NWSL Game of the Week: Seattle Reign FC vs. FC Kansas City

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In a league with eight clubs and a 22-game schedule for each team, there’s always a chance at redemption for a result that may have previously slipped away. For Seattle Reign FC, the wait to turn the table on FC Kansas City is a mere seven days.

On Saturday, the two teams face off for the second time in a week when Kansas City travels to Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash., for a late 11 p.m. ET kickoff. FC Kansas City won the first-ever meeting between the two clubs 2-0, with goals from Renae Cuellar and Sinead Farrelly.

Despite the quick rematch, it’s a game of firsts for each team, with Seattle opening its home slate and Kansas City boarding a plane for the first time this season.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1 – Welcome home Seattle; say hello to the road, KC

Seattle is the last of the eight clubs to play its home opener, now in Week 4 of the season. Reign FC have come away with just one point in three road matches to open the season (a 1-1 draw with Chicago Red Stars) but a trip to the intimidating JELD-WEN Field in Portland and rain-soaked pitch in Kansas City last weekend are tall tasks for any team. Now Seattle comes home for the first time this season, and while the 3,800-seat venue is not sold out — a point of concern given the lead-in time and the strength of Seattle’s soccer fan culture — it finally offers a chance at some regularity to life for Reign FC.

The travel began almost the moment the team arrived to training camp in early March. Seattle embarked on an ambitious two week preseason tour in Japan – including a match against L. League power INAC Kobe Leonessa – while the other seven clubs humbly stayed home and trained in domes or cold weather, scrimmaging college teams. Now, nearly two months after leaving for the Far East and then trekking to Portland and twice to the Midwest, the sight of the Emerald City for a full week is a welcomed one for Reign FC.

NWSL Standings

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

“That’s been the biggest positive this week is we’ve just been able to settle in and not get on an airplane and not go to an airport, which has been a nice change for us,” Seattle head coach Laura Harvey said.

Likewise, as impressive as FC Kansas City has been thus far, the Blues are yet to play on the road this season. They’ve gotten comfortable in their Kansas confines and look like one of the best teams in the league. But all that gets put to the test on the road, where a Seattle team hungry for its first win and not far off from putting the pieces together offers a trap game for FC Kansas City, which sits in third place on 4 pts.

“We haven’t had a chance to get the feeling and the rhythm of being on the road,” Blues defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “It’s a little different without having a set schedule, which we’ve had here, fortunately, the last three weeks or so. That’s going to be a challenge, just being able to find that comfort level [like] at home. And then just playing Seattle again, the game here they were high pressuring and they had a lot of energy. I think that can only be magnified by the fact that they are playing at home and it’s their home opener.”

[MORE: Looking back at Week 3 of the NWSL season]

Harvey thinks that, to an extent, the advantage lies with Seattle having not gotten the result last week. She doesn’t anticipate changing much in the game plan and said her side hasn’t struggled to create opportunities, but rather, to finish them.

FC Kansas City coach will look to replicate last week’s performance, but is well aware of the dangers of his team’s first road match.

“We’re working on the psychological aspect and we’re working and getting ready for those first 15-20 minutes of the game, because usually in a home opener those first 15-20 minutes are crucial,” he said.

2 – Buczkowski and Scott holding down the middle for KC

Two of the league’s best players early in the season have been FC Kansas City’s pair of holding midfielders, Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott. Both serve as an extra line of defense in front of an already solid back four for the Blues, which includes Sauerbrunn alongside Canadian international Lauren Sesselmann.

“They make our jobs so much easier at the back line, specifically for me as a center back with Sesselmann, just having them in front – they sweep in front of us so they break up plays, but they are also so good at finding the ball and keeping it that they are our outlet,” Sauerbrunn said. “Both defensively and offensively they’ve been such a help in there.”

FC Kansas City has come together quickly across the pitch. The back line is solid, but there is no stronger unit than the Blues’ loaded midfield, in which Buczkowski and Scott sit in and first round college draft pick Kristie Mewis, U.S. international Lauren Cheney and Sinead Farrelly have freedom to roam and push forward at will.

The system is cohesive, free-flowing and flat-out effective thus far. Mexican international Renae Cuellar, who has two goals this season, utilizes world-class speed to run off that five-woman midfield as the lone striker.

And the tendencies of the Blues’ midfielders to play more centrally at times opens up the wings for outside backs Merritt Mathias and Leigh Ann Robinson, something Seattle learned last week.

Round one of this matchup in Overland Park, Kan., last week was won and lost in the midfield. The same will be said about Saturday’s rematch.

3 – Fishlock the engine of a team close to clicking

source: APSeattle hasn’t overly wowed anyone with their opening three performances, but there have been moments – flashes – where Reign FC have pieced together sequences that show their potential.

At the heart of most of that is Welsh midfielder Jessica Fishlock (pictured above, right).

[MORE: Fishlock the unsung hero in Week 2 vs. Portland]

Without a doubt she has been Seattle’s engine and best player, creating attacking opportunities sometimes out of nothing from her advanced midfield role and doing so in place of a front line that hasn’t come to fruition yet. Harvey admits she  is yet to figure out who is best suited in the lone striker role of Seattle’s 4-5-1 formation, she knows where her foundation is.

“Prior to any ball being kicked we knew we had a strong midfield,” Harvey said.

Harvey says Fishlock will be “a massive success” for the team and the league. But Fishlock’s fellow central midfielders, Keelin Winters and Canadian Kaylyn Kyle (pictured left), have also been instrumental. The trio is a perfect combination of defensive ball-winning and attacking flair.

On Saturday, the midfield will need to stay connected with its backs. Cheney was able to find pockets of space between those lines last week and while neither of her two assists came from a built-up attack (one was a corner kick, the other a clearance turned through ball), she had far too much time on the ball.

As for the battle of two strong midfield units – a crowded one with two teams that prefer three central midfielders – Andonovski said he was “very happy” with how Buczkowski and Scott contained Fishlock, but the Welsh international isn’t sweating the rematch.

“A lot of teams nowadays play with the two holding, so it’s not something knew that we’ve come up against or I’ve come up against,” Fishlock said. “But they do it very well. I tip my hat to them tremendously; they did it very well against us when we played them away.”

Harvey said Lindsay Taylor and Tiffany Cameron have returned to fitness and could be options at forward, where Seattle has struggled.

QUICK HITS

Seattle Kansas City
Star to Watch Jessica Fishlock – She’s the focal point of an attack lacking a pure striker and often pushes beyond the lone forward from her attacking midfield role. Can she get support from a forward who rises to the occasion? Lauren Cheney – Lit up Seattle last week. Her two assists weren’t even her most impressive contributions. Three of Cheney’s free kicks were dangerous, including one in the second half that that forced a huge save.
Still Important Michelle Betos – The young goalkeeper has done a solid job filling in for Hope Solo, who is out until June or July after having wrist surgery. Betos needs to continue to come up big to keep her team in matches, including this home opener. Renae Cuellar – Lost in all the praise of Kansas City’s midfield is a 22-year-old star who has scored in both games, including the first goal in NWSL history. Her pace is electrifying and she showed it last week, out-running the Reign’s defense in a 50-yard sprint.
Win if … … they stay compact and win the midfield battle. They’ll need this to be a 1-0 kind of game. … Buczkowski and Scott can dictate play and if Cheney is given too much space again.

Other games in Week 4:

Western New York Flash 2-1 Sky Blue FC (Wednesday) The Flash finally picked up their first win in the first midweek game of the season, which also ruined Sky Blue FC’s previously perfect record and bid to go top of the league. Abby Wambach scored the game-winner in the 20th minute for Western New York in front of a paltry 2,127 fans.

Chicago Red Stars at Boston Breakers (Saturday, 6 p.m. Eastern) The Breakers return to Somerville, Mass. for the first time since the Boston Marathon bombings (which canceled their trip to Kansas City and deeply affected defender Kia McNeill). Boston comes in riding high on the heels of a big three points in Western New York last week, while Chicago begins a brutal stretch that has them on the road for four of the next five games.

Portland Thorns FC at Washington Spirit (Saturday, 7 p.m. Eastern) – The Alex Morgan Show is in town and a sellout crowd of over 4,500 is expected at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Washington has exceeded very low expectations early on, but Portland – and the Thorns’ engine, Christine Sinclair – seem to have hit their stride. Ashlyn Harris will need another big game in net for Washington, which can’t afford to get into a shootout with the Thorns.

Pogba, De Gea ruled out for Man United v. Liverpool

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According to our partners at Sky Sports, Manchester United’s David De Gea and Paul Pogba will not play against Liverpool this Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

This is far from ideal for a United side already low in confidence after a dreadful start to the season.

De Gea injured his groin while on international duty with Spain on Tuesday as he injured an abductor while kicking a ball against Sweden in a EURO 2020 qualifier. He is expected to have a full assessment in Manchester on Thursday but isn’t expected to be available to play against Liverpool.

As for Pogba, he suffered a reoccurrence of his foot injury before the international break and has been training in Dubai on his own during the past week to try and speed up his recovery.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already been without Pogba, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for large chunks of the season so far, as Man United sit in 12th place in the Premier League table.

“No chance,” Solskjaer said of Pogba’s availability for the weekend. “Paul had an injury, then came back, worked really hard, played a couple of games. Maybe played through the pain barrier. We had a scan after the Arsenal game and he needed a few weeks rest in the boot. Hopefully he won’t be too long but he won’t make this game, no.”

Not having their star goalkeeper and central midfielder available for this clash with bitter rivals Liverpool is another huge setback for Solskjaer, as Sergio Romero and Fred will likely start in their place.

Martial, Shaw and Wan-Bissaka are all expected to miss the game against Liverpool too as Solskjaer will at least have a valid excuse if the Premier League leaders give United a hiding on Sunday.

Bulgaria’s coach apologizes to England; Popov slams racists

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Bulgaria’s coach Krasimir Balakov has apologized to the England national team after they were subjected to racist chants during their EURO 2020 qualifier in Sofia on Monday.

Balakov was previously bullish about racism in Bulgaria, stating before the game that England had a bigger problem with racism than Bulgaria.

Initially after the game he said he didn’t hear any racist abuse and during the match he got into a heated debate with Jordan Henderson about why the game was halted for a second time.

In a post on Facebook, Balakov apaolgized to the England players and offered his views on the racist incidents plaguing Bulgarian soccer as three of their EURO 2020 home qualifiers have now seen racist abuse from their home fans.

“I condemn unconditionally all forms of racism as unacceptable behavior that contradicts normal human relationships. I think that this form of prejudice should be buried deep in our past, and nobody should ever be subjected, Balakov said. “I trained many Bulgarian teams with players of different backgrounds and never judged anyone about the color of their skin. In addition, I have always actively participated in all initiatives involving unprivileged people or the needy.”

“My comments before the game against England that Bulgaria had no problems with racism are based on the fact that the local championship has not seen such a problem on a large scale. There may have been isolated cases, but it’s definitely not something you see in the stadium. The majority of football fans do not take part in such chants, and I believe that was also the case in the game against England. One thing I would like to say very clearly is that as the stadium in Sofia has reported cases of racial discrimination, I sincerely apologize to the English footballers and those who feel offended.”

That is what Balakov should have said right after the game.

The cynics out there may also say he is only issuing this apology now after Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borissov, asked for the president of the Bulgarian Football Union, Borislav Mihaylov, to resign.

Mihaylov, who had previously complained to UEFA England boss Gareth Southgate sharing his concerns over previous racist incidents in Bulgaria, resigned on Tuesday.

After Bulgaria’s goalkeeper said England’s players “overreacted” in regards to the racist abuse hurled their way, their captain, Ivelin Popov, handled himself remarkably well throughout this sorry situation for Bulgaria.

Popov was seen remonstrating with home fans at half time in order to get them to stop the abuse, and he was praised by Marcus Rashford and others for his reaction.

“Of course I feel embarrassed. We are 11 v 11, it doesn’t matter your color, it’s no problem, we are all the same, we are one very big family in football, everybody and only we, if we are together, can we stop these bad things,” Popov said. “It was important that I spoke like this because it’s a very big problem for everybody, for our federation, for England and if they said more bad words, even one more time, then maybe they would finish the game.

“We would have such a big punishment and this is no good for Bulgarian football because if some other players want to come here, they hear what is said and how they speak bad, then this is no good for everybody. But when you start to speak to them, afterwards they understand. I think in the second half was better.”

Sergio Aguero unhurt after car crash

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Manchester City and Argentina star Sergio Aguero has escaped a car crash unscathed.

Aguero, 31, was involved in the incident on Wednesday morning but didn’t need to go to hospital and instead reported for training as usual with Man City.

Photos showed Aguero’s Range Rover badly damaged, as he posted photos of his car on his own Instagram page later on Wednesday.

The reigning Premier League champions head to Crystal Palace on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) as they aim to momentarily reduce Liverpool’s eight-point lead atop the table.

Aguero will likely be leading City’s line at Palace, as the Argentine striker has been in sensational form this season (even if City’s defensive line hasn’t) with eight goals in the opening eight games of the PL campaign.

Man City’s all-time leading goalscorer was previously involved in a car crash in Amsterdam in 2017, something which Pep Guardiola didn’t seem too pleased about at the time as Aguero had travelled to the Netherlands to attend a music concert.

This incident was a minor one and City will be thankful that Aguero is fine and able to lead what they hope is a very successful few months to put themselves back in contention for a third-straight Premier League title.

Why USMNT’s Christian Pulisic was subbed off v. Canada

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Christian Pulisic was not a happy man when he was subbed off in the second half of the USMNT’s damaging defeat to Canada in the CONCACAF Nations League.

[ MORE: What now for Berhalter, USMNT?

He didn’t look injured and after walking off the pitch he was visibly upset as Gregg Berhalter spoke to him on the bench.

But there’s a perfectly simple explanation for this: Pulisic was sick.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

USMNT head coach Berhalter revealed why he subbed out Pulisic in the 60th minute of their 2-0 defeat to Canada in Toronto on Tuesday, as Pulisic was suffering from “cold and flu-like” symptoms.

“He wanted to continue. You could see the disappointment in his face, and we had to make that decision,” Berhalter said. “We made the decision based on being not sure how much he had left. We wanted to inject some energy into the team.”

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Now, Berhalter is obviously telling the truth here, but perhaps it was a convenient excuse as Pulisic wasn’t playing his best.

Pulisic, 21, struggled against Canada and missed the USMNT’s best opportunity, as he was played in by Jordan Morris and hit his shot from 10 yards out straight at Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

In truth, it was a tough chance with the way the ball was played to him, but Pulisic knew he should have done better and moments later he was on the bench and then the USMNT were 1-0 down.

Things aren’t going Pulisic’s way right now and Tuesday night summed that up.

There is a ridiculous amount of pressure on his shoulders to single-handedly lift the USMNT out of a two-year long slump, and given the fact he has only played a handful of minutes for Chelsea over the past two months, getting a cold as he heads back to England is far from ideal.

Berhalter’s reasoning for taking off Pulisic makes sense, as he is the one U.S. player who is talented enough to make something out of nothing. But right now we aren’t seeing the best of Pulisic, and that’s probably down to his lack of playing time at Chelsea.

It’s too early to say whether or not that will impact his form for the USMNT in the months ahead, but there’s no doubting the Stars and Stripes need their best player to stand tall for the game against Canada in Orlando next month.