Walking through Week 16 of the NWSL season

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For the first time since the season’s early weeks, the NWSL has a new leader. The spot Sky Blue FC held down for months was taken by FC Kansas City on Wednesday, the Blues’ win over the Breakers vaulting Vlatko Andonovski’s team from third to first. When FCKC collected three more points at Sky Blue late Sunday night, one of the preseason favorites had consolidated their perch atop the league.

It really is Kansas City’s world, at this point. On form, they’re clearly the best team in the league, carrying a nine-match unbeaten run out of this weekend’s action. They have the league’s best goal difference (+13), are four points clear after their win in Piscataway, and have the league’s best player (Lauren Holiday). They’ve scored the most goals in the league, are tied for the fewest allowed. They’re positioning themselves for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and have no discernible weakness. Even their trouble getting production out of their strikers is offset by the brilliance of Holiday and Erika Tymrak.

The team that has the best shot to catch them is Portland, though the Thorns found a way to stymie their own momentum this weekend. Up two with 15 minutes to play, Portland still managed to drop points at home to Chicago (for the second time this year). Though they’re only four back and have two games in hand on Kansas City, Sunday’s disappointment brings new questions about the league’s other preseason favorite.

Here’s what happened in Week 16 of the NWSL season:

Wednesday, July 24

FC Kansas City 3, Boston Breakers 0 – A game dominated by FC Kansas City didn’t see it’s first goal until past the hour mark, but in that closing third of the match, we saw two unusual things for Kansas City. First, though our Week 16 look ahead worried about the staying power of a team so dependent on two stars, the Blues found goals from other places: Merritt Mathias and Courtney Jones. Second, after spending an hour struggling to see their control payoff, Kansas City switched from their normal 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-2-4-0, bringing on Teresa Noyola for Melissa Henderson. Waves of attacks started hitting a Boston defense that had lost its focal point, leading to three FCKC goals in the final 19 minutes.

Implications: Boston’s playoff hopes were already in critical condition. After this loss, they were on life support. Kansas City, on the other hand, ran their unbeaten streak to eight games, a lopsided result leaving no doubt as to who’s the league’s top team, right now.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 19 35 +13
2 6 Sky Blue FC 18 31 +6
3 4 Portland 17 31 +6
4 3 W. New York 17 27 +11
5 7 Boston 18 23 -0
6 5 Chicago 18 23 -6
7 2 Seattle 18 18 -9
8 8 Washington 17 7 -21

Thursday, July 25

Seattle Reign FC 4, Chicago Red Stars 1 – Seeing their own unbeaten run snapped last weekend in Kansas City, Seattle took out their frustrations on the visiting Red Stars, setting their season high in goals while squelching the momentum behind Chicago’s playoff push. Two goals from Megan Rapinoe, doubling the total she carried into the game, were augmented by Kaylyn Kyle’s second and Liz Bogus’s first, with only the Jen Hoy’s first professional goal keeping Hope Solo from finally collecting a clean sheet.

Implications: Seattle’s playoff hopes remain more mathematical than practical, but the benefits of this late season run can be seen at the turnstiles. If the Reign had just faded away after a disastrous start, it’s unlikely 2,017 would have driven to Starfire on a weeknight.

For Chicago, the loss kept them four back of Western New York with five to play. With no remaining games against the Flash, each dropped point leaves the Red Stars that much more dependent on Western New York hitting a banana peel.

Saturday, July 27

Washington Spirit 2, Boston Breakers 5 – For the first time since May, Washington scored from open play, Diana Matheson recording her seventh goal of the year in the second minute. The Spirit repeated the feet later through Conny Pohlers, the German opening her NWSL account, but a season-high five goals allowed sent them to their 12th loss of the season.

Washington was playing with a makeshift defense, injuries forcing three non-defenders into their back line, but they aren’t the first team to have to take evasive action (Seattle did so for the first two months of the season). But when Mariah Nogueira, Lianne Sanderson, Rhian Wilkinson (below), Heather O’Reilly, and Cat Whitehill got onto the score sheet, Washington did become the second NWSL team to give up five (Boston, vs. Sky Blue, June 1).

Implications: The same week it’s announced goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris will play with Sweden’s Tyresö this fall, she allows five goals, one very clearly preventable. As her public comments precipitated the firing of Mike Jorden and his staff after the Spirit’s June 28 loss in Rochester, it’s worth considering what we’ve learned about the Spirit in the month that’s followed. The team is 0-4-1 with a -7 goal difference in that time, worse results than they were getting before Harris spoke out (1-8-3, -14). Jorden may not have been the right coach for Washington, but it’s also unclear the extent to which he was contributing to Washington’s problems. We should be careful where we drive our buses.

As for Boston, they’re in the same boat as Chicago: Waiting for Western New York to screw up. Four back with four to go, at least their playoff hopes are alive, even if we the Flash should be planning to travel on August 24.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 8
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Diana Matheson (WAS) 7 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
4 tied at 6 3 tied at 5

Sunday, July 28

Portland Thorns FC 3, Chicago Red Stars 3 – One of the wildest games of the year saw Christine Sinclair finally break through (two goals), Meleana Shim continue her rise from obscurity (three games in a row with goals), but Portland’s defense collapse in the last 15 minutes. Alyssa Mautz completed her unlikely double in the 75th minute, while Julianne Sitch’s 86th minute equalizer gave Chicago an unlikely and needed point.

As entertaining as the match was, the  couple of tantalizing stories were in the details.

  • Lori Chalupny, one of the league’s four best players this year, gave way for Mautz in the 18th minute after one of the worst tackles of the season left the former U.S. international unable to put weight on her right ankle. A clear red card foul was only shown yellow, with Heath going on to record two assists.
  • Alex Morgan was removed from the game in the 74th, which would normally we no big deal, especially with the team up 3-1. But Morgan appeared, shall we say, less than thrilled when replaced by Tiffany Weimer, almost despondently looking on  in isolation from her teammates as Chicago rallied from two goals down. Morgan’s effectiveness has been much debated throughout the season (conclusions vary),  but Sunday’s was a picture’s worth a thousand words moment, snapped up by the cameras covering the league’s weekly national television game. (Morgan wasn’t available to the media after the game.)source:

Implications: At the beginning of the season, people talked about Portland’s defense as a relative weakness, though throughout the campaign, it was one of the team’s only strengths. Now that the attack is improving with the addition of Heath, have the defensive issues finally manifest?

For Chicago, it was a dramatic point but not the best result. They close the week four points behind Western New York but with two games marked off the schedule. Their playoff push is blunted.

Sky Blue FC 0, FC Kansas City 1 – The last time FC Kansas City visited Piscataway, a controlling performance was offset when Monica Ocampo found two late goals. This time, given a chance to put four points between themselves and the former, long-time league leaders, FC Kansas City wasn’t so generous. A typically commanding performance came good when Courtney Jones redirected a Lauren Holiday corner past Brittany Cameron for the game’s only goal, though if it wasn’t for a remarkable late save from rookie defender Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall, Kansas City’s result would have better reflected their control of the game. (Nobody’s gif-ed that one.)

Implications: Sky Blue are still struggling. Almost assured of a playoff spot, they can spent the next four weeks trying to find a formula that will work come playoff time. Unfortunately, that formula won’t include right back Caitlin Foord (initial recovery time of 6-10 weeks for her sprain has her out for the rest of the season).

Kansas City runs their unbeaten streak to nine games ahead of a pivotal match in Portland. By that time, the Thorns could be within a point, depending on their mid-week result against visiting Sky Blue. Regardless, a win a JELD-WEN could pave Kansas City’s path to home-field advantage, with season-ending games against Boston and Chicago giving Kansas City the potential to carry some momentum into the playoffs.

(All GIFs were found searching Tumblr, with Becky Smith laying claim to the Portland grabs.)

Everton’s Silva: ‘It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score’

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Like in the two games leading into Friday night, Everton have done their part in creating clear-cut chances.

They haven’t done their part in finishing, however. A major point of concern for manager Marco Silva following his side’s 2-0 loss against Aston Villa. From the BBC:

“It is really difficult to see how we can lose this game when we create so many chances to score. It is a tough place to play football.”

The Toffees have now outshot all three opponents they’ve faced this season (34-21), but have only a goal to speak for their attacking dominance. Against Villa, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott squandered ideal chances in the first and second halves, respectively. In the minutes following his Everton debut, Alex Iwobi was the closest to converting for the visitors, hitting the post in the closing minutes of the match.

Silva, as critical as ever before, acknowledges that despite his team succeeding when it comes to creating chances, they desperately need to move the ball past the white line.

“The most difficult thing is to create and when you do you have to put the ball in the net,” the 42-year-old added. “It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score and of course we should score more. Against Palace we created lots of chances to score and didn’t and again today.”

With a challenging bout against Wolves at Goodison Park next on the schedule, the Portuguese will certainly look to tinker his attack to improve the team’s poor conversion rate. Despite falling to score 10 yards in, Iwobi contributed positively for Everton at Villa Park. Moise Kean, still adjusting to the rigors of the league, can be another prudent option to consider.

Luckily, Everton have time – and a match against Lincoln City midweek – to weigh their options. Silva, as he clearly explained at Villa Park, would want the goals to come in sooner rather than later.

Villa’s Wesley hopes to ‘continue like this’ after scoring first goal

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Anwar El Ghazi was the x-factor Friday night, giving every Aston Villa supporter in attendance at Villa Park the excuse to roar at the top of their lungs following his composed finish in the dying seconds of stoppage time.

But about an hour earlier, Villa’s $28-million striker, Wesley, gave the same supporters a reason to believe that they had a chance against Everton, and, most importantly, that Villa made the right decision in securing his signature just months ago.

[ MORE: Recap | Highlights ]

With a timely run and a well-paced strike, the Brazilian opened his Premier League and Aston Villa account. Something manager Dean Smith knew was bound to happen. From the BBC:

“Wesley is not rewarding me but this performance was very good tonight. I believe in him, I have watched him for a while at Club Bruges, playing in the Champions League so I know the calibre of player we were bringing in. You can’t judge someone after two games.”

Prior to Friday, Wesley was less effective than expected in the claret and blue, recording only two shots on target in his first 164 minutes in the league. Smith was swarmed with questions about the striker’s ineffectiveness as the pressure continued to pile on.

Against Everton, however, with the Villa struggling to keep possession and most playing through frenetic counter attacks, the 22-year-old made the most out of the small number of chances he saw. 21 minutes in, he scored. A couple of minutes later – if it wasn’t for a superb last-second tackle from Everton’s Yerry Mina – the Brazilian would have had a brace.

When he wasn’t aiming for goal, the striker was effectively displacing Everton’s back four with his clever runs and brawny hold-up play. One could tell that the Brazilian was playing the game to his strengths, in peace.

“I am very happy tonight, what a performance from the team,” Wesley said after the match. “We worked hard, played very well and we hope to continue like this week by week then we will see what happens.

“The manager knows me, he sees me everyday working hard and the supporters know me too. I keep calm, I know my qualities and today you saw that I can do.

“I hope to continue like this, the last two games were very difficult but now I have to help my team with goals.”

Time will tell if Wesley will continue on the same path, but after a slow start, its quite crystal clear that everyone at Aston Villa is behind the Brazilian striker.

Late El Ghazi goal seals Aston Villa victory over Everton

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With three points under their belt and Villa Park rocking like never before, it now feels like Aston Villa are finally back in the Premier League.

Pinned back the majority of the second half, trying to conserve a 1-0 lead, Anwar El Ghazi‘s last-gasp goal sealed the deal for Villa, edging Everton 2-0 on Friday.

Wesley‘s cathartic welcome to the Premier League 21 minutes in gave Dean Smith‘s side the room to breathe, despite being behind the ball the majority of the match.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]


Four things we learned

1. Certainly not the case last time they featured in the Premier League, Villa now have the luxury of boasting game-changing choices off the bench like El Ghazi, who can come in and finish things off.

2. Three matches in, and the Toffees’ glaring void is a clinical finisher up top. They’ll need to find a solution, sooner rather than later.

3.  In the 30-minute cameo, Alex Iwobi displayed that he can turn out to be a difference-maker for Everton this season, if utilized properly.

4. On a good night, there aren’t many stadiums that roar louder than Villa Park.

Man of the Match


Jota, positive for 77 minutes on the right side of the midfield, combined time and time again with Villa right back Frederic Guilbert for the greater good of creating energetic counters. The Spaniard’s first assist of the season came in similar fashion, when Wesley finished off his precise through ball.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Everton, like in the first half, imposed themselves on the home side, dominating control of the ball. A lack of fishing and creativity in the final third, however, complicated things for Marco Silva‘s side. As the clocked ticked, the ingenuity was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after coming on, Iwobi put forward the clearest chance Everton had experienced all night. The substitute’s shot, though, struck post, denying any chances of a brilliant debut by the former Arsenal man.

Villa continued to sit back with its four-man backline and Douglas Luiz right above as the No. 6, while remaining attentive on when to spring forward and take advantage of an unbalanced Everton.

El Ghazi surprised many, riffling a shot from 25 yards out. Pickford, vigilant as ever before, calmly blocked it out of danger.

Right before stoppage time, the Toffees were a couple of feet from walking away from Villa Park with a vital point. Theo Wolcott, however, failed to keep his strike leveled, skying the ball well over the bar.

Just minutes later, substitute El-Ghazi showed those watching how to finish, leading Villa to their first Premier League win since 2016.

AT HALF: Wesley scores first goal for Aston Villa

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With pressure certainly on, Wesley scored his first Premier League goal, which has Aston Villa 45 minutes out of their first points since their return to the big stage.

Following a sublime through ball from Jota, the Brazilian didn’t shy away from slotting the ball past Jordan Pickford and into the back of the net.

[ STREAM: Aston Villa – Everton ]

Such timely run and clinical finish showcased by the 22-year-old put into perspective why Villa were willing to shell out $28 million for the striker this summer.

Welcome to the Premier League, Wesley.