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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.

Ahead of huge top four showdowns, who are the title favorites?

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This weekend is massive. Huge. Monumental.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview ]

In terms of the Premier League title race having two games between all of the current top four means one thing: bedlam.

Following the Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) and Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) encounter, we should be provided with a much better idea of where the title is heading.

[ VIDEO: Man City-Tottenham preview

Then again, if Arsenal beat Leicester and Man City draw with Spurs, there will be just five points between all four teams. With 13 games to go this is tight and tense and the most open title race we’ve had in decades. It is also awesome.

[ MORE: Arsenal to play in 2016 MLS All-Star Game ] 

Let’s take a look at all four title contenders and try to see who has the best chance of winning this thing on May 15.


Leicester City
Current position: 1st (53 points)
Biggest plus: No pressure, they were meant to be relegated
Biggest negative: None of their current squad have ever been in this situation. How will they cope?
Key man: Jamie Vardy – A few off days in front of goal recently for the PL’s main man. If he regains his touch, the Foxes will win it.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Arsenal, Apr. 30 at Man United, May 15 at Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule (1 is weak, 10 is tough): 2/10 – The best of any of the title contenders, on paper, and no cup games.


Tottenham Hotspur
Current position: 2nd (48 points)
Biggest plus: Mauricio Pochettino. He’s met every major challenge head on.
Biggest negative: Having the FA Cup and Europa League to contend with. Relatively small squad compared to the rest.
Key man: Harry Kane – If he can hit yet another purple patch, combined with Spurs’ solid defense, then that will be huge.
3 key games: Feb. 14 at Man City, Mar. 5 vs. Arsenal, Apr. 9 vs. Chelsea
Strength of remaining schedule: 3/10 – A very soft run-in for Spurs between now and the end of the season.


Arsenal
Current position: 3rd (48 points)
Biggest plus: They have the biggest squad and with Cech in goal their defense looks very settled.
Biggest negative: How many times have we been here before? Have to get over mental barrier, plus UCL and FA Cup to focus on too.
Key man: Alexis Sanchez – Hasn’t quite hit top form since returning from his hamstring injury. Can he hit top gear during crunch time?
3 key games: Feb. 14 vs. Leicester City, Mar. 5 vs. Tottenham, May 7 at Man City
Strength of remaining schedule: 6/10 – Probably the toughest out of all the contenders. Really need Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to pull through.


Manchester City
Current position: 4th (47 points)
Biggest plus: Strongest squad and Vincent Kompany should be returning soon. That, and wanting to send Pellegrini out on a high.
Biggest negative: Guardiola arriving means plenty of uncertainty. If Aguero or Kompany go down injured, title run could be over.
Key man: Vincent Kompany – City will always score goals with Aguero, Sterling, Silva and De Bruyne but they need Vinny back. Big time.
3 key games: Mar. 2 at Liverpool, Mar. 20 vs. Man United, May 7 vs. Arsenal
Strength of remaining schedule: 5/10 – Marginally easier than Arsenal’s because they play United and the Gunners at home. Still. Very tough.


 

Arsenal named as 2016 MLS All-Star Game opponent in San Jose

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Mesut Ozil (C) of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with his team mates Hector Bellerin (L) and Aaron Ramsey (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Emirates Stadium on December 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Arsenal is coming to San Jose, California.

On Thursday it was announced that the Premier League giants will take part in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

The decision to play against another PL opponent makes it the ninth time that’s happened and MLS’ best will have faced seven different PL clubs in Fulham, Chelsea, West Ham United, Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham and now Arsenal.

The venue for the 2016 ASG will be San Jose’s splendid, yet slightly compact, Avaya Stadium and the game will take place on July 28 at 9 p.m. ET.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Gunners fans in North America hoping to get tickets for the clash will have to act fast as the ‘Quakes home only holds 18,000 people, but there will be another chance to watch Arsenal play as they will face Chivas Guadalajara at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. on July 31.

Safe to say Arsene Wenger won’t need to don his famous long padded jacket for matches in California this July…

As well as seeing Arsenal stars Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech, Olivier Giroud and more, the chance to watch young U.S. international Gedion Zelalem in action will excite many. That said, with the game coming late in July, plenty of Arsenal’s top stars may be on extended breaks due to their exertions for their national teams at the 2016 European Championships and the 2016 Copa America Centenario also being staged in North America.

VIDEO: Previewing the massive Man City vs. Tottenham encounter

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On the same day Arsenal host Leicester City in a clash between two title contenders (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) the two other teams in the top two also meet on Sunday.

Your Valentine’s Day is officially sorted.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

On Sunday Manchester City welcome Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to the Etihad Stadium as second-place Spurs sit just one point above fourth-place City. It could not be tighter at the top.

Earlier this season Spurs hammered an injury-hit City 4-1 at White Hart Lane and revenge will be sweet for Sergio Aguero and Co. as both teams are in serious contention to win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: Preview – Arsenal vs. Leicester ]

In terms of their clashes at the Etihad, Spurs have not found it a happy hunting ground in recent years as they’ve lost four of their last five games away at City. Their last two defeats have been 6-0 and 4-1. Expect a tighter clash this time around as Harry Kane looks to keep his hot-streak going and City will aim to bounce back from their demoralizing, and potentially crucial, home defeat to Leicester last weekend.

So much on the line this Sunday. Click play on the video above to hear all the major headlines heading into this clash.

Mourinho to Man United: Key players to be sold? Locker room unrest, transfer gossip

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The papers are having a field day with the Jose Mourinho to Manchester United whispers.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired”

Several different outlets are reporting numerous pieces of gossip about Mourinho, 53, taking over at United this summer and now seems like a good time to round it all up and have a look at what is out there.

[ VIDEO: Arsenal-Leicester preview

Here it goes…

[ REPORT: Mourinho tells friends he’s going to United


First up, the wages.

Okay, Louis Van Gaal, 64, still has a contract with the Red Devils through the 2016-17 season but many believe that barring a miraculous finish to the current campaign the Dutchman will be let go this summer. If that’s the case — and with United six points off the top four it certainly seems like another season of disappointment will play out — then El Confidencial is reporting that Mourinho will be handed a contract worth $20 million a year. That may seem like a lot, but actually it would be $9 million less a year than Manchester City is paying Pep Guardiola to be their boss. Interesting.

Juicy nugget number two: The Daily Mail states that Mourinho has already instructed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to sell Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini. The midfield duo aren’t in Mourinho’s plans with the Portuguese coach selling Mata to United during his time in charge of Chelsea, while he doesn’t appear to be a fan of Belgian midfielder Fellaini either.

No. 3: The Daily Star reports that Mourinho will be handed $420 million to spend on new players and totally rebuild the under-performing squad. The same report claims Mourinho has his eye on Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Thomas Muller, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane to help restore United to past glories and add to his tally of three Premier League titles during five full seasons with Chelsea.

And finally, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Sun reports that United’s locker room is split over whether Mourinho arriving would be a good thing. Well, yeah, with a massive cull on the horizon if he does arrive, it’s not too difficult to understand that the general feeling among the players will be one of trepidation. However, the main issue seems to be where No. 2 Ryan Giggs will fit into Mourinho’s plans if he does get the job.

Again, take these reports with a pinch of salt but it’s certainly interesting to keep your ear to the ground and listen to all of the tidbits circling about Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford.