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.

Transfer Rumors: Seri to Arsenal; Vagnoman to Chelsea

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Nice’s Jean Seri is reportedly Unai Emery’s first target as Arsenal boss.

A report from the Daily Mail states that Seri, 26, is available for $46 million and although both Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund are interested, the Ivorian midfielder is a long-time target of the new Arsenal boss.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s unveiling

Seri almost signed for Barcelona in the past and Emery tried to sign him in January while he was in charge of PSG.

The defensive midfielder is in the N'Golo Kante mould, but slightly more attack-minded than Kante. He has an incredible engine, exceptional reading of the game and is able to protect the ball while also starting attacks with surging runs on the ball. Yep, that’s the type of player who would thrive at Arsenal.

Seri’s arrival would also be much-needed following Santi Cazorla leaving after a two-year injury nightmare, plus Jack Wilshere out of contract on July 1 and likely to leave the Gunners. With Granit Xhaka‘s big-money arrival never quite working out, especially defensively, Seri could be a key part of the jigsaw in Emery’s rebuild as he can keep the ball and also spark the new high-pressing style the Spaniard wants to say.


Teenage defender Josha Vagnoman is being linked with a move to Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton, according to multiple outlets.

A report from ESPN states that the 17-year-old Hamburg full back (the second youngest player in Bundesliga history) will move on this summer and clubs across Europe are lining up to sign the German youth international as his contract with recently relegated Hamburg ends in July.

Vagnoman is interesting Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig but the report claims Arsenal have the edge due to their new head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, keeping a close eye on his countryman over the years. Vagnoman is able to play left or right back.

Joining the likes of Arsenal, Bayern and Chelsea would likely mean a few years in the reserve squad for Vagnoman, while he could well play soon for either Dortmund or Leipzig given their penchant for giving youth a chance in their first team.

Argentina goalkeeper Romero out of World Cup with injury

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero will miss the World Cup because of a right knee injury.

The Argentine soccer federation says the Manchester United reserve may need surgery.

Romero was one of the three goalkeepers chosen by Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli for the 23-player squad he will take to the World Cup in Russia. Franco Armani and Wilfredo Caballero were also named in the squad.

Romero was a starter for Argentina at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

The federation says Sampaoli will announce a substitute for Romero in the coming days.

VIDEO: Brandi Chastain explains Hall of Fame plaque blunder

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Brandi Chastain had a strange day on Monday.

The U.S. women’s national team legend, who won two Olympic golds and two World Cups during her iconic playing career, was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

But when she unveiled her plaque, well, it got weird. Really weird.

Instead of a bronze image of Chastain’s face on the plaque, there was an image of what looks like an elderly man grimacing. Several media outlets have speculated as to who the face on the plaque actually is, with Gary Busey, Louie Anderson, John Goodman, a hint of Bill Belichick, and Mickey Rooney frontrunners according to Deadspin.

Take a look at the video below as Chastain appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show to explain what happened.

Needless to say, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame are going to get Chastain’s plaque redone.


Key takeaways: Emery’s first Arsenal press conference

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Unai Emery was unveiled as the new head coach of Arsenal on Wednesday and the Spanish coach spoke to the media at the Emirates Stadium soon after the news was official.

[ MORE: Emery “first choice” ]

The former PSG, Sevilla and Valencia coach spoke in limited English and answered some questions in his native tongue as he explained his vision for the Gunners AW (after Wenger) while sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis.

Below is a look at five key takeaways from Emery’s first presser as Arsenal officially have a new boss for the first time in almost 22 years.


Emery was Arsenal’s “first-choice” replacement for Wenger

Gazidis revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist for the job and all eight were interviewed and kept their hats into the ring until the end. Emery was also the unanimous “first choice” selection and was interviewed on May 10 before being recommended to the board on May 18, then flying to Atlanta, Georgia, on May 22 to meet with Stan and Josh Kroenke before meeting the media. The fact that Mikel Arteta had seemed such a strong contender until Monday was perhaps a smokescreen before Emery was selected. The Spaniard has an impressive resume and no coach in Europe has won more than his eight major trophies in the last five years, which included three successive Europa League titles at Sevilla. At the age of 48 he has worked at huge clubs with big expectations and has delivered at each, apart from PSG being chucked out of the Champions League last 16 to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last two seasons.


The style of play will remain similar but “intensive pressing” will arrive

And this is maybe the main reason why Emery was first choice. Tactically Emery is quite different to the style Wenger created at Arsenal and there can be some clear, and healthy, progression while still sticking with the possession-based style.

Asked about Arsenal’s possession-based game and some of the counter-attacking tactics he has used during his career, Emery seems keen to not tweak too much with the way the team plays currently but he is further aligned to the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino with the way he sets his teams up.

“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.”

High-pressing with plenty of possession? Sign me up to watch that.


There will be funds to spend

In the media there’s been a figure of around $75 million being available for Emery to spend this summer on building a new squad. Although Gazidis wouldn’t confirm if that was true, he did state the following when it comes to money being spent on new players.

“We don’t discuss our finances publicly but we run ourselves on a very clear and transparent model. Anyone who wants to look at our accounts can do so. All of the money has always been available to our manager and that will carry on,” Gazidis said.

Okay, that was a little tetchy but it does mean there should be some significant funds available to spend if the past two years are anything to go by with Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all arriving. Emery’s main area of concern will be in central midfield and in central defense, so, not much changes in terms of their main needs, recruitment wise.


Small changes to the squad are coming up

When asked if the likes of Jack Wilshere will stick around despite being out of contract on July 1, Emery was quite eager to focus on the bigger picture.

That said, the Spanish coach said that there will be changes but didn’t seem to think plenty of ins and outs were needed.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players but I don’t want to talk individually about the players. This is a big team and today I want to work and speak globally for the squad,” Emery said. “This is a big project and I am proud to be here and to work after Arsene Wenger. We want to work on this club together. I know my ambition and my passion and to know how I want to grow up with Arsenal. All the conversations I have had with the club shows we share the same vision for the club.”

Emery hailed Mesut Ozil as “one of the biggest talents at Arsenal” but you have to wonder if Ozil and others will align with Emery’s tactics as he enjoys setting up solid defensively and hitting opponents on the counter.


His English isn’t great, which may be a good thing

Props to Emery for having a go at speaking in English and taking questions but it is clear that it will take quite some time for the Spaniard to express himself fully in the English language. And that may actually work in his advantage. Remember Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, then Tottenham? The Argentine didn’t have a single press conference in English for his first 18 months in the Premier League and that allowed him to absorb the culture and feel his way into the PL. Emery is already way ahead of Pochettino in that respect and even if Arsenal’s fans are looking for instant answers in every single press conference, it’s unlikely Emery will deliver them simply because he has yet to master the English language. That could well lead to more patience from fans (these are Arsenal fans though) and Emery will be able to give simpler answers due to the fact that he won’t be able to understand what a lot of journalists are asking. Or at least that’s the way he can play it when tough questions come around early on…