NWSL Digest: Reign, Flash flying as we move past Week 1

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Player of the Week

Vicky Losada (right) is part of an emerging core of Spanish talent that’s starting to make Ignacio Quereda’s team relevant in Europe, but having never played outside of Spain before , the 23-year-old midfielder was a bit of an unknown to those who don’t subscribe to the Women’s La Liga Television Network (a channel that doesn’t exist).

So credit to Aaran Lines and the Western New York staff for scouting Week One’s big star. Perhaps teammate and fellow Spanish international Adriana Martín deserves some credit, too. Whatever the reason, the former Barcelona standout was more than able to make up for the loss of Abby Wambach, scoring twice and assisting on Brittany Taylor’s goal in the Flash’s 3-1 win in Washington.

Results

FC Kansas City 1-1 Sky Blue FC – Amy Rodriguez 42′; Katy Freels 48′
Houston Dash 0-1 Portland Thorns – Allie Long 24′
Washington Spirit 1-3 Western New York Flash – Vicky Losada 15′, 67′; Christine Nairn 50′; Brittany Taylor 54′
Seattle Reign FC 3-0 Boston Breakers – Kim Little 49′, 54′; Megan Rapinoe 88′

Team of the Week

GK – Jill Loyden, Sky Blue FC – This is a quantity choice, with the U.S. international making seven saves in Kansas City. Coming up big on Amy Rodríguez in the second half, Lloyden helped preserve a point on the road, even if some of her first half kicks were quite … interesting?

RB – Kelley O’Hara, Sky Blue FC – There weren’t any standout performances at right back, but O’Hara’s forays forward — tormenting rookie Kassy Kallman — distinguished the U.S. star. Normally a left back and a converted attacker, the Stanford grad got the call behind natural right back Caitlin Foord, who was pushed into midfield. Late in the game, O’Hara slid into central defense, playing understudy for Christie Rampone and Lindsi Cutshall.

CD – Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City – Sauerbrunn’s always a pleasure to watch, something you’re reminding of in her moment-to-moment control at the back; comfort on the ball; sublime steps into midfield. I’d bet against her being in this team every week, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it happens.

CD – Brittany Taylor, Western New York Flash – We don’t like to be too goals-centric on this list, but Taylor did score on the league’s opening weekend, something that helps her edge out Sauerbrunn’s partner, Nikki Phillips, for this spot.

LD – Kassy Kallman, FC Kansas City – Like right back, left back was difficult to find standouts, but Kallman’s assist on Rodriguez’s goal earns the former Florida State Seminole a spot.

M – Allie Long, Portland Thorns FC – Long put four shots on goal on Saturday in Houston, with her first half header allowing the defending champions to win the first NWSL game at BBVA Compass Stadium.

source:  M – Jessica Fishlock, Seattle Reign FC (right) – Another great performance from the Reign’s best player last season saw the Wales international complement her customary rambunctious play with two assists, helping Seattle to an overwhelming start.

AM – Vicky Losada, Western New York Flash

AM – Kim Little, Seattle Reign FC – Little is coming off a downturn in goals at Arsenal, production that is unlikely to be so muted in Seattle. With one from the spot, another from open play, Little notched two goals in her first 90 North American minutes.

AM/W – Megan Rapinoe, Seattle Reign FC – A late goal against an overwhelmed Boston gave her just rewards for a strong opening day performance.

F – Amy Rodriguez, FC Kansas City – Making her NWSL debut, Rodriguez’s fine finish off Kallman’s late first half pass gave FC Kansas City its first goal at Durwood Stadium. Welcome back, A-Rod.

