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NWSL Digest: Nothing but Reign through three weeks

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source:  Player of the Week

With apologies to Boston’s Lianne Sanderson, whose two goals and one assist gave her the league’s honor, Kim Little was our clear winner this week. Not only did the Scottish import (by way of Arsenal) score twice in Seattle’s 2-0 win over Houston, but she was the team’s most important player without the ball. The pressure she put on the Dash midfield created an endless string of turnovers that left the Reign defense largely untested. Becky Edwards hasn’t had to deal with that kind of nuisance since Lori Chalupny drove her crazy last year in Portland.

Was that enough to overcome Sanderson, particularly since one of Little’s goals was from the spot? Perhaps not, but if we’re going to start qualifying production, Sanderson’s assist was really more of a shot that found a teammate than the product of sublime creativity.

The debate can be boiled down to this: Was a one-goal performance with high defensive value in midfield more valuable than a two-goal showing with a far less-valuable defensive contribution? A lot of smart people went with Sanderson. One stubborn one is sticking with Little.

Results
(a.k.a., What actually happened, though note: two Wednesday games are about to start as this post is being written)

Seattle Reign 3, Washington Spirit 1 – The Spirit sat back in an effort to contain Laura Harvey’s high-powered team only to see set pieces be their undoing. (Kendall Fletcher 3′, Keelin Winters 48′, Diana Matheson 72′, Jessica Fishlock 80;)
Chicago Red Stars 0, Washington Spirit 1- Three days after losing in Seattle, Mark Parsons’ team bounced back after a second half goal from Tori Huster was controversially allowed. Washington forward Renae Cuellar appeared to commit a foul during the game’s only  goal. (Tori Huster 50′)
Portland Thorns 3, FC Kansas City 1 – Two evenly matched teams saw their scales tipped in the last six minutes when Alex Morgan fill-in Jessica McDonald scored her first two goals of the season. (Allie Long 44;, Lauren Cheney 86′, Jessica McDonald 84′, 88′)
Boston Breakers 3, Sky Blue 2 – A big game from Sanderson pushed the Breakers to their first points for the season, allowing them to climb out of the league’s cellar.  (Julie King 14′, Monica Ocampo 30′, Lianne Sanderson 42′, 60′, Ashley Nick 90′)
Seattle Reign 2, Houston Dash 0 – A brace from Little ran her season’s goal total to four while keeping Seattle perfect on the season. Had it not been for a shocking late miss from Sydney Leroux, the final score would have been worse. (Kim Little 19′, 38′)

Team of the Week

GK – Nadine Angerer, Portland Thorns – Angerer’s huge presence in her penalty area kept Portland in the game in Saturday’s first half, paving the Thorns’ late surge. Right now, the reigning FIFA Player of the Year is the league’s best keeper, by a mile.

source:  RB – Ari Romero, Houston Dynamo – For the second week, Romero stood out to us, with the young Mexican international’s performance against Seattle’s Bev Goebel neutralizing one of the Reign’s weapons.

CB – Kendall Fletcher, Seattle Reign 
CB – Tori Huster, Washington Spirit – Something that I’m loathe to do — pick defenders based on goals — ends up being a tiebreaker this week amid a collection of possible options. With Becky Sauerbrunn having a down week and Brittany Taylor off, the race was wide open. Fletcher and Huster’s goals pushed them in front.

LB – Stephanie Cox, Seattle Reign – Two more sold games highlighted by a near-assist on Sunday continue to make the veteran’s claim that she’s the best left back in the U.S.’s pool. Rachel Quon also could have snared this spot again, but playing two games in four days, Cox got our nod.

AM – Kim Little, Seattle Reign FC – Possibly the league’s best player, right now.

AM – Lianne Sanderson, Boston Breakers – A worthy NWSL Player of the Week.

M – Jessica Fishlock, Seattle Reign FC – Twice gave typical, disruptive Fishlock performances. The Welsh international scored the final goal Wednesday against Washington.

DM – Keelin Winters, Seattle Reign FC – It’s disappointing to see the national team continue to overlook Winters, as she’s performing extremely well in a role the U.S. needs. Her goal on Wednesday proved the game-winner.

AM/W – Monica Ocampo, Sky Blue FC – Sky Blue’s strong first half in Boston saw Ocampo at the end of a number of threats. The Mexican international ended with seven shots, three on target, scoring once.

F – Jessica McDonald, Portland Thorns – You can struggle for 80 minutes, but if you score twice in the last 10, you’re a Team of the Week candidate. Ah, the forward position.

