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NWSL Digest: Feeling the Spirit as we move past Week 2

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source:  Player of the Week

Let the Crystal Dunn era begin, but pray for the league’s defenders, because if Saturday was any indication of what’s to come, Washington has a player that can turn its club around – a player capable of living up to all the lofty expectations that accompanied her out of North Carolina this offseason.With her two assists proving the key part of both Spirit open play goals, Dunn led her new team to a 3-1 win over visiting FC Kansas City, helping the team quickly move beyond a disappointing opening day loss.

In that loss, a 3-1 defeat to the Western New York Flash, Dunn was often forgotten along Washington’s left. Switched to the right on Saturday, the U.S. international was the game’s most important player, her first major contribution coming in the fourth minute. Coming in to win a ball in front of FCKC’s Nikki Phillips, Dunn attacked the Kansas City goal before eventually laying off for Diana Matheson, creating an easy finish just nine yards out.

In the 38th minute, Dunn was on the left, taking advantage of a Kansas City defense that allowed her to cut back across the field. Laying off for Matheson at the edge of the penalty area, Dunn collected her second assist of the night as the Canadian international blasted home the game-winning goal.

Goals are worth more than assists, a truism that gives Matheson a claim for this honor. Dunn, however, made those goals. How many players in the league finish those two chances? Because it’s probably fewer than the number of people who could have created them.

Crystal Dunn: Congratulations on your first of many Player of the Week honors.

Results
(a.k.a., What actually happened)

Washington Spirit 3, FC Kansas City 1 – The Spirit responded to Mark Parsons’ challenge by giving the best performance in the team’s short history. The Dunn and Matheson combination look maniacal. (Matheson 4′, 38′; Rodríguez 28′; Christine Nairn 45′)
Sky Blue FC 1, Portland Thorns FC – A late penalty converted by Allie Long allowed the Thorns to stay undefeated, but we’re still very much in 2013 Thorns mode. U.S. captain Christie Rampone scored her first  goal in … forever? (NWSL, WPS, WUSA). (Rampone 25′; Allie Long 75′)
Chicago Red Stars 1, Western New York Flash 0 – An Abby Wambach-less Flash ran into a Red Stars team that was able to carry over it momentum from the end of the 2013 season. Take a decent team, add Julie Johnston and Vanessa DiBernardo, and profit? On the field, at least, that could work. (Johnston 59′)
Boston Breakers 2, Houston Dash 3 – A painful game became dramatic at the end when substitute Teresa Noyola scored twice (once from the spot) in her 10 minutes, giving the Dash its first win in franchise history. (O’Reilly 1′; Masar 50′; Lohman 70′; Noyola 81′, 85′)

Team of the Week

source:  GK – Nadine Angerer, Portland Thorns (right, playing in Australia) – Two saves on three shots were complemented by some strong reads coming off her line. Given there were no standout goalkeeping performances this week, any two or three other keepers could have claimed this spot. We choose to think Angerer willed Kelley O’Hara’s late penalty kick wide of the post.

RB – Ari Romero, Houston Dynamo
LB – Rachel Quon, Chicago Red Stars – In a week were fullbacks failed to standout, the “most solid” performances get rewarded – something that goes beyond merely putting in a good shift defensively. Romero and Quon were both able to contribute in all phases of their teams’ games, and while neither made a huge impact, both were valuable parts of their clubs” first wins of the season.

CB – Brittany Taylor, Western New York – I have no problem putting Taylor and FC Kansas City’s Becky Saurbrunn here ever week, if need be. Given Sauerbrunn’s team allowed three goals this weekend, I found an excuse to exclude her. Taylor, however, gave Aaran Lines’ another strong defensive performance. If nobody else is going to rise to her and Sauerbrunn’s level, this could become a weekly thing.

CB – Julie Johnston, Chicago Red Stars – Speaking of Sauerbrunn, Johnston gave a “Broon”-esque presence for the Red Stars, controlling play from the back while providing a solid defensive contribution. Making her professional debut, the former Santa Clara standout also scored the game-winning goal, beating Katherine Reynolds to the second half winner in Chicago’s defeat of Western New York.

