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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)

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern held to draw, but Dortmund can’t capitalize

Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, top, and Bayern's David Alaba challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 Bayern Munich

The race for Bundesliga title could have been blown wide open pried open ever so slightly after Bayern Munich dropped two points away to 5th-place side Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. It was far from a classic encounter, with just 15 shots managed between the two sides (3 on target). Bayern’s best chance came during the game’s final 10 minutes, when Robert Lewandowski nearly won it very late on.

The hosts’ best chance at pulling off the shock upset came on 53 minutes, when Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s volley from 25 yards out flashed just wide of Manuel Neuer’s right-hand post.

Hertha Berlin 0-0 Borussia Dortmund

The above possibility hinged, of course, on the only side within 18 points of Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, taking all three points from their visit to 3rd-place Hertha Berlin. They could not do so, thus remain eight seemingly insurmountable points behind the three-time defending champions.

U.S. national team defender John Brooks, who last week signed a new contract to remain at Hertha, is now one point closer to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League with his hometown club.

Schalke 3-0 Wolfsburg

Right on Hertha’s heels, two points back in fourth, is Schalke, who hammered Wolfsburg on Saturday, thanks to goals scored by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Johannes Geis and Alessandro Schopf. That’s three wins in their last four league games for Schalke, while Hertha have left the door wide open with three straight draws.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Borussia Monchengladbach 5-1 Werder Bremen (Friday)
Eintracht Frankfurt 2-4 Stuttgart
Hannover 0-1 Mainz
Ingolstadt 2-1 Augsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Koln (9:30 a.m. ET)
Hoffenheim vs. Darmstadt (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 20 14 3 3 52 24 28 8-1-0 6-2-3 45
Hertha BSC Berlin 20 10 5 5 29 21 8 6-3-1 4-2-4 35
FC Schalke 04 20 10 3 7 29 26 3 6-2-3 4-1-4 33
Bayer Leverkusen 20 9 5 6 29 21 8 5-3-2 4-2-4 32
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
FSV Mainz 05 20 9 3 8 25 24 1 5-1-4 4-2-4 30
VfL Wolfsburg 20 7 6 7 29 28 1 6-3-1 1-3-6 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 20 7 5 8 14 21 -7 4-2-4 3-3-4 26
1. FC Köln 19 6 7 6 20 25 -5 3-4-3 3-3-3 25
VfB Stuttgart 20 7 3 10 31 41 -10 4-1-5 3-2-5 24
Hamburger SV 19 6 4 9 21 27 -6 2-2-5 4-2-4 22
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 20 5 6 9 26 34 -8 3-3-4 2-3-5 21
Darmstadt 19 5 6 8 19 29 -10 1-4-5 4-2-3 21
Werder Bremen 20 5 4 11 24 41 -17 1-2-6 4-2-5 19
1899 Hoffenheim 19 2 8 9 18 28 -10 1-5-3 1-3-6 14
Hannover 96 20 4 2 14 19 35 -16 2-0-8 2-2-6 14

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea vs. Man United, Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

Manchester United's Ander Herrera reacts after missing a chance during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes are quickly slipping away, thanks to their current four-game winless run — not to mention Leicester City’s red-hot form — much like Manchester United see themselves falling away from the race for the top-four.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Bournemouth are desperately hoping just to avoid a relegation dogfight that goes down to the wire, and Chelsea… well, they’re just kind of there, still sitting in the bottom half of the league table. Sunday’s pair of PL fixtures is full of storylines and implications in the context of the season as a whole.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Arsenal’s recent form couldn’t have come at a worse time, which is hardly surprising when considering they’d been far and away the best team in England for a little over 12 straight months; they were bound to slip up at some point. Having been top of the league themselves barely two weeks ago, the Gunners have fallen to fourth, eight points behind Leicester. Not even the return of Alexis Sanchez has provided the much-needed spark for an attack that has failed to find the back of the net in three straight games (305 minutes in total, dating back to their 3-3 draw with Liverpool).