Standings

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

 

Quick thoughts, after week three

1. Seattle needs to be tested before we say they’re too good – This is the best a team’s played in NWSL, which isn’t saying too much considering the league is only 14 months old. If we broaden our perspective, this team has the talent and feel of the 2010 FC Gold Pride team that ran away with that year’s Women’s Professional Soccer season. Before we embrace that comparison, though, a.) let’s get more than three weeks into the season, b.) let’s see how Seattle does in Portland two weeks from now.

2. Paul Riley’s got the Thorns surviving – Saturday’s game at Providence Park was far more evenly matched than the 3-1 result hints, something that should give the Thorns confidence considering who they’re missing. With seven points in three games, Portland’s surviving the absences of Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Veronica Boquete, Rachel Van Hollebeke, and Stephanie Catley. The Thorns aren’t alone, as teams like Chicago and Houston are also missing stars, but it’s a reminder: It will be a while before we have any clue what the defending champions can be. Riley’s doing a good job getting results in the interim.

3. As Abby returns, Lloyd will sit out – Western New York announced Abby Wambach should be available for this weekend’s home opener, and although this space had started asking questions about the nature of her injury, there’s been no mention the Flash number nine suffered anything other than a broken orbital. Unfortunately, as Wambach returns, Carli Lloyd is set to sit two games. The U.S. star apologized for last week’s punch on Vanessa DiBernardo, a blow that earned the suspension.

source:  Anders Henrikson/WikiCommons4. Tyresö coming, but who exactly will arrive – Amid financial problems that have the club on the brink of losing its place in the Swedish league, Tyresö moved past Birmingham City and into UEFA Champions League’s final on Sunday. They’ll face defending champions Wolfsburg next month. In the interim, a series of WPS-bound talents will stay in Sweden, with Christen Press (Chicago), Whitney Engan, Meghan Klingenberg (Houston), and Veronica Boquete (Portland) destined to join their clubs next month.

Another player looking increasingly likely to come: five-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta. The former Flash striker is being linked with a return to Western New York once Tyresö’s Champions League commitments are done.

Western New York has no free international spots, nor does the league have a structure that can support Marta’s normal wages (she’s reportedly making just under $350,000 per season in Sweden, more than any NWSL team pays its entire squad). NWSL, however, found a way to make Nadine Angerer work. Particularly if Marta’s just coming for the summer, while she transitions between European clubs, the scenario’s more unlikely than impossible.

5. Kaylyn Kyle and Canadian frustrations with the NWSL – Kaylyn Kyle didn’t want to play defense in Boston, so she was traded to Houston for Nikki Washington. At least, that’s the story that’s started to emerge after this week’s trade.

While she started the Breakers’ first two games of the season, the Canadian international was missing for the last two, apparently unwilling to drop back and help a desperate Boston defense. After playing so well as a center back for Seattle last year, the move was a no go this time around.

If that story’s true, fans are going to paint Kyle as unwilling to help the team. The picture’s more complicated than that, though. Like most players in the league, Kyle’s top priority is probably her national team, and for Canada, she’s a midfielder. With the  increasing feeling among Canadian players that the NWSL isn’t serving their needs as well as it could, Kyle may have had to take a stand. From her point of view, why play out of position and do something that won’t help her or Canada come 2015?

That also may be an oversimplification, but the picture surrounding the Canadian internationals is a murky one. Like their U.S. and Mexican counterparts, they’re wearing two hats, Unfortunately, the NWSL’s fit hasn’t been a great one, thus far.

6. FC Kansas City’s not as bad as their record, but need to improve – Vlatko Andonovski switched back to the 4-2-3-1 this week. That may have been about matching up with Portland’s midfield diamond, but it may have also been about the team’s first two results. Playing in a 4-4-2 over the season’s first two weeks, FC Kansas City looked nothing like their former selves.

Andonovski wouldn’t commit to the 4-2-3-1 when I talked to him on Saturday, specifically noting Amy Rodriguez is probably a better fit in a two-front. Regardless, FC Kansas City gave its best performance of the season in Portland while playing in its previous formation. Given it’s the setup  that best fits Lauren Holiday’s skills, it will be interesting to see how long a 4-4-2 stays part of the FCKC conversation.