AM – Crystal Dunn, Washington Spirit – Apparently, an above average soccer balling person.

AM – Diana Matheson, Washington Spirit – Dunn did much of the work, but Matheson had to finish. With two goals, the Canadian international is now tied for the league lead, a stature that should remind those with short memories of her great season 2013 season. Coming off an eight-goal season, Matheson showed her partnership with Dunn could result in an even more productive 2014.

AM – Heather O’Reilly, Boston Breakers – “Run past everybody and Lisa (De Vanna) will roll a long one for you” seemed to be the plan in the first minute against Houston. O’Reilly converted. In the second half, taking advantage of a zoned out Nikki Washington, O’Reilly provided the cross for Joanna Lohman’s go-ahead goal.

DM – Joanna Lohman, Boston Breakers – Hey, look who’s here. It’s Joanna Lohman, of Heather O’Reilly section fame. Houston may have scored three goals on Sunday, but none were her doing, with the Dash spending most of the day unable to exact much influence on the midfield. In the second half, a run to the middle of the Houston area caught Boston’s guests unaware, allowing the Breakers to temporarily reclaim the lead.

M – Teresa Noyola, Houston Dash – Came off the bench and scored twice as the Dash claimed the franchises’s first NWSL win. The former Stanford star was also voted NWSL Player of the Week.

F – Amy Rodriguez, FC Kansas City – Another goal, another nice of splay of intelligent play along the opponents’ line, and another place in our Team of the Week for the U.S. international. Again, welcome back, Amy Rodriguez.

Standings

Pts GP W L T GF GA GD
1. Portland Thorns FC 4 2 1 0 1 2 1 1
2. Seattle Reign FC 3 1 1 0 0 3 0 3
3. Western New York Flash 3 2 1 1 0 3 2 1
4. Chicago Red Stars 3 1 1 0 0 1 0 1
5. Washington Spirit 3 2 1 1 0 4 4 0
6. Houston Dash 3 2 1 1 0 3 3 0
7. Sky Blue FC 2 2 0 0 2 2 2 0
8. FC Kansas City 1 2 0 1 1 2 4 -2
9. Boston Breakers 0 2 0 2 0 2 6 -4

 

Quick thoughts, after week two

1. Figure out how to stop Crystal Dunn and Diana Matheson …

… and let me know, because between their speed, skill, intelligence, and versatility, I’m not sure what teams can do against Mark Parson’s attacking midfield duo. On Saturday, the Washington head coach put Dunn on the right and took advantage of Erika Tmyrak’s tendency to come in from her left midfielder position. The result was Washington having a huge numerical edge in the middle and Dunn closer to the ball.

source: AP2. Where is Abby Wambach?

People are starting to talk about this. Wambach, for the second week in a row, is out – not even in Aaran Lines’s 18. A fractured orbital bone is supposed to be the reason, but with Carli Lloyd running around with a face mask for the Flash, it’s natural to ask: Why isn’t Abby playing?

We saw Wambach go head-to-head with a Chinese defender two weeks ago. We know there was reason to suspect a head injury (namely, the huge welt above her eye after the contact). She finished that game, but Wambach hasn’t played since. What’s going on here?

If there was ever a situation a team should be as transparent as possible to avoid any concern this is concussion-related, this is it. Granted, regarding health issues, that’s easier said than done, but the impression we’ve been given is that this is only an orbital fracture – something that was originally described as day-to-day.

Now we’re left wondering, for the second year in a row, whether a Wambach head injury is either being misdiagnosed, un-diagnosed, or under-reported. Or not present, at all.

3. Speaking of Carli Lloyd:

What the …

Thank you, @RoobynVC.

That was only a yellow card? Yeesh. DiBernardo got hit. In the face! Welcome to the league, Vanessa. Don’t even think of challenging for Carli’s spot on the national team.

