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NWSL Review: The Year Two Exit Interview

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Come in, NWSL. Thanks for stopping by. I know you’re on your way out-of-town for the offseason. Are you just going home, or are you playing overseas until March? Regardless, I hope you have great offseason. You just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

As you know, we do these exit interviews at the end of each season, but please, don’t think of this as a performance evaluation. I mean, it’s definitely is a performance evaluation — I’m legally obligated to say that — but I want you to think of it as a dialog. You’re evaluating me as much as we’re evaluating you! And yes, from a certain point of view, that’s also a total lie, but I want to make sure you’re comfortable.

Can I get you anything? A glass of water? Maybe another national television deal? Just asking because this might take a while. You’ve had a big year, and just looking at this list, wow there’s a lot of over.

So let’s get to it. As you know, two years isn’t very much time to establish a new professional league, so this process isn’t about comparing you to what we’d like to you be five, 10, 25 years from now. It’s about progress. All we want to see year-over-year is improvement, be that on the field, off, or in terms of your long-term potential. Right now, it’s all about career development.

So let’s talk about the skills we’d like to you develop:

source: AP
FC Kansas City players lift their championship trophy after beating the Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL championship soccer match Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Tukwila, Wash. Kansas City won 2-1. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

On the field

I have to hand it you, NWSL. In terms of on-field product, this was a great year. You were already ahead of the game last year when you were already better than Women’s Professional Soccer. But this year, you took it up another notch.

Let’s talk about your two big differences. The first, you got almost all of the U.S. Women’s National Team talents to come back home. Megan Rapinoe got out of her contract with Lyon. Christen Press moved to Chicago . Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenburg eventually arrived in Houston. Add in Tobin Heath’s cameo in Portland, players like Amber Brooks, Sarah Hagen, and Yael Averbuch playing their parts, and the national team’s impact on the NWSL has almost hit its max. In terms of what that brings to the league, it’s obviously a plus.

I’ll be honest you, though. We’ve had some discussions among ourselves about whether this is in the best interest of the national team. Some players — say, Sydney Leroux, or Crystal Dunn — could probably benefit from playing in a different environment for a while. At least, a few of us have brought it up. Going forward, there’s a danger you, as a league, are just reinforcing what these players strengths without addressing their weaknesses. You might want to consider loaning more players to Europe each fall.

Ultimately, however, we decided it’s not the league’s job to make sure players are making the best choices. Your job is to improve the league, and while your partnership with U.S. Soccer is exerting some pressure on players to say home, they could still say “No”.  It’s not like the money’s better over here. That they’re not has helped improve the product.

But even more influential — and, quite frankly, we’re really excited about this — was getting somebody like Kim Little to come over. An international player (Scotland) of that caliber? One that comes in, wins MVP? That’s a huge boost to the product.

Nahomi Kawasumi (Japan)? Veronica Boquete (Spain)? Well done. Between those players, Western New York’s slew of exciting Spaniards, as well as players like Jodie Taylor in Washington (England), Nadine Angerer (Germany) and Steph Catley in Portland (Australia), the league’s injected a huge amount of talent. And it shows on the field.

Honestly, NWSL, I was in Seattle for the title game on Sunday, and I was blown away. That’s a product that rivals what you see in UEFA Champions League. We couldn’t have asked for a better national television showcase. Just … bravo.

Last year, at this time, we couldn’t have anticipated this kind of improvement. You’ve gone above and beyond, but now, you’ve also set a high bar. As much as you exceeded expectations, we’re going to expect this kind of talent going forward.

Grade: A

source: Getty Images
Laura Harvey here with Arsenal Ladies, led the Seattle to the league’s best regular season record, with Reign FC’s two losses in 24 games setting a new standard for success. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

On the sidelines

Last year, as you know, we pointed out a number of situations where we thought you could improve, and to your credit, a lot of them got addressed. Washington’s coaching situation was much better this season, and the results showed on the field (the team went from last place to the playoffs). Randy Waldrum won praise from his colleagues for his first year with expansion Houston. Paul Riley, a two-time Coach of the Year in WPS, returned to the sidelines in Portland. There were lot of places were the quality of coaching took a step forward.

