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.

Europa League preview: Arsenal in Serbia, Everton desperate vs. Lyon

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The twelve groups of the UEFA Europa League bring forth soccer on Thursday, with a bevy of matches dotting the continent.

[ MORE: Full Europa schedule ]

Here are the top five matches to keep an eye on.

Everton vs. Lyon — 3:05 p.m. ET

If you would’ve told Ronald Koeman his Toffees would walk into this match with just one point but sit only another behind Lyon, he’d probably tell you to take a hike. But Lyon drew 1-1 at Apollon Limassol and 1-1 at home to Atalanta, opening the door for Everton to finish the day in Group E’s top two slots.

Nabil Fekir and Real Madrid loanee Mariano Diaz have seven goals each for Lyon, while ex-Premier Leaguers Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore are also key components of the French outfit’s attack.

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET

Arsenal in Europa has been pretty thrilling, with 3-1 and 4-2 wins under Arsene Wenger‘s belt ahead of the first of two with the 1991 European Cup winners. It’s a nice challenge for Canadian national team backstop Milan Borjan, who should be the man to try to thwart the Gunners in Serbia.

Hoffenheim vs. Istanbul Basaksehir — 3:05 p.m. ET

The favorites to win the group are dead last in the group as they welcome the perceived group underdogs from Turkey. The Super Lig runners-up have some familiar names on the roster with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Eljero Elia, Mevlut Erdinc, Gokhan Inler, Aurelien Chedjou, and Emre Belozoglu.

AC Milan vs. AEK Athens — 3:05 p.m. ET

Milan has been burying goals in Europa play, with five at Austria Wien and three in a home win over Rijeka. Enter Athens, which has scooped up four points in group play and will look for a win to put them ahead of the group-leading Rossoneri.

Nice vs. Lazio — 1 p.m. ET

The only group with a pair of 2-0 teams. Mario Balotelli is plenty familiar with his Roman opposition from his time in Serie A.

Probe finds racial discrimination by England women’s coach

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LONDON (AP) Former England women’s team coach Mark Sampson racially discriminated against two of his players, a fresh Football Association investigation has concluded after initially dismissing allegations of wrongdoing and prompting a damaging public row with striker Eni Aluko.

Sampson was cleared of discrimination by earlier FA investigations but was fired last month because of an unrelated case of inappropriate conduct toward players in a previous job.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Only now has a barrister considered new evidence about Sampson’s conduct toward England internationals Aluko and Drew Spence, with the details being released ahead of a parliamentary hearing.

“I have concluded that on two separate occasions, MS (Sampson) has made ill-judged attempts at humor, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on grounds of race,” barrister Katharine Newton wrote in the report.

One racially discriminatory comment by Sampson in 2014 toward Aluko requested her family members from Nigeria didn’t come to a game because of Ebola.

“MS (Sampson) did treat EA (Aluko) less favorably than he would have treated a player who was not of African descent,” Newton wrote. “MS had therefore subjected EA to less favorable treatment because of her ethnicity.”

During a team meeting in 2015, Sampson also asked Spence if she had been to prison, and then suggested she had been arrested four times. Newton concluded that the comment was made “because of her ethnicity.”

[ MORE: Hamid leaving DC United ]

FA chief executive Martin Glenn apologized to Aluko and Spence before the hearing. But Aluko told legislators that Glenn’s earlier conduct toward her was “bordering on blackmail” after he threatened to withhold payments from an 80,000 pound ($105,000) financial settlement unless she published a statement saying the FA “was not institutionally racist.”

With Aluko sitting behind him, Glenn later told the hearing that the player had not been blackmailed.

Instead Glenn said that an August tweet by Aluko – “at least we now know the FA’s stance on derogatory racial remarks by an England manager. Ignore, deny, endorse” – was a “clear breach of the agreement.”

Aluko, who was part of the team that finished third at the 2015 World Cup, has not played for England since making her 102nd appearance in April 2016.

There was a more apologetic tone from Glenn in his written statement on Wednesday, saying that Sampson’s conduct was “not acceptable” and he “would like to sincerely apologize” to Aluko and Spence.

“Our ambition has always been to find the truth and take swift and appropriate action if needed,” Glenn said. “It was our decision to have the original, second and final investigation to ensure that due diligence was taken. It is regrettable that Eniola did not participate in the first external investigation as this would have enabled Katharine Newton to conduct and complete her investigation sooner.”

Report: Hamid leaving DC United to “push himself” elsewhere

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Bill Hamid is taking his talents elsewhere.

The 26-year-old has been with DC United since 2007, making an even 200 appearances across all competitions.

[ MORE: Champions League at halfway mark ]

Hamid is thrice capped by the United States and widely considering to be one of the best shot-stoppers in the league, but the Washington Post’s Steven Goff says Hamid wants to showcase himself on a new stage.

“I want to push myself and see how far I can go because I know I have the work ethic and the hunger to take myself very far in this game. I know I can make it to the next level.”

