NWSL’s second season starts today: here are your basic need-to-knows

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What is the NWSL?

Kind of offended, but okay: The National Women’s Soccer League is the third attempt to establish a professional, world class, first division women’s soccer league in the United States. The first year was a success by the only measure that matters: It survived into a second. The Portland Thorns — the one team linked up with a Major League Soccer franchise — won the title.

What’s different in year two?

Well, there’s a second team linked up with an MLS franchise, with the Houston Dynamo backing the expansion Dash. They lured Randy Waldrum back to Texas from his long tenure at Notre Dame and have built a team capable of breaking into the playoffs.

The league’s also been able to lure most of its prime U.S. talent back from Europe. That means: Christen Press, who will show up in Chicago later this year. Tyreso teammates Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg will follow (both to Houston). That means Megan Rapinoe, who won’t split time with Lyon. Fringe national teasers Yael Averbuch (Washington), Amber Brooks (Portland), and Sarah Hagen (Kansas City) will also make the leap back, hoping to improve their chances of making fall’s World Cup qualifying squad.

This time last year, everybody pointed to a packed Thorns roster and predicted the league’s first title would go to Portland, and while that happened, teams like Western New York (who hosted the final) and FC Kansas City proved just as good as the Thorns (just not during the playoffs). This year, a loaded Seattle Reign squad joints Western New York and Kansas City as contenders, giving year two’s preseason a much more wide open feel.

Key figures

Lauren Holiday, FC Kansas City – Season one’s Most Valuable Player, Holiday is in the process of establishing herself as the U.S.’s best, something nobody could have predicted at the beginning of last season. Kansas City, and the creator’s role Vlatko Andonovski put her in, played a big part. One of the league’s most intelligent players, she’s also one of its hardest workers. She led the league in goals and assists last season.

Paul Riley, Portland Thorns – Thought by many to be the best coach in Women’s Professional Soccer, the former Philadelphia Independence boss sat out year one of the NWSL. When Cindy Cone resigned after winning a title with Portland, Riley quickly signed on. He’s consistently promised a more entertaining brand of soccer, one he hopes will produce the club’s first home playoff game.

Sydney Leroux, Seattle Reign – What was seen as a steal of a trade for Seattle will only truly pay off if Leroux improves on her play in Boston. Expected to be one of the league’s best attackers in 2013, the U.S. international’s form was uneven, though her bursts still produced 11 goals (second in the league). With a talented cast around, Leroux will be expected to improve.

Abby Wambach, Western New York – Wambach was second in the league in both goals and assists, but time may be catching up with her. Challenged to maintain her starting spot with the national team, Wambach will also be challenged to replicate last year’s results. If she can’t, Aaran Lines will have to reconfigure his team. If she can, Western New York has a platform to continue its 2013 success.

Randy Waldrum, Houston Dash – As Lines and Jim Gabarra (Sky Blue FC) showed last year, a coach that finds the right formula early can have a major impact. After 14 years and two national titles at Notre Dame, Waldrum is seen as a somebody that can do so. The 52-year-old from Irving, Tex., has assembled a impressive defense to support a series of high upside attackers. Whether they can produce will determine whether Waldrum gets  into the top four.

Week one

(All games will be streamed on YouTube.)

Saturday

Houston Dash vs. Portland Thorns FC, 8:00 p.m. ET, BBVA Compass Stadium – The 7,000-seat allotment Houston will support for most home games had to be expanded for the franchise’s first game, but the match’s biggest draw, Portland’s Alex Morgan, won’t take the field. A prolonged recovery from an ankle injury has the U.S. star out indefinitely (though the team hopes she can return in May). (YouTube)

FC Kansas City vs. Sky Blue FC, 8:00 p.m. ET, Durwood Stadium – FC Kansas City burst out of the gates last year only to fade at season’s end, a fate shared by Sky Blue FC. Andonovski’s team is again expected to contend near the top of the league, while Gabarra will hope a healthy season from Kelley O’Hara will maintain his team’s fortunes. (YouTube)

