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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.

French league responds after Mario Balotelli racially abused

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, at the Nice stadium, southeastern France. Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura says he will talk to forward Mario Balotelli before the Azzurri's next set of matches in March. Balotelli has revived his career in France, scoring eight goals in as many matches for Nice, but has not played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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PARIS (AP) The French league will open an investigation after Nice striker Mario Balotelli spoke out against Bastia fans he said made monkey noises during a match on Friday night.

[ MORE: City, Spurs draw, Reds fall to Swansea in Saturday’s PL action ]

In a brief statement Saturday afternoon, the French League said it “deplored all of the incidents” that happened on Friday. Before the match, Nice’s team bus had been pelted by stones as it arrived at the stadium.

[ MORE: Saturday’s results from around the Bundesliga ]

The LFP’s disciplinary committee will start looking into the matters when it convenes on Thursday and once it has received further information from officials and both clubs.

Balotelli wrote a message on his Instagram and Twitter pages earlier on Saturday, describing the abuse he heard during the 1-1 draw at the 20,000-capacity Armand Cesari stadium in Corsica and complaining that the French league had not acted swiftly enough.

“Is it normal that Bastia supporters make monkey noise (and) `uh’ `uh’ for the whole game and no one of the `commissions discipline’ say nothing?” Balotelli wrote, referencing the French league’s disciplinary committee. “So is racism legal in France? Or only in Bastia? Football is an amazing sport. Those people like Bastia supporters make it horrible!”

Balotelli, 26, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, concluded his post by writing in French that what happened was “une vrai honte,” or a total disgrace.

Nice’s official Twitter account shared Balotelli’s message. On its website, the French Riviera club threw its support behind Balotelli.

“Nice, which already had stones thrown at its bus before the game, is outraged by what happened to its players on Friday night, and in particular to Mario Balotelli,” a statement read.

Bastia did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking a response to Balotelli’s claim.

Balotelli joined from Liverpool on a free transfer in August and has scored eight league goals in 10 games to help Nice challenge for the title.

He did not say in his message whether or not he had informed referee Clement Turpin, who had the authority to stop the game, of the crowd’s actions. Commentators from broadcaster Canal Plus, which covered the game, made no mention of any racist abuse during the match.

In May 2013, when playing for Italian side AC Milan, Balotelli was subject to racist abuse from visiting Roma fans, causing the Serie A game to be briefly halted by the referee during the second half after warnings to stop the abuse were made throughout the stadium. Massimiliano Allegri, Milan’s coach at the time, made stinging comments against those who had racially abused Balotelli.

Bastia was docked two points by the LFP in the 2007-08 season after its fans racially abused Burkina Faso forward Boubacar Kebe by holding up a banner during a second-division home game against Libourne. The kickoff was delayed by a few minutes until the banner aimed at Kebe was removed.

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea looks to extend lead, Gunners host Burnley

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea (2L) celebrates with Filipe Luis (L) and Cesc Fabregas (2R) as he scores their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea received everything they wished for on Saturday after several of the Premier League’s big boys all dropped points in crushing fashion.

Now, the Blues have the opportunity to extend their gap at the top of England on Sunday while two other matches are slated on the day.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Southampton vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Saints will have to make do without one of its most important defensive figures following the sale of Jose Fonte, however, Claude Puel‘s men won’t have to deal with several of Leicester’s attacking threats as the African Cup of Nations rolls on. Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey will each be absent for the Foxes as they play for their respective sides at the tournament.

Southampton has taken points against Leicester in four straight PL fixtures (1 W, 3 D), however both sides have been vastly inconsistent in form throughout the campaign. Leicester striker Jamie Vardy and his side continue to struggle, with the Englishman having posted just five goals this season after netting 24 in league play a season ago.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man City, Spurs finish level ]


Arsenal vs. Burnley — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Gunners are unbeaten in five straight matches against Burnley, and Sunday presents the chance for Arsene Wenger‘s side to win its fifth consecutive fixture against the Clarets. Wenger’s men currently sit eight points behind league leaders Chelsea, and after the rest of the the PL’s title contenders slipped up on Saturday the Gunners will be looking to avoid any stumble at the Emirates Stadium.

Olivier Giroud is expected to be back for Arsenal, while Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin are also healthy once more. Meanwhile, the Clarets are said to be expecting Dean Marney, Ashley Barnes and Johann Berg Gudmundsson back in the squad after missing the team’s FA Cup victory during the midweek.

