Looking back at Week 4 of the NWSL Season

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Through the first four weeks of the NWSL season, life on the road has proven very forgiving for the league’s eight clubs, a minor surprise for those expecting transcontinental travel and the challenges of the league’s various surfaces to give home teams an edge. Yet through 14 games, teams are 5-5-4 away from home, and while that figure may be skewed by Portland’s three games on the raod, home teams have still yet to see any significant advantage from their friendly confines.

That’s in aggregate, though. For individual teams, there were still questions, particularly surrounding Kansas City and Chicago – two teams who ventured away from home for the first time in Week 4.

For the Red Stars, the questions were ominous ones. One point from home games against Seattle and Portland confirmed doubts about Rory Dames’ team, none of which were assuaged by Saturday’s 4-1 loss in Boston. League-wide results may not show a home field advantage, but for Chicago, life went from bad to worse on the road.

For FC Kansas City — a team living at the other end of the standings — the story was much different. Their 1-0 result at Starfire Sports Complex may be superficially less impressive than last week’s 2-0 over Reign FC in Overland Park, but on the road against a Seattle team that played better than they did a week ago, Kansas City gave arguably their most convincing performance of the season. Vlatko Andonovski’s team dominated the first half-hour, executed one of the season’s best goals in the second half, and went on to sully the Reign’s home opener.

Most convincing was the continuity. Lauren Cheney is FCKC’s key player, somebody whose constant, steady movement in the attacking phase churns the team, with fellow midfielder Sinead Farrelly filling in the spaces Cheney vacates. As defenders adjust, Renae Cuellar’s given areas to exploit, while Kristie Mewis can pick spots to attack. It isn’t explosive, it isn’t overbearing, but with patience and prodding, Kansas City eventually opens you up, just as they did on Cuellar’s 69th minute score, her third of the season.

Andonovski, beaming after the convincing performance, was easy with his praise, saying “There was nothing more I could ask” of the team.

“Every line was working great,” he said, shortly after Saturday’s final whistle, “The goal that we scored was just a pleasure to watch.”

“It was our first road game, and we didn’t know how we were going to respond. If [we] want to be a contender for a playoff spot and move up from there, we have to win games on the road. We came out, worked hard and did what we did.”

What they did was stay undefeated, now 2-0-1. They also may have answered the last, faint question about their potential. Through the season’s first three weeks, our internal cynics could wonder whether they’d be as strong on the road. Now we know.

Here’s what else happened in Week 4:

source:  TEAM THAT STOOD OUT

It was the league’s first four-goal game, the first time any team’d won by at least three goals, and for the Boston Breakers, it was the second straight week where they stood out. Last week, a convincing road victory in Rochester made their post-Boston Marathon return a successful one. On Saturday, their result to Dilboy Field produced the league’s first rout.

For as much talk as there’s been about the NWSL’s Big Two (Portland and Kansas City), Boston’s giving us some reason to think they can keep up. After an opening day stumble at home against Washington, the Breakers have put together two convincing wins, the second showing off the depth of one of the league’s deepest attacks. Though there were concerns about their goalkeeping and defense at the beginning of the season, central defenders Kia McNeill and Cat Whitehill are capable of providing some stability. And thanks to the insertion of rookie Mariah Nogueira into the lineup, Lisa Cole has a formidable presence in front of the defense – somebody who can destroy play before it hits the back line. Put the package together, and you have the most likely challenger to the league’s still-unproven duopoly.

At a minimum, the Breakers are dangerous, and with a player like Syndey Leroux, they have a way to steal games they don’t otherwise control. That could come in handy against the likes of Portland and FCKC.

MVP … OF THE WEEK

The Red Stars were unfortunate to be exposed to the whole Sydney Leroux arsenal – an array of skills that leaves her atop the league’s scoring list after Saturday’s onslaught. Her scoring instincts were on display when she opened her account (and gave Boston their final lead), redirecting a Nogeuira flick past Erin McLeod in the 26th minute. In the 74th minute, Leroux flashed her near-unmatched speed and tenacity, taking a ball off defender Camelina Moscato and racing near-half the field for her second. Ten minutes later, she reminded everybody of the finishing that’s made her one of the world’s best per-minute scorers, putting home a ball from Kyah Simon to record the league’s first hat trick.

Because of her place in the national team, Leroux doesn’t get as much publicity as Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, but in some ways, she’s more dangerous. While she doesn’t have Wambach’s aerial presence or Morgan’s finishing, she’s still an elite player in both regards, and with her speed, tenacity, and pure physicality, she better equipped to create opportunities for herself (as evidenced by her second goal on Saturday).

