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+

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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: ?

PL Preview: Manchester City vs. Newcastle

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  • Newcastle has lost 8 PL away matches in a row
  • Man City last lost at home in PL play to Chelsea in Dec 2016
  • Newcastle has picked up 1 of a possible 30 points vs. PL top half this season

Manchester City has a great chance to rebound from its first loss of the season as they host struggling Newcastle at the Etihad on Saturday, live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, HERE

The Magpies have picked up their terrible mid-season form of late, but still remain just three points above the drop. They are unbeaten in three, with a win and two draws, and have lost just once in their last five.

Through Newcastle’s losing streak, the Magpies struggled to keep the ball out of their own net, with defensive issues all over the place. They suffered through a nine-game winless run where they conceded 19 goals. However, of late, the roles have reversed, and suddenly they can’t score. In their last four games, they have just two goals.

City, meanwhile, have a few injuries to deal with on the defensive side of things, where they cannot afford them. Fabian Delph went down in the last match and could be out for significant time, along with Vincent Kompany who continues to show his age and history of fitness issues.

INJURIES: Manchester City – OUT: Fabian Delph (knee), Benjamin Mendy (knee). QUESTIONABLE: David Silva (illness), Vincent Kompany (fitness). Newcastle – OUT: Jesus Gamez (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: Dwight Gayle (knock).


What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on build-up of injuries: “In these situations, it always depends on the mentality of the players, if they can make a step forward. If they can they play in positions that are not natural positions and the other guys help them, everything is going well.”

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez on not having a full squad: “When you have a short blanket, if you pull it to your face, your feet are cold, if you cover your feet, your top half is cold.”

Prediction

Newcastle has been ok of late, but not nearly enough to keep Manchester City out of the back of the net. This could get ugly, with the Citizens looking to rebound from their season’s first loss. 3-0 Man City with the possibility that it could get much worse if Newcastle gives up.

PL Preview: Burnley vs. Manchester United

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  • Burnley has 1 win vs. Man United in last 23 meetings
  • Manchester United has not conceded a goal in 2018
  • Paul Pogba is joint-top of the league with 9 assists

A critical top of the table battle comes our way from Turf Moor (!!) on Saturday as Manchester United travels to Burnley live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, HERE

Since losing at Chelsea back in early November, Manchester United in unbeaten away from home and has won four of the five road matches. Burnley, meanwhile, has lost three matches in a row to start the new year and has not won in Premier League play since December 12th against Stoke City.

The goalscoring form of each team is also in stark contrast. Manchester United has not allowed a goal in any competition in 2018, and last conceded back on Boxing Day in a 2-2 draw with this Burnley side. The Clarets, meanwhile, have just one goal in their last three Premier League games and just three goals in their last six.

INJURIES: Burnley – OUT: Chris Wood (knee), Stephen Ward (knee), Jonathan Walters (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Chris Taylor (ribs). Manchester United – OUT: Daley Blind (undisclosed), Eric Bailly (ankle), Michael Carrick (heart), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Burnley manager Sean Dyche on the gap in riches between clubs: “I don’t think any of us are surprised by the gap in the Premier League – I think it’s been there a long time and it’s getting harder year on year since the business model of football has changed.”

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho on focusing despite transfer rumors: “In this moment, [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan our player, [Alexis] Sanchez an Arsenal player and with a match tomorrow, I want to switch off and focus on the most important thing, which is the match.”

Prediction

Burnley may be coming back down to Earth, but they are still a formidable team with great organization, and Manchester United will be once again held to a draw, this time 1-1.

Alexis Sanchez in Arsenal squad, could play vs Crystal Palace

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Ahead of his nearly imminent move away from the Emirates, Alexis Sanchez could make an appearance for Arsenal against Crystal Palace this weekend as he was with the squad at the team hotel on Friday night, according to reports in England.

According to the reports, Arsene Wenger has not decided if he will play Sanchez against Palace or not, as any potential injury could seriously jeopardize any outgoing transfer in the works. However, naming him to the bench and allowing Sanchez to make one last appearance in front of the home fans would be a nice touch before he leaves, likely for Manchester United.

It probably doesn’t help Wenger’s selection that oft-injured Danny Welbeck will miss the match after picking up a muscle problem in training.

Sanchez did not travel with the team to Bournemouth last weekend as Arsenal lost 2-1 in stunning fashion. Sanchez has missed four Premier League games this season, and Arsenal has lost three of them.

The reports state Sanchez trained with the Arsenal first team on Friday, but only because the youth team he trained with the day before had left for a road trip.

Reports: LA Galaxy trades Gyasi Zardes to Columbus for Ola Kamara

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According to a reports by the LA Times and by ESPN, the LA Galaxy have traded US international Gyasi Zardes along with allocation money to the Columbus Crew for striker Ola Kamara.

Both reports state that Columbus will receive $400,000 in guaranteed allocation money in the deal, plus another $100,000 should Kamara score 12 goals next season to trigger the incentive.

Zardes was once a force along the wing for Bruce Arena and the Galaxy, but the 26-year-old has declined heavily in the last two seasons as injuries and poor form have held him to just eight goals over the last two seasons, including just two last campaign. Meanwhile, Kamara has been a star for Columbus in his first two years in Major League Soccer, scoring 16 goals in 2016 before netting another 18 last season, leaving him third in the league in goals scored over those two seasons.

The LA Times report states that Kamara will earn a new contract after the trade, giving him a raise over his current $482,500 yearly salary.

Zardes is an interesting case who shouldn’t be given up on just yet. A homegrown player for the Galaxy, he scored 17 goals in the 2014 season, including on in the MLS Cup Finals as the Galaxy won it all. He earned a seemingly permanent place on the USMNT as a result, and has 37 caps to this date. However, his goalscoring form has since evaporated, leaving him with no more than six goals in an MLS season since, and has just six goals in those 37 caps for the national team.

The Galaxy will need to acquire an additional international roster spot in order to activate Kamara for the season opener on March 4th against Portland, as they have filled up their seven spots as of now.