State of the NWSL, after Week 16: Homestretch arrives, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 17

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Maybe it’s the calendar. Maybe it’s the state of the standings. Maybe it’s the fact that Western New York, the team currently sitting on the right side of the NWSL’s fourth-fifth divide, is back in action tonight, potentially rejuvenated after nine days off. Whatever the reason, there’s now the distinct feeling that the homestretch has arrived.

For the first time, people are meaningfully considering Sky Blue’s slide. Time’s running out for the former league leaders to correct course. Portland’s lack of consistency’s been seen with new urgency, Boston and Chicago are finally considered playoff long shots rather than parts of a viable race, while FC Kansas City may soon be the consensus favorites to claim the league’s first title. These are the types of conclusions you become comfortable in the season’s final throes.

Just consider the implications of tonight’s games. If Western New York defeats Washington in Rochester (and it would be a mild shock if they didn’t), the Flash would be seven points up on Boston and Chicago, each team left with four to play. The race wouldn’t be dead per se (there’ve been too many times in sports where we see a team get hot, another get cold at the right time), but with Western New York closing their season with three at home, the race would be one in name only.

Then there’s Wednesday’s nightcap in Portland. If Sky Blue can beat Portland for the second time this season, they’ll have stemmed the tide of disappointment and positioned themselves to not only challenge Kansas City for the regular season title but take a huge stride toward a home playoff game. Thorns FC, on the other hand, would move within one of first and have a match in hand on league-leading FC Kansas City as they try to snap the Blues’ nine-match unbeaten run Sunday in Portland.

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

That schedule highlights the extent to which Portland’s up-and-down form will influence the top four. In addition to playing Sky Blue and Kansas City over the next five days, Thorns FC visit the Flash on August 10, making them the only playoff-sitting team with games remaining against the other postseason favorites. If the Thorns can put their Sunday collapse behind them and continue the improvement they’ve shown since Tobin Heath’s arrival, they can win the league. If their uneven performances persist, the future of postseason soccer at JELD-WEN Field will be in Sky Blue’s hands, while a nose dive could see them starting the playoffs in Kansas City, a place where they’ve had almost no success this season.

With the league’s trade deadline passing tonight and only three weeks until the playoffs begin, we’re reaching a what you see is what you get point of the season. And with Sky Blue, Portland, and Western New York all in action tonight, we’ll quickly have a better idea of which teams are capable of competing with Kansas City.

RANKINGS OF POWER

In reverse order. The underlying logic: Tomorrow, neutral site, who do we think is more likely to win:

8. Washington Spirit (last week: 8) – On Saturday, Washington became the second team to allow five goals in a game, but rather than toil on that demoralizing fact, Spirit fans focused on the two goals they scored against visiting Boston, the first time they’d scored from open play since mid-May. For a team that’s struggled more than expected, it’s all about the silver linings.

7. Boston Breakers (7) – The Breakers’ mid-week 3-0 loss in Overland Park was telling. Yes, Kansas City’s a buzz saw right now, but given the point we’re at in the season, that was a back against the wall game for Boston. Though they kept the game scoreless for over 70 minutes, they were second-best for 90 (decidedly so).

6. Sky Blue FC (6) – Their match against FC Kansas City was closer, a converted second half corner all that separated the Blues from their hosts, but it still showed Sky Blue’s limitations. Now that midfielder Sophie Schmidt’s cooled off, striker Lisa De Vanna is the team’s only consistent goal-scoring threat, but if she can’t get her hamstring right, Sky Blue will need a new idea to stop this slide.

5. Chicago Red Stars (5) – One point in two games on the road has killed their playoff momentum, but in Sunday’s second half comeback at Portland, the Red Stars gave their best performance in two weeks.

4. Portland Thorns FC (2) – Who knows with this team? In all likelihood, those final 15 minutes against Chicago were aberrational, but for a team that’s had trouble with consistency throughout the year, it may the latest blip in a scattered, erratic, yet potentially winning pattern.

3. Western New York Flash (3) – Among their final five games, Saturday’s trip to Boston will be their last on the road. If Portland or Sky Blue trip, the Flash are in a great position to catch them.

2. Seattle Reign FC (4) – Chicago’s result in Portland put the Reign’s 4-1, mid-week win over the Red Stars in perspective. Oh for a longer season, Seattle fans lament.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – Four points clear but with only three to play, the Blues can consolidate their first place claim with a result in Portland. Given Portland’s remaining schedule, they don’t necessarily need a win, but particularly if the Thorns beat Sky Blue on Wednesday, they’ll need a draw to defuse a potential surge from Portland.