More importantly, and this is something we weren’t anticipating last year, the competition among coaches is starting to get fierce. Laura Harvey’s really set a bar in Seattle. Vlatko Andonovski was Coach of the Year last year, but even he adjusted this year in Kansas City. Established names like Riley and Aaran Lines in Rochester are really being tested. They’re going to have to come stronger next season. That’s a good thing.

You can see in the trouble Riley and this year that your standard is higher. He was clearly the best coach in WPS, but in his first year in Portland, he came up short.

He’ll adjust. Lines will adjust. And the league will be much better for it. You’ve done a great job of pushing the envelope on the sidelines as well as one the field.

Grade: B+

source:
The Rose City Riveters have brought MLS-level fandom to Portland’s North End for the last two years. In 2014, the Thorns averaged a league-leading 13,352 fans per game. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

In the stands, off the field

We knew this was going to be your biggest challenge, and honestly, there are still some situations that worry us. Sky Blue seems like a long-term challenge. Does that team have a place in a league that’s successful two, four, eight years from now? They’ve got significant hurdles.

Boston also has issues, both on the field and off, while Western New York took a hit at the turnstiles this season. Both of those clubs have established track records, but as the league moves forward, will they be able to move with it? Western New York has the resources to adjust. Does Boston?

Those are the worries. Other places, we see the progress. Chicago drew better than last year, as did Seattle. Like Kansas City, the Reign elected to get closer to the heart of their city to try to be more assessable. Hopefully, that pays off in the long run.

Portland, of course, is your standard, but it’s not realistic to expect other teams to draw that many fans. They’re a terrible barometer. We’re here to measure progress, not success. In that light, more teams are making progress, perhaps more than we saw in either WPS or the Women’s United Soccer Association. It’s not difficult to imagine most of these teams surviving beyond this World Cup/Olympics cycle.

Grade: B-

source:
The NWSL makes almost every game available via its YouTube channel, allowing hardcore fans to take in as much as their time allows.

In fans’ homes

Offering all the games for free on YouTube continues to work. And the fact that almost every club’s broadcasts improved this year? That certainly helped. Right now, giving people access to as much of your soccer as possible is paramount. In that regard, mission accomplished.

Obviously, the quality of the broadcasts can improve. For the most part, you’ve solved the technical issues this season, but that’s not enough. At some point, the broadcast quality has to match the level of play, and right now, it’s just not there. Your teams need to continue to find better talent to present their games, preferably ones that follow the whole league (not just the home team).

Houston did a great job this season. Between Sebastian Salazar and Jen Cooper, the Dash had a perfect combination of polish, knowledge, and ambition with its broadcast talent. You could tell Salazar, not necessarily known as a women’s soccer guy, treated the games as an opportunity. And Cooper rivaled Seattle’s Lesle Gallimore as the league’s most knowledgable color commentator. One year in, Houston’s broadcasts are the standard.

I know not every team has the resources to create that product, but that should be the goal. All the money your teams are saving on U.S. national team talent? They should be putting more of it into the broadcast.

Each game is a new opportunity to sell new fans on the league. Every team needs to approach their product with that urgency.

Grade: C

source: AP
Players who’ve used the NWSL as a platform to improve have yet to impact U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’s squad. (AP)

Supplying the national team

Let’s not be coy about why you’re here. U.S. Soccer wants you to maintain its national team stars, if not outright develop them. Without that dimension, this league doesn’t exist.

However, we recognize it’s a two-way street. You’re certainly doing your part. When I was going through your rosters before this meeting, looking at all the players who could play for the national team, I was thrilled. With every team, I could pick out one or two names that deserve more consideration at the international level.

But, as you know, that’s not happening. I know people point to Portland’s Allie Long as an example of somebody who worked her way into the team through the league, but she was on the team’s radar before the Thorns ever kicked off. It’s not your fault, but U.S. Soccer seems unwilling to look at anybody you’re developing.

