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)

Everton’s Koeman hopes loss isn’t end: “I don’t think it’s too late”

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Will losing 5-2 at home to Arsenal and dipping into the early season Premier League drop zone be the end of Ronald Koeman at Everton?

He hopes not.

[ RECAP: Everton 2-5 Arsenal ]

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Koeman said. “I told the players that I believe in the commitment of the players but if you are negative thinking, and everyone is doing it at this moment, I can understand it. You take all the things in a negative way, not even we stayed with 10 men at 1-2. Again, once again all these decisions are not in my hand.

Koeman spoke in relatively relaxed tones after the defeat, clearly flustered but aware that freaking out wasn’t going to change anything.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “It’s not a time to start to be crazy because I’m responsible for this team. We lost 5-2 and it’s a big result even against Arsenal.”

Like fellow Dutch manager Frank De Boer at Crystal Palace, the move is not necessary yet somehow seems inevitable. Will Bill Kenwright and the Everton board be able to avoid itchy trigger fingers with a midweek trip to Chelsea in the League Cup and a visit to Leicester City next?

The League Cup match gives a little buffer, but a relegation six-pointer of sorts against Leicester is probably not the time for a shakeup. And all one has to do is look to the Foxes to see how a managerial change doesn’t fix everything.

If the Toffees squad hates Koeman, and we don’t know much about this, then yes, maybe a change for the sake of change could help before the trip to Leicester.

But there was a moment in the first half, when it was still 1-0 for the hosts, that showed just how slim the margins are for Everton. Gylfi Sigurdsson, the mega money transfer, chipped a ball into the box that any top striker would’ve ran onto and belted home for 2-0.

But there was not a top striker there. Koeman did not sell Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United. Everton, as Arlo White and Lee Dixon said during the broadcast, put all their eggs in Olivier Giroud‘s basket only to see him stay in London for family reasons. Sandro hasn’t done the trick, and the Toffees need January badly. Will they get there with Koeman?

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Everton 2-5 Arsenal: Ozil, Sanchez star for Gunners

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  • Rooney buries beauty (video)
  • Ozil puts Gunners ahead
  • Lacazette scores after Gana red card
  • Toffees into relegation zone

Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil starred as Arsenal overcame a beautiful Wayne Rooney opener to send 10-man Everton into the Bottom Three after a 5-2 decision at Goodison Park on Sunday.

Ozil scored the match-winner and Sanchez, Nacho Monreal, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexandre Lacazette also scored as Arsenal again showed its potential for greatness in a comeback win. The Gunners move into fifth, behind Chelsea on goal differential.

The loss overshadowed Wayne Rooney’s wonderful strike from outside the 18, and sends Everton 18th on goal differential. Oumar Niasse scored in stoppage time off a laughable back pass from Monreal.

Idrissa Gana Gueye took a second yellow for fouling Granit Xhaka in the 69th minute.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first 10 minutes may’ve well been subtitled, “Alexandre Lacazette versus Jordan Pickford,” but Rooney changed that.

The Everton hero, two days shy of his 32nd birthday, buried his 15th career goal against Arsenal by picking up the ball after a 50-50 scrap opened the ball into his path.

What a hit.

Arsenal hit back, before the break, when Pickford got horizontal to save a an Aaron Ramsey rip onto the boot of Monreal. Pickford only got a piece of the shot, and it was 1-1.

Pickford some more wonderful Gunner thwarting late in the half when Alexis Sanchez’s crafty dribbling led him to the doorstep.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Rooney’s goal was a distant memory when Arsenal earned its first lead via gorgeous goal production in its own right. Alexis Sanchez chipped a delightful ball into the 18 and Ozil nodded it past Pickford.

There were third and fourth rungs on Ozil and Sanchez’s goal ladder when Hector Bellerin took the ball from a Nikola Vlasic mistake and fed Sanchez, who found Ozil for a cutback to Lacazette inside the 18.

Substitute mid Jack Wilshere cued up Ramsey for a fine team goal just before the whistle, but it wasn’t the final goal. Niasse took advantage of a Monreal gaffe to make it 4-2 before Alexis waltzed to restore the three-goal advantage.

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Watch Live: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool

Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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Tottenham Hotspur looks to keep Liverpool in its rear view mirror with a win at Wembley Stadium on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Reds can move a point back of third-placed Spurs with a win.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Georginio Wijnaldum will miss with a reported injury, as Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Emre Can start in Jurgen Klopp‘s midfield.

For Spurs, it’ll be Harry Winks starting over Eric Dier in an otherwise fairly standard unit.

LINEUPS

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Aurier, Winks, Dele, Eriksen, Son, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Rose, Nkoudou, Sissoko, Llorente, Dier, Davies.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Gomez, Matip, Lovren, Moreno, Henderson, Milner, Can, Salah, Coutinho, Firmino. Subs: Karius, Grujic, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexander-Arnold, Solanke, Klavan, Sturridge.

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AT HALF: Rooney’s beauty leads entertaining 1-1 vs. Arsenal

Peter Byrne/PA via AP
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The first 10 minutes of Arsenal’s visit to Everton may’ve well been subtitled, “Alexandre Lacazette versus Jordan Pickford,” but Wayne Rooney changed that.

The Everton hero, two days shy of his 32nd birthday, buried his 15th career goal against Arsenal by picking up the ball after a 50-50 scrap opened the ball into his path.

[ STREAM: Everton vs. Arsenal ]

What a hit.

Unfortunately for Everton, Nacho Monreal hit back just before the break to level the score.

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