Looking back at Round 1 of the NWSL season

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It had the disjointed grace of a fawn nudged into its first walk. Cautious optimism from an uneven buildup provided support for a body that holds so much promise, the third crack at a women’s professional league stumbling beneath hopes a fervent U.S. national team fanbase can finally be converted to the club soccer world. And when a standing room only crowd turned up at Overland Park to see the league’s debut, the league finally took its first precarious steps.

But then the YouTube streams choked, and fields adorned with football grids and lacrosse circles reeked of 1990s anachronism. Multi-use pitches with terrible turf forced us to recoil (below, right).

No worries, Dilboy Stadium. That’s only Syndey Leroux. She’s just one of the U.S. national team’s most talented players. I mean, that’s only one game. Boston’s still got 10 more at home.

Even with its foibles, the NWSL got off to a strong start. A standout evening in Kansas City kicked off the season, and even with teams unsettled by international callups during the last weeks of preseason, the quality of play was promising. Though technical issues and facilities quirks drew dejected moans from those with unreasonably high expectations, the first week of the new women’s league was a successful one, one which left one team alone at the top of the table:

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

Sky Blue FC got the league’s only win, but they can chalk that up to an own goal from Western New York’s McCall Zerboni. The real surprise was the Seattle Reign, whose depleted roster led many to believe they’d stumble out of the gate. Without Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo (both out until June) as well as two of their best goal-scoring options (Tiffany Cameron and Lindsay Taylor), Seattle still went up early through rookie Christine Nairn. Chicago eventually equalized, but when the 1-1 score line held up through full time, the Reign began moving on from a terrible preseason.

MVP … OF THE ROUND

Everybody was high on Western New York’s Adrianna Franch, but FEW expected this kind of dominance in her first professional game. The only player that beat the Flash keeper was her teammate, with the rookie out of Oklahoma State injecting herself into Sky Blue attacker Lisa Da Vanna’s nightmares after stoning her on two clear second half chances. In all, Franch made seven stops on the night, allowing only what the soccer equivalent of an unearned run.

Rated as one of the best players in January’s draft, “A.D.” surprisingly fell to seven, where Western New York happily scooped her up. Though her Sunday efforts failed to get points for her team, the 22-year-old Kansan will cover a lot of Flash defensive ills if she can maintain this level.

Also of note: Washington’s Ashlyn Harris (big stops at Dilroy), Kansas City’s Kristie Mewis (skill-filled debut vs. Portland), good ol’ No Legs Leroux up there (game-tying goal for Boston), and our Unsung Hero, below.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Sat., Apr. 13 Kansas City 1-1 Portland
Sun., Apr. 14 Chicago 1-1 Seattle
Sun., Apr. 14 Sky Blue 1-0 W. New York
Sun., Apr. 14 Boston 1-1 Washington

ROUND’S BIG STORY

Some people were never going to be happy with the league’s modest start, so when non-soccer lines adored fields portrayed by inconsistent internet streams, the refrain was recycled: This is supposed to be a professional league?

Among fans who didn’t experience WPS or WUSA, perspective’s going to be difficult. Instead of seeing U.S. Soccer as providing something where there was nothing, eager followers ask why can’t you get an internet stream to work. Why are all the uniforms from the same template? Why isn’t there a national television deal?

The questions are positive ones, helping to make the league better. And there is an easy answer: The league’s five months old. But with each passing day – each 24 hours where the league could be addressing comes of these problems – the questions become louder. And more relevant.

UNSUNG HERO

The Portland Thorns didn’t look like favorites on Saturday. Blame Desiree Scott. The Canadian international won the battle in front of Kansas City’s defense, controlling an area Christine Sinclair usually calls her own. Portland didn’t start making serious headway until Cindy Parlow Cone’s second half substitutions dropped Sinclair in front of Scott.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. PST
Rank
1 Sky Blue 1 3 3
2 Seattle 1 1 5
2 Washington 1 1 7
2 Portland 1 1 1
2 Kansas City 1 1 2
2 Chicago 1 1 8
2 Boston 1 1 6
8 W. New York 1 0 4

In that sense, this was always going to be a bad matchup for Portland, something to keep in mind as these two favorites work their way through the season. Vlatko Andonovski has two quality players (Scott and Jen Buczkowski) he can deploy in front of the defense. Once in the lead, Lauren Cheney can reinforce their ranks.

It was a good road point for Portland, though ultimately, it was also a shot across their bow.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Will Seattle’s defense hold up against a team with better striking options? … And are fears about Chicago’s attack set to come to fruition? … Is Portland’s midfield as bad, or was that the travel and turf? … And how did they fail to find Alex Morgan? … How does Abby Wambach miss an open net from the middle of the area at the end of the match? … And is this the week we hear about the league’s big sponsorship and television deals?

LOOKING FORWARD

Portland and Kansas City get a chance to flash their favorites’ credentials. FCKC gets the defense-depleted Breakers in Overland Park, while Thorns FC spark their Cascadian rivalry with the Seattle Reign.

Saturday, April 20

Washington Spirit vs. Western New York Flash
FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breaks

Sunday, April 21

Portland Thorns vs. Seattle Reign FC

Arsenal want season completed ‘to maintain integrity’ of PL

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Arsenal remain in support of finishing the 2019-20 season in order to “to maintain the integrity” of the competition, despite Friday’s unanimous vote that the Premier League cannot resume at the start of May as previously hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Gunners, who currently sit ninth in the PL table with 10 games left to play (one more than the majority of clubs around them), were five points back of fifth-place Manchester United for qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League thanks to Manchester City’s two-year European ban.

In a statement released on Friday, Arsenal reiterated their stance that the current season should be played to completion rather than called to completion at things stand or abandoned altogether.

We are in full support of the objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches from the 2019-20 season to be played, in order to maintain the integrity of each competition.

We also fully agree with the principle that any return to action will only be with the full backing of government and when medical guidance allows.

The restart date is under constant review as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic develops and we continue to work together with all stakeholders through this very challenging time

Premier League rivalries: The Merseyside derby

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While the Merseyside derby has been dominated by one side of late, that has not detracted from the spectacle of the most historic matchup in English top flight history.

Uninterrupted in top flight play since 1962/63, the two sides are situated less than a mile apart, with the proximity feeding an already intense matchup.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Despite the incredibly close geographic proximity, the derby is sometimes known as the “Friendly Derby” as there are often families with split allegiances. Still, the matchup has the most red cards in Premier League history with 21, including 17 of those in the especially heated timeframe between 1997 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Everton, the rivalry has become one-sided over the past decade, with the Toffees failing to win since October of 2010. Liverpool has won 11 of the 21 games, with the other 10 ending in a draw. That has somewhat deescalated the vicious nature of the matchup, especially since Liverpool has gone on to become one of the most formidable sides in Europe over the past few years while Everton continues to challenge for a top-half place in the league.

Still, the 228 all-time matches between the clubs continues to fuel one of the great matchups in the English domestic landscape, and sooner or later this rivalry will regain its venom to bring the bite back to this matchup.

Bayern Munich signs coach Flick as permanent boss

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Bayern Munich has locked down interim head coach Hansi Flick as permanent boss, signing the 55-year-old on through the summer of 2023, the club announced on Friday.

Flick took over on an interim basis for Niko Kovac when the Croatian was let go in early November with the club fourth in the Bundesliga table. He impressed during his time as interim manager, leading the club back to the top of the table thanks in large part to a current 11-match league unbeaten run that features 10 wins and a draw.

That streak includes a 0-0 draw with then-second placed RB Leipzig that kept Bayern atop the table, plus a dominant 5-0 win over then-fifth placed Schalke. Successive 2-1 defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are the only real blemishes on his record in charge so far, coming way back in late November and early December.

“I’m looking forward to taking on the upcoming tasks along with my staff and the team,” Flick said in the official team release. “The talks with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić were very good and in a spirit of good faith. We’ve determined the direction for the upcoming years. I’m sure we can achieve a lot together.”

Flick has also kept the club’s pristine Champions League record alive this season, with wins over Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham, and Chelsea by a combined 12-1 scoreline. The 3-0 first-leg win over Chelsea in the Round of 16 has the club primed to reach the quarterfinal round should the competition eventually resume.

Speaking to Flick’s adaptability, he also kept the club rolling in the recent absence of in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, working 6-0 and 2-0 wins over Hoffenheim and Augsburg without his lead frontman who began a long absence with a broken tibia.

“Bayern are very satisfied with Hansi Flick’s work,” said Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the release. “The team has had a very good development under him, plays attractive football which is reflected in results. We are the only club still competing in all three competitions.”

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic added, “Hansi and I know in which direction we want to develop the team. We believe that Hansi is also the right head coach for the current time.”

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Montiel to Palace or West Ham, Coutinho to depart Barcelona

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River Plate is one of many clubs that could use this coming transfer window to earn a payday after taking losses in the coronavirus shutdown, and that could come at the benefit of one Premier League club.

West Ham is apparently one of a few teams after Argentine international Gonzalo Montiel who could fetch River Plate somewhere in the vicinity of $24 million. The right-back is a River Plate youth product who established himself as a regular for the club at just 20 years old and has spent the last three seasons earning significant minutes. Now 23, Montiel is a strong passer who can create for teammates with long-range deliveries.

Argentine publication Ole mentions that Spanish side Valencia has shown interest of late, but also states that West Ham made contact in January but was turned down by River Plate and the Hammers could be suitors again once the next window arrives. Montiel was also linked with Crystal Palace by Goal back in late March, while Argentine newspaper El Intransigente linked the player with Southampton. Palace and Saints both make sense as they are both looking to replace big-name departures of late, with Crystal Palace still yet to truly replace Aaron Wan-Bissaka while Southampton has not seen much from those brought in to take over for Cedric Soares.

Barcelona is reportedly ready to lower its asking price on Philippe Coutinho, with a bid of $86 million potentially workable for the Catalan club, according to a report by the Evening Standard.

Coutinho was extremely poor in his season-and-a-half at Barcelona, and while the Brazilian playmaker had upped his game on loan at Bayern Munich before the coronavirus shutdown, the purchase price on his loan deal is a whopping $130 million, which Bayern Munich is not willing to pay.

Barcelona is desperately in need of funds to support its summer business, with Lautaro Martinez and Neymar both heavily linked with the La Liga giants. It’s highly unlikely that both will be possible to acquire given both the team’s business of late and the coronavirus shutdown causing financial strain on clubs all over the world, and a significant sale may even be needed to get one of them over the line. Coutinho provides such a possibility, but with Barcelona not exactly in a position of strength given Coutinho’s lack of recent star power and the club’s need to sell, dropping the asking price is a highly likely eventuality.

The Evening Standard report mentions that Barcelona believes the Premier League is the “most likely possibility” for a Coutinho suitor given the league’s memories of his incredible spell at Liverpool just a few years ago.

Speaking of the Premier League, Manchester United was reportedly close to securing a marquee striker last summer before eventually sticking with Marcus Rashford up front. Speaking to Italian print publication Tuttosport on Wednesday, Romelu Lukaku’s agent Federico Pastorello said that the Belgian big man almost went to Juventus on a swap deal before Manchester United backed out of the transfer negotiations due to Dybala’s high wage demand. Eventually, Lukaku departed for Inter Milan where he settled in quickly and has contributed to a furious title challenge that just lost steam before the coronavirus shutdown.

Pastorello simply responded “It’s true” when asked if Dybala had been a focal point of Manchester United negotiations, but hedged his answer with, “Romelu, however, had always hoped to go to Inter because he was impressed by the affection of the Inter fans.”