What’s important to me, and I think other fans, is that you’re giving them the option. If players like Keelin Winters and Brittany Taylor can’t get a look? At least they’re making your product better on the field.

Combine that with the improvement we’ve seen from national team regulars like Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn — going from good players to among the best in the world at their positions — and I know you’re making an impact. Hopefully, going forward, that impact will grow.

Grade: Incomplete

source: AP
Seattle Reign FC’s Keelin Winters, left, goalie Hope Solo, second from right, and Megan Rapinoe, right, argue with official Margaret Domka late in the second half of the NWSL championship soccer match against FC Kansas City, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Tukwila, Wash. Kansas City won 2-1. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Into the future

You’re helping U.S. Soccer now, but come 2016, you may need to stand on your own. At least, you have to be prepared for a day the federation stops cutting checks, and after the 2016 Olympics, the federation may elect to make a decision about your funding. If there’s a point where it makes sense to pull out, that’s it.

So looking across the project, trying to see how many of your teams could stand on their own in two years, I’m not sure what to think. Portland can, of course, and you’ve created the same MLS link with Houston. If there’s a league in 2017, they’re probably going to be in it, and while it’s always concerning when a women’s team is set up to play second fiddle, the league would look stronger with a few more second fiddles in the short-term.

Western New York isn’t going anywhere, while Seattle has a path to success. You’d like to think the same about Kansas City, who continue to make progress, while Washington has been a historically successful “WoSo” market. Add in Chicago, a team with dedicated ownership and management that’s chipping away at problems, and you’ve got a number of potential success stories.

Here’s the problem: I want to count to eight. I want to go over this list of teams and be able to say with confidence that, come 2017, eight teams can stand on their own. I’m not saying make money – that’s unrealistic. I’m saying they have a viable foundation, one that allows them to persist at the top-level indefinitely.

So to end this interview, I’ll ask you a question: Can you honestly count to eight? I didn’t think so, but that’s okay. When we meet again in 2016, do you think you’ll be able to then?

Well, you better get working. A lot of people are expecting this league to be around. You can’t let them down.

Grade: ?

Juventus win 15th straight to take Serie A lead from Napoli

Juventus' Simone Zaza, second from right, celebrates with is teammates after scoring during a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Napoli at the Juventus stadium, in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
AP Photo/Massimo Pinca
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(AP) — Substitute Simone Zaza scored two minutes from time and Juventus beat visiting Napoli 1-0 on Saturday to take the Serie A lead from the southern club.

[ MORE: Napoli fans support racially abused Koulibaly ]

Seeking its fifth consecutive title, Juventus moved one point ahead of Napoli with 13 rounds remaining in the Italian league.

Near the end of a match in Turin that had been characterized by few chances for either side, Zaza’s goal came with a long, curving shot that deflected slightly off defender Raul Albiol.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s next manager? Juve GM tells Allegri to “think twice” ]

It was Juventus’ 15th straight win, moving the Bianconeri within two victories of the Serie A record established by Inter Milan in 2006-07.

Earlier, Daniel Ciofani scored twice as promoted Frosinone beat Empoli 2-1 for its first away win in the top division. Also, Chievo Verona and Sassuolo drew 1-1.

Bundesliga wrap: Leverkusen win without Chicharito, drop Hertha to 4th

Leverkusen's Omer Toprak, right, celebrates his side's equalizing goal during a German Bundesliga soccer match between SV Darmstadt 98 and Bayer Leverkusen in Darmstadt, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
AP Photo/Michael Probst
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Hannover

Bayern Munich’s lead has been cut to five points (for the time being – they play on Sunday) after Borussia Dortmund (48 points) returned to winning ways via Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s game-winning goal in the 57th minute (below video).

