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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)

VIDEO: Premier League Player of the Week – Matchday 6

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This lad is a samba sensation.

Philippe Coutinho is back at the heart of the Liverpool team and he was crowned as the Player of the Week in the Premier League for Matchday 6.

Coutinho, 24, scored a sensational long-range goal, grabbed an assist and created four chances in a dominant performance during Liverpool’s 5-1 win against Hull City on Saturday. 

Watch the video above to relive a Coutinho masterclass as Jurgen Klopp‘s side continue their fine start to the PL season.

No wonder some refer to Coutinho as Liverpool’s Harry Potter.

He’s a wizard.

China aiming for increased influence on FIFA

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 26:  CFA General Secretary Zhang Jian poses with the AFC 'Inspiring' Member Association of the Year award during the 2013 AFC Annual Awards at the Mandarin Oriental on November 26, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The influence of China in world soccer could increase on Tuesday if high-ranking Chinese official Zhang Jian is elected onto the FIFA Council in elections to be held in Goa, India.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is holding an Extraordinary Congress to elect three representatives to FIFA’s new decision-making body which has replaced the scandal-hit Executive Committee.

The chances of Zhang, the vice-president and secretary general of the Chinese Football Association, increased on Sunday when one of the favorites, Saoud A. Aziz Al-Mohannadi of Qatar, was barred from running.

In a statement, the AFC said “FIFA has advised the AFC that, based on the report of the Investigatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee, it has decided Mr Saoud A.Aziz Al-Mohannadi (Qatar) is not eligible to stand in the elections for the FIFA Council.”

Al Mohannadi has been charged by the Ethics Committee with refusing to co-operate with an inquiry. While details of specific accusations have yet to be released, FIFA has said it is not related to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

The ruling leaves Zhang running against Iran’s Ali Kafashian and Zainudin Nordin of Singapore for two of the three seats.

Zhang has played a major role in the development of Chinese soccer and planning extensive reforms that aim to make the country, a traditional underachiever in soccer, a world power by 2050.

This has come at the same time as the recent and massive surge of investment in the Chinese Super League on famous foreign players such as Hulk, Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez and coaches Luiz Felipe Scolari and Manuel Pellegrini.

Zhng told South Korean media earlier this month that China also aims to host the World Cup.

“Although it is a case of the sooner the better, we will aim to do so at the right time,” Zhang said. “It seems that around 2030 or 2034 will provide a good opportunity for China.”

The third seat on the FIFA Council has been reserved for female candidates. Moya Dodd, a former Australian international and member of the now-defunct FIFA Executive Committee from 2013 to 2016, is running against Han Un Gyong of North Korea and Bangladesh’s Mafuza Akhter.

“I am doing my best to persuade the 45 voting members of Asia that I can be strong and part of a united AFC team working in FIFA,” Dodd told The Associated Press. “It is important that Asia puts its strongest team forward in FIFA as there will be a lot of issues coming such as discussions about whether to expand to a 40-team World Cup.”

The three successful candidates will take their places on the 37-member FIFA Council alongside existing AFC members from Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia as well as President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

Also ahead of the election, the AFC confirmed that South Korea’s Chung Mong-gyu had succeeded Zhang Jilong of China as the East Zone AFC Vice-President.

Zhang, who stepped down for health reasons, was the acting president of the AFC following the suspension of Mohammad Bin Hammam from football activities by the FIFA Ethics Committee in May 2011 as he ran for the post of FIFA President. Shaikh Salman was elected president in May 2013.

Sam Allardyce’s England future hangs in the balance

TRNAVA, SLOVAKIA - SEPTEMBER 04:  Sam Allardyce manager of England looks thoughtful during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group F qualifying match between Slovakia and England at City Arena on September 4, 2016 in Trnava, Slovakia.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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England manager Sam Allardyce has not only been publicly humiliated but now he could lose his job.

[ MORE: What now for Chelsea? ]

An undercover investigation from the Daily Telegraph, released on Monday, showed Allardyce meating with fictitious businessman and discussing how to get around rules of third-party ownership (TPO) of players and then negotiating a fee of over $518,000 for becoming an ambassador for what he believed to be a company set up in the Far East.

After just one game and two months in charge of England, it could all be over for “Big Sam” as Three Lions boss. The FA is reportedly already close to firing him as they don’t want their image and integrity questioned across the globe.