As for Bournemouth, only Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur (9 each) have won more points from their last three league fixtures than the Cherries (7). Callum Wilson (five goals), whose season ended back on Sept. 26 (knee), remains Bournemouth’s leading scorer on the season, though Arsenal youth academy product Benik Afobe has proven an inspired January signing thus far (three goals in four games). Bournemouth are winless in their two all-time meetings with the Gunners, dating back to a 3-0 League Cup defeat in 1987. When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Dec. 28, it was Arsenal who were victorious, 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

On the injury front, Bournemouth have a mostly clean bill of health, as Junior Stanislas (knee) is the only recent addition to long-term absentees Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings. For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla (knee), Tomas Rosicky (thigh) and Carl Jenkinson (knee) will all miss another month at least, while Jack Wilshere (leg) and Danny Welbeck (knee) remain without definitive timetables to return.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

This one used to really mean something. Those were the days, weren’t they? These days, Chelsea need a win just to leapfrog Crystal Palace for 12th place. On a positive note, the Blues are unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions since the departure of Jose Mourinho, but have won just three of eight league games during that period. Diego Costa is scoring goals semi-regularly again, but he’s also acting out in his usual Sunday League-like manner, which means he could either spontaneously combust on the field of play, or hop the next flight back to Madrid without telling anyone what’s going on.

As for Man United, they’re actually scoring goals these days (six combined in their last two games – all competitions), which has Louis Van Gaal dreaming of a title challenge once again. On a really positive note, Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions (five in five in the PL) and has forged a really sound partnership with 20-year-old Anthony Martial up top (three assists, one goal in last two games – all competitions). A top-four place is still a very realistic target for the Red Devils — though it likely won’t matter with regards to Van Gaal’s job status — but it’ll take everything Rooney and Martial have between them to overcome Van Gaal’s ultra-defensive tactics and score enough goals to get there.

When these sides met on the final matchday of 2015, the proceedings at Old Trafford ended a stale 0-0 draw one might expect from a Van Gaal-versus-Mourinho meeting of the minds, if only the Portuguese had still been in charge at the time. On the injury front, Chelsea are nearly 100 percent healthy, with only Radamel Falcao (leg) still unavailable for selection. For United, the latest injury report is extensive: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Phil Jones (ankle) and Marcos Rojo (shoulder) will all miss Sunday’s clash, while Marouane Fellaini (knock) is questionable.

Premier League roundup: Foxes, Spurs pace the PL, New club in drop zone

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez (R) and Kasper Schmeichel (L) of Leicester City celebrate their team's win in the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Say it again, folks: Leicester City isn’t going away.

The Foxes went into the Etihad Stadium and battered Manchester City on Saturday, and now lead the table by five points. Leicester is ahead of fifth place Manchester United by 13 after a 3-1 win over City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

We also have a new second-placed team, and a new side in the drop zone as well. Let’s run through the eight games we caught Saturday from the United Kingdom.

Manchester City 1-3 Leicester CityRECAP

Robert Hugh scored two goals and Riyad Mahrez had one sandwiched in between as the Foxes continued their surprising run at the top of the league with a comprehensive win over Man City. Sergio Aguero pulled one back late because, well, he’s Sergio Aguero. City blew a big chance to state their title claim.

Stoke City 0-3 Everton – RECAP

Mark Hughes has watched his Potters give up three goals for the third-straight match, and the Potters fell to 1W-1D-3L during the most recent injury absence for Geoff Cameron. Meanwhile, the Toffees got goals from three different players in the first half in moving up the table.

Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Watford – RECAP

Spurs kept knocking, and finally broke through when Dele Alli‘s cross found ex-Burnley back Kieran Trippier. It was a dominant win for the new second-place Spurs, while Watford is 10th.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on February 6, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
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Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City – RECAP

The visitors left Villa Park in the drop zone after falling to goals from veterans Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joleon Lescott. Norwich trails Newcastle by a single point.

