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NWSL Digest: Denting Seattle’s armor, testing the Flash, and Chicago’s continued rise

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source:  Player of the Week

Here’s how evil it is that Kim Little and Jessica Fishlock — two of the best midfielders in the world, let alone the NWSL — are on the same team: Even if you have teams with midfielders who can contain the Little problem, Fishlock can just surge out of her shuttler’s role, exploit the areas you’ve exposed, and flash the talents that made her one of the league’s best players last season. With two such dangerous, complete players in the same team, your reward for containing with one is ceding room for the other.

Consider Fishlock’s goal on Sunday against Western New York. With her team having more trouble than usual creating chances, Fishlock took advantage of the attention Western New York gave Little to get into the Flash’s penalty area. Queue Stephanie Cox’s pinpoint cross, a deceptively good finish, and Seattle had its early equalizer.

It was the high point of Fishlock’s week, but it also showcased why the Seattle midfield has the league’s defining force. So much of the threesome’s success is about Little, Fishlock, and Winters reading each other, knowing that Little is the attacking tip while Winters is the defensive anchor. Fishlock is the more malleable part, bridging that gap. As opponents adjust, she does, too.

On Sunday in Seattle, that meant an opportunity to get onto the scoresheet. Midweek against Kansas City, that meant helping Winters and looking for spots to even out the numbers game Little was fighting higher up. They type of play may not produce league-leading numbers, but without Fishlock’s play over the last seven days, Seattle would not have preserved the “0” in its loss column.

Results

May 21, 2014
Washington Spirit 3, Sky Blue FC 3 – Some soft hands from Jillian Loyden and a disputed penalty called against Jonelle Filigno saw Sky Blue’s late 3-1 late disappear, with Washington salvaging a point from a match they were expected to win.
FC Kansas City 1, Seattle Reign FC 1 – Seattle came into the game with a perfect record but fell behind when Hope Solo couldn’t prevent Amy Rodriguez’s seventh goal of the season. Kim Little equalized from the spot two minutes later, pulling her even with Rodriguez at the top of the league’s scoring chart, but the Reign still dropped their first points of 2014.
Portland Thorns FC 2, Western New York Flash 1 – The Thorns’ best performance of the season saw goals from Allie Long and Jessica McDonald put the team up two just after halftime. McCall Zerboni’s response and a late Flash surge briefly put the match in doubt, but missing Angela Salem, Western New York couldn’t salvage a result in Portland.

May 23, 2014
Houston Dash 1, Chicago Red Stars 3 – Ella Masar scored the first Dash goal at BBVA Compass Stadium, but quick answers from Alyssa Mautz and Jen Hoy ensured the Red Stars would stay in second place come the end of the weekend.

May 24, 2014
Portland Thorns FC 0, Sky Blue FC 1 – For the second year in a row, Sky Blue executes a smash-and-grab in Portland, with Kelley O’Hara’s late header giving the visitors the upset at Providence Park.

May 25, 2014
Boston Breakers 0, FC Kansas City 2 – Rodriguez continued the duel she’s taken up with Little, complementing Nikki Phillips’ opener to help deliver the team’s fourth win of the season.
Seattle Reign FC 2, Western New York Flash 2 – Two New York leads, two Seattle equalizers kept the Reign unbeaten, but as head coach Laura Harvey confessed after the match, the Flash made her team work harder than it has against its previous opponents.

May 26, 2014
Washington Spirit 3, Houston Dash 2 – A dramatic late winner from Christine Nairn left Houston with too little time to find a third equalizer, with a rare multi-goal performance from the goal-shy Dash going for naught in Maryland.

Team of the Week

Forwards Midfielders Defenders Goalkeeper
Amy Rodriguez, Kansas City Jessica Fishlock, Seattle
Kim Little, Seattle
Diana Matheson, Washington
Jen Buczkowski, Kansas City
Kelley O’Hara, Sky Blue
Merritt Mathias, Kansas City
Becky Sauerbrunn, Kansas City
Christie Rampone, Sky Blue
Stephanie Cox, Seattle
Karina LeBlanc, Chicago

Standings

Pts GP W L T GF GA GD Pts/GM
1 Seattle Reign FC 23 9 7 0 2 19 7 12 2.56
2 Chicago Red Stars 16 8 5 2 1 13 6 7 2.00
3 FC Kansas City 15 11 4 4 3 18 16 2 1.36
4 Portland Thorns FC 14 8 4 2 2 9 6 3 1.75
5 Washington Spirit 13 9 4 4 1 17 18 -1 1.44
6 Western New York Flash 11 8 3 3 2 13 11 2 1.38
7 Sky Blue FC 10 9 2 3 4 10 13 -3 1.11
8 Houston Dash 4 9 1 7 1 8 19 -11 0.44
9 Boston Breakers 3 7 1 6 0 7 18 -11 0.43

Quick thoughts, after week seven

1. The NWSL is back on television – Six regular season games and all three postseason matches make up the league’s new package with ESPN, only unlike last year’s pact with FOX that distributed games to a number of different venues, ESPN is focusing on a few, select places: Houston, Portland, Western New York. Though three games will be on ESPN3, the other matches, including the playoff games, will be on ESPN2. The league’s convinced a new partner of the product’s value.