Standings

Pts GP W L T GF GA GD
Seattle Reign FC 3 1 1 0 0 3 0 3
Western New York Flash 3 1 1 0 0 3 1 2
Portland Thorns FC 3 1 1 0 0 1 0 1
FC Kansas City 1 1 0 0 1 1 1 0
Sky Blue FC 1 1 0 0 1 1 1 0
Chicago Red Stars
Houston Dash 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 -1
Washington Spirit 0 1 0 1 0 1 3 -2
Boston Breakers 0 1 0 1 0 0 3 -3

 

Quick thoughts, after week one

1. Becky Sauerbrunn and Nikki Phillips may already be the league’s best central defense duo …

FC Kansas City didn’t keep a clean sheet, but the goal was a bit freakish – a failed clearance that fell straight to Katy Freels. Around that, the central duo of Sauerbrunn and college teammate Nikki Phillips assuaged any fears shaking up last year’s solid defense would lead to a downturn in performance. Individually, the former Cavaliers were two of the weekend’s three best central defenders.

Compared to opening day last season, FCKC see only one player return to the same spot in the back four. Sauerbrunn and Leigh Ann Robinson stay the same, but Robinson (left to right back) has shifted to new roles.

Phillips’s addition, however, could justify the tweaks, and while Kallman looked a little slow against Foord and O’Hara, she won’t be the only left back in the league subjected to that problem.

source: Getty Images2. … but this formation change for FC Kansas City could cost us some fun.

I want to reserve judgement on Vlatko Andonovski’s switch away from the 4-2-3-1. I really do. Given the trouble the Blues had converting possession into goals, it’s not clear going to a second striker should be automatically criticized.

The new formation, however, doesn’t have the same pure playmaker role that’s present in the 4-2-3-1. Given how much enjoyment reigning MVP Lauren Holiday (pictured) produced in that spot, the fan in me wishes we could have voted on the move. Less Lauren Holiday picking apart defense – less fun for the NWSL.

3. Houston held their own with the defending champions …

With a temporarily depleted defense, the debuting Dash impressed against the Thorns, even if the result didn’t come. No surprise: Randy Waldrum appears to have quickly forged a solid squad.

4. … but may also be experiencing a women’s professional soccer typical problem.

Game-changing goal scorers have been so rare in Women’s Professional Soccer and the NWSL, it’s been hard to succeed without one. Sky Blue did to a limited extent last year, but at the end of the season, they were the team you wanted to meet in the playoffs. The rest of the postseason qualifiers had Wambach, Holiday, and Christine Sinclair, while Sydney Leroux was the only standout forward to miss the playoffs.

The thesis here is that the nature of the leagues has allowed elite goal scorers – people who can occasionally find goals of their own accord — to have a larger than expected impact. The absence of elite snipers may have doomed Washington, Seattle, and Chicago last season.

If that’s the case, Houston is in trouble. They have talented forwards such as Kealia Ohai and Stephanie Ochs, but it’s unclear either will be among the league’s leading scorers. We know enough about Ella Masar to be confident she won’t.

The Dash looked impressive on opening day, but that lack of a scoring threat could be their undoing. Maybe Ohai or Ochs will step up.

source: AP5. For all the talk, Portland doesn’t look much different.

The team with as much talent as anybody had trouble controlling the game yet still managed a narrow victory. Give Cindy Cone’s hat to Paul Riley, and the Thorns would have that full 2013 feel.

It’s early, and the Thorns had a number of key absences, but all the rhetoric about controlling play and providing a more entertaining product felt flat on day one. Riley got a win in his NWSL debut, but it didn’t feel like the Thorns had made progress.

6. So many moves led to so little change for Washington.

It’s just over one week into the season, and there are already hints of chaos in Washington, where a coach entering his first full season on the job called out his team after Sunday’s performance. True, there isn’t enough there to assume it’s all mayhem and anarchy in the dressing room, but the early tension between staff and squad hints at the same problems that saw Washington change coaches half-way through last season. There may be something in the water.

7. Laura Harvey’s offseason

We’re one step away from Power Rankings, but this should be the real order:

1. Laura Harvey’s offseason
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We talked about it on Sunday, but we can’t do this Digest feature without mentioning the obvious. Harvey’s winter overhaul has the potential to define this season. Even if it doesn’t, 2013 should be a distant memory in Seattle.

