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.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.