NWSL Digest: Seattle still perfect, Red Stars surge, Wambach not making friends

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source:  Player of the Week

Lori Chalupny’s consistency throughout the NWSL’s first season made her a fringe MVP candidate last year, with the oft-cited distinction of being the league’s most fouled and most fouling player underscoring her constantly influence. Through the first month of the league’s second season, however, Chicago’s red star had been relatively quiet, rarely making an impact that drew consideration for our teams of the week, let alone replicating her MVP-level performance.

Over the last two games, that changed. Last Thursday, Chalupny scored her first goal of the season in the Red Stars’ 3-1 win over Boston. Three days later, in the team’s return engagement at Harvard Stadium, a more controversial goal in Chicago’s 4-1 win completed the midfielder’s two-goal week. Though her second may have been offside, it was still a reflection of the midfielder’s perpetual influence.

Chalupny’s still leading the league in fouls (15), and she’s still being fouled more than any player on the circuit (16). After last week’s games, though, she’s finally back on the scoresheet. And with apologies to teammate Jen Hoy, Washington’s Jodie Taylor, and Portland’s Nadine Angerer (because my midfield bias may be showing here), Chalupny also edged the field for our Player of the Week honor.

Results

Wednesday, May 14
Houston Dash 0, Portland Thorns 1 – Three good saves from open play and a penalty kick stop from Angerer gave Portland its second 1-0 of the year at BBVA Compass. Jessica McDonald’s fourth goal of the year provided the winner, with Houston still without a goal at home.
Seattle Reign 3, FC Kansas City 2 – Seattle’s two quick goals were pulled back by a Lauren Holiday penalty kick and an Erika Tymrak rocket. Late in the match, Seattle’s midfield took over, with Keelin Winters providing a late game-winner to keep the Reign perfect through seven.

Thursday, May 15
Boston Breakers 1, Chicago Red Stars 3 – Goals from Chalupny, Michelle Wenino, and Hoy overwhelmed Courtney Jones’ early opener, providing an ominous foreshadowing for the teams’ rematch three days later.

Saturday, May 17
Washington Spirit 3, Western New York 2 – A contentious game in Maryland saw Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd answer Taylor’s early opener by halftime. In the second, a Kathryn Williamson own goal and Taylor’s winner gave Washington revenge for its early season loss to the Flash, a result that incurred the wrath of Wambach on multiple levels (see below).

Sunday, May 18
FC Kansas City 2, Houston Dash 2 – Jordan Jackson and Tiffany McCarty scored Houston’s fourth and fifth goals of the season, responding to FC Kansas City goals each time. Despite a strong performance midweek in Seattle, Kansas City wasted its chance to gain ground at home, allowing Houston to end its four-game losing streak.

Team of the Week

Forwards Midfielders Defenders Goalkeeper
Jen Hoy, Chicago
Jodie Taylor, Washington
Lori Chalupny, Chicago
Erika Tymrak, Kansas City
Kim Little, Seattle
Keelin Winters, Seattle
Michelle Wenino, Chicago
Kendall Fletcher, Seattle
Emily Menges, Portland
Robyn Gayle, Washington
Nadine Angerer, Portland

Standings

NWSL Pts GP W L T GF GA GD
Seattle Reign FC 21 7 7 0 0 16 4 12
Chicago Red Stars 13 7 4 2 1 10 5 5
Portland Thorns FC 11 6 3 1 2 7 4 3
FC Kansas City 11 9 3 4 2 15 15 0
Western New York Flash 10 6 3 2 1 10 7 3
Washington Spirit 9 7 3 4 0 11 13 -2
Sky Blue FC 6 7 1 3 3 6 10 -4
Houston Dash 4 7 1 5 1 5 13 -8
Boston Breakers 3 6 1 5 0 7 16 -9

Quick thoughts, after week six

1. Seattle passes first big tests – We said it before: Wait until the Reign are done with Portland before talking about their future. After their 1-0 win at Providence Park (and their subsequent response to Kansas City’s challenge), it’s fair to start thinking, if not outright expecting, a title run. The two big challenges we want to see them pass: (a) a trip to Rochester, (b) a face-off with a fully stocked Thorns. A post-Christen Press Chicago might have a say in this, too.

2. Defense was supposed to be the problem for Portland – Rachel Van Hollebeke hasn’t played a game, Williamson’s in Western New York, and Marian Dougherty’s calling games from the press box. With the back line overhauled, defense was supposed to be the weak link for the Thorns. Instead, through six weeks, Paul Riley might have the best group of defenders in the league. Seattle’s goals allowed rate is better, but a lot of that work is being done in front of the defense. With Riley’s revamped line and the addition of Angerer, Portland’s proving surprisingly stalwart near goal.

3. Don’t worry about Kansas City – Fans could look at the Houston result and muster pessimism about their Blues, and in the face of a 3-4-2 start, that wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted. It’s a conclusion that would shortchange the Dash, though. And on short rest, traveling after a turf game in Seattle, a team that’s so reliant on Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Cheney was also apt to wane. Wednesday was the real Kansas City, though if Tymrak continues doing this (from Sunday against Houston), there’s a big three of Holiday, Rodriguez, and Tymrak should prove more potent than last year’s group.

4. Second place Chicago has a mighty enviable midfield – There’s only one team that shouldn’t be jealous of Chicago’s midfield, and they’re 7-0-0. With Chalupny and Julie Johnston pulled into the middle Vanessa DiBernardo, the Red Stars have a core that can sustain a playoff challenge. We’re only one-third of the way through the season, but it looks like the Red Stars and Kansas City may end up fighting it out for the fourth playoff spot.

And a final, not so quick thought …

5. Abby Wambach’s disappointing week – Wambach scored her team’s first goal this weekend, an equalizer which looked ready to spark the favored Flash to a win at Washington. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there:

1. Wambach’s team ended up losing, 3-2, to a Spirit side that’s proving a refreshing change from the one that settled at the bottom of last year’s standings.

2. It’s hard to tell here whether Wambach, jogging toward goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, hits Washington’s Tori Huster in the chest or chin, below. She certainly went out of her way. She certainly hit her unnecessarily. Whether it warrants more than a foul, you be the judge:

After what Carli Lloyd did to DiBernardo, this is not a good look for Western New York.

3. Speaking off Lloyd, Wambach excluded her from post-match criticism directed at the rest of her team, singling out some of Aaran Lines’ Spanish imports after the team’s loss. From Equalizer Soccer:

“Moving forward, I think when Carli and I are both on the field that doesn’t mean that other players can’t step up and play big games for us and I think that’s a lesson to be learned,” Wambach said. “Carli and I are great players obviously, we’re on the National Team, we have experience, we’ve been playing this for many years but the other players, the Vicky Losada’s (sic), the Sonia [Bermudezes], they need to step up and play as well when we’re not on the field as when we’re on the field. And it’s a lesson to be learned because Carli and I, even when we’re on the field sometimes we don’t have great games sometimes we’re off a little bit and we’re going to need our teammates around us to pick us up. The only reason we’ve ever gotten to where we’ve gotten to in our careers is because of the players that surround us and players that pick us up when we need it.”

Given how Losada and (particularly) Bermudez have played this year, Wambach’s were surprising words. If you were going to make a list of problems with Western New York, Losada and Bermudez wouldn’t make the cut.

At a minimum, there’s not enough evidence to say they’re taking games off when the Flash’s U.S. stars are around. Saturday was the first time Wambach and Lloyd have played together all season.

Perhaps Washington just played well. Or maybe some players did have off days. Maybe the Spaniards didn’t respond well to the game’s physicality, or perhaps Wambach is just reading the situation wrong. Regardless, for a player that has tremendous sway, this is a terrible way to use that clout.

Wambach may be calling it as she sees it, but it’s one of the more disrespectful things you can do to a teammate. It’s hard to imagine, two months into her working relationship with Losada and Bermudez, anything justifying this treatment.

