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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.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore, center, shields the ball from Philadelphia Union's Richie Marquez, left, as Ken Tribbett looks on during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): Another week goes by, and the world remains clueless with regard to the top three places in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Toronto FC entered the weekend with a two-point lead on the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC; then, NYCFC won big on Friday to go a point ahead. With RBNY still to face the Montreal Impact on Saturday, all three sides could finish the weekend on 48 points, a three-way tie atop the East, following TFC’s 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union at BMO Field. The home side went down a goal in the first half, via Alejandro Bedoya’s firt MLS goal — a chipped beauty (WATCH HERE) — before Justin Morrow played the role of unlikely hero, snatching TFC’s equalizer in the 70th minute. Saturday’s game marked TFC’s third without Sebastian Giovinco (quad/adductor injuries). TFC have won five of a possible nine points without the reigning — soon-to-be-back-to-back? — MLS MVP.

[ MORE: Playoff Picture — 4 teams can clinch playoff berth this weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

25′ — Bedoya chips Irwin for 1-0 — It was just about the most difficult route to goal, but Bedoya wasn’t fazed one bit. Poor Clint Irwin, he was hardly even off his line. (WATCH HERE)

43′ — Irwin makes the point-blank save on Herbers — Reaction saves from point-blank range don’t get much better than this one by Irwin. Keeping his side in it.

70′ — Morrow slots home to bring TFC level — Jonathan Osorio did brilliantly to keep his composure with ample opportunity to take a difficult shot toward goal. Instead, he played Morrow through, and the full back finished the chance like a world-class striker.

90+3′ — Altidore hacked down in the box, no PK given — Ismail Elfath had long ago swallowed his whistle, apparently, because Jozy Altidore was hacked down inside the penalty area by C.J. Sapong, and TFC were absolutely bewildered by the no-call.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Alejandro Bedoya

Goalscorers: Bedoya (25′), Morrow (70′)

VIDEO: Alejandro Bedoya’s first MLS goal was a delicious chip

Alejandro Bedoya, Philadelphia Union (Photo credit: Philadelphia Union / Twitter: @PhilaUnion)
Photo credit: Philadelphia Union / Twitter: @PhilaUnion
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Good things come to those who wait.

Alejandro Bedoya has been very patient in waiting for his first MLS goal after making his summer transfer to the Philadelphia Union. 547 minutes — not too terribly long, honestly — is all it took the U.S. national team midfielder to bag the first stateside club goal, and it proved more than worth the wait on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Goalkeeper Clint Irwin was precisely 3.5 yards off his line as Bedoya dribbled into space down the right side of the penalty area, 20 yards from goal and closing. At 18 yards out, Bedoya went for goal.

The obvious choice is to put your right foot through the ball, and hit it low and inside the far post. Bedoya had something else — something much more audacious and delightful — on his mind.

Take. A. Bow.

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid falter; Barcelona score 5 (again) without Messi

GIJON, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona celebrates with his teammate Neymar of FC Barcelona after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between Real Sporting de Gijon and FC Barcelona at Estadio El Molinon on September 24, 2016 in Gijon, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

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Las Palmas 2-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid remain top of La Liga, but their lead was reduce from three points to one on Saturday. Up 2-1 heading into the games final 20 minutes, Zinedine Zidane elected to pull Cristiano Ronaldo off the field in the 72nd minute — much to the Portuguese’s displeasure. Zidane then watched as his side conceded an 85th-minute equalizer and ultimately settled for a draw.

Marco Asensio put Los Blancos ahead in the 33rd minute, but Las Palmas answered through Tana in the 38th minute, making it 1-1 at halftime. Karim Benzema scored what looked to be the winner in the 67th minute, but Sergio Araujo pegged the league leaders back once more with five minutes of regular time remaining.

Sporting Gijon 0-5 Barcelona

No Lionel Messi, no problem for Barcelona, who still have those Luis Suarez and Neymar guys. Without the world’s undisputed best player on Saturday, the dynamic duo combined to score three goals — two more than Barca would need on the day — as the Blaugrana scored five or more goals for the third time in six league games this season.

Rafinha and Arda Turan — decent enough players in their own right — bagged the other goals, and just like that, Barca capitalized on the points dropped by Madrid.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Eibar 2-0 Real Sociedad
Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Sevilla

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Leganes vs. Valencia — 6 a.m. ET
Atletico Madrid vs Deportivo La Coruña — 10:15 a.m. ET
Villarreal vs. Osasuna — 12:30 p.m. ET
Espanyol vs. Celta Vigo — 2:45 p.m. ET


Palermo 0-1 Juventus

Juve won for the fifth time in six games this season, but needed an own goal from Palermo’s Edoardo Goldaniga to do so. The game was scoreless at halftime, before the 22-year-old center back shanked his clearance of Dani Alves’s cross past Josip Posavec and into his own net for the game’s only goal in the 49th minute. That’s 15 points from six games for Juve, who remain top of Serie A by a point.

Napoli 2-0 Chievo

Marek Hamsik and Manolo Gabbiadini scored goals 15 minutes apart in the first half to propel Napoli to their fourth win of the season — to go with a pair of draws — and retain their place as the last remaining unbeaten side in the league. Napoli sit a point back of Juve for the league lead, and four points clear of everyone else alraedy. It’ll be a two-horse race for the title, then.

 

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Torino vs. Roma — 6:30 a.m. ET
Genoa vs. Pescara — 9 a.m. ET
Inter Milan vs. Bologna — 9 a.m. ET
Lazio vs. Empoli — 9 a.m. ET
Sassuolo vs. Udinese — 9 a.m. ET
Fiorentina vs. AC Milan — 2:45 p.m. ET

PL Sunday preview: West Ham, desperate to end skid, host Southampton

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Dimitri Payet of West Ham United celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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The 2016-17 Premier League season wasn’t supposed to be like for West Ham United. After moving into their new home, the repurposed Olympic Stadium in London, this year was meant to be about building on top of last season’s seventh-place finish, which saw them in the top-four race until the final days of the campaign.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Fast forward four months, and Slaven Bilic‘s men have just one win from five games this season and find themselves 18th in the league table heading into Sunday’s clash with Southampton (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Home form (one win, one loss) has only been slightly better for the Hammers’ form away from home, where they’re 0-for-3 thus far. Michail Antonio has five goals this season, joint-top in the PL, all of which have been scored via headers.

Early-season fortunes have been only marginally better for Saints, having won five points from their first five games of the season. Manager Claude Puel got his first PL victory last weekend, though, over Swansea City, as his side notched its first clean sheet of the season.

[ MORE: Saturday roundup — Arsenal thrash Chelsea; City, Liverpool win big ]

Following another summer of key departures in the transfer market (Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle), one can’t help but wonder how many more times the south coast can reload at the top of its squad without a noticeable falling-off, even if for just one season. Through five games, Saints have scored just four goals, including one own goal — Charlie Austin, Nathan Redmond and Jay Rodriguez the scorers. European qualification looks a long way off from 15th place, where they currently stand, and even farther off from Saints’ early-season performances.

INJURIES: West Ham OUT: Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (knee), Diafra Sakho (back), Aaron Cresswell (knee) | Southampton OUT: Sofiane Boufal (knee)