NWSL Game of the Week: Washington Spirit at Portland Thorns FC

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While two of the league’s early powers face off Saturday in Overland Park (Lauren Cheney and FC Kansas City hosting Sydney Leroux and the Boston Breakers), a battle from teams at different ends of the NWSL’s early spectrum will take place in Portland. On Sunday afternoon, the Thorns FC, fresh off their first loss of the season, will host Washington, a team who broke out Thursday in Tukwila.

A rematch of the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago, Portland hosting Washington is this round’s ProSoccerTalk NWSL Game of the Week.

THREE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Opposites in almost every way

By now you know: Portland was almost everyone’s favorite to win this league. And if that’s one of the few things you’ve heard about the new women’s league – that Portland has Alex Morgan (above); and Christine Sinclair; and these great facilities; and oh my god it’s women’s soccer’s Shangri-La — you probably haven’t heard much about Washington, who were the consensus pick to finish last. Go back two months, and this match looked like David knocking on Goliath’s door, only with five-digits worth of neighbors heckling David while doing do.

The contrast between the two sides extends beyond preseason expectations. Portland was giving an established, potent attack while Washington has had to rely on drafted kids. The Spirit have the likes of Lori Lindsey and Diana Matheson in midfield, while the Thorns had to turn to free agency during Tobin Heath’s Parisian sojourn. Portland was given a bedrock center half (Rachel Buehler) while the Spirit’s allocated defender (Ali Krieger) is a fullback, yet Washington was given Ashlyn Harris, to date the league’s best keeper.

Leave those initial impressions behind and fast-forward to mid-May, where all the lip service the league’s coaches have given to the quality of each side – arguments encouraging fans and media to look beyond the big names — is starting to have merit. Back in March, their comments seemed like empty platitudes – the kind of hogwash that’s more American folklore than something that correlates to reality. Overlooked, under-appreciated Washington, whose attack was considered one of the league’s weakest, just exploded for four goals against Seattle. And Portland? They were shocked at home by Sky Blue, with a late song from Taylor Lytle giving Jim Gabarra’s a 1-0 win. Goliath’s not so big, David’s not so small, and the rash predictions of a preseason spent evaluating teams we’d never before seen has proved predictably fallible.

Portland and Washington may have been at opposite ends of March’s spectrum, but the gap appears to be closing. Despite their strong record (now 4-1-1), the Thorns are still struggling to meet their potential, while after a break out performance in Tukwila, the Spirit may have just received a first glimpse of their’s.

After Sunday’s game, comparisons to David and Goliath may prove as foolish as our preseason assumptions.

NWSL Standings

Pos. Team GP Pts. +/- PST
Rank
1 Portland 6 13 +5 3
2 Sky Blue 6 13 +4 5
3 Boston 4 8 +4 2
5 W. New York 5 7 +0 4
5 Kansas City 4 7 +2 1
6 Washington 6 6 +0 6
7 Chicago 5 2 -7 7
8 Seattle 6 1 -8 8

2. Young, talented, and unproven: Spirit’s attack still coming into its own

It’s not that Washington got a bad allocation, as far as their attackers were concerned. They didn’t get any help up top. One goalkeeper, three defenders, three midfielders – no forwards. That meant Mike Jorden and the Spirit organization were reliant on the supplemental draft, college players, and limited free agency to forge an attack, a daunting task given each team’s financial constraints.

Come Week 1, Washington had three main options:

  • With the second overall pick in the college draft, Washington went for Florida State’s Tiffany McCarty, a local product who had spent time with the W-League’s Washington Freedom. Only 5’4″, McCarty has the speed to beat anybody in the league, though finding an end product has proved more difficult than blowing past some of the world’s best defenders.
  • Stephanie Ochs, an industrious striker from San Diego, was selected third overall in WPS’s last draft before that league officially folded in 2012. After a year in relative limo, spending some time with the U.S. U-23s, Ochs signed on with Washington, her work rate a potentially potent complement to McCarty.
  • Caroline Miller, last year’s ACC Offensive Player of the Year, slipped into the college draft’s second round. A consistent part of the U.S.’s youth national teams, the former Virginia attacker was seen a possible Week 1 starter, even if she’s eventually settled into a substitute’s role.

They represented three lottery tickets. In a league where few teams have more than one true goal-scoring threat, all Jorden needed is for one to come good. Combined with Diana Matheson’s play making and Lori Lindsey’s occasional attacking contributions, the Spirit could be viable. It was just a matter of getting one player to click.