Just as in the men’s game, national team performance isn’t the be-all, end-all of a player’s profile, yet for internationals in the NWSL, that’s all they’ve had since WPS folded. For a player like Leroux — someone who’s in the middle of her first professional season — getting regular playing time could broaden people’s perceptions. She’s just as dangerous as Morgan or Wambach, and the Breakers are allowing her to prove it.

(Note: Tuesday is Sydney Leroux’s birthday. Happy 23rd birthday, Ms. Leroux.)

Also of note: Diana Matheson’s still a jewel for Washington; as is Jessica Fishlock for Seattle; Becky Sauerbrunn went on an 80-yard run out of central defense to set up Kansas City’s only goal; Sophie Schmidt is the one thing that is working for Sky Blue; and don’t forget our unsung hero, below.

NWSL Results

Date Home Score Road
Wed., May 1 W. New York 2-1 Sky Blue
Sat., May 4 Boston 4-1 Chicago
Sat., May 4 W. New York 1-2 Boston
Sat., May 4 Chicago 0-2 Portland

ROUND’S BIG STORY

Abby Wambach returned to the field on Wednesday, a highly-anticipated home debut after a week of speculation surrounding her health created the league’s first major controvery.

Two weeks ago, Wambach was nailed in the face by a kicked ball and played out the last five minutes of the Flash’s visit to Washington with what was later conceded to be a concussion. Unfortunately, Western New York was late to diagnose the injury, leading the criticism of the team, league, and the official who oversaw the Spirit-Flash match. U.S. Soccer eventually conceded the situation was handled incorrectly.

Chalk it up as a leaning experience, albeit a very disturbing one. While flakey live streams and organizational issues at facilities can be categorized as growing pains of a new, small league, players’ health can’t be allowed to suffer amid those mistakes. Professional standards demand you provide for the basic care of your workers. In the realm of athletics, that means being able to treat your employees when they suffer injuries on the field.

Undoubtedly, the Flash will learn from this experience. They didn’t diagnosis Wambach properly on site. They allowed her to travel back to Western New York without full knowledge of her condition. They didn’t promptly see she was treated when they returned to Rochester. The word “concussion” wasn’t even used until a week after it was inflicted when Wambach revealed it during an on-field interview.

U.S. Soccer stepped up, confessed there was a problem, and acknowledged this can’t happen again. That it was allowed to happen at all, however, is disturbing. This isn’t a web stream where you can justify improving as you go. Everything should have been in place before hand.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. +/- PST
Rank
1 Portland 4 10 +4 1
2 Boston 3 7 +4 3
3 Kansas City 3 7 +3 2
4 Sky Blue 3 6 +1 5
5 W. New York 4 4 -1 4
6 Washington 4 2 -2 7
7 Seattle 4 1 -4 6
8 Chicago 3 1 -5 8

UNSUNG HERO

Nineteen-year-old Samantha Kerr knew what she was up against on Wednesday. She’s been playing with Caitlin Foord since the 18-year-old defender joined the Australian national team two years ago, so when the two Matildas met mid-week in Rochester, Kerr knew exactly how to pick apart her Sky Blue counterpart.

Shifted over to the left wing, Kerr was able to continuously get behind Foord, SBFC’s isolated right back. With Jim Gabarra starting Danesha Adams at right wing in Sky Blue’s 4-3-3, Foord was given no help, stranded while deciding when to come up to stop the ball or lay back to contain Kerr. Between Flash left back Katherine Reynolds and help from midfielder Veronica Perez cutting across the Western New York formation, Foord was overrun.

But it was Kerr who made the tactic really pay off almost immediately, assisting on Spanish international Adriana’s sixth minute opener. Shortly after, a cross mishandled by Christie Rampone set up Wambach for what became the game-winning goal.

With Wambach and Adriana in the middle, Wednesday’s could be a regular occurrence for Kerr, who has already shown she can beat players down both the left and right flanks. That gives head coach Aaran Lines a lot of tactical flexibility, flexibility he used to get the Flash’s first win last Wednesday.

LINGERING QUESTIONS …

Did Portland’s midfield finally wake up? … Or is Washington regressing after a feisty start? … Who will win first: Seattle or Chicago? … When will Lisa De Vanna start finishing some of those chances? … How many people were really in attendance last Wednesday in Rochester? … Is the Big Two really a Big Three?

LOOKING FORWARD

The NWSL has its first five-match week, with another Wednesday match serving as the opening act for a four-game weekend. The marquee event is on Saturday, with FC Kansas City visiting Western New York – this week’s PST Game of the Week.

Wednesday, May 8
Sky Blue FC vs. Chicago

Saturday, May 11
Washington vs. Boston
Sky Blue FC vs. Seattle
Western New York vs. FC Kansas City

Sunday, May 12
Chicago vs. Portland

Harry Kane’s World Cup optimism encouraging

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Harry Kane raised plenty of eyebrows on Tuesday as the newly announced captain of the English national team had the following to say in a press conference.