League Leaders

Goals
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP GOALS
1 Amy Rodriguez KC 8 6
2 Kim Little SEA 7 6
3 Jessica McDonald POR 6 4
4 Abby Wambach WNY 3 3
5 Diana Matheson WAS 7 3
6 Lauren Holiday KC 8 3
7 Allie Long POR 5 3
8 Erika Tymrak KC 7 3
9 Jen Hoy CHI 7 3
Assists
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP ASSISTS
1 Lauren Holiday KC 8 3
2 Jessica Fishlock SEA 7 3
3 Jenna Richmond KC 9 3
4 Vicky Losada WNY 5 3

Power Rankings

RANKING
Up/Down
source:  1 Seattle Reign FC: Perfect as they approach the one-third point of their season, the Reign still don’t have Sydney Leroux clicking. They don’t have Megan Rapinoe healthy, either. As long as they have that midfield, the team can make up for a myriad issues. (7-0-0)

2
Western New York Flash: We could bump the Flash down based on this weekend’s defeat, but losing by one goal at Washington is no longer that big a deal. To us, Western New York is still the second best team in the league. One day in Maryland did nothing to dispel that notion. (3-2-1)
source:  3 Portland Thorns FC: Riley continues collecting points while much of his talent is gone. He wants to play a more expansive style, but until Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, and Veronica Boquete arrive, he’ll be more industrious about how he collects results. (3-1-2)

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4 UP 2 Chicago Red Stars: Chicago’s put itself in position to compete for the postseason, collecting enough points in this pre-Press period to sit second after six weeks. If their U.S. international can productively slide into Hayley Brock/Zaiya Bywaters’ spot when she arrives from Tyresö, Kansas City’s slow start will come back to haunt them. (4-2-1)
source:  5 DOWN 1 FC Kansas City: The Blues’ hiccups wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for Chicago. With the Red Stars flashing their playoff credentials, there’s pressure on Kansas City to improve. (3-4-2)
source:  6 Washington Spirit: Expecting them to compete for the playoffs may be too much, but the Spirit’s progress from last season has been one of the season’s best stories thus far. (3-4-0)

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7 Sky Blue FC: Taylor Lytle, out after breaking her leg, could prove a big loss for a team that needs creativity in midfield. Now it will be up to Katy Freels, Sophie Schmidt, and Nanase Kiryu to pick up the slack. Sky Blue looks unlikely to replicate last year’s postseason appearance. (1-3-3)
source:  8 UP 1 Houston Dash: Two good games from Jordan Jackson give the Dash hope of goals from midfield, but the problem remains up top. Kealia Ohai, Tiffany McCarty, Ella Masar, and Stephanie Ochs have combined for two goals in 25 appearances. Perhaps Nina Burger will solve the problem, but Randy Waldrum may have erred by trying to succeed where the 2013 Spirit failed. (1-5-1)
source:  9 DOWN 1 Boston Breakers: You can point to the sudden departure of Kia McNeill, but Boston is the only team in the league that seems so incapable of addressing its problems in defense. The organization is in danger of being left behind by a league that’s proving more competitive off the field than its predecessor. (1-5-0)

Week Seven

Wednesday, May 25
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue, 7:00 p.m. Eastern – Like the men’s professional team in the D.C. area, the next challenge for the Spirit is dealing with its relative success. It’s one thing to be a plucky upstart. It’s another to be expected to take the game to some opponents.
FC Kansas City vs. Seattle Reign FC, 8:00 p.m. Eastern – If last week’s game in Seattle is any indication, tonight could be the end of the Reign’s perfect start. With seven days’ rest to Kansas City’s three, however, Seattle may see fresher legs carry them through.
Portland Thorns vs. Western New York, 10:00 p.m. Eastern – The Flash had the better of the teams’ first meeting but ended up drawn in Rochester. They’ll be traveling to face a team who’ll have three extra days off.

Friday, May 27
Houston Dash vs. Chicago Red Stars, 8:00 p.m. Eastern – Houston may be near Boston in the standings, but the Dash will provide a completely different challenge for the Red Stars. After claiming a point in Missouri, Waldrum’s group may also be good for a result on Friday.