League Leaders

Goals
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP GOALS
1 Kim Little SEA 1 2
2 Vicky Losada WNY 1 2
3 Amy Rodriguez KC 1 1
4 Megan Rapinoe SEA 1 1
5 Katy Freels NJ 1 1
6 Brittany Taylor WNY 1 1
7 Allie Long POR 1 1
8 Christine Nairn WAS 1 1
Assists
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP ASSISTS
1 Jessica McDonald POR 1 1
2 Adriana Martin WNY 1 1
3 Kassey Kallman KC 1 1
4 Vicky Losada WNY 1 1

Power Rankings

RANKING
Up/Down
source:  1 Seattle Reign FC: The attack was quick, fluid, balanced, and scary. Little and Fishlock as threats from midfield can take advantage of all the work Rapinoe, Leroux, and Beverly Goebel do up front. The only defense may be a good offense – finding a way to get at the Reign’s back four. (1-0-0)

2
Western New York Flash: Last year I thought Abby Wambach’s health wouldn’t hold up and the Flash would crash and burn. They ended up winning the regular season. Any kind of ‘wait and see’ attitude I have about Aaran Lines went out the window. It looks like he’s built another strong team. (1-0-0)
source:  3 Portland Thorns FC: As much as this looks like last year’s team, that squad won the title. Perhaps Paul Riley will need a little more time to produce the attractive product Merritt Paulson wants, but the team still got a win on the road. There’s only so much nit-picking we can do over one week’s result. (1-0-0)
source:  4 FC Kansas City: A draw at home in week one should be slightly disappointing, but the team put eight shots on target. Hopefully, on other days, that will lead to more goals. If Jill Loyden was able to keep the Blues to one, credit the keeper without faulting the team, too much. (0-0-1)
source:  5 Houston Dash: They created just enough going forward to make me believe the goal scoring situation will improve. If, however, Houston can’t prove more adept at getting on the scoresheet, Saturday’s result will look more plucky than dangerous. (0-1-0)

source:

5 Sky Blue FC: Ranking them below a team that lost is harsh, but Sky Blue gave up too many chances and needed an unforced defensive error from Kansas City to get a point. Jim Gabarra’s team proved capable as always, but if they played Houston tomorrow, I’d put my loose change on the Dash. If might also ask if I could skip the bet entirely. (0-0-1)
source:  7 Boston Breakers: Given how good the Reign were, we’re giving Boston a bit of a pass, particularly since they were able to get to halftime at 0-0. Where anything that happens on the field often comes down to balancing blame and credit, we’re tipping the scales in Seattle favor and leaving Boston near the middle of the Power Rankings pack. (0-1-0)

source:

8 Chicago Red Stars: I have no idea what to make of Chicago after Week One.  (0-0-0)
source:  9 Washington Spirit: A year after finishing with a -23 goal difference in 22 games, the Spirit open up with a 3-1 loss to a team that was missing its best player. I know there’s a lot of hype around Crystal Dunn, and players like Yael Averbuch, Veronica Perez, and Christine Nairn should prove valuable additions, but wow does this year look like last (after one week, mind you). (0-1-0)

Week Two

Saturday, April 19

Washington Spirit vs. FC Kansas City  – Talent-wise, Kansas City has a huge edge, but if Andonovski’s 4-4-2 needs a breaking in period, Washington may be able to steal a point.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Western New York Flash – Chicago opens its season at Toyota Park, hoping to draw a crowd for Abby Wambach and the Flash. Whether the U.S. icon will play isn’t 100 percent certain. If Chicago, returning largely the same team that closed last season so strong, can carry over momentum from 2013, the team can knock off the Flash.

Sky Blue FC vs. Portland Thorns FC – This matchup looks somewhat similar to Portland’s opener, prompting the obvious question: Will the Thorns play better? Even if they do, they’ll do os against a Sky Blue team that found ways to trouble them last season. So far from home, a draw would be a good result.

Sunday, April 20

Boston Breakers vs. Houston Dash – This should be a telling game for both teams. Was Boston’s opener truly about a powerful Reign team opening up at home? And were the Dash fueled by the occasion more than potential?

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly.

Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United. “Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?”

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.