Hamid is likely to wind up in Europe, and Goff said Danish club Midtjylland is the favorite. He’s also been scouted by Eintracht Frankfurt.

With a new United States men’s national team coach set to be appointed and Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando all on the back end of their time with the USMNT, Hamid has to look at himself as competing with Ethan Horvath and any number of young prospects.

Horvath is 22 and starting for Club Brugge. If their season continues on its pace, he’ll have a Belgian title and a Norwegian title under his belt.

U-20 players Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha Berlin), Brady Scott (Koln), and Justin Vom Steeg (Fortuna Dusseldorf) are in German systems, while U-17 World Cup starters CJ dos Santos is at Benfica.

Age when making European debut and club
Tim Howard, 24, Manchester United
Brad Friedel, 23, Newcastle United
Brad Guzan, 23, Aston Villa
Kasey Keller, 23, Millwall
Tony Meola, 21, Brighton and Hove Albion
Ethan Horvath, 19, Molde

Surprises, disappointments halfway through Champions League group stage

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Clubs have met each of their group mates once, giving us an imperfect but workable sample size for the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Five groups have a side boasting a 3-0 record, while four clubs have yet to seize a single point.

[ CHAMPS LEAGUE: Tuesday | Weds. ]

Some of the strugglers, like 0-1-2 Maribor and 0-1-2 APOEL, are not surprises. And it’s no shock to see Manchester United at perfect 3-0 given its draw.

Others? Well, that’s not the case.

Status down 

While Manchester United is a perfect 3-0 in Group A, raise your hand if you figured Benfica would have just one goal and zero points through three matches. Benfica’s also played two of its three home ties, making the knockout rounds a dream.

Atletico Madrid has found the UEFA Champions League Final in two of the last four seasons, but finds itself with work to do moving forward. Atleti’s Wednesday draw at Qarabag leaves it three points behind Roma and five back of leaders Chelsea. Diego Simeone’s men still host Roma and Qarabag, so points are out there.

Serie A play has been gorgeous for Napoli, who has failed to bring that momentum to Group F. It’s worth noting that a missed penalty by red-hot Dries Mertens could’ve earned the Neapolitans a point at Man City on Tuesday, but as it stands Napoli is three points back of Shakhtar and could be six back before the Ukrainians visit on Nov. 21.

It turns out you can’t sell everyone and expect the youth to come through shining. Monaco is at the bottom of a very winnable group, having lost at home to Porto and Besiktas. Still just three points behind RB Leipzig, they’ll need to win at Monaco and/or Besiktas to have any hope of the knockout rounds.

Borussia Dortmund got a rough deal from officials when it visited Wembley Stadium, but losses to Spurs and Real Madrid can happen in a group stage. Tuesday’s draw at APOEL Nicosia, however, is close to a backbreaker.

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images).

Status up

Spurs draw at Real Madrid may have been aided by a huge performance from Hugo Lloris, but goalkeepers — as you know — are actual components of a team. This is in fact a group of death, but the North Londoners are holding a scythe. If Mauricio Pochettino can lead a home win over Real Madrid at a raucous Wembley on All Saints Day, well, look out!

Cenk Tosun has gone from sleepy transfer target to the tip of many gossipers’ tongues, as Besiktas is a perfect 3-0 including wins at Monaco and Porto. Anderson Talisca and… wait for it… Ryan Babel (!!) have also starred for the Turkish powers who will almost certainly see the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Pep Guardiola‘s done this Champions League dance, you know, and Manchester City has weathered all storms. That includes conceded two penalties — one was saved by Ederson — as a down performance versus Napoli still ended with a home win. If City can win at the Stadio San Paolo on Nov. 1, Pep can sleepwalk into the final two matches (though that’s not his style).

Roma has a classy draw at Chelsea and has gathered five points including four away from home. Mimic that mark and i Lupi will be a challenge in the knockout rounds.

Neymar was best pals with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez last season at Barcelona, but having a less-than-perfect relationship with Edinson Cavani hasn’t hurt a thing in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain is for real, scoring 12 times and yet to concede in wins over Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht.

Grey area

Liverpool leads its group and advancing is really the only goal, but there’s something off-putting about the home draw against Sevilla. The 1-1 draw at Spartak Moscow looks better now that the Russians hammered Sevilla 5-1, but a return visit from Maribor next should help the Reds buttress their stock.

Be careful how finely you analyze a club as accomplished as two-time reigning champs Real Madrid, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s men don’t look so hot. Still well-positioned to move on, keep a close eye on how they look at Wembley in a few weeks.

Holding pattern

Chelsea‘s 3-3 draw versus Roma today was its first real stumble of the UCL, but there shouldn’t be too many alarm bells considering their injury problems and Roma’s desperation. Consider their status even, especially given their clever win at Atletico Madrid.

Jose Mourinho is doing a fine job with Manchester United, but it’s really hard to praise the club too much for doing what’s expected in a glorified Europa League group. Clearly Sir Alex Ferguson was involved in the icing some of the draw balls again…