[MORE, Looking back: Walking through Week 16 of the NWSL season]

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

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, July 31

Western New York Flash vs. Washington Spirit (7:05 p.m. Eastern) – The last time Washington visited Rochester, the Spirit took a Friday night beating (4-0), leading them to change coaches by Monday. This game could be just as ugly, even if that doesn’t end up reflected in the score. Washington’s back line’s decimated by injuries, while the Flash have had nine days off.

Portland Thorns FC vs. Sky Blue FC (10:30 p.m. Eastern) – Sky Blue’s also has a number of injuries (Caitlin Foord, Kelley O’Hara, and Manya Makoski all out for tonight’s match). Those absences, however, can be accounted for, and against a Portland team that’s been unable to break them down in two previous meetings, organization will be as important as personnel. If, however, Lisa De Vanna isn’t fully healthy, Sky Blue will be left reliant on more wonders from the likes of Taylor Lytle and Monica Ocampo.

Saturday, August 3

Boston Breakers vs. Western New York (3:00 p.m. Eastern) – This is Boston’s last stand. Coming into this game, they’ll likely be trailing the Flash by seven, meaning a loss will mathematically eliminate them from the playoff picture. The other side of that coin gives the Flash a chance to clear the path to a playoff spot (at a rival’s expense). Given Western New York’s quick turnaround from their mid-week game, Boston has a chance to prolong their playoff hopes, even if a win will still leave them waiting for more (and bigger) Western New York stumbles.

Sky Blue FC vs. Washington Spirit (4:00 p.m. Eastern) – Sky Blue has two matches against Washington in their run-in, both of which look like must wins if the Piscataway club hopes to host a playoff game. Both teams, however, are struggling for goals, making a 0-0 a greater likelihood than Jim Gabarra would like. With Washington’s newfound struggles in defense (10 goals allowed in four games), the Spirit may prove a tonic to Sky Blue’s ill. If not, Sky Blue’s problems are even greater than we’ve described.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Seattle Reign FC (6:00 p.m. Eastern) – At what point do the Reign stop caring? Or, said without cliché, at what point do we see a dip in effort commensurate with their games’ reduced stakes? Because nobody would fault them if, traveling to a game that should mean nothing to them (Western New York could eliminate them from contention by the time this game kicks off), they start going through to motions. It’s not that they won’t want to win. It’s more that, having that spark of hope extinguished, they may regress a little. Will that be enough to turn around Thursday’s 4-1 home win over Chicago? Given Seattle’s get to let up, Chicago could see their playoff quest end on Saturday night.

Sunday, August 4

Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City (8:30 p.m. Eastern) – The side have split their three previous meetings, with no team having won on the road. Kansas City, however, is performing an unmatched level. Whatever the previous meetings tell us about this matchup, it’s almost rendered irrelevant by the Blues’ form. If there’s ever a time in the regular season Portland’s going to step up, this has to be it. A win gives them the inside track to home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Pulisic urged to remain at Borussia Dortmund

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After his two goals and a glittering performance for Borussia Dortmund in their 3-1 win against Liverpool in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, Christian Pulisic is once again turning heads.

[ MORE: Pulisic stars in Dortmund win ]

The 19-year-old U.S. national team star took plenty of time off this summer and it looks to have paid dividends already as he’s been sharp in Dortmund’s opening two games of their preseason tour of the USA as he also won a penalty kick in a 1-0 win against Manchester City last week.

Yet along with his displays of powerful runs, clever passing and clinical finishing come more rumors that the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Manchester United is scrambling to buy him for around $70 million this summer.

His teammate at Dortmund, Marco Reus, has urged Pulisic to remain at Dortmund.

“Christian is a good guy, he has so much quality,” Reus told ESPN. “I hope he plays [for Dortmund] for many, many more years, but we will see over the next few years.”

This is becoming an often asked question in U.S. soccer circles. Where is best for Pulisic to develop into a truly world-class talent?

He is well on the way to becoming that already at Dortmund with regular minutes under his belt in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League and at a club where young players are given a chance to flourish.

With two years left on his current contract, Pulisic is sought after by the Premier League big boys not only because of his obvious talent on the pitch but his marketability off the pitch with U.S. fans desperate for a new USMNT hero.

Pulisic seems settled and happy at Dortmund whenever we’ve spoken to him and his father, Mark, has said recently that there’s nothing in the reports that he is moving to the PL this summer. Yet with Jurgen Klopp talking Pulisic up over the past few days and the attacker from Hershey, PA delivering, the hype around Pulisic seems to be gathering steam once again after an up and down 2017-18 campaign.

Right now remaining at Dortmund seems his best option but another season of ripping it up as a teenager will no doubt keep the rumors growing.

UCL, Europa League third round qualifying draw

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The third qualifying round draw for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League took place on Monday, with some intriguing clashes set up for the next few weeks.

[ STREAM: Watch every PL match live

Premier League side Burnley face Scottish Premiership side Aberdeen in their Europa League second qualifying round game this week and if the Clarets are victorious they now know they will face Turkish outfit Istanbul Basaksehir.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]  

The likes of Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gokhan Inler and Arda Turan all play for Basaksehir who finished third in the Turkish Super Lig last season, just three points behind first-place Galatasaray.

Celtic will play against AEK Athens if they get past Rosenborg in their UCL second qualifying round ties, while there is a big clash set up in the UCL third qualifying round in the League Path as Benfica play against Fenerbahce.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule

Below is a look at the draws in full for the UCL and Europa League third qualifying rounds.


UEFA Champions League (to be played August 7/8, 14)

Champions path
Celtic (SCO)/Rosenborg (NOR) v AEK Athens (GRE)
Salzburg (AUT) v Shkendija (MKD)/Sheriff (MDA)
Crvena zvezda (SRB)/Sūduva (LTU) v Legia Warszawa (POL)/Spartak Trnava (SVK)
Kukes (ALB)/Qarabag (AZE) v BATE Borisov (BLR)/HJK Helsinki (FIN)
Astana (KAZ)/Midtjylland (DEN) v Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)/Hapoel Beer-Sheva (ISR)
CFR Cluj (ROU)/Malmo (SWE) v Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL)/Vidi (HUN)

* clubs who lose in this round qualify for the Europa League champions path playoff round

League path
Standard Liege (BEL) v Ajax (NED)/Sturm Graz (AUT)
Benfica (POR) v Fenerbahce (TUR)
Slavia Praha (CZE) v Dynamo Kyiv (UKR)
PAOK (GRE)/Basel (SUI) v Spartak Moskva (RUS)

* clubs who lose in this round qualify for the Europa League group stage


UEFA Europa League, third qualifying round (to be played August 9, 16)

Champions path
Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL)/Vidi (HUN) v Zrinjski (BIH)/Valletta (MLT)
Legia Warszawa (POL)/Spartak Trnava (SVK) v F91 Dudelange (LUX)/Drita (KOS)
Sutjeska (MNE)/Alashkert (ARM) v CFR Cluj (ROU) v Malmö (SWE)
Olimpija Ljubljana (SVN) v Crusaders (NIR) v BATE Borisov (BLR)/HJK Helsinki (FIN)
Shkendija (MKD)/Sheriff (MDA) v FC Santa Coloma (AND)/Valur Reykjavík (ISL)

Cork City (IRL) v Celtic (SCO)/Rosenborg (NOR)
Spartaks Jurmala (LVA)/La Fiorita (SMR) v Crvena zvezda (SRB)/Suduva (LTU)
The New Saints (WAL)/Lincoln Red Imps (GIB) v Astana (KAZ)/Midtjylland (DEN)
Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)/Hapoel Beer-Sheva (ISR) v APOEL (CYP)/Flora Tallinn (EST)
Torpedo Kutaisi (GEO)/Vikingur (FRO) v Kukes (ALB)/Qarabag (AZE)

Main path
Tobol Kostanay (KAZ)/Pyunik (ARM) v Maccabi Tel-Aviv (ISR)/Radnicki Nis (SRB)
Dunajska Streda (SVK)/Dinamo Minsk (BLR) v Zenit (RUS)
Ajax (NED)/Sturm Graz (AUT) v Dundalk (IRL)/AEK Larnaca (CYP)
St. Gallen (SUI)/Sarpsborg (NOR) v HNK Rijeka (CRO)
İstanbul Basaksehir (TUR) v Aberdeen (SCO)/Burnley (ENG)

Zorya Luhansk (UKR) v Braga (POR)
Hapoel Haifa (ISR)/FH Hafnarfjordur (ISL) v Atalanta (ITA)/Sarajevo (BIH)
Genk (BEL)/Fola Esch (LUX) v Shakhtyor Soligorsk (BLR)/Lech Poznań (POL)
Viitorul (ROU)/Vitesse (NED) v PAOK (GRE)/Basel (SUI)
Nordsjælland (DEN)/AIK (SWE) v Partizan (SRB)/Trakai (LTU)

Hibernian (SCO)/Asteras Tripolis (GRE) v Molde (NOR)/Lac (ALB)
Hajduk Split (CRO)/Slavia Sofia (BUL) v Rudar Velenje (SVN)/FCSB (ROU)
Sevilla (ESP)/Ujpest (HUN) v Zalgiris Vilnius (LTU)/Vaduz (LIE)
Sigma Olomouc (CZE) v Kairat Almaty (KAZ)/AZ Alkmaar (NED)
Balzan (MLT)/Slovan Bratislava (SVK) v Rapid Wien (AUT)

Djurgarden (SWE)/Mariupol (UKR) v Ventspils (LVA)/Bordeaux (FRA)
CSKA-Sofia (BUL)/Admira Wacker Modling (AUT) v Stjarnan (ISL)/Kobenhavn (DEN)
Olympiacos (GRE) v Luzern (SUI)
Osijek (CRO)/Rangers (SCO) v Chikhura Sachkhere (GEO)/Maribor (SVN)
Gornik Zabrze (POL)/Trencin (SVK) v Feyenoord (NED)

Jagiellonia Białystok (POL)/Rio Ave (POR) v Gent (BEL)
Spartak Subotica (SRB)/Sparta Praha (CZE) v Brondby (DEN)
Ufa (RUS)/Domžale (SVN) v Budapest Honved (HUN)/Progres Niederkorn (LUX)
B36 Torshavn (FRO)/Besiktas (TUR) v LASK (AUT)/Lillestrom (NOR)
Zeljeznicar (BIH)/Apollon Limassol (CYP) v Dinamo Brest (BLR)/Atromitos (GRE)
Leipzig (GER)/Hacken (SWE) v U Craiova (ROU)

Mourinho on Man United: “We are not a team”

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Manchester United drew 0-0 with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer on Sunday and it’s safe to say Jose Mourinho didn’t seem impressed.

The stalemate at Levi’s Stadium continued Mourinho’s theme of complaining about the players he doesn’t have at his disposal as many are still on a break after the World Cup and won’t link up with United until they return to the UK ahead of the Premier League season starting on August 10.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Mourinho had the following to say on United’s second consecutive draw after their 1-1 result against Liga MC side Club America on Thursday.

“We are not a team. We’re a group of players from different teams,” Mourinho said. “Some are first-team, some under-23s, some coming from loans and going on loan, some are younger, under-18s. We don’t have a team to play much better than we did but [it’s] one more training session.”

That assessment is fair enough, preseason is about practice rather than results, but these sessions are about to step up with games against AC Milan, Liverpool and Real Madrid in the next week.

Mourinho still has the likes of Juan Mata, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera and now Alexis Sanchez on tour after the latter sorted out a visa issue. Hardly just the U-18 team.

He’s missing Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Maraoune Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Marcus Rashford and Victor Lindelof after their deep runs at the World Cup this summer, plus David De Gea, Marcos Rojo and new signing Fred. So, he does have a point about United’s options being depleted for preseason.

But he’s known this would be the case for months and the likes of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City seems delighted to give youngsters a chance rather than focus on all of his stars who won’t return until right at the start of the PL season.

If United have a slow start to the PL campaign, I wonder what Mourinho will point to as the main reason for that…

Comedy result becomes a reality: East Fife 4, Forfar 5

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Read this out loud, East Fife 4, Forfar 5 – Yes, that was tough. Well, a famous comedy sketch from Eric Morecambe has become a reality. With soccer scores read out on television in the UK on a Saturday afternoon due to zero live games being shown on television during that window, fans have been hoping to hear the score East Fife 4, Forfar 5 or vice versa, for many years. Now, it’s happened. 

LONDON (AP) The result of a Scottish League Cup Group B match has become a case of life imitating art after Forfar Athletic beat East Fife in a penalty shootout.

It was East Fife 4, Forfar 5 – a favorite tongue-twisting fictional result of the late British comedian Eric Morecambe.

The British list and read soccer results with the home team first, followed by the away team.

The BBC has reported the result as a first in head-to-heads featuring the teams, although it wasn’t entirely as Morecambe would have liked. The match finished 1-1 before Forfar won 5-4 on penalties.

The BBC says there’d been at least one near miss in the past, with the wrong team at home when Forfar beat East Fife 5-4 in 1964.