Darmstadt 1-2 Bayer Leverkusen

No Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, no problem for Bayer Leverkusen, who went third in the Bundesliga with a 2-1 away victory over 12th-place Darmstadt. After going down a goal in the 28th minute, the game swung on a pair of goals 15 minutes apart just after the hour mark. Aytac Sulu put the ball into his own net for Leverkusen’s equalizer on 62 minutes, and Julian Brandt scored the winner in the 77th minute. Now on 35 points with a +9 goal differential, Leverkusen have leapfrogged Hertha Berlin for the third and final automatic qualification spot into the UEFA Champions League.

Stuttgart 2-0 Hertha Berlin

Hertha are now four league games without a win (three draws) after falling 2-0 away to Stuttgart. Serey Die and Filip Kostic were the goalscorers on Saturday, as U.S. national team defender John Brooks completed his 12th straight 90-minute shift (all competitions). With 35 points and a +6 goal differential, Hertha now sit just two points ahead of Schalke and Mainz in the race for the Bundesliga’s fourth and final Champions League place.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Wolfsburg 2-0 Ingolstadt
Werder Bremen 1-1 Hoffenheim
Koln 3-1 Eintracht Frankfurt

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (9:30 a.m. ET)
Augsburg vs. Bayern Munich (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 21 15 3 3 53 24 29 9-1-0 6-2-3 48
Bayer Leverkusen 21 10 5 6 31 22 9 5-3-2 5-2-4 35
Hertha BSC Berlin 21 10 5 6 29 23 6 6-3-1 4-2-5 35
FC Schalke 04 21 10 3 8 30 28 2 6-2-3 4-1-5 33
FSV Mainz 05 21 10 3 8 27 25 2 6-1-4 4-2-4 33
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
VfL Wolfsburg 21 8 6 7 31 28 3 7-3-1 1-3-6 30
1. FC Köln 21 7 8 6 24 27 -3 4-4-3 3-4-3 29
VfB Stuttgart 21 8 3 10 33 41 -8 5-1-5 3-2-5 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 21 7 5 9 14 23 -9 4-2-4 3-3-5 26
Darmstadt 21 6 6 9 22 31 -9 1-4-6 5-2-3 24
Hamburger SV 20 6 5 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 4-2-4 23
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 21 5 6 10 27 37 -10 3-3-4 2-3-6 21
Werder Bremen 21 5 5 11 25 42 -17 1-3-6 4-2-5 20
1899 Hoffenheim 21 2 9 10 19 31 -12 1-5-4 1-4-6 15
Hannover 96 21 4 2 15 19 36 -17 2-0-8 2-2-7 14

USWNT tops Mexico, advances to Olympic qualifying semis on late Lloyd PK

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The U.S. women’s national team is one step closer to qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in after the Lady Yanks, on the back of Carli Lloyd’s 79th minute, knocked off their North American rivals, Mexico, in a narrow, physical affair at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex., on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

With only bottom-of-the-group Puerto Rico (0 points, -15 goal differential through two games) still to face, the USWNT are through to the semifinal round, at which point they’ll be one more win away from qualifying for this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

The first half of Saturday’s clash was much different from what either side saw in their opening game — USWNT beat Costa Rica, 5-0, while Mexico routed Puerto Rick, 6-0 — as both sides engaged in a rough-and-tumble affair, racked up plenty of fouls and failed to create much of anything in terms of quality scoring chances.

The USWNT’s best chance early in the second half came in the 53rd minute, when Christen Press rifled a right-footed effort toward the far post from 15 yards out, but found nothing but woodwork before the ball caromed back into the field of play.

[ MORE: USWNT routs Costa Rica in Olympic qualifying opener ]

Alex Morgan very nearly opened the scoring in the 67th minute. Becky Sauerbrunn’s long throw was flicked on by Lindsey Horan’s header inside the penalty area, and eventually made its way to Morgan near the top of the six-yard box, from where her volleyed effort was sent inches over the crossbar.

With 77 minutes on the clock, Horan followed suit with a shot of her own off the post. From 20 yards out, her right-footed effort had beaten the goalkeeper, only to hit the same far post and bounce across the face of goal, where not a single American player was waiting to tap home the rebound.

