Three good questions with NWSL director Cheryl Bailey

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With the first weekend of the new National Women’s Soccer League in the books, ProSoccerTalk took some time to catch up with league director Cheryl Bailey. Having just returned to Chicago from matches in Kansas City and Boston, Bailey discussed her takeaways from the league’s debut, hiccups like the difficulty viewing matches, and how to balance the need for stability with the ambitions of a new league.

Here are PST’s three good questions for Cheryl Bailey:

1.) You were in Kansas City and Boston this weekend: one very new club, and one well-established club. Can you share with us what you saw at each venue? What conclusions you could draw about the new league’s first weekend?

I couldn’t have picked two better (locations). Obviously, four games going on were great for this weekend, and the two that I happened to go to both had great atmospheres. Each one had sold out their stadium. Each one had great competition ending up in ties, one a very dramatic tie. The enthusiasm of the crowds and the environment was all that we had hoped for.

(On the Kansas City crowd for the club’s first ever match …)

It really was amazing. They had sold all of their seating capacity, and they saw the enthusiasm and actually sold standing room seats. They had (people in) the corners. They had people sitting on the grass. It was a great environment.

2.) For somebody who hasn’t been through the WUSA or WPS days, they may have tuned in this weekend and saw the troubles streaming games, the lines on the fields, the turf surfaces and drew some conclusions. How do you provide those people, some with very high expectations, with some perspective? How do you convert them and keep them coming back to the product?

That’s a fair question. Bottom line is all four matches that we played, if you were at those matches, no doubt (you) are coming back. (The games) were well-contested. They were great environments. The two venues that I didn’t go to, we had somebody from the league there, and they all came back with very positive experiences from the fans, those that were watching the game.

In terms of a few of the technical difficulties, I’m surprised given that we had four-and-a-half months to pull this off that we were able to even attempt some of those opportunities, and it will take a little bit (of time). But like anything, anybody who started anything, who’s been involved with anything from the ground knows, it’s putting in that hard work. Working through, trouble-shooting the (problems) that you get. When you come through that, you bear the fruits of your labor.

People want this league to succeed. They really appreciate the talents that are out on the field, and I think they’re going to come with us down this road that we’re going to take. This not going to be without a few bumps, but it’s certainly going to be with good soccer and just great enthusiasm at the stadium.

(On dealing with frustrations born from devoted women’s soccer fans’ high expectations …)

For me, it’s the journey, not just the individual things you’re going to get along the way. With women’s sports, whenever you are going to start something new, while there were two leagues before us, those that want to be part of this journey are going to have to take a little bit of step back, just like we have as a the league.

We’re not at the biggest stadiums. We (don’t have) expectations that we’re going to achieve our final goals today. We’re building (toward) those goals.

People have to appreciate the fact that we sold out two stadiums this weekend. We had good attendance at the other two, and we had four great games. If you look at the scores of those games to look at the talent level, every week-in and week-out they’re going to play great soccer.

You just have to go with an ability to see beyond a technical difficulty or startup things that might set you back a little bit. Nobody gets anywhere without a lot of hard work, and you really reap the rewards because of that hard work – sticking with something.

It’s not going to deter me at all. It just means, alright, let’s figure out what the issues were. Let’s work on them and make them better so the next time we don’t have those same issues.

(On the quality of play ..)

The talent was unbelievable: the speed of play; the technical (ability). And we’re not just talking about national (team) allocated players. We’re talking top-to-bottom. In the two games I was at, those four teams, I was equally impressed with the great job all those players on the field did.

3.) U.S. Soccer has stepped up and is running this league, leaving some with questions about juggling sustainability, as league stewards, versus ambition – growing the league. Can you talk about the league’s philosophy on these issues, how that affects priorities, and your view on what’s the right balance?

The first thing is, you have to create a base. You have to be sure that the eight teams that you have, the places you have, what you have, you get good root. Because without that balance, you can’t grow. It’s constantly coming and going, coming and going.

I feel very much that we understand the balance here, that the eight teams we have and all the players playing on those teams, they are the core. They are the roots of what we’re really putting into the National Women’s Soccer League.

At the same time, we have to have vision. We have to have the ability to see there are other people out there that want to be a part of this league, whether we’re adding teams or (growing) these teams. We have to balance that, no doubt.

Our first obvious objective, we needed to launch the league. And that created more time spent on just getting everything in place. Getting to where we were this past weekend, to have the teams that were on the field, great games that were played.

Now we need to continue to balance that. There are some things to work through, as you indicated earlier, but also look to the future. We’re going to get this launched and we’re going to get a little bit under our belts. But we will, in fact in the next couple of months, take a look at where opportunities may lie as well.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
Photo credit: Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
Photo byJacques Feeney/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+