Saturday, May 28
Portland Thorns vs. Sky Blue, 10:00 p.m. Eastern – Sky Blue’s deep midfield and compact defense troubled Portland last year. The Thorns’ midfield play has improved, but they’ll need help from Kat Tarr and Courtney Niemiec if Jim Gabarra employs the same approach.

Sunday, May 29
Boston Breakers vs. FC Kansas City, 7:00 p.m. Eastern – This is a litmus test for Kansas City. There’s nothing about the Breakers team that says they should get a point from the Blues. If, however, playing on the road prevents Vlatko Andonovski’s team from taking advantage of Boston, how can they expect to keep up with Chicago?
Seattle Reign vs. Western New York Flash, 7:00 p.m. Eastern – The Reign finally get Western New York, doing so after Portland’s run the Flash around Providence Park on Wednesday. For all the things that went wrong for Seattle last year, they’re breaking the right way in 2014.

At 0-2, Americans understand stakes in World Cup qualifying

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Michael Bradley sees no reason to keep harping on that 4-0 loss at Costa Rica four months ago.

Yes, it’s still fresh in the Americans’ minds, a night every mistake snowballed into another.

“There is zero point in continuing to look back on that at the moment,” Bradley said. “We are where we are. Now it’s about on Friday night beginning this process of moving ourselves back up the table and stepping on the field from the first minute and playing a really aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt as to who’s stepping off the field, win or lose.”

Bruce Arena’s U.S. squad gets a fresh start in World Cup qualifying Friday against Honduras, and the pressure is on following the home country’s first 0-2 start in the North and Central American and Caribbean region’s final round.

“We understand the position we’re in,” Bradley said. “There’s no need for anybody on the outside to put any more pressure on us than we’ve already put on ourselves, because we didn’t start the hex in the right way. We put ourselves behind the eight ball. We’re honest and real enough with ourselves to understand that. Friday night is the beginning of our chance to put things right and get ourselves back in a good position. … We need guys to step on the field and understand the moment, not be fazed by it, go for it in a fearless way and have a big group of guys play really well.”

Forward Jordan Morris’ status for Friday appears in question after he missed a third straight day of practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury sustained Sunday with the Seattle Sounders. Morris rehabbed in the gym, the U.S. Soccer Federation said.

“Have you followed our team at all the last month? You think that’s going to be something that’s going to bother me?” Arena said at the start of the week when asked about health concerns. “We’re fine. We’re going to have 11 good players on the field on Friday.”

For those who do play, Bradley said it is paramount everybody brings his best game. Same goes for the Americans’ next match in Panama on Tuesday.

While the man in charge has changed – Arena replaced the fired Jurgen Klinsmann in November for a second stint as U.S. coach – and more Major League Soccer players were called upon this time than in November, Bradley insists the approach remains simple: Find a way to win.

“We stepped on the field in Costa Rica wanting to win. That desire to win is obviously still there, so in terms of the basic idea of stepping on the field and trying to play well and go for it in the right way and come away with a positive result, that part’s still the same obviously,” the longtime captain said. “There’s no two ways about it, we let ourselves down in Costa Rica. We didn’t play well enough. Mistakes turned into bigger mistakes, which turned into bigger mistakes, and so it all comes together in a way that you can lose a game in a bad way.”

And, there are many faces who have been on the big stage – Bradley, included.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard started the past two World Cups. Howard, four-time World Cup participant defender DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey played for Arena leading into the coach’s last World Cup qualifying, in 2005. Jozy Altidore brings experience up front.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Howard said. “It’s helpful that we have guys who have been through the hex before, who understand what that takes and the pressures that are on us. Yeah, it’s a big game.”

Bradley isn’t getting fancy when it comes to what the U.S. group must do.

“Winning. Three points,” Bradley said. “That’s it.”

“For us the reality is simple: We let ourselves down in the first two games,” he said. “It means that our margin for error is very, very small, but nothing’s changed in that we still feel good about the team that we have, the group that we are. I think that Bruce has come in and done an excellent job in terms of re-establishing certain things, getting at a few things. The mentality, the spirit in training and around the group both in January and now this week has been excellent, so we’re getting a little excited about the chance to step on the field in a big-time qualifier.”

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”