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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)

Andy King: If Leicester can win PL, Wales can win EURO 2016

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 07:  Andy King of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Everton at The King Power Stadium on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Andy King is still riding high from Leicester City’s Premier League title, and that confidence is carrying over into EURO 2016.

The Foxes midfielder and Welsh international sees no reason why Wales can’t win the tournament, despite having 80-1 odds to do so.

[ MORE: England’s EURO squad ]

Of course, Leicester began the Premier League season as 5,000-1 underdogs to lift the trophy.

We’ve got to win six or seven games compared to 38.

80-1 against 5000-1. You know which one you would rather back. We are a talented group and I believe we have the best player in the tournament.

Gareth [Bale] is probably the best player in the tournament in many people’s opinion, so why can’t we go there and do something? We are confident we can do that.

If Wales were to win the EURO this summer, the story truly would rival that of Leicester. The Dragons have never played in a European Championship before, and the nation’s only other appearance at a major tournament came back at the 1958 World Cup.

[ MORE: Payet, Milner make top-five of UEFA’s “player barometer” ]

You may not agree that Gareth Bale is the best player in the tournament, but he is surely near the top of the list. Bale’s play will likely determine how far Wales can go, drawn into Group B alongside England, Slovakia, and Russia.

Report: West Ham offer $22 million for AC Milan striker Carlos Bacca

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 20:  Carlos Bacca of AC Milan celebrates his goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SS Lazio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on March 20, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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West Ham’s search for an elite striker continues, with their newest target AC Milan’s Carlos Bacca.

According to Sky Sports, the Hammers have bid $22 million for the striker, who led Milan with 18 goals in Serie A play last season.

However, after paying $34 million to sign the striker last summer, it is believed Milan would be unwilling to sell their top scorer for less than $30 million.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

At 29-years-old, Bacca has been one of Europe’s most consistent forwards over the past few seasons. After bagging 49 goals in 108 appearances for Sevilla, he earned a move to Milan last July, finishing third in Serie A scoring in his first year with the club.

West Ham’s chairman David Gold has been open about his desire to sign a world-class striker, with Lyon confirming that they rejected a $45 million bid from the Hammers for Alexandre Lacazette.

VIDEO: Neymar takes batting practice before New York Mets game

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 31:  Brazilian soccer player  Neymar Jr stands in the New York Mets dugout before the game against the Chicago White Sox at Citi Field on May 31, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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We all know Neymar’s skills with a soccer ball, but what about with a baseball bat?

Spoiler alert: He’s better with his feet.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Copa coverage ]

The Barcelona and Brazil superstar was in New York on Tuesday night and hit up the batting cages at Citi Field before the Mets game against the Chicago White Sox.

Taking swings lefty, Neymar made some contact but didn’t necessarily have the smoothest stroke…

He then hit the field and got back to his roots, showing off some footskills while juggling a baseball.

I’m not too sure if Neymar is a baseball fan, but this may make him the Mets’ newest, most famous supporter (sorry Jerry Seinfeld).

Neymar is in the United States as he has some time off after the long Barcelona season. He is not playing in the Copa America with Brazil, but will instead play in the Olympics in August.

Messi’s tax fraud case begins with player avoiding court

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 17:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on  during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on April 17, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Lionel Messi’s tax trial began Tuesday with the player deciding not to appear in court for early proceedings.

Messi is facing a prison sentence of nearly two years on charges he failed to properly pay taxes for part of his earnings from Barcelona from 2007-09.

[ FOLLOW: All of PSTS’s Copa coverage ]

The Argentina playmaker is not obligated to appear in the Barcelona court until Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify before a judge. Sentencing is not expected until next week.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud for allegedly defrauding Spain’s tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million).

Because of the trial, Messi is missing Argentina’s preparation for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Saturday in the United States. He is expected to fly straight to the U.S. to join his teammates after the trial ends. Argentina debuts in the tournament on Monday against defending champion Chile.

Even if found guilty, it is highly unlikely that Messi or his father will face any jail time. They have denied wrongdoing.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

“Everything is good. Everybody is calm,” said Messi’s lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, as he arrived at the Barcelona court on Tuesday.

The trial is centered on alleged unlawful activities of Messi’s father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case. Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

In addition to each facing a prison sentence of 22 months and 15 days, Messi and his father could also be fined in the amount defrauded and ordered to pay all legal proceedings and the loss of any possible tax benefits for a year and a half.

Messi is just the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain’s tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

[ MORE: Marcelo giving away UCL winners’ medal…on Facebook ]

Mascherano, Messi’s teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011 and 2012. Brazil striker Neymar recently had to testify before a judge because of alleged irregularities involving his transfer to Barcelona. He and the club were accused of withholding the real amount of the transfer fee, in part to avoid paying the full amount of taxes.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.