All of Mexico’s dogged defensive work was undone in the 79th minute, though, as the USWNT was awarded a controversial penalty for handball. Lloyd’s initial effort from the penalty spot was saved, but the reigning World Player of the Year was first to the rebound and slotted the ball into an empty net (below video).

PL Sunday preview: Arsenal-Leicester, Man City-Spurs in top-four defining day

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez, center, scores their third goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (Paul Harding/PA via AP)     UNITED KINGDOM OUT       -     NO SALES      -      NO ARCHIVES
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The Premier League top-four’s defining day is upon us, as 3rd-in-the-league Arsenal hosts 1st-in-the-league Leicester City, and 4th-in-the-league Manchester City hosts 2nd-in-the-league Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

It’s also another important day in Aston Villa’s bid to avoid relegation, as they host (very, very faint) UEFA Champions League hopefuls Liverpool.

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

No side in the Premier League has won more points away from home this season (28) than Leicester, which will no doubt have Arsenal fans feeling terrified for the whole of Saturday evening as Sunday morning looms.

When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Sept. 26, Arsenal walked out of the King Power Stadium with a resounding 5-2 victory, with many thanks to an Alexis Sanchez hat trick. Since that early Autumn day, Leicester have lost just once in the league (two PL losses all season), to Liverpool on Boxing Day. Jamie Vardy, who failed to score a single goal in six league games from Dec. 19 to Jan. 16, has scored three in his last three games (Leicester have beaten Stoke City, Liverpool and Man City by a combined score of 8-1 during that period).

On the injury front, the Gunners are mostly healthy, with Santi Cazorla (knee) the only first-teamer of real consequence due to miss Sunday’s game. The same goes for Leicester, who have a totally clean bill of health in terms of players who have featured this season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Sunderland shock Man United, Chelsea roll ]

Aston Villa vs. Liverpool — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Bottom-of-the-table Villa need wins in the very worst of ways — with 13 games left in their season, Rudi Garde’s side is currently eight points from safety; the magical 40-point marks remains a whopping 24 points ahead of them. Liverpool currently sit 12 points behind Man City for the fourth and final Champions League place, thus Sunday’s trip to Villa Park is a must-win for Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds. When these teams met back in late September, Daniel Sturridge was the hero in a 3-2 victory at Anfield.

On the injury front, Villa will be without Jordan Ayew (suspension), Jack Grealish (ankle) and Adama Troare (foot), while Carlos Sanchez (hamstring) and Rudy Gestede (hamstring). Liverpool’s latest injury report, meanwhile, is an utter disaster that weakens every unit of their squad, though Sturridge is (finally) back in action.

[ MORE: Suarez — I’d only play for Liverpool in the Premier League ]

Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 11:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

A single point separates the PL’s second- and fourth-place teams, who are set to face off at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Tottenham, who are two or three years ahead of Mauricio Pochettino‘s perceived timetable turning Spurs into PL contenders, are very much in the title race. When they welcomed Man City to White Hart Lane in September, the final score was 4-1 to Pochettino’s side, and the warning had been heard loud and clear. Harry Kane has scored four goals in his last four PL games.

City, somehow, still haven’t won back-to-back league games since the middle of October, and that’ll not be changing on Sunday, given their 3-1 defeat to Leicester last weekend. City’s talisman, Sergio Aguero, has remained healthy of late and displayed the kind of form that makes him capable of winning any game on his own on a given day (7 goals in last 6 PL appearances). With Vincent Kompany expected to make his return from a calf injury that has sidelined the Sky Blues captain since Boxing Day, now is the time for City’s defense to begin to match Aguero’s attacking brilliance if they are to push on and send Manuel Pellegrini out with another PL title.

On the injury front, Man City will once again be without Kevin De Bruyne (knee), as well as Eliaquim Mangala (hamstring), Jesus Navas (hamstring) and perhaps Wilfried Bony (calf). For Spurs, only Jan Vertonghen (knee) is expected to be unavailable.