2. Tyresö’s coming – The Swedish club’s stars made thin amends for last Thursday’s loss with a weekend win over Damallsvenskan-leading Rosengård – a game that served as the send off for the likes of Christen Press, Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, and Veronica Boquete (among others). Those stars have now departed the fledgling club for their NWSL destinations: Chicago (Press); Houston (Engen, Klingenberg); and Portland (Boquete).

Paul Riley has eagerly awaited his reunion with Boquete since acquiring her rights from the Flash, while Rory Dames gets the biggest goal-scoring threat he’s had during his time with the Red Stars.

3. Two holders slow up Seattle – Both FC Kansas City and Western New York made Seattle look vulnerable, a quality they’d rarely flashed through their first seven games. The commonalities between those opponents: Talented midfields that play two holders.

If teams start bracing against the influence of Little and Fishlock, the performance of Sydney Leroux and Beverly Goebel becomes more important. As do the returns of Nahomi Kawasumi and Megan Rapinoe.

4. Western New York knows what they’re up against – The Flash’s Cascadia road trip wouldn’t look so bad had they beat Washington before their West Coast excursion. With that loss to the Spirit, however, Western New York has one point from its last three games.

Results on the field, however, weren’t that bad. The Flash were within minutes of handing Seattle its first loss of the season, while in Portland, a down performance without one of the team’s key players (Salem) still nearly produced a result.

Western New York is in sixth place, but there’s no reason to think they’re the league’s sixth-best team. As Sunday showed, they’re much better than that.

5. The Alex Morgan tease –

Technically Morgan, yet to play a minute this year, was available to play, dressing in Paul Riley’s 18 to face visiting Sky Blue. When she didn’t come on late as the Thorns chased a 1-0 lead, it was clear she was never meant to play. Whether Paulson, Portland’s owner, knew that or not is unclear. Some fans felt trolled.

It’s more likely Paulson, 24 hours before the game, thought his star might play and sent out an honest, unintentional mistake. That the team came was coming off a low, Wednesday night crowd (by their standards: 10,920) aroused suspicions, as did a Timbers kickoff time in New York that could have kept some soccer fans in bars (4:00 p.m. PT, three hours before the Thorns game).

Regardless, whereas at one time she was out indefinitely, Morgan is inching closer toward a Portland return, one that should open the tap on the team’s incoming talent. The next time Paulson tweets about his biggest star, she’ll likely be on the field.

League Leaders

Goals
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP GOALS
1 Amy Rodriguez KC 10 8
2 Kim Little SEA 9 8
3 Diana Matheson WAS 9 5
4 Jessica McDonald POR 8 5
5 Abby Wambach WNY 5 4
6 Allie Long POR 7 4
7 Jen Hoy CHI 8 4
Assists
RANK PLAYER TEAM GP ASSISTS
1 Jen Buczkowski KC 11 3
2 Crystal Dunn WAS 9 3
3 Lauren Holiday KC 10 3
4 Beverly Goebel SEA 9 3
5 Jessica Fishlock SEA 9 3
6 Vanessa DiBernardo CHI 8 3
7 Jenna Richmond KC 11 3
8 Vicky Losada WNY 7 3

Power Rankings

RANKING
Up/Down
source:  1 Seattle Reign FC: As good as the Reign are, Sunday showed the team can still be so much better. With Naho Kawasumi at Asian Cup, the team’s front three stopped creating chances. At some point, Leroux and Goebel may have to produce.  (7-0-2)

2
Western New York Flash: We didn’t drop them after losing in Maryland, so we’re not going to drop them after two close results on the road against contenders. The record doesn’t look great, but the quality Western New York showed on Sunday was clear. They’ll eventually make up the points they’ve lost. (3-3-2)
source:  3 Portland Thorns FC: One step forward, one step back. As impressive as Portland was in its win over Western New York, the team was equally disappointing in losing to Sky Blue. With 16, Christine Sinclair is third in the league in shots on target, but the Thorns captain still doesn’t have a goal. (4-2-2)