Swansea City 1-1 Crystal Palace – RECAP

Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Hennessey were the stars here, though the first bested the latter on an early free kick to make it 1-0. Scott Dann tied it up, and Hennessey made several saves to make sure Palace picked up a point for the first time in six PL matches.

Southampton 1-0 West Ham United – RECAP

Maya Yoshida put Saints up early, and Southampton was able to hold off the Irons despite going down to 10 men thanks to Victor Wanyama‘s sliding takedown of Dimitri Payet in the 53rd minute. Southampton has pulled to within a pair of points of sixth-place West Ham.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on February 6, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
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Newcastle United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion – RECAP

Nothing’s easy for the Magpies, who dominated possession and shot attempts but only beat the Baggies once. The goal belonged to Aleksandar Mitrovic off another slick feed from reenergized Jonjo Shelvey, and the Magpies are one point clear of the drop zone.

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland – RECAP

Playing without a sick Jurgen Klopp didn’t seem like a problem when Roberto Firmino scored a goal and set up Adam Lallana for another. Sam Allardyce‘s Black Cats provided a shock late, though, as Adam Johnson and Jermain Defoe picked up goals to keep Sunderland within four points of safety.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 25 15 8 2 47 27 20 7-4-1 8-4-1 53
Tottenham Hotspur 25 13 9 3 45 19 26 7-4-2 6-5-1 48
Manchester City 25 14 5 6 47 26 21 9-1-3 5-4-3 47
Arsenal 24 13 6 5 37 22 15 7-3-2 6-3-3 45
Manchester United 24 11 7 6 31 21 10 6-4-2 5-3-4 40
West Ham United 25 10 9 6 38 29 9 5-5-2 5-4-4 39
Southampton 25 10 7 8 33 24 9 7-2-4 3-5-4 37
Everton 25 8 11 6 46 34 12 4-4-5 4-7-1 35
Liverpool 25 9 8 8 32 36 -4 4-5-3 5-3-5 35
Watford 25 9 6 10 27 27 0 5-3-5 4-3-5 33
Stoke City 25 9 6 10 24 31 -7 5-2-5 4-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 25 9 5 11 26 30 -4 4-2-7 5-3-4 32
Chelsea 24 7 8 9 32 34 -2 4-4-4 3-4-5 29
West Bromwich Albion 25 7 8 10 23 32 -9 4-4-5 3-4-5 29
Bournemouth 24 7 7 10 29 39 -10 3-4-4 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 25 6 9 10 24 33 -9 4-5-4 2-4-6 27
Newcastle United 25 6 6 13 26 44 -18 4-5-4 2-1-9 24

Norwich City 25 6 5 14 28 48 -20 4-3-5 2-2-9 23
Sunderland 25 5 5 15 30 49 -19 3-3-6 2-2-9 20
Aston Villa 25 3 7 15 20 40 -20 2-4-6 1-3-9 16

Official: Vardy rewarded for stellar season with new 3.5-year contract

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Manchester United, his eleventh consecutive goal in the Premier League, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Vardy becomes the first man to score in 11 consecutive English Premier League soccer matches after finding the back of the net against Manchester United today.(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
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Jamie Vardy has been handsomely rewarded for his stellar 2015-16 Premier League season, in the form of a brand new three-and-a-half-year contract that will keep the 29-year-old striker at Leicester City until the summer of 2019, the club announced on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

So back off, Chelsea and Liverpool and Manchester City and anyone else who might have dreamt of poaching the 18-goal-scorer (so far) this summer; the Foxes’ star man is staying put.

According to numerous reports, Vardy’s new deal will pay him more than $115,000 per week, nearly doubling his previous $65,000-per-week contract, which he signed at the start of the 2014-15 season.

When you score goals like this, on top of having already broken the Premier League record by scoring a goal in 11 consecutive games, you’re bound be paid like one of the world’s top strikers, which is exactly what Vardy’s been this season.

From non-Football League side Fleetwood Town, to top of the Premier League and title favorites, to financially set for the rest of his life… all in less than 48 months’ time.