Morgan faces Wambach, Heath makes her NWSL debut as Thorns, Flash draw

1 Comment

PORTLAND, Ore. — When the NWSL schedule came out, it was one of the most anticipated games of the season: Portland-based Abby Wambach visiting JELD-WEN Field with her home town Western New York Flash to face the one team with Major League Soccer backing – Portland Thorns FC. With Portland’s typical standout crowd, the Wambach versus Alex Morgan matchup was sure to be one of the most interesting of the season.

And in front of a 13,201-person audience that was given reason to erupt when Canadian international Karina LeBlanc saved a late Wambach penalty kick, Portland and Western  New York played one of the most entertaining matches of the year, the 34-shot affair ending in a 1-1 draw.

Those who showed up to see Wambach’s first NWSL visit to Portland were rewarded in the 37th minute when the U.S. international reached her right leg around rookie defender Kathryn Williamson to put home a ball from winger Samantha Kerr. One minute later, Thorns midfielder Meleana Shim fired home from 19 yards, the last goal of a game that once promised to be a shootout.

But for all the Abby versus Alex anticipation the matchup once garnered, Sunday’s kickoff had become anticipated for an entirely different reason. After spending the first months of the season in France playing for Paris Saint-Germain, U.S. international Tobin Heath made her much-anticipated Portland debut, starting in midfield for Cindy Parlow Cone’s side.

“She helped us so much today,” Cone explained, her team showing some of the attacking spark fans expected at the beginning of the season. “[Heath’s] a world class player … She’s one of the most tactical players and also one of the most technical, creative players playing the game today.”

The impact was obvious, if ultimately inconsequential. Heath’s skill on the ball helped Portland play a possession game they’ve struggled to implement all season, while her ability to play anywhere across the width of the pitch allowed the Thorns to utilize wide areas that have been neglected throughout much of the season. Even in her physical presence, something for which she’s not especially known, Heath made an impact, her pure soccer instincts helping her win balls for the Thorns.

“Tobin has great mobility,” Cone said after the game, asked about Heath’s various positioning within Portland’s midfield. In the team’s 4-4-2 formation, she started on the left, switched to the right, and played the second half in the middle.

“She has such a great fitness base,” Cone said, “wherever she’s moving, we have other players who will fill in other positions.”

That great fitness Cone alluded to also played into the move centrally, according to Heath. As the central, attacking midfielder, Heath’s need to track back decreased, allowing her to see out a match despite some apparently rubbery legs.

“I think that was kind of the plan: to go 45 (minutes), see how I was feeling, switch me to attacking mid so I didn’t have to do as much up-and-down running,” Heath said after her NWSL debut. “I was a little surprised. My fitness base is pretty good, but taking a few weeks off and coming back , I was pretty happy, especially with the heat. Overall, I was happy to be able to go 90 [minutes].”

The game’s style also represented a transition for Heath, who spent the last six months in France’s Division Feminine. Whereas European soccer is characterized by a more tactical style, Saturday’s Portland-Western New York match embodied the characteristics regularly associated with the North American game.

“Obviously it’s very physical, athletic, fast pace, transitional type game,” Heath said, asked how the NWSL’s level of play compares to France’s. “I think you saw that today, especially with the heat. It gets pretty stretched out.”

That type of game helped leverage Heath’s strengths as well as revitalize Portland’s attack. Despite the presence of Morgan and Canadian icon Christine Sinclair, Portland’s only scored 19 goals in 15 games. Only two teams in the eight-team league have been less productive, yet with Heath in the team, Portland was able to generate 20 shots, including 10 on goal.

“[Cone] gives me a lot of freedom,” Heath said, describing her role. “I think she knows I’m a player that needs a little room to be creative and make something happen. But the midfielders that are around me are very good with the ball. I think it’s just a matter of getting that confidence and belief in one another in the midfield to play, because we really can play.”

That was evident on Sunday. Ultimately, Portland dropped points at home, but compared to the stretch that’d seen them shutout in three straight games, the performance against Western New York  was progress, portending well for Heath’s contributions throughout the rest of the season.

Arsenal want season completed ‘to maintain integrity’ of PL

Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal remain in support of finishing the 2019-20 season in order to “to maintain the integrity” of the competition, despite Friday’s unanimous vote that the Premier League cannot resume at the start of May as previously hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Gunners, who currently sit ninth in the PL table with 10 games left to play (one more than the majority of clubs around them), were five points back of fifth-place Manchester United for qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League thanks to Manchester City’s two-year European ban.

In a statement released on Friday, Arsenal reiterated their stance that the current season should be played to completion rather than called to completion at things stand or abandoned altogether.

We are in full support of the objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches from the 2019-20 season to be played, in order to maintain the integrity of each competition.

We also fully agree with the principle that any return to action will only be with the full backing of government and when medical guidance allows.

The restart date is under constant review as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic develops and we continue to work together with all stakeholders through this very challenging time

Premier League rivalries: The Merseyside derby

Leave a comment

While the Merseyside derby has been dominated by one side of late, that has not detracted from the spectacle of the most historic matchup in English top flight history.

Uninterrupted in top flight play since 1962/63, the two sides are situated less than a mile apart, with the proximity feeding an already intense matchup.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Despite the incredibly close geographic proximity, the derby is sometimes known as the “Friendly Derby” as there are often families with split allegiances. Still, the matchup has the most red cards in Premier League history with 21, including 17 of those in the especially heated timeframe between 1997 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Everton, the rivalry has become one-sided over the past decade, with the Toffees failing to win since October of 2010. Liverpool has won 11 of the 21 games, with the other 10 ending in a draw. That has somewhat deescalated the vicious nature of the matchup, especially since Liverpool has gone on to become one of the most formidable sides in Europe over the past few years while Everton continues to challenge for a top-half place in the league.

Still, the 228 all-time matches between the clubs continues to fuel one of the great matchups in the English domestic landscape, and sooner or later this rivalry will regain its venom to bring the bite back to this matchup.

Bayern Munich signs coach Flick as permanent boss

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bayern Munich has locked down interim head coach Hansi Flick as permanent boss, signing the 55-year-old on through the summer of 2023, the club announced on Friday.

Flick took over on an interim basis for Niko Kovac when the Croatian was let go in early November with the club fourth in the Bundesliga table. He impressed during his time as interim manager, leading the club back to the top of the table thanks in large part to a current 11-match league unbeaten run that features 10 wins and a draw.

That streak includes a 0-0 draw with then-second placed RB Leipzig that kept Bayern atop the table, plus a dominant 5-0 win over then-fifth placed Schalke. Successive 2-1 defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are the only real blemishes on his record in charge so far, coming way back in late November and early December.

“I’m looking forward to taking on the upcoming tasks along with my staff and the team,” Flick said in the official team release. “The talks with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić were very good and in a spirit of good faith. We’ve determined the direction for the upcoming years. I’m sure we can achieve a lot together.”

Flick has also kept the club’s pristine Champions League record alive this season, with wins over Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham, and Chelsea by a combined 12-1 scoreline. The 3-0 first-leg win over Chelsea in the Round of 16 has the club primed to reach the quarterfinal round should the competition eventually resume.

Speaking to Flick’s adaptability, he also kept the club rolling in the recent absence of in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, working 6-0 and 2-0 wins over Hoffenheim and Augsburg without his lead frontman who began a long absence with a broken tibia.

“Bayern are very satisfied with Hansi Flick’s work,” said Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the release. “The team has had a very good development under him, plays attractive football which is reflected in results. We are the only club still competing in all three competitions.”

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic added, “Hansi and I know in which direction we want to develop the team. We believe that Hansi is also the right head coach for the current time.”

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Montiel to Palace or West Ham, Coutinho to depart Barcelona

Getty Images
Leave a comment

River Plate is one of many clubs that could use this coming transfer window to earn a payday after taking losses in the coronavirus shutdown, and that could come at the benefit of one Premier League club.

West Ham is apparently one of a few teams after Argentine international Gonzalo Montiel who could fetch River Plate somewhere in the vicinity of $24 million. The right-back is a River Plate youth product who established himself as a regular for the club at just 20 years old and has spent the last three seasons earning significant minutes. Now 23, Montiel is a strong passer who can create for teammates with long-range deliveries.

Argentine publication Ole mentions that Spanish side Valencia has shown interest of late, but also states that West Ham made contact in January but was turned down by River Plate and the Hammers could be suitors again once the next window arrives. Montiel was also linked with Crystal Palace by Goal back in late March, while Argentine newspaper El Intransigente linked the player with Southampton. Palace and Saints both make sense as they are both looking to replace big-name departures of late, with Crystal Palace still yet to truly replace Aaron Wan-Bissaka while Southampton has not seen much from those brought in to take over for Cedric Soares.

Barcelona is reportedly ready to lower its asking price on Philippe Coutinho, with a bid of $86 million potentially workable for the Catalan club, according to a report by the Evening Standard.

Coutinho was extremely poor in his season-and-a-half at Barcelona, and while the Brazilian playmaker had upped his game on loan at Bayern Munich before the coronavirus shutdown, the purchase price on his loan deal is a whopping $130 million, which Bayern Munich is not willing to pay.

Barcelona is desperately in need of funds to support its summer business, with Lautaro Martinez and Neymar both heavily linked with the La Liga giants. It’s highly unlikely that both will be possible to acquire given both the team’s business of late and the coronavirus shutdown causing financial strain on clubs all over the world, and a significant sale may even be needed to get one of them over the line. Coutinho provides such a possibility, but with Barcelona not exactly in a position of strength given Coutinho’s lack of recent star power and the club’s need to sell, dropping the asking price is a highly likely eventuality.

The Evening Standard report mentions that Barcelona believes the Premier League is the “most likely possibility” for a Coutinho suitor given the league’s memories of his incredible spell at Liverpool just a few years ago.

Speaking of the Premier League, Manchester United was reportedly close to securing a marquee striker last summer before eventually sticking with Marcus Rashford up front. Speaking to Italian print publication Tuttosport on Wednesday, Romelu Lukaku’s agent Federico Pastorello said that the Belgian big man almost went to Juventus on a swap deal before Manchester United backed out of the transfer negotiations due to Dybala’s high wage demand. Eventually, Lukaku departed for Inter Milan where he settled in quickly and has contributed to a furious title challenge that just lost steam before the coronavirus shutdown.

Pastorello simply responded “It’s true” when asked if Dybala had been a focal point of Manchester United negotiations, but hedged his answer with, “Romelu, however, had always hoped to go to Inter because he was impressed by the affection of the Inter fans.”