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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: Ronaldo, Mourinho involved in massive tax evasion system

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19:  Head Coach Jose Mourinho (R) of Real Madrid instructs Cristiano Ronaldo during the UEFA Champions League group G match between Real Madrid and AC Milan at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 19, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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Wikileaks findings played a massive role in this year’s presidential election, and now “Football Leaks” could produce potentially damaging news regarding some of the world’s greatest soccer players.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines heading into the weekend ]

According to information obtained by various European media outlets, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho are at the heart of a multi-million dollar tax evasion ring.

[ MORE: Who’s more important? Diego Costa or Sergio Aguero? ]

German outlet Der Spiegel is reporting that Ronaldo could have hidden as much as”hidden 150 million euros (roughly $160 million) in tax havens in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands.”

Jorge Mendes, who serves as an agent for both Ronaldo, Mourinho and various other major soccer stars, is considered to have played a key role in the alleged wrongdoing.

Mendes reportedly helped Ronaldo and Mourinho conceal money in various offshore accounts, including in Switzerland, Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

In total, the alleged system implemented by Mendes amounted to a loss of “at least 185 million euros (roughly $197 million) of sponsorship income from the tax administrations.”

As more details emerge, follow PST for all the latest information.

Atlanta United adds U.S. U-19 forward Brandon Vasquez

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 07:  (L-R) Former professional soccer player Carlos Bocanegra, MLS Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, rapper Ludacris, Commissioner of MLS Don Garber, and former professional soccer player Darren Eales attend the MLS Atlanta Launch Event at SOHO on July 7, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)
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As their entrance into Major League Soccer continues to draw closer and closer, Atlanta United keeps on adding young talent to its roster.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The 2017 Eastern Conference expansion side announced on Friday that they have signed U.S. Under-19 national team forward Brandon Vasquez after Atlanta claimed Vasquez as a discovery signing.

The 18-year-old joins Atlanta from Liga MX side Club Tijuana, while also having represented the United States at various levels of its youth setup. Vasquez played a key role in the U.S. U-17 national team during the 2015 World Cup, scoring two of the team’s three goals during the competition.

This year, Vasquez has bagged four goals in 2016 for the U-19 side.

Including Friday’s addition of Vasquez, Atlanta has now officially signed nine players to its MLS squad. Both expansion sides Atlanta and Minnesota United will have the opportunity to further their teams during the upcoming MLS Expansion Draft, which will take place on December 13.

Premier League Preview: Tottenham vs. Swansea City

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur takes on Angel Rangel of Swansea City during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City at White Hart Lane on February 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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  • Spurs had unbeaten run ended last Saturday against Chelsea
  • Tottenham has never lost to Swansea in PL (8 wins, 2 draws)
  • Swans have kept two clean sheets in first 13 matches

Tottenham looks to rebound from its first loss of the Premier League campaign on Saturday when the London side hosts Swansea City (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from White Hart Lane.

For the first time in the PL this season, Tottenham has been defeated. Now, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side must quickly look past their road defeat against Chelsea and focus on Swansea City, who have taken points in back-to-back matches for the first time in 2016.

[ MORE: Kane signs new Spurs deal, ends Man United speculation ]

Spurs have now lost three of their last five matches across all competitions, and anything other than a win on Saturday against one of the league’s bottom sides could prove to be damaging to the club’s title aspirations. Tottenham currently sits fifth in the table on 24 points, already seven points off the pace set by league leaders Chelsea.

Last weekend’s 5-4 win for Swansea gave manager Bob Bradley his first win since joining the PL side, however, the Swans have much to do if they want to continue their success in England’s top flight.

Swansea sits firmly in the early relegation battle after taking just nine points out of their opening 13 fixtures. Despite facing a stiff test upcoming against Spurs, Bradley and co. should be looking to take advantage of the schedule that lies ahead, including matches against bottom-half sides Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Ham all before the start of 2017.

What they’re saying

Mauricio Pochettino on Tottenham rebounding after Chelsea defeat: “Against Chelsea we lost but we recovered the feeling that we can play well. This week has been perfect because we could spend time together and train hard. We held a lot of meetings and the answer from the players was fantastic.”

Bob Bradley on Swansea’s thrilling victory over Crystal Palace“Last week was positive, but a stretch of good performances and results changes the conversation in a better way. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But it is a real opportunity to go there, play our football. We have reminded the players of some of the things we will be up against, but what is more important is who we are, how we play and our mentality. We must never let the opponent take away from our confidence in our game.”

Prediction

The Swans will be riding in hot following last weekend’s historic and thrilling win against Crystal Palace, but Bradley’s side will face a hungry Spurs club looking to bounce back from their first defeat of 2016. It would be nice to see Bradley and co. build off of the impressive win but Spurs have proven to be a force at home under Mauricio Pochettino. Tottenham’s only two losses at home this season have come against Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, and I expect Spurs to get back on the winning side of things on Saturday. Tottenham 3-1 Swansea

Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during a training session ahead of their La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on December 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) There couldn’t be a better time for Lionel Messi to end his scoring drought than in the clasico against Real Madrid.

With Barcelona struggling and desperately needing a victory to stay close to its rival in the Spanish league, Messi could help turn things around on Saturday if he can find the net again after five scoreless games against Madrid.

Barcelona enters the home game at Camp Nou six points behind Madrid, and another setback could leave it in a difficult position to fight for a third straight league title.

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Messi hasn’t played badly in recent clasicos, but his last goal against Madrid came almost three years ago when he had a hat trick in a 4-3 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

He hasn’t scored in the four games since, not even in the stunning 4-0 win at the Bernabeu last season, when Messi came off the bench in the second half after a long injury layoff. Barcelona has won two of the last five games against Madrid, but it’s been 400 minutes since Messi last scored.

Since that hat trick in March 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo has attracted most of the headlines in the clasico, having scored three times, including the late game-winner at Camp Nou last season that ended Barcelona’s record 39-game unbeaten streak.

“They’re two exceptional players,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Cristiano is doing exceptional, incredible things, I hope he carries on like this.”

Messi remains the all-time leading scorer in the clasico with 21 in 32 matches, but at Camp Nou it’s been Ronaldo who has thrived the most.

He has 10 goals in 12 games in Barcelona, including five in the last five matches and eight in the last nine. He failed to find the net only in four of those 12 games. Messi netted only five times in those same 12 encounters in Catalonia.

Ronaldo has scored in each of the last two league games between them at the Camp Nou. He has 16 goals in 25 clasicos, behind only Messi (21) and Alfredo Di Stefano (18).

[ MORE: Birnbaum spurns Europe for DC United ]

Messi has 15 goals in the 25 clasicos in which he and Ronaldo faced each other.

Ronaldo, who recently netted a hat trick in the Madrid derby against Atletico, is the Spanish league leading scorer with 10, one more than Messi. Ronaldo has eight goals in his last four league matches.

Messi also has been playing well recently, having scored five goals in his last four games. He has netted 16 in his last 11 matches.

Barcelona is coming off three consecutive draws, two in the league and one in the Copa del Rey.

Madrid is enjoying a 32-game unbeaten streak under Zidane.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni