Looking back at Week 2 of the NWSL season

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When Women’s Professional Soccer began in 2009, the excitement around a new league slowly faded into concerns for the product. Beyond nebulous, qualitative concerns about aesthetics and quality, the league just wasn’t producing goals. During its first offseason, league officials came to openly discuss hopes the league would start producing higher scoring games. With a competition producing only 1.07 goals per game, the marketing battle was going to be that much harder.

The NWSL is having no such problems. Through six games, the league’s yet to have a 0-0. Only one match has failed to produce two goals, while this weekend’s game gave fans five scores in 180 minutes. Among the battles this league has to avoid their ancestors’ fate, lack of goals may not be one of them.

The bigger debate surrounds quality. Those who’ve covered WPS and its predecessor, Women’s United Soccer Association, have expressed reserved approval, while the league’s executive director, Cheryl Bailey, has continued to express satisfaction with the league’s standard of play. Newer fans have expressed concerns, perhaps hoping the NWSL’s clubs would replicate the wide-open style that’s endeared Pia Sundhage’s national teams to the masses, but that’s an unrealistic standard. On a more level playing field, coaches are going to be more risk averse.

With the teams’ low budgets preventing them from bringing in significant international talent, there was reason to expect a worse product than WPS. Yet to this point, that hasn’t happened. At time play has been open; at others, it’s combative. You know, like any other league. The absence of players like Marta and Kelly Smith may lower the league’s Q score, but those losses haven’t had an effect on the product.

With two more well-played games this weekend, NWSL looks to be transcending its self-imposed limitations. Where quality’s not an issue, the league can focus its energies elsewhere. For now.

Here’s what happened in Week 2:

TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

source:  Portland became the second team to win this season, but given the team’s expectations, it’s difficult to say they stood out. What has stood out (at least, compared to expectations) is the Washington Spirit‘s start. Through almost two weeks (four of the league’s teams didn’t play this weekend), the Spirit sit third.

On Saturday, Mike Jordan’s team got another draw – a second straight match decided by late fireworks. Whereas last week the Spirit were giving up a late equalizer to Sydney Leroux, this time Diana Matheson won them a point from the spot. From a team picked by many to finish last in the league, two early results are forcing some re-evaluation.

It’s too early to deem Washington’s youth movement a success story, but it is worth asking how they’ve taken points from the Flash and Boston. The obvious answer is Ashlyn Harris, whose stellar play in goal has allowed the Spirit to get full value out of their limited chances on goal. Coming off a Woman of the Match-level performance in Boston, the U.S. international gave another impressive performance, making a highlight reel save on Abby Wambach in Saturday’s first half.

Washington were the beneficiaries of some good fortune, that late penalty at the Maryland SoccerPlex allowing them to salvage a Saturday result, but if the play of Tiffany McCarty and Stephanie Ochs is any indication, the Spirit won’t need such fortune going forward. McCarty, used as Washington’s lead attacker, looks like one of the fastest players in the league, her ability to beat the defense creating more room for Ochs, who has consistently out-worked opposing defenders over the season’s first two weeks.

They may yet end up in eighth, but after two weeks, it’s time to consider a more positive scenario. On paper, the squad isn’t impressive, but in action, they have enough pieces to compete for the playoffs. Just like everybody else.

MVP … OF THE WEEK

Here’s the shortest possible case for Christine Sinclair, best women’s soccer player in the world (pictured, above): She does so much more than score goals (which she arguably does better than anybody else).

On Sunday, Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone dropped Sinclair into attacking midfield, deploying her below Seattle’s two holders – Keelin Winters and Kaylyn Kyle. It was an approach that worked in the last 30 minutes against Kansas City, when Portland looked much better after struggling for much of the match. At JELD-WEN, the move assured Portland’s most important player would more touches.

After 20 initial, contentious minutes, the effect was obvious. Sinclair was the key to a Thorns attack that relied as much on transitions as their favored possession-based play. At the top of midfield, Sinclair was able to secure possession on second balls created by Becky Edwards and Allie Long, her quick passing to Alex Morgan taking advantage of the few instances where Winters came forward, tried to win a battle, but failed.

Early in the second half, that defensive work paid off. “Sinc” forced a Reign turnover that led to Morgan’s game-winning goal, her pass across the Seattle penalty area creating an easy finish for Portland’s second goal.

Also of note: The Flash’s Abby Wambach and Samantha Kerr, the Spirit’s Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, as well as our unsung hero, below

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Sat., Apr. 20 Washington 1-1 W.New York
Sun., Apr. 21 Portland 2-1 Seattle

ROUND’S BIG STORY

We’ve already done one pass on Portland’s crowd – 16,479 people that created the league’s first must-see event (well, second, if you count last Saturday’s opening game). Effusive players after the game speculated how the intimidation factor could create an even bigger home field advantage, though the league should hope the crowd’s effects transcend mere wins and losses.

Of course, the huge numbers mean big business for Portland, but other MLS teams with strong fanbases may see Sunday’s game, think about the wage subsidies provided by the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican federations, and conclude the obvious: We could actually make money off a women’s professional team. While it may be naive to assume Portland’s success can be replicated, executives in Vancouver and Toronto may look at Sunday’s game and see possibilities, not problems.

That doesn’t help the league’s current teams, many of which wil struggle to average one-fifth of Sunday’s crowd. The hope for those teams is in people turning on the YouTube streams (and come July, FOX Soccer), seeing Portland’s atmosphere, and wanting to  to give their local team a try. Though they can’t expect a Rose City Riveter presence for their team, they can hope to see one develop.

UNSUNG HERO

Western New York’s AD Franch was Week 1’s best player, and Christine Sinclair showed why she’s one of the world’s best in Week 2, but combine the weeks and choose the league’s best player and you’re likely to come up with Jessica Fishlock, the Welsh international that’s proved to be the best European import of the young season.

NWSL Standings

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

On Sunday, the energetic style of Seattle’s diminutive midfielder didn’t win her new friends among the highly-partisan crowd, but that couldn’t obscure the fact that she was clearly the game’s best non-Sinclair. Her disruptive presence at the top of Laura Harvey’s midfield three constantly presented problems for Portland’s four, often creating second balls that made life easier for the deeper Keelin Winters. Pressing holder Becky Edwards — forcing the Thorns pivot to play more balls to her defenders than she would have liked — Fishlock was also able to quickly jump into attack, positioning that paid off with her late goal.

“I think she was an unknown coming into this league, coming from Wales,” Winters said last week, the beginning of the explanation behind Fishlock’s surprise. The Welsh national team gets very little prime international exposure, and having played at Bristol Academy in England before coming to the States, she didn’t get attention should have received at clubs like Arsenal, Birmingham City, or Everton.

But Seattle head coach Laura Harvey, imported to the Pacific Northwest from Arsenal, clearly knew what she was getting in Fishlock – a player who can have an immediate, game-changing impact for the Reign. Through two weeks, she’s been one of the league’s best players.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

How will a week off affect Boston, Chicago, Kansas City and Sky Blue? … How quickly will Abby Wambach bounce back from her late-match concussion? … Will Sinclair have to stay in midfield until Tobin Heath returns? … When will McCarty and Ochs’ efforts start translating into goals? … Did preseason predictions underrate Seattle’s to-this-point solid defense?

LOOKING FORWARD

The league gets back to a four-game schedule this weekend, with Kansas City hosting Seattle in the league’s first Friday affair. On the east coast, two the the league’s best strikers will face-off in Rochester when Abby Wambach’s Flash host Syndey Leroux’s Boston Breakers. That will be PST’s Game of the Week.

Friday, April 26

FC Kansas City vs. Seattle Reign FC

Saturday, April 27

Chicago Red Stars vs. Portland Thorns FC
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC
Western New York Flash vs. Boston Breakers

Sounders top Dallas in all-time, extra-time playoffs classic (video)

Andy Bao/The Seattle Times via AP
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The game in 200 words (or less): How about one word? Insanity. Simply put, an all-time classic in MLS Cup Playoffs history. It’s a small sample size, no doubt about it, but MLS’s new single-elimination playoff format appears to have solved the problem of uninspiring early-round action. Seattle advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, where they’ll face the winner of Real Salt Lake versus Portland Timbers, with a 4-3 extra-time victory, but it wasn’t without 120 minutes of nonstop drama. Seattle went from 2-0 up inside the first 25 minutes, to level at 2-2 inside 65, to 3-2 up 10 minutes later, to level again with under 10 minutes of regular time remaining. They needed 113 minutes to do it, but Seattle broke the deadlock for the final time when Jordan Morris completed the first hat trick of his career.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

What did we learn?

  • Sounders making magic out wide: No matter how many times they saw it, Dallas simply couldn’t slow down the Sounders wide attackers and full backs from creating superb scoring chances from out wide. This has been one of the Sounders’ greatest strengths for a couple seasons now, yet Dallas seemed wholly unprepared for it. The speed and crossing ability they have out wide is a huge problem for a lot of teams, especially when Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are moving around freely in the box.

  • Sounders’ defensive struggles unsolved: For all the chances they created on one end, Seattle couldn’t control the game or even slow it down in middle and defensive thirds. Whether it was on the counter-attack, through sustained possession by Dallas or set pieces, Seattle struggled in the worst way. Even after going ahead in extra time, Seattle stood idly by as Dallas created a couple of golden scoring chances and were so close to finding themselves level again at 4-4. They won’t have (m)any more “get out of jail free” cards to play as they advance to the latter rounds.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jordan Morris

Goalscorers: Ruidiaz (18′), Morris (22′, 74′, 113′), Cannon (39′), Hedges (64′), Acosta (82′)

La Liga: Real Madrid shocked by Mallorca; Messi, Suarez, Griezmann send Barca top

AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

Eibar 0-3 Barcelona

Lionel Messi goal – check; Luis Suarez goal – check; Antoine Griezmann goal – check; clean sheet – check. If there exists a perfect recipe for a Barcelona victory this season, the Blaugrana put it to good use en route to a fourth straight La Liga victory and top spot in the league table on Saturday.

Griezmann opened the scoring in the 13th minute, followed by Messi in the 58th and Suarez in the 66th. Marc-Andre ter Stegen didn’t have to make a single save as Eibar managed just five shots in the game.

Mallorca 1-0 Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s unbeaten start to the season was snapped at eight games on Saturday, when Los Blancos went to Mallorca and suffered a hugely underwhelming 1-0 defeat. Zinedine Zidane’s side — already without the likes of Gareth Bale (calf), Luka Modric (bruise), Toni Kroos (adductor) and Marco Ascensio (knee), among others — finished the game with 10 men after Alvaro Odriozola earned his second yellow card in the 74th minute. The defeat sees Madrid fall off the top spot, now sitting second behind Barca.

Lago Junior scored the game’s only goal in the 7th minute and Mallorca held on for 83 more, allowing just four shots on target (12 in total). The early goal was Mallorca’s only shot on target over 90 minutes.

Atletico Madrid 1-1 Valencia

Atleti coughed up a late lead and settled for a 1-1 draw with Valencia, but the worst news of the day comes in the form of an injury suffered by Joao Felix. The 19-year-old’s ankle buckled underneath him late in the second half. Atleti finished with 10 men after their $140-million superstar was forced off.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Leganes

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Alaves v. Celta Vigo — 6 a.m. ET
Real Sociedad v. Real Betis — 8 a.m. ET
Espanyol v. Villarreal — 10 a.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao v. Real Valladolid — 12:30 p.m. ET
Sevilla v. Levante — 3 p.m. ET

Haringey Borough abandon FA Cup qualifier after racist abuse

Photo by Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images
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LONDON (AP) An FA Cup qualifier between Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town was abandoned Saturday when the home team walked off the field after one of its players was racially abused.

[ MORE: Analyzing a day of VAR drama in the Premier League ]

Haringey, a London-based non-league club, walked off in the 64th minute after claims its Cameroonian goalkeeper Valery Pajetat had been targeted by racial abuse by visiting fans minutes earlier, when Yeovil took a 1-0 lead from a penalty.

Haringey manager Tom Loizou told BBC Radio 5 Live that defender Coby Rowe was also racially abused, and that “there was no way I could let him continue.”

The match at Coles Park Stadium was in the fourth qualifying round for the FA Cup, with the winner advancing to the first round of the tournament.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased for Pulisic,” praises subs in Chelsea win ]

“The abuse a few of my players got was disgusting,” Loizou said. “Yeovil’s players and manager were different class. Their team tried to calm their supporters down, they tried their best and they supported us. They said, ‘If you’re walking off, we’re walking off with you.’ I took the decision to take my team off and I don’t want Yeovil Town to get punished for it. If we get thrown out of the FA Cup and they go through, there is no hard feelings there.”

The incident comes four days after England’s European Championship qualifier in Bulgaria was stopped twice in the first half as home fans hurled racial abuse at England’s black players. However, England decided to play on and won 6-0.

In a statement on Twitter, the football anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out praised the “swift and decisive action” taken by the Haringey manager Tom Loizou and his players.

Bundesliga wrap: Dortmund beats leaders Gladbach; Bayern draws

Matthias Balk/dpa via AP
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Another Saturday in the Bundesliga, another nutty set of results allowing a side the chance to claim the top of the league on Sunday.

David Wagner, Weston McKennie and Schalke are the ones licking their lips this time, knowing that a win at Hoffenheim will boost them into first.

[ MORE: Lampard “pleased” for Pulisic ]

Wolfsburg remains unbeaten with a draw, and dropped points for Borussia Monchengladbach, RB Leipzig, and Bayern Munich means an absurd nine teams are within two points of the top of the table.

Nine!

Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Borussia Monchengladbach

Gladbach’s stay atop the league could last just one match day, as Thorgan Hazard set up Marco Reus for a 58th minute goal and a place one point back of the top.

Werder Bremen 1-1 Hertha Berlin

Josh Sargent’s 7th minute goal didn’t stand up, thanks to Hertha’s electric Dodi Lukebakio scoring with 20 minutes to play. Watch the American striker’s goal, here.

Augsburg 2-2 Bayern Munich

The champions’ stumbles continued, with first minute concession providing a test. Bayern’s red hot pair delivered a lead, with Robert Lewandowski answering in the 14th minute, and Serge Gnabry supplying a 49th minute lead.

Stoppage time was the downfall, though, as Alfred Finnbogason helped himself to the equalizer with all kinds of questions for the Bayern defense.

Elsewhere

Eintracht Frankfurt 3-0 Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Union Berlin 2-0 Freiburg
Fortuna Dusseldorf 1-0 Mainz
RB Leipzig 1-1 Wolfsburg
Koln v. Paderborn — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Hoffenheim v. Schalke — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Mönchengladbach 8 5 1 2 15 7 8 2-1-1 3-0-1 16
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 4 4 0 11 5 6 2-2-0 2-2-0 16
 Bayern Munich 8 4 3 1 22 10 12 2-1-1 2-2-0 15
 Borussia Dortmund 8 4 3 1 20 11 9 3-1-0 1-2-1 15
 RB Leipzig 8 4 3 1 16 8 8 1-2-1 3-1-0 15
 FC Schalke 04 7 4 2 1 14 7 7 2-1-1 2-1-0 14
 SC Freiburg 8 4 2 2 15 9 6 1-2-1 3-0-1 14
 Eintracht Frankfurt 8 4 2 2 14 10 4 3-2-0 1-0-2 14
 Bayer Leverkusen 8 4 2 2 12 11 1 2-2-0 2-0-2 14
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 3 2 3 13 13 0 2-0-1 1-2-2 11
 Werder Bremen 8 2 3 3 13 17 -4 1-1-2 1-2-1 9
 1899 Hoffenheim 7 2 2 3 6 11 -5 1-0-2 1-2-1 8
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 8 2 1 5 10 14 -4 1-1-2 1-0-3 7
 1. FC Union Berlin 8 2 1 5 8 13 -5 2-0-3 0-1-2 7
 FC Augsburg 8 1 3 4 10 21 -11 1-2-1 0-1-3 6
 FSV Mainz 05 8 2 0 6 7 18 -11 1-0-2 1-0-4 6
 1. FC Köln 7 1 1 5 5 16 -11 0-0-3 1-1-2 4
 SC Paderborn 7 0 1 6 9 19 -10 0-0-4 0-1-2 1