Lloyd should be suspended for this one. Don’t hold your breath, though.

4. FC Kansas City really misses Desiree Scott

Last week we talked about FCKC’s unconvincing switch to a 4-4-2 formation, but with Canadian international Desiree Scott having bolted to Notts County, Vlatko Andonovski’s hand might be forced. That lack of a second defensive midfielder, however, hurt Kansas City on Saturday. Crystal Dunn came in and won a ball in front of the defense for the opening goal, while the Spirit midfielder was allowed to cut back at the top of the box to set up the second. If you have a second person in defensive midfield, each play is far less likely to happen.

After playing 4-2-3-1 last year, Kansas City just needs to get used to its new system, but right now, it doesn’t look good. Lauren Holiday is trying to maintain the same influence she had last season, which often leads Jen Buczkowski isolated in front of the defense. When Erika Tymrak drifts inside to help, a player like Dunn is given license to roam.

5. Rookies shining, but wait until they get Press

Julie Johnston was great, as was Vanessa DiBernardo, who shook off the forearm shiver from Carli Lloyd to have a strong debut, as well. This is the future Chicago was playing for last year. With two new aspiring internationals in tow, Rory Dames can challenge for a playoff spot.

And to think: This the Red Stars are going to get Christen Press in a couple of months. And Canadian international Melissa Tancredi. I wonder if they’ll be able to help?

6. How much do we worry about Boston?

The Breakers haven’t been good through two weeks, but they’re probably not as bad as their -4 goal difference (with six goals allowed) hint. Between Lianne Sanderson, Heather O’Reilly, and Lisa Da Vanna, they have a means to beat people. Kristie Mewis will eventually be back, too. The pieces just need to be sorted.

Unfortunately, there are no pieces in defense, part of the reason they’re conceded so many goals. Particularly in the middle, where Courtney Jones has gone from reserve forward with Kansas City to starting center back in Boston, the team needs help.

It’d be nice of the Breakers had somebody like Mariah Nogueira to stick in front of the defense, allowing two defensive midfielders to protect Jones and Cat Whitehill. Too bad they gave her away this winter.

Combined with Kia McNeill going back to school, this team desperately needs options.

League Leaders

Goals
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP GOALS
1 Diana Matheson WAS 2 2
2 Amy Rodriguez KC 2 2
3 Kim Little SEA 1 2
4 Allie Long POR 2 2
5 Teresa Noyola HOU 2 2
6 Vicky Losada WNY 2 2
Assists
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP ASSISTS
1 Crystal Dunn WAS 2 2
2 Jessica McDonald POR 2 1
3 Heather O’Reilly BOS 2 1
4 Jessica Fishlock SEA 1 1
5 Adriana Martin WNY 2 1
6 Vanessa DiBernardo CHI 1 1
7 Rafaelle Souza HOU 1 1
8 Kassey Kallman KC 2 1
9 Vicky Losada WNY 2 1

Power Rankings

RANKING
Up/Down
source:  1 Seattle Reign FC: After a bye this weekend, Seattle will play twice in the next five days, though their time on the sidelines has only made us appreciate them more. There isn’t much doubt which team deserves to be top of this list, right now. (1-0-0)

2
Western New York Flash: They lost by one, on the road, to a decent team, while missing their best player. I’m not dropping the Flash for that. If anything, the Spirit’s impressive win over FC Kansas City made Western New York’s opening day look even stronger. (1-1-0)

source:

3 UP 5 Chicago Red Stars: Don’t pay attention to the Up/Down column. I ranked them low last week because they haven’t played. After one week of action, though, Rory Dames’ team has a very impressive (if small) résumé. They’ve beaten the number two team on our list.  (1-0-0)
source:  4 UP 5 Washington Spirit: “[W]ow does this year look like last year,” I wrote in this space last week. Thankfully, I was wrong. Oh so wrong. Mark Parsons pressed all the right buttons, made the right changes on the field, and produced what could prove a huge result. For this first time in over a year, the Spirit have a reason to be confident, though the loss of Tiffany Weimer to a season-ending ACL injury all of a sudden makes Lori Lindsey important again. (1-1-0)
source:  5 DOWN 2 Portland Thorns FC: The defending champions are one of three undefeated teams in the league, but if Kelley O’Hara doesn’t gift them with that late hand ball (and en even later missed penalty kick), this team falls to a Sky Blue. Credit to Paul Riley’s team – it has four points without playing a minute at home — but this team knows is can (and, is expected to) play better. (1-0-1)
source:  6 DOWN 2 FC Kansas City: Long goals from Diana Matheson and Christine Nairn made the scoreline a bit aberrational, but the result quiets any notion the Blues can tap into what they had last year. This team needs a new idea, and it’s unclear the new formation is it.   (0-1-1)

source:

7 DOWN 2 Sky Blue FC: Their two-spot slip is less about their quality than teams like Chicago and Washington passing them. It doesn’t help that, against two unimpressive teams, Sky Blue hasn’t shown much, either. Players like Cami Levin and Nanase Kiryu have proved interesting additions, but the team still lacks a consistent threat going forward. (0-0-2)
source:  8 DOWN 3 Houston Dash: Congratulations to the Dash on the first win in franchise history, but the team will need to play much better to be competitive this season. Neither Houston nor Boston acquitted themselves well, and while somebody has to take points from these matches, neither team can look fondly on that 90 minutes (burn that tape!). Houston may have gotten more points than it did against Portland, but the team played worse.  (1-1-0)
source:  9 DOWN 2 Boston Breakers: Boston just has to do better. They can’t let a team like Houston come to town, play below its own expectations, hang around for 80 minutes and then steal it late. The execution the Breakers showed on their first minute goal has to be threatened (if not replicated) throughout the game. Without that intensity, the Breakers allowed the league’s expansion franchise to claim full points. (0-2-0)

Week Three

Wednesday, April 23
(Wait! That’s in a few hours. Oh, man …)

Seattle Reign FC vs. Washington Spirit – This will be an interesting test of Seattle’s new downtown venue. Will people stick around for the game instead of heading home to the suburbs? If they go, they could see a shootout complement some of the league’s biggest stars, from Hope Solo and Sydney Leroux to less-known treasures like Dunn and Kim Little.

Saturday, April 26

Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit – Washington on short rest, on the road, against a Chicago team that looks like a quality squad? It’s going to be hard for them to get up for the match at Benedictine.

Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City – Portland’s first home game gives the defending champions a chance to leave its irregular form on the road. With Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney, and Erika Tymrak, however, the Thorns defense will face its greatest challenge of the season. Visitors always get up for games in Portland.

Sunday, April 27

Boston Breakers vs. Sky Blue FC – Here’s Boston’s chance to rebound. Player-for-player, Boston can compete with this team, and getting Sky Blue at Harvard Stadium, the Breakers should be expected to produce a result. If the can’t improve on Sunday’s performance, however, it won’t be difficult for Jim Gabarra’s team to get three points from this one.

Seattle Reign FC vs. Houston Dash – Houston’s defense proved problematic in Boston, no surprise given the likes of Whitney Engen and Meghan Kilngenberg are missing. Against the league’s deepest attack — on the road, on the fast pitch at Memorial Stadium — this could prove a learning experience.

Zouma out for the season; USMNT’s Miazga amongst Chelsea options

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
ne Rooney of Manchester United battles for the ball with Kurt Zouma of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on December 28, 2015 in Manchester, England. (
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A major injury to a promising Chelsea center back could put an American in the driver’s seat for some surprising playing time.

[ MORE: Camp over, USMNT turns eyes to World Cup, Olympic qualifying ]

Kurt Zouma, 21, is out for at least a half-year after tearing his ACL, as the scary-looking injury suffered against Manchester United was as bad as it looked.

From ChelseaFC.com:

Chelsea Football Club’s medical team have diagnosed that Kurt Zouma sustained an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament during yesterday’s (Sunday) Premier League game against Manchester United.