Early, though, it wasn’t happening. The Spirit scored one goal in each of their first five games, with Matheson being the team’s only consistent threat. Long balls that tried to use McCarty’s speed weren’t being converted into chances, while Och’s determination was often left unrewarded.

On Thursday, however, that changed. Perhaps a floundering Reign FC side contributed to the outburst, but after flying cross-country for a battle of winless sides, Washington finally broke through. McCarty scored her second goal of the season. Matheson found her fourth. Defenders Krieger and Tori Huster also got on the scoresheet as Washington tied a (young) league record for goals in a game: four. The Spirit won, 4-2.

Along the way, Ochs and Miller also made contributions, providing a glimpse of how Washington’s attack may come around before their lottery tickets are cashed. As long as his Jorden’s young attackers can threaten, the game opens up for players like Matheson, who’s now tied for the league lead in goals.

Washington’s forwards are still be a work in progress, but with nine goals in six games (as many as team in the league), they may not have to wait for something to click. Perhaps something already has.

source: AP3. Tactics or talent? There’s a problem in Portland’s midfield

When the Thorns opened the season with a 1-1 draw at Kansas City, many remarked on the trouble Cindy Parlow Cone’s midfield had in Overland Park, the quartet of Angie Kerr, Allie Long, Nikki Washington and Becky Edwards unable to generate chances for Morgan and Sinclair. Since, Cone has made adjustments, dropping Sinclair into Kerr’s spot while the team continues becoming more familiar with each other.

It hasn’t helped that Portland has played four games on the road. Half their matches have been on the type of multi-purpose, turf surfaces that most midfield creativity. While every team’s facing similar problems as they try to establish a style and a systems, Portland’s time on the road combined with a want to play a possession-style has presented the Thorns with some distinct obstacles.

Thursday, however, those excuses went out the window. Against a Sky Blue team who, like their previous opponents, sat deep and dared the Thorns to break them down, Portland still seemed to lack ideas. And this wasn’t on the road, on a bad field. This was at home, on the same field they practiced on all week. Still, the movement Cone had promoted all preseason was non-existent. There was no combination play, no significant buildup. The team was playing into Sky Blue’s jam-packed block.

Having carried a four-game winning streak into Thursday’s game, Portland is clearly capable of winning despite their shortcomings. But they can’t reach their potential without improvement. The cohesion and familiarity, which has only been evident on one goal this year (their second last Saturday at Chicago), needs to improve. They need to draw compact defenses out of their positions, and if they can’t, they have to kind a way to play wide. To date, the Thorns have had almost no presence down the flanks, their wide midfielders pinching in to contribute to the congestion.

That’s meant Long (left midfield) has been in focus, with onlookers asking if there’s more that can be done to serve Morgan and Sinclair. Same goes for Washington (right midfield, pictured), though at some point, when the players are repeatedly trying the same, unsuccessful approaches, you have to look beyond their individual play. Why are the Thorns persistently trying to work through the middle? Why aren’t they going wide, be it with by more readily overlapping their fullbacks, overloading a flank, or just playing behind their opposing fullbacks? Instead of trying to go through teams’ two-woman shields, why aren’t they playing in, out, and around the defense, trying to pull players out of position while encouraging Morgan to make better runs behind the center halves?

Perhaps Long and Washington need to do more, but when you consider how Portland’s played through six games, it’s unclear they’ve been asked to do anything different. At some point, the team needs to change it up.

QUICK HITS

Portland Thorns FC Washington Spirit
Star to Watch Christine Sinclair – The natural forward has been draw into attacking midfield to try and solve the team’s biggest problem. She’s still Portland’s best player, but while adjusting to her new role, Sinclair has yet to discover how to balance a midfielder’s demands with her goal-scoring talent. Diana Matheson – Arguably the league’s best player after five-plus weeks, the Canadian international is capable of creating chances by going either from the middle or by going wide. To date, however, she’s been handling the goal-scoring herself. She’ll go into Sunday’s match tied for he league lead in goals (four).
Still Important Alex Morgan – The U.S. international leads the league in shots and shots on goal, but the quality of chances need to improve. Part of that is on Morgan’s teammates to put her in better spots. Part of that is on Morgan, who’s still adapting to a markedly different style than what she’s flourished in for the U.S. national team. Ashlyn Harris – No NWSL keeper has been better about decisively coming off her line to collect opposition through balls. If Portland’s plan to beat Washington depends on running through the Spirit defense, they better hope Harris is off her game.
Win if … … they either add another trick to their attack, thus finding a way around what’s bound to be blockade in the midfield, or they get something special from Sinclair or Morgan. … they stay tight and deep through the middle, eschew risks for organization in defense, and find a moment’s magic from Matheson going forward.