“It’s impossible not to dream about lifting the World Cup. It’s the biggest competition in the world,” Kane said. “I believe we can win it – anyone can. I cannot sit here and say we are not going to win it because we could do. We are not favourites but you look at this season, no-one would have thought Liverpool getting to the Champions League final. You look at Manchester United back in the Sir Alex Ferguson days, they had a young team and dominated the Premier League for years to come.

“Being young is not an excuse – it could be a good thing. I believe we can and that is what we want to try and do. Anything else is not good enough.”

And just like that, England’s new skipper appeared to set the bar ridiculously too high once again ahead of a major tournament.

Compare Kane’s comments to that of England captain Steven Gerrard ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“Anyone who thinks we can’t win the World Cup has to be barking up the wrong tree,” Gerrard said, before England crashed out at the group stage four years ago…

Are England going to win the World Cup this summer? Probs not. Kane, and his manager, likely know that but what’s the point of having a negative mindset from the get-go? True, it hasn’t helped England in the past but this is a fresher, younger squad than in previous campaigns and there is a real sense of optimism building that Kane and Co. are flying under the radar.

The Three Lions have a chance of reaching the last eight, and even the semifinals if the draw is kind to them, and then, I guess, they’ll have a fighting chance. Germany, Spain, France, Brazil, Argentina and Belgium are still the clear favorites.

Still, Kane’s comments will no doubt be scoffed at and dismissed as nonsense by England fans and neutrals across the globe. Yet there is a growing sense that this is the strongest unit the English national team has had over the past decade with individual sentiments put to one side and Southgate fostering a team-first approach.

His selections for the final 23-man squad were based on sensibility and picking players who were in form, and fit, heading into this summer. So often the English national team has been about massaging big egos (Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry) and trying to fit square pegs in round holes come tournament time.

That’s no longer the case. With a humble, hard-working and talismanic figure such as Kane leading the line, and their charge, this summer, you get the sense that England will end up surprising many in Russia.

They won’t win the World Cup but they could win plenty of hearts for a brave style of play in a 3-4-3 formation and the likes of Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford excelling on the biggest stage.

Kane’s optimism is encouraging but unless England get out Group G (they face Tunisia, Panama and Belgium) comfortably, the negativity won’t take too long to take over the mood in the England camp.

That’s the way it always works for England as stars from the Premier League are put on a pedestal after a few decent performances and then knocked off it quickly with one slightly shaky displays. Perhaps the failure of the past two tournaments (knocked out in the last 16 at EURO 2016 by Iceland, plus the group stage exit at the last World Cup) will have toughened up this England squad.

With just five players left over from the Three Lions’ last World Cup exploit in the 2018 squad, this is very much a fresh, young squad looking to write their own history and not be haunted by the ghosts of England’s past.

“First-choice” Emery reveals his plans for Arsenal

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Unai Emery spoke to the media for the first time as Arsenal manager on Wednesday, with the Spanish coach detailing his vision for the Gunners as more details emerged about the managerial search.

Emery, 48, was named as Arsenal’s new “head coach” with the former PSG coach replacing Arsene Wenger and edging ahead of Mikel Arteta in the battle to take charge at the Emirates Stadium.

Sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis, Emery spoke to reporters at Arsenal’s home stadium on Wednesday and although his English is limited he seemed excited by the challenge ahead.

“My English is not very best now and I want to make sure, to the supporters to explain my idea, my ambition, to explain that I am very excited for this opportunity at a big club, a great city and a grand stadium. Also, great players for this work,” Emery said.

Before adding that “it’s a great challenge but in my career, every year I grow up with new challenge and for me this challenge is a dream.”

Asked about changes to his current squad and which players may stay or leave this summer, Emery wanted to focus on speaking about the club as a whole rather than individuals but hinted at change.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players, today I want to work and want to speak globally for the squad,” Emery said.

Asked about the specific style of play he aims to achieve at Arsenal, Emery believes he can follow a similar style to the one Wenger created over two decades.

“In my career I am very demanding of myself as well as the people at the club and the players. The history here is one thing, they love to play with possession of the ball,” Emery said. “I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure. Two important things are position of the ball and pressing when you haven’t got it.”

Gazidis revealed that he led a three-man team in the managerial search which involved Raul Sanllehi, the head of football relations, and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat.

The keys for Gazidis and Co. were to bring in “progressive, entertaining football, a personality and a record of developing players, particularly young players through detailed tactical instructions and cultural demands.”

Arsenal’s CEO also revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist and all eight were interviewed in-person and none of the candidates withdrew their interest.

Gazidis confirmed that Emery was their “first-choice” after meeting him on May 10, and the Spaniard was then recommended “unanimously” on May 18 to the board.

Emery, Gazidis and Sanllehi then flew to Atlanta, Georgia to meet majority owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh on Tuesday before arriving back in London to meet the media on Wednesday.

“Thank you to all the chairman and the board,” Emery said. “They feel with their heart Arsenal and the conversation with the chairman and the board is very important for me to know better Arsenal. Also, thank you Ivan, Raul and Sven, the first meeting with Arsenal’s board, after three hours I felt a very good feeling and we will work together and we will create a new present and future at Arsenal. Thank you Arsene Wenger for your legacy. For all the coaches in all of the world he is a reference. A learned from him all of the things in football.”

Emery will have a strong Arsenal squad to work with but fans and the board will no doubt expect him to challenge for the top four, at least, and that’s before any big-name arrivals this summer.

Reports: Rooney flying to DC to finalize MLS move

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Wayne Rooney is edging closer to his move to Major League Soccer.

Multiple reports state that Rooney will fly to Washington D.C. on Thursday for a 48-hour trip to check out D.C. United and meet with club executives as he moves towards finalizing his move to MLS.

[ MORE: Rooney to DCU “done deal” ]

Rooney, 32, is already said to have agreed a “deal in principle” with DCU but with Everton without a manager following Sam Allardyce‘s departure last week, there is no real rush for him to push through the move ahead of the MLS’ transfer window reopening in July.

It is also believed that Rooney still has plenty of negotiating to do with Everton about the remaining year of his contract.

Per a report from the BBC, Rooney’s trip to D.C. is more about him getting a feel for the club, the city and what will be on offer as DCU’s coaching staff and players will not be around as they’re currently out on the West Coast and will face LAFC on Saturday.

It does seem like Rooney is moving closer to a surprise move to MLS just 12 months after he agreed to move back to his boyhood club Everton after a 13-year stay at Manchester United.

The potential for the all-time leading goalscorer for England and Man United joining DCU has split opinion in American soccer circles.

Many would rather see D.C. United think outside the box and spend big Designated Player money on younger attacking talents from South America (a la Atlanta United), but some suggest Rooney’s star name will attract plenty of interest towards DCU as they prepare to move into their new home at Audi Field in July.

There will be plenty of eyes on Rooney in the coming days as he nears his move to MLS.

Arsenal announce Emery as new head coach

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Unai Emery has been unveiled as Arsenal’s new head coach.

The Spanish coach, 46, left Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the 2017/18 season after winning the domestic treble in France but after two years with Les Parisiens he failed to take them beyond the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

So, maybe he is very well suited to Arsenal…

Emery was handed the two most-expensive signings on the planet in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and although they dazzled domestically, they were knocked out by Real Madrid in the UCL this season after their dramatic collapse to Barcelona in 2016/17.

Following a near 22-year spell in charge of the Gunners for Arsene Wenger, Emery becomes Arsenal’s first managerial appointment since 1996 as the north London club seemed set to appoint Mikel Arteta as their new coach but moved instead for the former Valencia, Sevilla and PSG boss who has won eight major trophies in Europe over the past five years.

In a statement released on the club website, Emery is delighted to have landed at the Emirates Stadium.

“I am thrilled to be joining one of the great clubs in the game. Arsenal is known and loved throughout the world for its style of play, its commitment to young players, the fantastic stadium, the way the club is run,” Emery said. “I’m very excited to be given the responsibility to start this important new chapter in Arsenal’s history. I have met Stan and Josh Kroenke and it’s clear they have great ambitions for the club and are committed to bringing future success. I’m excited about what we can do together and I look forward to giving everyone who loves Arsenal some special moments and memories.”

Arsenal’s CEO Ivan Gazidis added that Emery “plays an exciting, progressive style of football that fits Arsenal perfectly” while majority owner Stan Kroenke hailed the Spaniard as “a proven winner” who can “build on the platform created by Arsene Wenger and help this club enjoy greater success.”

Emery will speak to the media for the first time as Arsenal’s head coach on Wednesday.

And that title as the new “head coach” is telling, especially with so many new roles added within the club in recent months in terms of recruitment and a technical director.

Like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, Emery’s role at Arsenal will be clear: coach the players and make them better. That’s it.

That’s in stark contrast to Wenger’s overarching role over the past two decades and many will see the Gunners have found something of a “yes man” who will simply work with the players he is handed by the board.

Emery’s appointment has raised plenty of eyebrows but given his pedigree of leading Sevilla to three-straight Europa League titles, managing in the Champions League and winning everything in France last season with PSG, his resume speaks for itself.

Yet his reputation as a manager who is solid defensively and loves to set his teams up to counter and react to weaknesses opponents show during a game may see the Gunners add a little more stability to their fluid, passing play.

Surely that’s a good thing, but only time will tell if Emery will shine at the Emirates.