FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns stalemate rings in NWSL

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It only took three minutes for the new National Women’s Soccer League to find its first goal scorer, with FC Kansas City’s Renae Cueller beating Karina LeBlanc in the third minute of Saturday’s opener. For over an hour, the lead held, but when a controversial whistle gave Thorns captain Christine Sinclair an opportunity from the spot, Portland had the chance they needed to secure a 1-1 draw in front of 6,784 at Shawnee Mission District Stadium in Overland Park, Kan.

It was an strong start for a league that’s hoping the third time’s a charm for women’s professional soccer. Yes, the match was played on turf at a high school venue, and those people who waded through the choppy internet stream the NWSL offered on its YouTube channel saw high school football lines serve as a perpetual reminder of the league’s modest beginnings, but fans were also privy to a quality of play that WUSA and WPS — the two previous professional leagues — would have been hard pressed to match. While the talent in midfield for both teams meant that quality often cancelled out, long time fans of the women’s game could close their browser windows happy. The NWSL looks promising.

That promise started with Cuellar’s goal, a left-footed finish from 16 yards out that began 20 minutes of control for the hosts. The stretch gave NWSL fans every reason to believe a deep FCKC squad can compete with a star-laden Thorns team that’s been singled out as the league favorites.

Though play started to even out mid-way through the first half, the two sitting midfielders in Vlatko Andonovski’s 4-2-3-1 variant continued cutting off Portland’s access to their most dangerous weapons: Sinclair and strike partner Alex Morgan. A talent Thorns midfield was neutered by Desiree Scott and Jen Buczowski’s two-woman shield, the fast turf, and their own inability to effectively move the ball. Morgan, the league’s biggest star, was taken out of the game. Portland may have the most talented team in the league, but going into halftime, there was little doubt they’d been outplayed.

Why Thorns FC were able to recover in the second half is open to interpretation. Form Portland’s point of view, an increase in intensity, particularly with their forwards pressing Kansas City’s defenders, helped sway the game. But that may only tell part of the story. As the match bled on FCKC lost the abandon with which they were throwing attackers at Portland’s back line. Second half questions of the Thorns’ defense often left Cuellar isolated. The rest of her team played too reverential, and by the hour mark, Portland was convincingly controlling play.

It still took a beneficial whistle for the Thorns to pull even. In the 66th minute Danielle Foxhoven, recently brought on for Angie Kerr, appeared to be pulled down by Kansas City’s Lauren Sesselman near the edge of the six-yard box. It was the type of foul that may have looked more convincing to a trailing referee than a television audience, though Andonovski and defender Becky Sauerbrunn would later express their disagreement with the call. But those refrains had to wait until after the match, one left drawn after Sinclair buried the penalty kick.

For Portland, it was a fortuitous draw, though given how they’d come into the game, they very well could have created a goal over the match’s final 23 minutes. Their midfield was average, and a defense that was questioned during preseason was at fault for Kansas City’s only goal. Still, by the end of the match, Portland seemed to have evened the scales.

Kansas City played a big part in that. In the second half, they lacked the intensity that caused Portland to scramble over the first 45 minutes. Throwing Casey Loyd, Lauren Cheney, and Kristie Mewis forward to attack off of Cuellar in the first half, FCKC was able to constantly stress the Thorns with quick transitions out of their own end. That verve was absent over the last 45, allowing Portland to come back into the match.

Ultimately, this may be a result that suits both sides. Because of the quality of their team and the surface they play on, Kansas City may prove one of the more difficult teams to take points from on the road. And from FCKC’s point of view, they can take solace in earning a point from a full strength Thorns squad.

Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair spoke to OregonLive.com’s Geoffrey C. Arnold after Saturday’s match:

Sheffield United – Tottenham stream: How to watch, start time, odds

Sheffield United - Tottenham preview
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Sheffield United – Tottenham Hotspur: There are European hopes dripping from Wednesday’s meeting of Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur at Bramall Lane (Watch live at 1pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

Blades’ European hopes have taken a big hit since the Premier League’s return from the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve lost two-straight league outings and have just one win from five.

STREAM SHEFFIELD UNITED – TOTTENHAM LIVE ONLINE

Spurs have taken four of six points in just two matches since the end of the break and need a win to retake seventh place from Arsenal.

Team news

Japhet Tanganga and Juan Foyth remain out for Tottenham, who is otherwise as healthy as its been since the calendar turned to 2020. Jose Mourinho has made one change as Dele Alli is dropped and Steven Bergwijn comes in.

Jack O’Connell is getting closer to a return for the Blades but Chris Wilder says they “won’t make a high risk decision on him.” John Lundstram is out injured and is replaced by Sande Berge, while John Fleck is also out injured with Ben Osborn coming in for his first Premier League start.

 

What they’re saying

Chris Wilder on the evolution of big January buy Sander Berge: “Sander is going to be a really good player for us. He’s 21 [sic], we paid decent money for him. £20m is not an unbelievable number. It is for Sheffield United, I understand that. So Sander comes with that pressure. But he’s a grounded boy and he’ll eventually play as a sitting midfield player. He’s a proper midfield player, he’s a really good kid and he always will get mine and the boys’ full backing.”

Mourinho on the struggles of big signing Tanguy Ndombele“Football is full of players who have made difficult starts and then ended well. When Luka Modric arrived at Real Madrid after six months he was labeled the worst signing in their history by the fans and the press. A few months later he was a champion, then a few months later he was European champion and then a few months later he was voted the best player in the world. So when the talent is there many things can happen with adaptation and if the talent is there anything good can happen.”

Odds and ends

The bookies aren’t so sure about this one, with DraftKings having hosts Sheffield United +225 and Tottenham +130.

Heung-min Son and George Baldock traded goals in a 1-1 November draw in North London.

Sheffield United – Tottenham Prediction

Spurs have the benefit of rest and potency up top. It’ll be a grimy one — Chris Wilder deems it so — but Tottenham gets the points 2-1.

Wolves – Arsenal preview: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

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Wolves – Arsenal should be an absolute belter on Saturday (start time, 12:30pm ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as both teams are in the hunt for Champions League qualification.

STREAM WOLVES – ARSENAL LIVE ONLINE

Nuno Espirito Santo and Wolves continue to upset the odds as they are the only Premier League team to win all three of their games since the restart and are now three points off third-place and have momentum in the race for Champions League.

As for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, they’ve bounced back after a rough start to the restart and Mikel Arteta now has plenty of options and his team look hungry.

Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore will lead Wolves’ charge, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continues to be the talisman for Arsenal.

Stream Wolves – Arsenal by clicking on the link above and here is everything you need to know ahead of the clash.


Team news

Wolves aren’t being impacted by injuries and they are fit and hungry with Santo resting Traore for moments during their first three games of the restart.

Arsenal are still without Bernd Leno, Sokratis, Callum Chambers, Pablo Mari and Gabriel Martinelli but Lucas Torreira is back fit and available. Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nkeitah were all rested for the win against Norwich.

What they’re saying

Raul Jimenez on his partnership with Adama Traore: “Every striker wants a teammate with his conditions. He can cross from anywhere, you know he’s going to be at the final line and he’s going to cross, so you have to be there at the right time to score. We train on it in the week. We talk to each other before the games, or in the training sessions, so we know where we’re going to be, his crossing and where I have to move. It’s not a coincidence, it’s something we train and work for.”

Mikel Arteta on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: “A player that is able to score as many goals as he’s done in that short space of time tells you everything about the importance that he has for us. We need players that can make the difference at any moment in the game every three days, in different competitions, and that’s a big test for him. He’s done that at different clubs, he’s willing to stay with him, he’s really happy where he is and can see what we’re trying to do. Hopefully he can evolve as well in some parts of his game that in my opinion he can improve. We are pushing him every day towards that.”

Odds and ends

Wolves are the clear favorites for this game via DraftKings (+125) but Arsenal are dangerous and could be good value at +235 for the win. +225 for the draw seems like a very good bet too, as both teams are well matched with similar attacking units but Wolves have the edge when it comes to defensive players.

Prediction

This will be a tight, tense clash and the star attackers for both teams will be key. If Jimenez and Traore are firing on all cylinders then you have to fancy Wolves, if Aubameyang and Saka are on form for Arsenal, they could edge it. With both teams hopeful of Champions League qualification, the stakes are high and I think this will be a draw. Let’s say 1-1.

Champions League, Relegation picture: What’s going on?

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The Champions League and relegation picture is pretty wild right now in the Premier League.

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With six matchweeks remaining, there is so much to play for across the entire league. From Champions League to Europa League and a crowded and tight relegation battle, there are so many permutations.

Given the tough remaining schedules for some teams and easier slate of games for others, surely that will come into things. Pressure does strange things to teams at this point of a season though.

[ MORE: Remaining Premier League fixtures ]

Let’s take a look at the Champions League and relegation picture a little closer.


Champions League race

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 31 28 2 1 70 21 49 16-0-0 12-2-1 86
 Manchester City 31 20 3 8 77 33 44 11-2-2 9-1-6 63
 Leicester City 32 16 7 9 60 31 29 9-4-3 7-3-6 55
 Chelsea 32 16 6 10 57 44 13 8-3-5 8-3-5 54
 Manchester United 32 14 10 8 51 31 20 9-5-2 5-5-6 52
 Wolves 32 13 13 6 45 34 11 6-7-3 7-6-3 52
 Arsenal 32 11 13 8 47 41 6 8-5-3 3-8-5 46
 Tottenham Hotspur 31 12 9 10 50 41 9 9-3-4 3-6-6 45
 Burnley 32 13 6 13 36 45 -9 8-2-6 5-4-7 45
 Sheffield United 31 11 11 9 30 31 -1 7-3-5 4-8-4 44
 Everton 32 12 8 12 40 47 -7 8-5-3 4-3-9 44
 Crystal Palace 32 11 9 12 28 37 -9 6-4-6 5-5-6 42
 Newcastle United 32 11 9 12 33 43 -10 6-7-3 5-2-9 42
 Southampton 32 12 4 16 41 55 -14 4-2-10 8-2-6 40

So, yeah, this is getting bonkers. With Leicester City and Chelsea both losing this week, Wolves and Man United are just three points off third place and this is going to be extremely interesting. Man United have a very easy remaining schedule and they have momentum, while Sheffield United have some tough games remaining. With fifth-place potentially a Champions League spot due to Man City’s European ban (which they have appealed) that means Arsenal, Tottenham, Sheffield United and even Burnley are in the hunt too. When it comes to Europa League, Everton, Palace, Newcastle and Southampton still have a chance as eighth place could be a qualifying berth due to the FA Cup winners likely to finish in the top six. Simply put, the entire league aside from the bottom six are in the hunt for European action. Lots to play for.


Relegation battle

 Brighton & Hove Albion 32 7 12 13 34 44 -10 5-6-5 2-6-8 33
 West Ham United 32 8 6 18 38 56 -18 5-3-8 3-3-10 30
 Watford 32 6 10 16 29 49 -20 4-6-6 2-4-10 28

 Aston Villa 32 7 6 19 36 60 -24 5-3-8 2-3-11 27
 Bournemouth 32 7 6 19 30 54 -24 4-5-7 3-1-12 27
 Norwich City 32 5 6 21 25 60 -35 4-3-9 1-3-12 21

Things are just as interesting at the bottom of the table. Somehow Norwich are still in with a chance of survival despite losing all three of their games since the restart. They have to start winning soon though. Bournemouth and Aston Villa have some ridiculously tough games to finish with and look like they will go down but West Ham and Brighton have tough schedules too, with the latter playing Liverpool and Man City back-to-back next week so they could get sucked back into things. It looks like being three from the bottom five to go down and both West Ham and Watford have showed they have enough grit to grind out points. Can Villa and Bournemouth do the same? Will Norwich win four or five of their last six to save themselves? Things get crazy in the final weeks at the bottom and this is shaping up to be one of the best relegation battles in Premier League history as goal difference is so tight between all of the teams.

Top five Premier League players since restart

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The top five Premier League players since the restart?

[ MORE: New PL TV schedule ]

There have been plenty of stars who have dazzled since the suspension as an extended break seems to have rejuvenated them.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Take a look below at the top Premier League players of the show so far.


Christian Pulisic

The USMNT star has scored two goals and has two assists in his first three games back, plus he’s been man of the match on the last three occasions for Chelsea. Pulisic, 21, has been lauded by Frank Lampard and he is tearing teams apart with his pace and direct running. His goal in the big win against Man City summed up his talent perfectly. Incredible pace, control and composure. Pulisic is the highest-scoring player in the Premier League under the age of 21 this season.

Danny Ings

What a season this man is having. Danny Ings has finally shaken off his injury problems and has 18 Premier League goals and has scored three since the restart. He’s also hit the crossbar, set up chances for his teammates and has dug deep to defend from the front. Ings, 27, will be linked with plenty of teams this summer but he will be worth way over $60 million by Southampton, his hometown club. The entire soccer world smiles when Ings scores. He is one of the good guys and he’s pushing hard to win the Golden Boot.

Kevin de Bruyne

It is absurd how good Kevin de Bruyne is. It really is. He’s scored three goals since the restart and his free kick against Chelsea was sublime. Add to that his perfect passing and his hunger and KDB is the reason why Man City are pushing hard to add an FA Cup and Champions League to the League Cup they’ve already won this season. Yes, they are no longer Premier League champions but winning three out of four trophies this season isn’t a bad haul. Intrigued to see if he sticks around depending on the outcome of their appeal against the Champions League ban.

Michael Keane

Scored the winner at Norwich and has held Everton’s defense together with timely tackles and blocks. Keane is finally back to his best and he’s showing the form which saw Everton buy him from Burnley for $37 million in 2017. Keane has had his critics but Toffees fans are now loving his partnership with Mason Holgate at center back and they are surging up the table because of their solid foundation. Europa League is the target for Carlo Ancelotti’s side and they are very close to achieving that.

Bruno Fernandes

Perhaps saving the best to last!? Some say that the impact Bruno Fernandes has had on Man United is similar to what Eric Cantona had and how can we argue with that? Since Fernandes arrived in January, Man United haven’t lost and look a completely different team. His two goals against Brighton were sublime and his partnership in midfield with Paul Pogba is flourishing. Defensively United look better and ahead of Fernandes the trio of Martial, Rashford and Greenwood are purring. Fernandes makes everything tick and is making every single Man United player around him better. That is why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are in the top four battle and have all of the momentum.

Honorable mention: Migual Almiron, Riyad Mahrez, Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Luke Shaw, Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Ben Mee, Allan Saint-Maximin