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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)

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET

Alex Ferguson praises Mourinho as Man Utd boss

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 13:  Head Coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid and Manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United look on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on February 13, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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Four years ago, Alex Ferguson stepped down as Manchester United manager with a fitting finish as Premier League champion.

The legendary manager has since watched hand-picked successor David Moyes struggle for a season before Louis Van Gaal hit similar managerial speed bumps over campaigns.

Now Jose Mourinho is in charge of Manchester United, and Ferguson is… pretty happy with the guy.

[ MORE: Premier League Player Power Rankings ]

Mourinho has United in sixth place, four points out of fourth and 14 back of pack leaders Chelsea. Ferguson sees a few too many draws in the bunch, but says the side is really coming along.

From the BBC:

“You can see he has got to grips with the club,” he said. “The team is playing really well and he has been very unlucky. He has had six 1-1 draws and in every game he has battered the opposition.

“If they hadn’t had all these draws, they would be there challenging Chelsea. That is the unfortunate part but he is going to have to live with that.”

Ferguson also spoke about new club record scorer Wayne Rooney and how Mourinho has settled down on the touchline, a feature he thinks has filtered down to the players onto the field.

One week left: Transfer needs for each Premier League team

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates as he scores their first goal during the Premier League match between Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur at St Mary's Stadium on December 28, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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This time next week the January transfer window will be set to close.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

The next seven days could see plenty of teams scrambling around frantically to sign new players, but so far it has been a quiet month across the Premier League in terms of transfers.

A new trend? The calm before the storm? However it ends up, here’s a look at what each PL team needs in the final week of the window.


Arsenal: None – Yep, they really need nothing. With long-term absentees Per Mertesacker and Danny Welbeck returning, Arsene Wenger looks set. It will be a quiet week for Arsenal. Well, expect for the impending touchline ban for Wenger and Granit Xhaka potentially being in all kinds of trouble.

Bournemouth: Striker, center back, goalkeeper – After losing Nathan Ake (his loan from Chelsea was terminated early) Eddie Howe has a large whole in his defense. Conceding eight goals in the last three games suggests that. Asmir Begovic could be arriving from Chelsea to boost the goalkeeping position significantly, while an experienced striker up top may help steer the Cherries away from any relegation danger.

Burnley: Center back, winger – If Ben Mee or Michael Keane go down injured, you worry about the drop off for the stingy Clarets. Also, another creative tricky winger would be a great pick up. Andre Gray and Sam Vokes can score in the PL but imagine what they could do with more chances presented to them?

Chelsea: Striker – Diego Costa is running the show and Michy Batshuayi is an able deputy but some experience would be great in position. It seems like Fernando Llorente will be remaining at Swansea City for now, so could Antonio Conte will have to get creative to bring in a short-term solution to help ease the pressure on Costa.

Crystal Palace: Center back, full back – Basically, as many defenders as they can get. Sam Allardyce hopes to sign Patrick Van Aanholt from Sunderland which shores up the left back area, but two new center backs wouldn’t go amiss.

Everton: Winger – Ronald Koeman has done his best early with Morgan Schneiderlin and Ademola Lookman arriving. That’s good but with Gerard Deulofeu leaving, perhaps a new winger could arrive, especially with Yannick Bolasie now a long-term absentee.

Hull City: Everywhere – Look, Hull has an honest squad of hardworking players but they need more quality. New manager Marco Silva has already brought in Evandro, Lazar MarkovicOmar ElabdellaouiOumar Niasse and signed Markus Henriksen permanently in January. One more striker and a winger would improve the Tigers’ chances of being successful in their battle against relegation.

Leicester City: Center backs – Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have been all over the place and Claudio Ranieri needs some PL quality defenders to steady the ship. Simply put, Leicester need to stop conceding goals early and new defenders may help with that.

Liverpool: None – Apart from maybe a new center back, the Reds are in very good shape and if anything they have too many options in midfield and up top. Long-term, getting a new left back will be a priority alongside a new center back.

Manchester City: Center backs – A long time need which probably won’t be fixed in January, Pep Guardiola needs to improve his defense. Virgil Van Dijk would be an absolutely perfect fit.

Manchester United: None – Like Arsenal and Liverpool, the main issue with United is that they have too many players around. Jose Mourinho likes a small squad. Don’t expect much action but they could do with a new center back in the summer. Along with Liverpool and City, another club van Dijk would be a great buy for…

Middlesbrough: Strikers – Aitor Karanka needs a couple of new strikers or any kind of attacking talent which can improve their chances of staying up. Traore, Ramirez and Negredo are dangerous when they’re on form but that’s not too often.

Southampton: Striker, center back – Saints continue to struggle to score goals but with Charlie Austin potentially returning in early March, they may stick with Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez. Mamadou Sakho could be an option at center back after Jose Fonte left for West Ham.

Stoke City: None – Stoke addressed their biggest need already by signing striker Saido Berahino. Finally they have a “fox in the box” who can finish the chances Shaqiri, Arnautovic and Co. create.

Sunderland: Everywhere – David Moyes needs big help. Help for Jermain Defoe up top is key so he needs some strikers. In defender they’ve added Joleon Lescott, but extra quality in central midfield would be helpful in the run-in. Khazri and Ndong will return from AFCON but injuries have not been kind for the Black Cats. Moyes doesn’t have much money to spend but Robbie Keane on a short-term deal sounds intriguing…

Swansea City: Striker – Fernando Llorente can’t do it all on his own, so the Swans need to add one more body up top. Adding Tom Carroll, Martin Olsson and Luciano Narsingh so far in January will prove to be shrewd business.

Tottenham Hotspur: Striker – Vincent Janssen just hasn’t worked the Premier League out. Pochettino needs some help for Harry Kane with a busy few months coming up in Europe, the PL and in the FA Cup. Defensive injuries are a concern but Spurs have sufficient backups.

Watford: Playmaker – Walter Mazzarri‘s side have plenty of numbers in midfield (they’ve already added Tom Cleverley) and defense, plus options up top with Deeney, Ighalo and Okaka, but they’re lacking quality in that key playmaking area. Having a classy No.10 behind Deeney and Okaka would be a joy to watch.

West Bromwich Albion: Striker – Like so many teams, West Brom could do with an experienced forward. They finally sold Berahino to Stoke so now there’s a spot open. Pulis will no doubt be sat by the phone with his baseball cap on as the deadline nears next Tuesday…

West Ham United: Playmaker – Depending on whether or not Dimitri Payet leaves for Marseille, West Ham must have another playmaker lined up to arrive if their star man does depart. Fonte was a key addition to bolster their backline. Hammers looked okay apart from the Payet saga.