Allardyce, 61, took charge of the English national team this summer but the footage released of him discussing TPO, plus criticizing former England boss Roy Hodgson and assistant manager Gary Neville, and his employers at the FA among others, will cause the former Sunderland manager huge levels of embarrassment and it is tough to see him rebounding from the widespread criticism already flying his way.

When asked about TPO — which was banned by the English FA in 2008 and by FIFA in 2015 — and ways to get around the current system, Allardyce replied to the businessmen that it was “not a problem” and revealed he knew agents who are “doing it all the time.”

The FA have yet to open a formal investigation but multiple news outlets in the UK claim that English soccer’s governing body have spoken to the Telegraph to try and acquire all of the facts before speaking to Allardyce.

Big Sam has been silly and naive. It is not the first time he’s had allegations flung his way either, as a 2006 BBC documentary also alleged he’d been involved in taking bungs over transfers, something he vehemently denied. A subsequent investigation proved no wrongdoing but the fact that Allardyce names individuals in the footage released (censored for legal reasons) tells us that he knows ways of getting around TPO. He even admitted that Enner Valencia‘s move to West Ham, where he was manager, from Mexican side Pachuca in 2014 was via a TPO.

Now, it must be said, during the undercover footage Allardyce states that he would have to check with the FA (“the powers that be”) before agreeing to any deal to be an ambassador for the made up company. Still, it’s not good and many will view this as Allardyce being greedy and putting his own interests ahead of his main job of managing the English national team between now and the 2018 World Cup in Russia. God knows they need some focus and some inkling of being successful after their recent results in tournaments.

Just 67 days after taking charge of England, something Allardyce has described repeatedly as his “dream job” in football, he was discussing how to make extra cash with complete strangers. Allardyce already earns over $3.3 million a year as England boss and the Telegraph also state that a second meeting was held last week in Manchester to discuss plans on when the Englishman would fly over to Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Telegraph has promised more information will be released in the coming days as they say their 10-month investigation into the murkier side of English soccer has also “unearthed widespread evidence of bribery and corruption in British football.”

Whatever comes out in the following days, it is unlikely the English FA will look upon this episode kindly and they have to judge whether this was just poor judgement from Allardyce or something more sinister.

There’s no doubt about it, the next 24 hours is crucial and Allardyce’s future as England boss hangs in the balance.

NWSL Playoffs set: Portland, Washington, Chicago, Western New York

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The National Women’s Soccer League will crown its fourth champion in mid-October, and for the first time in three years the winner will not be FC Kansas City.

FCKC finished sixth after the 20-game regular season concluded this weekend, six points out of the final slot occupied by the Western New York Flash.

[ MORE: Allardyce on England hot seat? ]

The Flash join Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit in attempting to topple NWSL Shield winners Portland, a Thorns side which won the title in 2013 and has only missed the playoffs once.

Washington hosts Chicago on Friday in the first semifinal, while the Flash travel to Oregon for an Oct. 2 semi.

Portland Thorns (1) vs. Western New York Flash (4)

The two best goal differentials in the league meet at Providence Park, where Mark Parsons’ Thorns and their league-best defense will be tasked with stopping the highest-scoring offense in the NWSL. That means stopping Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams and runner-up Jessica McDonald, who’ve accounted for 21 of WNY’s 40 goals.

The Thorns are loaded. Women’s soccer legend Christine Sinclair, who once lifted a trophy for the Flash, is there with a quintet of USWNT mainstays. French star Amandine Henry, too, as well as leading goal scorer and Danish star Nadia Nadim.

USWNT regulars on each side
Portland: Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, Emily Sonnet, Lindsey Horan

WNY: Samantha Mewis

Washington Spirit (2) vs. Chicago Red Stars (3)

The two sides split the season series, with Chicago hosting a 3-1 victory on Saturday. Sofia Huerta had a goal and an assist, as she and Christen Press combined for nine shots. They’ve combined for 15 goals on the season, though the Red Stars have only found nine goals elsewhere.

No Washington player has scored more than five goals this year, and the Spirit haven’t had a multi-goal game in September, but Argentina national teamer Estefanía Banini’s five goals in 13 matches in an impressive haul.

USWNT regulars on each side
Washington: Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn

Chicago: Alyssa Naeher, Julie Johnston, Christen Press