League Leaders

Goals
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP GOALS
1 Kim Little SEA 3 4
2 Diana Matheson WAS 4 3
3 Allie Long POR 3 3
4 Amy Rodriguez KC 3 2
5 Jessica McDonald POR 3 2
6 Lianne Sanderson BOS 3 2
7 Teresa Noyola HOU 3 2
8 Vicky Losada WNY 2 2
Assists
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP ASSISTS
1 Crystal Dunn WAS 4 2
2 Jessica Fishlock SEA 3 2

Power Rankings

RANKING
Up/Down
source:  1 Seattle Reign FC: If there was a number lower than one, we’d put the Reign there. Laura Harvey has the best team in the NWSL, and it’s not particularly close. (3-0-0)

2
Western New York Flash: Last year’s finalists return of the field this weekend when Portland comes to town, giving Aaran Lines’ team a chance to redeem last year’s championship game loss. Even without Lloyd, we like their chances to hold on to this spot. (1-1-0)
source:  3 UP 2 Portland Thorns FC: We’re starting to believe, mostly because Saturday’s was the type of game Portland rarely ended up winning last season. Instead of being held at home, however, they found two late goals. The mentality (confidence) appears to have improved.  (2-0-1)
source:  4 Washington Spirit: Washington’s only two losses have been to this list’s top ranked teams. The record might not be impressive, but the opening schedule has been somewhat difficult, with the Spirit having yet to face any of Boston, Sky Blue, or Houston. (2-2-0)

source:

5 DOWN 2 Chicago Red Stars: Saturday’s game was a tossup that didn’t go their way. This two-spot drop is less a reflection of our waning faith and more a function of Portland’s rise. Washington stays ahead the Red Stars because of the road result.  (1-1-0)
source:  6 FC Kansas City: Bottom of the league, sixth in our rankings: What gives? What gives is our implicit rule when making this list: Who would win a neutral site game tomorrow? Even though the results haven’t been there, I’d take FCKC over any of the three below them, but one what I’ve seen so far. (0-2-1)
source:  7 UP 2 Boston Breakers: If Lianne Sanderson, Heather O’Reilly, and Lisa Da Vanna click, Boston can be decent. Unfortunately, because of weaknesses elsewhere, they’ll still be susceptible to giving up goals. Sunday’s win represents a type of best case scenario. (1-2-0)

source:

8 DOWN 1 Sky Blue FC: Each of their games have been close, but Jim Gabarra’s crew has yet to break through. Perhaps a healthy Christie Rampone will help, but a year without a reliable goal scorer looks frightening. Maybe Gabarra has something up his sleeve. (0-1-2)
source:  9 DOWN 1 Houston Dash: Opposing coaches have been impressed with what Randy Waldrum’s getting out of his team, but three unfortunate realities remain: There’s no consistent goal scoring; The midfield is Becky Edwards and some pieces they’ve yet to make fit; the defense won’t be in place for another month. There’s room for improvement here, though. (1-2-0)

Week Three

Wednesday, April 30
(Doh!)

Sky Blue FC vs. Seattle Reign FC
FC Kansas City vs. Chicago Red Stars – The UEFA Champions League semifinals meant this piece got up late; thankfully, that’s the last of that tournament’s midweek action, with the reprieve allowing us to get this post up before the Wednesday games start. We may eventually move this post to Tuesday, just in case. (Also note: Everything in this post was written before Wednesday’s kickoffs … for better or worse.)

Saturday, May 3

Washington Spirit vs. Seattle Reign FC – The Spirit’s tough opening schedule continues with their season’s second meeting with Seattle, a match that should see Mark Parsons take a different approach. After last Wednesday’s 3-1 loss at Memorial, Washington needs to try play its own game. If that means a another loss to Seattle, they’ll be in good company. Most teams in this league are going to find themselves on the wrong end of a Reign result.

Western New York vs. Portland Thorns FC – Lloyd’s out, but Wambach’s back to test what’s still a slightly makeshift Thorns defense. Given the quality in Western New York’s midfield, there shouldn’t be a problem getting her the ball. Coming off a bye week, Western New York should be fully prepared to avenge last year’s title game loss. If Portland can get a result, it will be a testament to Paul Riley’s influence.

Sky Blue FC vs. Boston Breakers – In a nine-team league, you’ll get a few of these back-to-backs, giving us a chance to ask why this weekend should be any different. Exchanging Harvard’s turf for Yurcak’s grass could help, but if Sky Blue can’t beat Boston at home, they’re in trouble.

Houston Dash vs. FC Kansas City – If Becky Sauerbrunn and Nikki Phillips are their typical selves in FCKC’s central defense, this should play out like Portland’s visit to BBVA two weeks ago. The Dash will compete with the Blues, giving them occasional troubles while looking like the better team, in spurts. But Kansas City should be able to get a result.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.