Sunday

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York Flash, 4:00 p.m. ET, Maryland Soccerplex – A disappointing 2013 led to a winter rebuild in Washington, with Yael Averbuch, Christine Nairn, Renae Cuellar, Veronica Perez, and number one draft pick Crystal Dunn among the offseason acquisitions. For Western New York, the importance of Wambach and Carli Lloyd will be tested in the absence of Adrianna Franch. The goalkeeper’s preseason knee injury will cost her the 2014 season. (YouTube)

Seattle Reign FC vs. Boston Breakers, 7:00 p.m. ET, Memorial Stadium – Like Kansas City, Seattle’s found a new venue this season, one they hope will coincide with new results. Lauren Harvey’s onslaught of offseason movement has seen Leroux, Kim Little, Nahomi Kawasumi, Beverly Goebel, and Mariah Nogueira arrive in the Emerald City. Leroux’s former team will be the first test for  Harvey’s completely revamped squad. (YouTube)

Watch Live: Mexico vs. Russia, NZ vs. Portugal

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Group A comes to a close on Saturday, with a pair of spots in the semifinals on the line. The group is jam-packed at the top, with nobody confirmed on to the next round and only New Zealand eliminated.

Russia meets group-leaders Mexico at 11:00 a.m. ET in Kazan, with the hosts needing a win to advance, while a draw would complicate things for Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad. Mexico needs just a draw to confirm advancement.

WATCH LIVE: Mexico vs. Russia live online at Telemundo Deportes

Mexico has brought back its first-choice lineup for the final group stage match, with a number of rotations made in the near-disaster against New Zealand. However, Carlos Salcedo is out with a dislocated shoulder, bringing Nestor Araujo into the starting lineup. Hector Moreno starts despite his injury concerns.

On the other side, Portugal takes on New Zealand with a chance to win the group still intact. Portugal sits in second position currently, level with Mexico on both points and goal difference, but behind by one on goals scored. Should Portugal win and earn a greater goal difference or outscore Mexico by more than one, they would win the group.

WATCH LIVE: Portugal vs. New Zealand live online at Telemundo Deportes

Cristiano Ronaldo starts for Portugal yet again, fresh off his match-winning goal against Russia. They see both full-backs rotated from that match, with Raphael Guerreiro and Cedric rotated for Eliseu and Nelson Semedo.

New Zealand has already been eliminated, without a point thus far in the competition despite a pair of spirited performances for the Group A underdogs.

LINEUPS

Mexico: Ochoa, Moreno, Reyes, Layun, Araujo, Herrera, Guardado, J dos Santos, Hernandez, Lozano, Vela.

Russia: Akinfeev, Jikia, Kudryashov, Vasin, Glushakov, Erokhin, Bukharov, Samedov, Smolov, Zhirkov, Golovin.


Portugal: Patricio, Alves, Pepe, Eliseu, Semedo, Moutinho, Pereira, B Silva, Quaresma, Ronaldo, A Silva.

New Zealand: Marinovic, Durante, Smith, Boxall, Doyle, Ingham, Rojas, Thomas, McGlinchey, Wood, Lewis.

Huddersfield breaks transfer record for first recruit

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Huddersfield Town’s first signing as a Premier League team has broken the club’s transfer record.

The newly promoted side snagged Belgian striker Laurent Depoitre from FC Porto, the club has confirmed. The 28-year-old had played in the Belgian ranks his entire career before trying his hand internationally, moving to Porto last summer. Unfortunately, he found playing time scarce, and has looked to the Premier League for a career revival.

“He is a proper striker,” said Huddersfield manager David Wagner. “One who has played for a very good Belgium side, featured in elite European competition and who has won domestic titles. It is great news that we have had the opportunity to sign a player of his quality and now we will focus on getting him back to the top form he showed only a season ago.”

Wagner also mentioned how Depoitre fits the “Terrier mentality” with a hard-working playing style.

The signing of Depoitre was at an undisclosed fee, but the club confirmed it broke the transfer record. Some reports tab the signing at around $6 million. That would far and away mark the highest fee paid by the club, with the previous record set last summer for German defender Christopher Schindler who arrived from 1860 Munich for around $2.2 million.

