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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)

West Ham United 2-1 Liverpool: Ogbonna strikes after 120 minutes

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Jordon Ibe of Liverpool takes on Pedro Mba Obiang of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Angelo Ogbonna is now an FA Cup hero.

Two sides willing to move the ball and attack produced a fine FA Cup tie on Tuesday at the Boleyn Ground, with Ogbonna heading home the match-winner in the 121st minute of play for a 2-1 win.

Michail Antonio scored a first-half goal for West Ham before Philippe Coutinho equalized for the visiting Reds.

[ WATCH: Coutinho’s cheeky free kick ties the score ]

All told, West Ham heads to Ewood Park for a fifth-round date with Blackburn Rovers. Peterborough United hosts West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday to sort out the fourth round’s other replay.

Liverpool played a more second-string set than the home side.

Brilliance met brilliance in the 38th minute, as Dimitri Payet struck a gorgeous dipping free kick over the wall only to see Mignolet get the slightest touch to help the ball crank off the goal post. Cheikhou Kouyate failed to scissor kick the rebound, and Mignolet flew back into the picture to parry Antonio’s header.

Antonio would get his glory next, as Enner Valencia took Payet’s pass and dribbled through the left side of the 18 and toward the end line before crossing the ball. Antonio let the ball sink to hip height before volleying home. 1-0, 45′.

There were three goal posts struck in the first half.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

[ MORE: Recapping Week 25 in the PL ]

Coutinho scored on a clever free kick from the edge of the 18, betting on the wall jumping and cheekily rolling his shot under it and past Hammers keeper Darren Randolph.

Christian Benteke started and nearly finished a 56th minute chance inside the box, but his shot was blocked.

West Ham should’ve been awarded a penalty when Tiago Ilori pulled down Valencia in the box. Roger East didn’t see it that way.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or UEFA Champions League final a must ]

The match went to extra time after eight minutes of second-half stoppage time.

Mignolet made a solid flying stop on Mark Noble in the first frame of extra time. At the other end, Benteke struck a low chance wide of the right post. Moments later, Randolph came out to thwart Benteke on a breakaway.

If anyone needed a reminder of Daniel Sturridge‘s skill, the late sub let fly with a 108th minute bullet that missed the goal by inches.

Then Lucas Leiva gave up a free kick just as two minutes of extra time stoppage began, and Ogbonna struck.

LINEUPS

West Ham United: Randolph, O’Brien (Moses, 83′), Reid (Collins, 64′), Ogbonna, Cresswell, Kouyate (Carroll, 76′), Noble, Obiang, Antonio, Valencia, Payet.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Flanagan, Stewart, Tiago Ilori, Smith, Teixeira (Origi, 60′), Lucas, Chirivella (Milner, 102′), Ibe, Benteke, Coutinho (Sturridge, 60′).

WATCH: Liverpool’s Coutinho bewitches West Ham with cheeky free kick

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09: Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores from a free-kick during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Philippe Coutinho has some gumption.

Liverpool’s Brazilian wizard tied things up with West Ham United in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay at the Boleyn Ground, and did it in style.

[ MORE: Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must ]

With a free kick from just outside the 18, Coutinho thought West Ham would expect he’d hit a ball that would get up quick before dipping after the wall.

They’d jump, he figured, and he’d roll it under the wall. He was correct (video courtesy Fox Soccer):

USWNT’s Solo says Zika fears could make her skip the Olympics

Hope Solo attends the premiere of "He Named Me Malala" at The Ziegfeld Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
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As it stands, Hope Solo would skip the Olympics if fears over the Zika virus don’t subside in Brazil.

It’s been speculated that Zika increases the odds of certain birth defects, and Solo said playing in the Olympics is not worth risking future pregnancies.

[ MORE: American takeover at Everton update

With CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying heading to NBC Live Extra at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday against Costa Rica (All games of the tournament will be streamed on Live Extra), Solo is set to star between the sticks for the USWNT.

But in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the 34-year-old netminder is far from ready to commit to the tournament.

She went as far as to say she wouldn’t go if the tournament was today, elaborating in this story from SI.com:

“I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” said Solo, 34. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”

Brazilian officials claim there will be minimal risk by the Summer Games because of the change in season, but that won’t alleviate all the concerns of female athletes. It will certainly be interesting to monitor how the situation develops in the coming months.

Chelsea’s Courtois says FA Cup or Champions League final a must

Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea FC
Brian Westerholt/AP Images for International Champions Cup
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Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is used to big matches, whether at Stamford Bridge, with the Belgian national team or during his loan to Atletico Madrid.

[ SPORTSWORLD: Courtois “standing tall” at Chelsea ]

If he doesn’t get one or two of those contests by the end of this season, a bad season will become an utter failure.

Courtois says it’s a long way to the Top Four, but Chelsea hasn’t given up on that hope. Regardless, he’s targeting wins over Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, respectively.

From ChelseaFC.com:

“After that we play in the Champions League and FA Cup against two great sides and we have to try to win those games because the only way to save our season is to reach the final in one or both of them.”

Chelsea’s star has fallen this year, but this is still largely the team that won the Premier League last season. Courtois’ goals are not unreasonable.