[ MORE: WATCH — Wayne Rooney’s top Man United goals ]


Chelsea vs. Hull City — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

The Blues will be expected to take advantage of this match but all eyes will be on Antonio Conte’s team sheet, particularly with close attention on Diego Costa. The Spaniard was said to have missed the team’s last PL match due to a back injury, although reports have also suggested interest from China. Chelsea has yet to lose to Hull in nine PL fixtures, having won seven encounters and drawn the other two matches.

Meanwhile, Hull could have some of its reinforcements available on Sunday, including Olympiakos defender Omar Elabdellaoui. The Tigers will have a massive task at hand against the Blues, who have won 14 of their last 15 league matches. Marco Silva’s side currently sits in the relegation zone, however, a victory could propel the team above both Crystal Palace and Swansea City.

Watch: USMNT midfielder Hyndman provides assist in Rangers debut win

United States midfielder Emerson Hyndman (8) gets past Cuba defender Adrian Arturo Diz Pe during the first half of a CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying soccer match Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Well, it didn’t take long for Emerson Hyndman to make an impression at his new club.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs finish level in Saturday’s PL action ]

The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder provided the game-winning assist for Scottish side Rangers in Saturday’s 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Motherwell after picking out Kenny Miller for his second goal of the match.

[ MORE: Ghana books place in AFCON quarterfinals, Egypt edges Uganda ]

Hyndman, 20, joined the Scottish giants in January after coming over on loan from Premier League side Bournemouth. The rising USMNT attacker only made three appearances for the Cherries prior to completing the loan move to Rangers.

The former FC Dallas academy product has risen through the USMNT set up over recent years, appearing for the Under-17, U-20 and U-23 sides before Hyndman earning his first cap with the senior team in 2014.

Check out Hyndman’s game-winning assist below.

La Liga & Serie A: Valencia stuns Villareal, Napoli defeats AC Milan

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 10: Santi Mina of Valencia runs with the ball during the Copa del Rey Semi Final, second leg match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Mestalla on February 10, 2016 in Valencia, Spain. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Villareal 0-2 Valencia

In a dramatic and purely unexpected result, Salvador González Marco’s side picked up a massive win over the sixth place Villareal in order to give Valencia some space above the bottom three. Valencia has now won two straight matches in league play, after goals from Carlos Soler and Santi Mina lifted the bottom half side.

Real Madrid 2-1 Malaga

Sergio Ramos scored twice in the first half for the hosts, and it turned out to be enough for Real to end its recent losing streak. The Madridistas got back on track Saturday with its victory over Malaga, opening up a four-point lead in La Liga over second place Sevilla. Malaga made the match interesting just beyond the hour mark when Juanpi pulled a goal back for the visitors, however, the 13th place side couldn’t muster up a second tally.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 3-1 Granada
Alaves 2-2 Leganes

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Sevilla (6 a.m. ET)
Athletic Bilbao vs. Atletico Madrid (10 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Sporting Gijon (12:30 a.m. ET)
Real Sociedad vs. Celta Vigo (12:30 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Barcelona (2:45 p.m. ET)


 

AC Milan 1-2 Napoli

A lousy start from the hosts couldn’t be overcome on Saturday. Early goals from Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon inside of the opening 10 minutes helped give Napoli the lead, while Juraj Kucka scored the lone goal for AC Milan. The Rossoneri have fallen to fifth place in Serie A following Saturday’s defeat, leaving Milan eight points behind Juventus. Meanwhile, Napoli has ascended to within a single point of the league leaders.

Chievo 0-3 Fiorentina

The Viola were in firm control against their bottom half opposition, and Chievo simply couldn’t come up with an answer at the Stadio Marc`Antonio Bentegodi. Cristian Tello gave the visitors a 1-0 lead heading into the half before Khouma Babacar and Federico Chiesa tacked on two more finishes in the second stanza. Fiorentina currently sits eighth in Italy’s top flight while Chievo trails the Viola by eight points.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna vs. Cagliari (6:30 a.m. ET)
Chievo vs. Lazio (9 a.m. ET)
Genoa vs. Fiorentina (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Torino (9 a.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (9 a.m. ET)
Pescara vs. Inter Milan (2:45 p.m. ET)