Still, that transfer record could be shattered again, with the club expected to announce the permanent signing of Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy for a reported $12.7 million.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Lacazette to Arsenal, Aguero to PSG

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Things are beginning to truly heat up in the transfer market as we approach the official opening of the window. No serious domino has fallen yet, with the biggest signing so far proving to be Liverpool’s capture of Mohamed Salah.

Still, the big guns are taking aim, and the feel is that, while still needing some time, the bomb could drop at any moment. Here’s what’s making the rounds today:


Arsenal is being linked to several top-line forwards, many from Arsene Wenger‘s home country of France. One of them, Alexander Lacazette, could be progressing significantly.

According to The Guardian and the Telegraph, the Gunners are preparing a $56 million bid for the Lyon frontman, an amount which would prove to break the club transfer record. The report says Arsenal has spoken with Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas and “agreement is close” on a transfer fee.

The report also states that Lacazette is open to the idea of moving to Arsenal, although the lack of Champions League play would be a drawback. Nevertheless, with the degradation of his favored move to Atletico Madrid due ot the club’s transfer ban, Arsenal would still reportedly be a foreseeable destination.


Manchester City also has striker news; two of them, in fact. First, Sergio Aguero’s career continues to find itself shrouded in mystery. With Gabriel Jesus‘s explosion onto the Manchester City scene, Aguero can be nothing but unsure of his role in the team moving forward.

With the recent ultimatum from Italian midfielder Marco Verratti possibly serving as motivation, French giants Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly preparing a massive bid to lure Aguero away from the Etihad. According to The Times, PSG is weighing a potential $76 million bid for the Argentinian. It’s no surprise that the bid would need to be massive to pry Aguero free. Not only has his goalscoring record proved vital to City in the past, but he has also stated multiple times he wishes to stay and fight for a first-team spot despite the arrival of Jesus.

The 28-year-old has a contract at Manchester City that runs through the summer of 2019, meaning if he is to be sold, time is running out for City to deal him.


Another Manchester City striker is in the news. With both Aguero and Jesus ahead of him, Kelechi Iheanacho has fallen from young gun to bench player. The 20-year-old has been looking for a new home, but things have bogged down because his parent club is insisting on a buy-back clause.

Iheanacho has been linked with both Watford and West Ham, with the pair of clubs both heavily in the market for a new striker. Leicester City has also reportedly been in the mix for Iheanacho. According to The Telegraph, Manchester City realizes that they may be letting a significant talent leave the club, and they’d like to give themselves the option of bringing him back. That will obviously lower the asking price considerably, but could be a benefit in the future.


One bit of completed business, former Premier League striker Victor Anichebe has completed a move to China, where he has joined second-tier club Beijing Enterprises Group.

Anichebe was with relegated Sunderland as recently as last season, but failed to make an impression and also saw his time hampered by injuries. The Chinese club he has joined is the club of late Ivorian Chieck Tiote, who passed away last week during training.

Marco Verratti crushes teammates in PSG ultimatum

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When asked if he wants to leave Paris Saint-Germain, Marco Verratti gave an answer sure to turn the heads of his teammates in the French capital.

Transfer rumors have swirled around the Italian midfielder all summer, and he finally addressed the situation in Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport. When asked if he wanted to leave, Verratti said he’d like to stay, but if he is to do so, the club must come through in the transfer window.

“It’s not that I want to go at all costs,” Verratti said. “It’s just I want to see if they really do build a great squad this time. In that case, I would be happy to stay.”

“Each year they say they are going to build a great squad, but we’ve seen the results. Promises are not enough. If, on the other hand, this time PSG with [sporting director Antero] Henrique stick to what they say, then I will be absolutely happy to stay. At the end of the day, nobody is forcing me to leave.”

It’s one thing for a player to say he thinks the club needs reinforcements in the summer, but Veratti goes all in here. For the Italian to claim that promises had been broken and good players were not brought in, that’s a ruthless aside to his current teammates.

Media reports have linked Verratti with a move away from Parc de Princes all summer. The 24-year-old has been most heavily linked with Barcelona, although clubs like Bayern Munich and Chelsea have been mentioned. According to a number of reports, Verratti turned down a new PSG contract as recently as last week in a meeting with the sporting director.