad, the Reds managed two more goals. Gerrard had another and Mario Balotelli the other.

So, and this is hopefully a bit overblown but certainly a concern: A whopping six Liverpool players have played in a home UCL match for Liverpool and no one on the Reds roster has scored a goal at Anfield in the competition.

EFL Cup wrap: USMNT’s Gooch shines; Watford upset

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Six Premier League teams dodged upsets upon entering the League Cup, stylized as the EFL Cup for a second season, but a seventh was not as fortunate.

[ MORE: 426 world clubs, ranked weekly ]


Watford 2-3 Bristol City

Etienne Capoue scored just after halftime to give the Hornets a leg up, but goals from Freddie Hinds and Bobby Reid eight minutes apart gave the Robins a lead that Niclas Eliasson buttressed in stoppage time. Adrian Mariappa pulled one back, but it wasn’t enough for Marco Silva‘s men.

Crystal Palace 2-1 Ipswich Town

The unbeaten Tractor Boys were as much of a problem as advertised, but James McArthur scored in the 76th and 84th minutes to give the Eagles a spot in the next round. Man City loanee Bersant Celina nabbed Ipswich Town’s lone goal.

MK Dons 1-4 Swansea City

Leroy Fer gave Swans a pair of leads at 1-0 and 2-1 before Tammy Abraham and Jordan Ayew scored late to salt away the win at Stadium MK.

Sheffield United 1-4 Leicester City

The popular score line saw Islam Slimani bag a brace in between goals from Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa.

Carlisle United 1-2 Sunderland

USMNT youngster Lynden Gooch scored an 80th minute winner after assisting on Donald Love‘s opener, as the Black Cats scored a road win.

It’s the 21-year-old Gooch’s first senior goal for the Black Cats in his 19th appearance. It’s also his first assist and should give food for thought to boss Simon Grayson, who has been using him off the bench. Gooch played 362 Premier League minutes last season.

Tuesday’s other results
Aston Villa 4-1 Wigan Athletic
Leeds United 5-1 Newport County
Middlesbrough 3-0 Scunthorpe United
Norwich City 4-1 Charlton Athletic
QPR 1-4 Brentford
Fulham 0-1 Bristol Rovers
Cardiff City 1-2 Burton Albion
Doncaster 2-0 Hull City
Brighton and Hove Albion 1-0 Barnet
Accrington Stanley 1-3 West Brom
Birmingham City 1-2 Bournemouth
Reading 3-1 (aet) Millwall
Bolton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday
Grimsby Town 0-1 Derby County (1st round match*)

*Derby will face Barnsley in a 2nd round match