OTHER GAMES, WEEK 6

Seattle Reign 2-4 Washington Spirit (Thursday) – While we’re only six games into the season, you have to consider whether Reign FC can come back from this. If there was one game they were going to win, it was this one – returning home, against another winless side. Instead, they become the first team to give up four goals at home.

Portland Thorns 0-1 Sky Blue FC (Thursday) – Jim Gabarra’s team moves into a tie for first after an 80th minute blast from Lytle handed Portland their first loss. One of the least-entertaining match of the season, Lytle’s long shot was the only real test either keeper saw. Karina LeBlanc, ultimately had no chance to stop the winner.

FC Kansas City vs. Boston Breakers (Saturday, 8:35 p.m. Eastern) – The Blues are coming off their first loss of the season, falling 2-1 at Western New York. Venturing out of the Eastern time zone for the first time this year, Boston looks to remain the league’s last undefeated team. Watch for the how Leigh Ann Robinson and Lauren Sesselmann deal with Heather O’Reilly.

Portland Thorns vs. Washington Spirit (Sunday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern)

Seattle Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC (Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern) – Last weekend, Sky Blue got two first half goals en route to a 2-0 win over Seattle at Yurcak Field. While a change of venue would seem to embolden the Reign, there’s an increasing feeling the first-year club is in a flat spin. Based on mid-week results, it appears these teams are going in opposite directions.

Palace rides Van Aanholt free kick past messy Newcastle

Crystal Palace v. Newcastle United recap and video highlights
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Patrick Van Aanholt starred against his former derby rivals as Crystal Palace beat Newcastle United 1-0 on Saturday at Selhurst Park.

Palace snaps a three-match losing run with the win, moving 13th with 33 points.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Newcastle stays on 31 points in 14th.

Valentino Lazaro took a straight red card for a take down of Wilfried Zaha deep in stoppage time and will miss the next three games.


Three things we learned

1. Van Aanholt shines bright:  The Eagles’ fullback hasn’t been at his best too often this season, but he was marvelous on Saturday even apart from the free kick goal. Playing against his former Northeast rivals, Van Aanholt passes at 85 percent, completed five of eight crosses and two of four long balls. He was credited with six key passes and the creation of two big chances (via Sofascore).

2. Same two stars for Newcastle, the rest passengers: Martin Dubravka made eight saves to keep Newcastle in the match, and the attack only went so far as electric winger Allan Saint-Maximin. Newcastle has badly needed a difference-maker in the midfield, and it’s no surprise the midfield is a mess without a real January energizer. Sean Longstaff has been a shell of the man linked with a $35 million move to Manchester United this summer.

3. Scrappy affair: Referee Peter Bankes handed out plenty of yellow cards — five for Newcastle, two for Brighton — and there wasn’t much consistency as to what merited a mere whistle and what registered as a caution. Palace had 15 fouls to Newcastle’s nine despite the discrepancy in cards.

Man of the Match: Van Aanholt, who got the better of his only rival for the honors with his free kick goal.


Dubravka was as busy early as Palace was wasteful. Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke failed to strike with force from 18 yards before the keeper palmed away a strong Scott Dann header off a corner.

Palace keeper Vicente Guaita was then troubled by a Joelinton rip from distance, and Newcastle had a corner and a chance to breathe.

Benteke missed a sitter on a perfectly struck free kick, Newcastle bailed out in the 21st minute.

Joelinton and Benteke seemed intent on competing for least clinical striker, with the former then bungling a chance to cross for a streaking Miguel Almiron.

It took ex-Sunderland man Van Aanholt to put Newcastle to the sword with a delightful 45th-minute free kick.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Ayew should’ve had it 2-0 in the 48th minute when Van Aanholt’s cross found him near the back post, which he struck.

Gary Cahill then headed a Van Aanholt free kick off the side netting from close range.

Dominated for 68 minutes, the Magpies saw two bits of danger through Danny Rose and Fabian Schar in the 69th. The latter led to a pair of corners.

Dubravka again got the better of Ayew after Zaha and Cheikhou Kouyate set up a brilliant chance. Wasteful.

Burnley batter Bournemouth amid VAR drama

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Burnley beat Bournemouth 3-0 at Turf Moor on Saturday as Sean Dyche‘s side continue to surge up the table amid plenty of VAR controversy.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Matej Vydra, Jay Rodriguez and Dwight McNeil scored but Bournemouth had two goals chalked off by VAR as the second incident resulted in them thinking they had made it 1-1 to conceding a penalty kick.

With the win Burnley move up to eighth on 37 points, while Bournemouth remain just two points above the relegation zone.


3 things we learned

1. VAR steals the show: This was a game which was decided by VAR as Bournemouth had two goals ruled out. Philip Biling’s handball meant that King’s goal was disallowed and it looked harsh on Biling amongst a slew of bodies inside the box from a corner. Then the big moment came in the second half as Wilson scored to make it 1-1 but VAR intervened as Adam Smith had handled at the other end of the pitch. The goal was chalked off and a penalty kick awarded and that was the game. Bournemouth were livid as it looked like a heft chunk of shoulder from Smith but VAR had spoken.

2. Bournemouth running out of time: Howe’s side are playing well in games but are being knocked back at key moments time and time again. The VAR calls were harsh but Howe’s side never looked dangerous enough in attack and had Ramsdale to thank for not being four or five down. With Chelsea and Liverpool in their next two and Spurs, Everton, Man City, Leicester and Man United still to come, where are Bournemouth’s points going to come from? They’ve shocked plenty of big boys in the past and their five-season stay in the Premier League now depends on a few more of those.

3. Surging Burnley so underrated: Sean Dyche’s men are now in eighth place, three points off the top five and fifth could mean Champions League qualification this season. Imagine that? After just staying up last season and a slow start to the opening half of this season, Burnley have taken 13 points from the last 15 available. They have gone from relegation candidates to European hopefuls and they have stuck to their gameplan and played to their strengths which is huge credit to Dyche.

Man of the Match: Dwight McNeil – Vydra was a pest and Ramsdale did well to deny him on multiple occasions but McNeil was brilliant, whipping in superb crosses and he smashed home a beauty late on after another mazy run.


The first big chance of the game arrived as Matej Vydra charged in from the left and forced a fine save from Aaron Ramsdale.

Bournemouth thought they had taken the lead through King but the goal was chalked off for VAR as Phillip Billing handled the ball before it found King.

Harry Wilson got on the end of Josh King‘s cross at the back post but his header was punched away by Nick Pope.

Burnley battled to get back into the game as Bournemouth looked more likely to break the deadlock. Jack Stacey was denied by Pope and then Burnley launched a counter but Vydra was denied once again by Ramsdale.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

At the start of the second half it was third time lucky for Vydra as Bournemouth gave him plenty of space and the Czech Republic striker cut inside and finished calmly to make it 1-0 and make it two goals in two Premier League games after a 17-month wait for one.

Bournemouth thought they had equalized soon after as the Wilson’s combined with Callum setting up Harry to slot home, but VAR checked the goal for a possible handball by Adam Smith in his own box and the goal was taken away and a penalty awarded to Burnley.

Rodriguez slammed home the penalty to make it 2-0 as Bournemouth’s bench couldn’t believe it and referee Mike Dean had to give them a telling off.

Rodriguez almost made it 3-0 late on but Ramsdale denied him at point-blank range with Burnley dangerous on the break as Bournemouth chucked men forward.

Vydra almost slid in for another and Dwight McNeil hit the inside of the post with a fine curling shot and then smashed home a beauty to seal the win in style.

Watch Live: Leicester City v. Man City

Leicester City v. Man City stream link
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Manchester City can put Leicester City deep in its rearview mirror when the two sides meet at the King Power Stadium on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Leicester opens the day four points back of the second-place visitors. The Foxes also saw Chelsea move four points back with a win over Spurs.

[ STREAM: Leicester City v. Man City ]

Aymeric Laporte again pairs with Fernandinho in Man City’s back line, keeping John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi on the bench.

Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez start on the bench for Brendan Rodgers‘ Foxes.

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Leicester City

Man City

VIDEO: Messi scores first half hat trick for Barcelona

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Lionel Messi scored a first half hat trick for Barcelona against Eibar on Saturday.

Messi, 33, is warming up quite well for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg as he tore Eibar’s defense to shreds to put them 3-0 up at the break.

In a week where Messi and Barcelona have been in the news amid an emergency signing of Martin Braithwaite, a social media spying scandal and plenty of criticism of sporting director Eric Abidal, the Argentine ace got back to doing what he does best.

Barcelona sat in second place in the La Liga table heading into this weekend, one point behind Real Madrid.