Kurt will undergo surgery in the next 48 hours and is expected to be out for approximately six months.

Chelsea has Gary Cahill, John Terry and young USMNT center back Matt Miazga as center backs in the squad.

Center backs Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa), Tomas Kalas (Middlesbrough) and Michael Hector (Reading) are all on loan.

We will almost certainly see an extended look at Miazga at some point, as Chelsea still has the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League. How will the 20-year-old fare in England? We’re looking forward to finding out.

Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018

GRANADA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF competes for the ball with Youssef El-Arabi (L) of Granada CF during the La Liga match between Granada CF and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on February 7, 2016 in Granada, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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Cristiano Ronaldo gave his seemingly monthly statement on the future in Spanish outlet AS on Monday.

It’s nothing that’s going to surprise anyone, either, as the 31-year-old superstar committed himself to his contract at Real Madrid.

[ REPORT: Fernando Torres drawing interest from MLS, NASL ]

That contract ends in 2018, meaning he’s going roughly two-and-a-half more seasons at the Bernabeu.

From AS:

“I want to stay here two more years. The two years I’m talking about take me to the end of my contract,” he is quoted as saying by AS.

“And the future, we’ll see.”

Could he leave? Sure. The older he gets, the less he’ll command a transfer fee. Bastian Schweinsteiger left Bayern Munich at 31, and Ronaldo’s history with Real isn’t one-club stuff.

Premier League Playback: Five things we learned from a pivotal weekend

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LEICESTER CITY IS LEGIT

Perhaps the biggest lesson this weekend is something we’ve been ignoring for a while. Guys, Leicester City is legit. They are the favorites to win the Premier League title.

After rolling into the Etihad Stadium and dispatching title rivals Manchester City with ease on Saturday, Claudio Ranieri is refusing to admit the Foxes are the front-runners. Well, Claudio, you are. With a five-point lead at the top and a trip to Arsenal coming up next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) this is all getting rather serious.

Leicester isn’t doing anything they haven’t done all season long. They made the most of set pieces with Robert Huth scoring from two of them and Riyad Mahrez‘s superb goal sandwiched in-between Huth’s strikes personified the simplistic brilliance of Ranieri’s tactics. Winning the ball back in midfield, a quick ball out to N'Golo Kante saw him thread it to Mahrez 30-yards up field and the Algerian wizard danced his way past Nicolas Otamendi and gave Joe Hart the eyes. Direct and at the heart of Man City, Leicester’s tactics are tearing teams apart consistently and the most impressive thing about their recent performances is their defensive solidity.

Premier League Schedule – Week 25

Result Recap & Highlights
A. Villa 2-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
B’mouth 0-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Chelsea 1-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
Liverpool 2-2 S’land Recap, watch here
Man City 1-3 Leicester Recap, watch here
Newcastle 1-0 WBA Recap, watch here
Saints 1-0 West Ham Recap, watch here
Stoke 0-3 Everton Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-1 C. Palace Recap, watch here
Tottenham 1-0 Watford Recap, watch here

Sure, they sat back a little deeper than they would’ve liked against Man City but they’re able to rely on clipping one long ball in-behind for Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki to collect. Vardy didn’t score on Saturday but Hart denied him twice when clean through and he rifled another into the side-netting. No matter, after the landmark win the leading scorer in the PL penned a new contract which ties him to Leicester until 2019.

Over the past four days Leicester has dispatched Liverpool 2-0 and Man City 3-1. Now, perhaps for the first time this season, everybody expects them to go to Arsenal and seal a remarkable win that could leave their biggest rivals for the title eight points in their wake. How the Foxes deal with this new pressure remains to be seen. They are no longer expected to fail. Everyone expects them to maintain this form and now clinch the title. Handling those expectations and staying focused will now be the biggest test yet for Ranieri’s remarkable squad. If they do hold on and clinch the title, there’s no doubt this will be the most surprising moment in PL history. And maybe soccer history.


