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)

Russia has reasons for optimism despite Confed Cup exit

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MOSCOW (AP) When the anger subsides after another group stage exit and another goalkeeping blunder, Russian fans might find they can be proud of their team at the Confederations Cup.

Russia failed to reach the knockout rounds of a fourth major tournament in a row, but there’s no shame in losing by one goal to European champion Portugal and North American champion Mexico.

“We will move on,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico. “We have won (the fans’) hearts and minds to a certain extent in this month that we have been together … I think that we have given some reasons to feel optimistic about us.”

If Russia’s fans agreed with Cherchesov that Russia had done well to limit Portugal to a single Cristiano Ronaldo goal, there was frustration that Russia hadn’t done better against a poor Mexican side.

Russia wasted chances to exploit Mexico’s ragged defending and add to Alexander Samedov’s opener, while goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev performed an inexplicable lunge which allowed Hirving Lozano to head in the winner. Akinfeev was lucky not to be red-carded, too, after his foot caught Lozano in the chest.

Akinfeev was the immediate scapegoat for Russia’s exit, with fans and newspapers calling for his removal.

The most-capped player in the squad – the Mexico game was his 101st international appearance – Akinfeev’s bulletproof consistency in the Russian Premier League has kept him the undisputed national-team No. 1 for years.

When the world is watching, though, he gets flustered and makes mistakes.

Against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, an innocuous long shot slipped from his grasp and went in, paving the way for another early Russian exit from the tournament. There have been more than a few blunders in the 43 games since Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet for CSKA in the Champions League, too.

But it’s hard to see who could replace him. The naturalized Brazilian reserve keeper Guilheme is agile but injury prone, while Vladimir Gabulov is a solid but unspectacular veteran. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin challenged Akinfeev for a while, but was brought low by his own tendency for embarrassing errors.

On the positive side for Russia, defender Georgy Dzhikiya was solid in all three group games after having only made his debut on June 5, and Cherchesov’s three-man back line was mostly reliable.

Less successful was Cherchesov’s attempt to bolster the midfield by starting Roman Shishkin – usually a defender – in a defensive midfield role against Portugal and Mexico, while 33-year-old ex-Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov did his World Cup hopes no favors with a red card Saturday.

Russia’s run of injuries before the tournament weakened the midfield in particular, with Alan Dzagoev and the promising Roman Zobnin both missing out. Forward Artyom Dzyuba’s absence left Cherchesov relying heavily on Fyodor Smolov, who showed touches of class but missed a good chance against Portugal.

Perhaps the biggest damage from Russia’s Confederations Cup exit will be to Russian pride.

Officials have often bragged that the home advantage for next year’s World Cup could drive Russia to new heights, perhaps a repeat of South Korea’s charge to the semifinals in 2002. Those expectations are now being reviewed.

Just one World Cup host in history – South Africa in 2010 – has failed to get out of the group stage. Avoiding a repeat may be the most Russia can hope for.

FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers host Sounders in PNW showdown

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They don’t get much bigger, or more heated, than this one in MLS — it’s Portland versus Seattle, the Timbers versus the Sounders, tonight at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers vs. Sounders ]

To keep up-to-the-second informed on proceedings in Portland this evening, hit the above link, or click right here.

Seattle won the first meeting between these sides, 1-0 back on May 27, on their home turf at CenturyLink Field. Cristian Roldan, who’ll depart for U.S. national team camp following Sunday’s game, scored the only goal that afternoon in Seattle, a 4th-minute header from three yards out.

Mustafi: Arsenal players powerless, hope “brilliant” Sanchez will stay

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Shkodran Mustafi admits that he, along with his Arsenal teammates, feels helpless with over the ongoing transfer saga of Alexis Sanchez.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The Chilean superstar is linked with a move away from Arsenal this summer, as the Gunners fell out of the Premier League’s top-four and the 28-year-old’s contract is set to expire next summer. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez hasn’t so much as publicly stated a desire to remain at the club, which, from the outside, appears to have left his future in even greater doubt.

Mustafi admits he hasn’t a clue how things will shake out in the coming weeks, but he’s quick with a pleading sales pitch for Sanchez to stay — quotes from Goal.com:

“I have no idea. Obviously the other players cannot make that decision, he has to make that decision.

“I’m not too much involved. I hope he stays because he is a really brilliant football player but there’s nothing in my hands that I can do.”

[ MORE: De Boer set to be named new Crystal Palace boss ]

Arsenal would likely have to double (if not more) Sanchez’s current $180,000 weekly wages in order to convince him to forego a season in the UEFA Champions League and commit his long-term future to a club presently trending in the wrong direction.

Report: Frank De Boer accepts Crystal Palace job

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Frank de Boer is widely expected to be named new Crystal Palace manager this week, as he has reportedly accepted the job after having been offered the position this week.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The 47-year-old Dutchman has been out of work since he was fired by Inter Milan in November. He lasted just 84 days at the San Siro, where he managed to win just five of 14 games. Inter Milan is Inter Milan, though, and that’s something worth remembering when critiquing Palace’s impending appointment of De Boer.

Palace are also widely expected to back De Boer in the transfer market this summer, in a big way. Kelechi Iheanacho is the biggest name linked with a move to Selhurst Park, as the 20-year-old Nigerian striker is reportedly unwanted by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.