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4 Chicago Red Stars: Chicago’s won four in a row, but each win has come against Boston or Houston. Until they can knock off one of the top five teams on this list, it’s difficult to move then much higher than four. (5-2-1)
source:  5 FC Kansas City: Amy Rodriguez continues to score, Erika Tymrak is coming around, but for this team to reach its potential, 2014 Lauren Holiday needs to find the form of 2013 Lauren Cheney. She’s still one of the league’s best players, if not its best No. 10, but she’s not playing at an MVP-level. If she can get back to that standard, FC Kansas City will contend at the top of the table. (4-4-3)

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6 UP 1 Sky Blue FC: A four-point week for Sky Blue reminds the rest of the league: Although this group may not return to the postseason, they can beat anybody. Portland, coming off its win over Western New York, may have taken Jim Gabarra’s crew for granted. (2-3-4)
source:  7 DOWN 1 Washington Spirit: Last week we talked about the difference between playing as an upstart and performing as a favorite. In two games at home last week, the Spirit drew mixed results, coming from behind to draw Sky Blue while cutting it close against Houston. They still have to adjust to their newfound, relative success. (4-4-1)
source:  8 Houston Dash: Midfielder Jordan Jackson, a fourth round draft pick, had been one of the Dash’s best players over the last two weeks, but after taking a corner kick to the head while covering short, the former Cornhusker is out indefinitely. Even with Whitey Engen and Meghan Klingenberg arriving, Houston is one team that can’t afford to lose a quality player. (1-7-1)
source:  9 Boston Breakers: We’re quickly running out of ways to explain why Boston is not good. For a team that has players like Heather O’Reilly, Lianne Sanderson, and Joanna Lohman, it shouldn’t be so easy to dismiss this team’s performances. (1-6-0)

Week Eight

Wednesday, May 28
Sky Blue FC vs. Chicago Red Stars – With Kelley O’Hara seemingly liberated from her defensive responsibilities, Sky Blue has a scorer that can help Monica Ocampo. That probably doesn’t put them on Chicago’s level, but it will present a greater challenge than Boston or Houston.

Boston Breakers vs. Portland Thorns FC – Portland’s eighth game in three days will give Boston a chance to claim rare points, particularly given the Thorns’ struggles converting chances into goals. Boston’s defense, however, well give Portland an opportunity to find somebody to beyond Allie Long and Jessica McDonald to score goals.

Saturday, May 31
Western New York vs. Houston Dash – The way to make a tough stretch of games into a bonafide slump: Play down to your competition. Coming off a good but disappointing game against Seattle, Western New York needs to take care of business against the Dash.

Sunday, June 1
Sky Blue FC vs. Seattle Reign – Seattle’s first trip to New Jersey produced a 2-0 win, but with a month’s improvement and 90 minutes of experience, Sky Blue prove tougher in game two. Usually electing to play one holder, Jim Gabarra may need to tweak his approach to handle Seattle’s midfield.

Boston Breakers vs. Washington Spirit – On the road for the first time since May 11, Washington will again assume the favorite’s mantle that troubled them slightly last week. Witd a full week’s rest against a Breakers’ team that played mid-week, the normally fast Diana Matheson and Crystal Dunn may seem that much quicker on that hard Harvard surface.

Kolo Toure undergoing medical ahead of Rodgers reunion at Celtic

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 13:  Kolo Toure of Liverpool talks during the Liverpool UEFA Europa League Cup Final Media Day at Melwood Training Ground on May 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Sky Sports reports that longtime Liverpool defender Kolo Toure has found a home under his former manager.

The 35-year-old center back was released by the Reds this summer, and is undergoing a medical ahead of joining Brendan Rodgers at Celtic.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

Toure joined Liverpool from Manchester City in 2013, one year after Rodgers took the helm at Anfield.

The move would be Celtic’s second signing under Rodgers, as the Glasgow side added French forward Moussa Dembele from Fulham earlier this summer.

Report: Juve buys Higuain for $103m, tipped as precursor to Pogba sale

NAPLES, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Gonzalo Higuain (R) and MArek Hamsik of Napoli celebrate the equalizing goal during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Empoli FC at Stadio San Paolo on January 31, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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It’s a move that screams its own headlines, yet is being tipped as a precursor to a larger one.

According to Sky Sports, Juventus has purchased Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli for an incredible $103 million, equaling the second-highest transfer fee in football history (Cristiano Ronaldo).

Higuain is 28 years old, making the fee even harder to fathom despite his status as the reigning Serie A goal leader. His 36 goals in 35 matches was by far his best campaign, though he’s always been a productive striker.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

Moreover, the massive money only fuels the fire that Juventus is possibly selling Paul Pogba to Manchester United or Real Madrid for what will certainly be a world record fee, eclipsing the $110 million Real paid for Gareth Bale in 2013.

Higuain was also tipped for a move to Arsenal, but that always seemed improbable given the reported fees and Arsene Wenger‘s preference for younger players.

It’s a huge risk for Juventus, even given the probability of Pogba money arriving in Turin.

Sunderland hires Moyes to replace Allardyce as manager

FLORENCE, ITALY - MARCH 07: David Moyes speaks during the "Panchina D'oro season 2014-2015" at Coverciano on March 7, 2016 in Florence, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
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SUNDERLAND, England (AP) David Moyes was hired to take charge of Sunderland as Sam Allardyce‘s successor on Saturday, returning to Premier League management two years after being fired by Manchester United.

Moyes signed a four-year contract less than 24 hours after Sunderland announced Allardyce’s departure to become England manager. Allardyce secured Sunderland’s Premier League status after inheriting a struggling team last October but the northeast club doesn’t want to be in regular relegation battles.

[ MORE: Five relegated transfer targets ]

“It is our aim to become a better, stronger and more stable football club,” Sunderland chairman Ellis Short said. “With a manager of David’s caliber and experience at the helm, we have a fantastic opportunity to begin looking upwards, rather than downwards every season.”

The 53-year-old Moyes has a managerial career to rebuild at Sunderland after three disappointing years.

The Scot’s relative success at Everton from 2002-13 earned him the high-profile job at United after Alex Ferguson’s retirement. But Moyes was fired 10 months into a six-year contract after missing out on Champions League qualification.

Moyes next headed to Spain but he was dismissed by Real Sociedad last November after a poor start to the season. Now Moyes is hoping for another period of stability in his dugout at Sunderland.

[ MORE: Steffen leaves Freiburg for Crew ]

“I have taken over a big British club, with a great support and I’m looking forward to working in the Premier League again,” Moyes said. “I look forward to continuing the good work done by Sam.”

Sunderland said it had been pursuing Moyes for almost five years.

“I have spoken with him on many occasions and I have always been hugely impressed,” Short said. “He was my number one managerial target for the last five appointments, but his desire to honor existing contracts meant we were not able to bring him to Sunderland previously.”

USWNT cruises past Costa Rica in final pre-Olympic warm up

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 09: Julie Johnston #8 of the United States shoots past Nomoumelelo Nyandeni #18 of South Africa during a friendly match at Soldier Field on July 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The United States defeated South Africa 1-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t really lacking confidence heading into Friday night’s clash with Costa Rica, but the squad’s utter dominance certainly didn’t hurt things as Jill Ellis’ group gets ready to head to Brazil for next month’s Olympic Games.

[ MORE: Pulisic says Klinsmann links to England job made sense ]

The USWNT captured a 4-0 win against Costa Rica in the side’s final send-off match before the Olympics, extending the no. 1 ranked team in the world’s unbeaten streak to 15 matches.

It only took a quarter of an hour the USWNT to find the lead, but it always looked like it was coming for Jill Ellis’ group. Meghan Klingenburg made a great run deep into the Costa Rica area, and played a perfect square pass across the face of goal for Crystal Dunn to give the U.S. the lead in the 15th minute.

Mallory Pugh got her name on the scoreboard in the 22nd minute after making a brilliant darting run forward and beating the Costa Rican goalkeeper at the near post.

The U.S. pushed their advantage to 3-0 on the stroke of halftime when Becky Sauerbrunn’s free kick was headed home by Carli Lloyd in first-half stoppage time.

With a number of chances in the second half that didn’t take the right bounce for the USWNT, Christen Press made no mistake from close range in the 79th minute and gave the home nation a four-goal lead.

Dunn continues to impress on the international stage, and nearly gave the U.S. an advantage after just seven minutes. The 24-year-old gathered the ball inside the penalty box before unleashing a strong effort that struck the crossbar and stayed out.

The U.S. found another dangerous opportunity three minutes later, when Carli Lloyd was brought down from behind on the edge of the penalty area. Costa Rica defender Katherine Alvarado was shown a yellow card for the rash tackle, but the USWNT couldn’t make anything of the ensuing free kick.

While Costa Rica put in a valiant effort against their competition, the Ticas were no match for the Americans, and failed to muster up any shots on target throughout the night. The 29th ranked team in the FIFA World Rankings struggled to move the ball past midfield for most of the outing largely due to the USWNT’s constant press.