MAN UNITED IMPROVING BUT TOP FOUR HOPES FADING

Louis Van Gaal reacted angrily when asked about speculation regarding his Manchester United future and if the teams improved performance will help his own cause.

The Dutchman, 64, has reason to be pleased with United’s offensive display at Chelsea as Jesse Lingard‘s magical turn, spin and strike had them 1-0 up heading into stoppage time. Then, Diego Costa struck and grabbed Chelsea a point to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 games since Jose Mourinho was fired.

The manner in which United conceded irritated Van Gaal as his side have slipped six points off the top four with just 13 games going.

“That’s why I am frustrated and my players are frustrated. When you are playing like we have played today and you are not making the gap smaller. You can say its misfortune but it’s not the first time that is overcoming us,” Van Gaal said. “For example Newcastle United scored in extra time. We have to do that better, improve in that way. I am happy with the performance. It was not a boring match so for the third time in the row it was sparkling. I hope to get the support of the media this week.”

Van Gaal’s offense, unlike it has for most of this season, looked sharp with Wayne Rooney going close three times and Thibaut Courtois denying the brilliant Anthony Martial and Lingard but it was the same old story. United don’t score enough goals to be able to make these defensive mistakes and still grab three points. They need to buck this trend, and fast, if their fading top four hopes are to become reality.


NORTH LONDON RISING

So, we’ve spoken about Leicester. Now, let’s look at the two teams chasing them: Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, Man City is still in the mix in fourth place on 47 points but the north London duo of Arsenal and Spurs are, right now, seeming to be the firm challengers to the Foxes. Both sit on 48 points and both won this weekend.

Following their 1-0 win over Watford on Saturday, Spurs’ manager Mauricio Pochettino tried his best to curb enthusiasm around White Hart Lane but talk of a title race with Arsenal is in the air.

“I believe in my players, I believe in my squad. We will see. It is difficult to guess what will happen in the future,” Pochettino said. “In football belief is the most important word. If we believe, anything can happen. I believe in my squad and they believe too in the way we play. This synergy is very important for the future. You can see in their eyes, the feeling, the energy that they believe. But it is better not to speak too much, only show, work hard.”

Arsenal beat Bournemouth 2-0, their first victory in five PL games, and the Gunners are now back on track ahead of Leicester’s visit to the Emirates next Sunday. A win in that game is a must if both Arsenal and Spurs are to claw back ground on the Foxes. Another game which could be even bigger in the run-in is March 5 at White Hart Lane. Spurs host Arsenal in just under a month and by then it could be a straight two-horse race between the bitter rivals for the Premier League title.

As for the bigger picture, both Spurs and Arsenal are still in Europe and the FA Cup which could complicate their title charge. Arsenal, in particular, face a pivotal 10-day period in February which will define their season. The fixture list reads: Feb. 14, Leicester at home in the Premier League. Feb. 20, Hull at home in the FA Cup. Feb. 23, Barcelona at home in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg. Arsene Wenger‘s men usually hit full stride in the final months of the season but usually their situation is much worse than this. Let’s see if the perennial kick-starters can stretch their legs and stride to success in multiple competitions but, most importantly, beat their north London rivals to the PL title.


HOPE AT THE BOTTOM

Aston Villa’s survival hopes were kick-started this weekend as a Gabriel Agbonlahor inspired Villa beat relegation rivals Norwich City 2-0 at Villa Park for just their third victory in 25 outings this season. Remi Garde’s men are giving themselves a slim chance of making the greatest of great escapes. With 13 games to go the Midlands giant is eight points from safety and need to win games, fast. They have a tough set of fixtures on the horizon but at least they now look solid and steady at the back with Mark Bunn putting in another good display in goal and a settled back four shutting down a lackluster Norwich. The Canaries actually slipped into the bottom three after this defeat, their fifth-straight loss, and Alex Neil has a crisis on his hands.

The reason Norwich slipped into the relegation zone is because Newcastle United climbed out with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win at home against West Brom. It should have been three or four nil to Newcastle but Steve McClaren will be delighted his new signings — particularly Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend — have slotted in seamlessly. The Magpies have some easier games, on paper, coming up and a few more wins should drag them further clear from the drop zone. As for Tony Pulis‘ side, the Baggies are wobbling and are without a win in five as they continue to slide towards the bottom three. Each season there’s always one team which seems to slip towards the relegation abyss…


SAINTS, TOFFEES LIMBERING UP

Two teams heading on the way up are Southampton and Everton. Both teams harbored hopes of breaking into the top six ahead of the season and after difficult starts they have found their feet. No, that isn’t a direct reference to Roberto Martinez’s awesome Jason Derulo-inspired dance moves but as far as I’m concerned the clip below can’t be shown enough.

Martinez would have been left dancing for joy on the touchline on Saturday as his team raced into a 3-0 half time lead at Stoke City. The Potters’ defense was ripped open by incisive midfield running from the Toffees and Martinez resisted the urge to break out his inner Derulo. For now. “I thought about dancing,” Martinez said afterwards. “But I thought it was difficult to beat the moves the boys showed on the pitch.” Indeed. Everton is now up to eighth with two wins on the spin and just one defeat in their last six.

The team directly above them is Southampton who have enjoyed a superb last few weeks. Since goalkeeper Fraser Forster returned from a nine-month spell out injured they’ve won four out of five games, kept clean sheets in all five and Ronald Koeman was named Premier League Manager of the Month for January. On Saturday Saints ground out a 1-0 win at home against fellow top six hopefuls West Ham to drag themselves to within two points of the Hammer who sit one place above them in sixth spot in the table.

Southampton’s grit and determination to hold onto a 1-0 lead against West Ham after going down to 10-men with 40 minutes of the game left was remarkable. Victor Wanyama — who will now serve a five-game ban after picking up his third red card of the season — lunged in stupidly on Dmitri Payet and even though some may have not seen it as a straight-red, the Kenyan midfielder gave referee Mark Clattenburg the chance to send him off. Saints overcame that setback and in their next four encounters have some very winnable games. Both Southampton and Everton are back on track and challenging for the top six.


BONUS: Southampton are also launching an initiative to develop better coaches and players in North America. Find out what that’s all about in this exclusive piece as I went down to the South Coast last week to discuss their plans to muscle into the American soccer scene.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

After January camp, USMNT looks to rosters for World Cup, Olympic qualifying

at StubHub Center on January 31, 2016 in Carson, California.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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The United States men’s national team finished its experimental January camp with a 2-0 record, and now trains its eyes on World Cup and Olympic qualifying.

The last part is critical not just because of the ramifications of a potential second-successive Olympic absence for the men’s U-23 side.

[ USMNT: Tops Iceland 3-2 | Knocks off Canada, too ]

The Yanks have to deftly divide their player pool because March 25 and 29 are not only the dates for the next round of World Cup qualifying matches — a home-and-home series with Guatemala — but also the dates for the U-23s’ pair of matches with Colombia.

That’s why Jordan Morris isn’t likely headed to Guatemala City, and the same is true for impressive January camper Jerome Kiesewetter and new Chelsea defender Matt Miazga.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

Bobby Wood, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are also eligible for the U-23s, but there’s the rub. All three are in good form for country, and only Yedlin isn’t playing well for his club (That’s because Sam Allardyce isn’t using him much at all. His substitute appearance against Liverpool was his first action since Jan. 9).

New England midfielder Lee Nguyen impressed Jurgen Klinsmann during January camp, and it’s hard to ignore the impact of Steve Birnbaum’s goal and assist.

Assuming health, here’s our best guess at who’s making the squad for Guatemala on March 25 and 29. It’s worth noting that six MLS clubs play on March 26 (NYC, New England, Vancouver, Houston, DC and Dallas):

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson

Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Jonathan Spector, Tim Ream

Midfielders: Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Lee Nguyen, Darlington Nagbe

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson