Walking through Week 17 of the NWSL season

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Certainty. For a league whose top four hasn’t changed for some time, we’ve had a shocking lack of it in the NWSL. Sure, the order of Kansas City, Portland, Sky Blue, and Western New York has changed over the last month or so, but the membership of that group has remained the same for most of the summer. The thing we were really in the dark about: Their order of finish

For most of the season, Sky Blue have occupied the top spot, but their July swoon combined with Kansas City’s 10-match unbeaten run now have the Blues four clear at the top of the league. With Sunday’s 3-2 win at Portland, FCKC became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, providing our first hint as some much-needed clarity. There’s every reason to think the road to this year’s title goes through Overland Park.

That, however, is the only piece of certainty we have. After Week 17, Portland and Sky Blue are tied for second place, and while the Thorns have a match in hand, their inconsistent form means anything can happen (particularly with Thorns FC finishing with three matches on the road). Western New York, three points behind in fourth, may be the best team for the bunch, but a league-leading seven draws shows a tendency to leave points on the table.

At the top, we have more clarity thanks to an increasingly dominant FC Kansas City. Beyond that? It’s still chaos.

Here’s what happened in Week 17:

Wednesday, July 31

Western New York Flash 3, Washington Spirit 0 – Washington’s second straight three-goal loss was actually a type of improvement. The last time the Spirit visited Rochester, they lost 4-0 and changed their coaching staff. This time, Adriana Martin, Sam Kerr, and Carli Lloyd forged the winning margin by the 68th minute. Although the Spirit were able to keep it a 1-0 game for 59 minutes, they were outshot 23-1 on the night.

Implications: 23-1? “What kind of improvement is that, Farley?” Maybe I shouldn’t judge things on score alone, right? Because that’s certainly not a competitive game. I know you could have said that about other Spirit games, and the final margin here wasn’t the most lopsided as other matches we’ve seen this year. But 23-1? How have things gotten to this point for Washington?

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 20 38 +14
2 3 Portland 19 34 +7
3 7 Sky Blue FC 20 34 +5
4 2 W. New York 19 31 +14
5 4 Chicago 19 26 -4
6 6 Boston 19 24 +0
7 5 Seattle 19 18 -11
8 8 Washington 19 7 -25

Portland Thorns FC 3, Sky Blue FC 1 – Sky Blue had been Portland’s bogey team, holding them scoreless over the teams’ previous 180 minutes, and when an early own goal off Nikki Marshall gave the visitors another lead, Jim Gabarra’s club seemed poised to continue their voodoo. But before half, Portland took advantage of a visiting team momentarily down a player (Danesha Adams suffering an injury) to equalize through Alex Morgan. Second half goals from Meleana Shim (fourth in four) and Allie Long fully exorcised Portland’s SBFC demons, helping them to a relatively easy victory.

Implications: For Sky Blue, it wasn’t an unexpected result, but with another player going down, the game exemplified their current state. They’re not playing well, they can’t stay healthy, and even the things they were doing right before seem difficult, now. Portland, however, carried some redemption out of this game, not only defeating Sky Blue for the first time but quelling doubts that had crept in after their late capitulation to Chicago.

Saturday, August 3

Boston Breakers 2, Western New York 2 – Having fired head coach Lisa Cole during the week, Boston took to the field with interim coach Cat Whitehill in central defense, the legendary Kristine Lilly serving as her former teammate’s sideline assistant. The change seemed to inspire Boston to a 2-0 lead, with play off corner kicks leading to goals from Kyah Simon (17′) and Lianne Sanderson (65′).  Then came the collapse, a defensive Breakers side unable to prevent Vicki DiMartino and, five minutes from time, Carli Lloyd from snatching a point for Western New York.

Implications: For the Flash, the comeback is nice, but the result won’t help their quest for a home playoff game. It did, however, eliminate Seattle from the playoffs.

For Boston, Lisa Cole walked the line between being liked and getting results. The organization felt she was underachieving, and although they pulled the trigger on the move three weeks too late to have an meaningful impact on their playoff chances, Boston felt this was their hail mary chance to save their season.

There were questions about her tactics. There were questions about her ability to manage the team’s bigger egos. There were questions about her preferences, carrying over so many Breakers from last year’s WPSL Elite team into this year’s squad. All those quandaries were answered by a bottom line that sees Boston in sixth place, a standing that cost Cole her job.

Chicago Red Stars 3, Seattle Reign FC 1 – Just over one week earlier, Chicago was being routed in Tukwila, 4-1. Consider this the Red Stars’ revenge. Early, dubious penalties converted by Sonja Fuss and Kaylyn Kyle (two central defenders taking PKs) meant a Hope Solo mistake in the 41st minute would be the difference at halftime. The Seattle keeper’s bad pass gifted Inka Grings an easy 41st minute conversion.  In the 72nd, Grings completed her double, keeping Chicago on the fringe of the postseason.

Implications: Chicago stays in position to take advantage if Western New York stumble, though with the team moving back to “five hundred”  (7-7-5), there was some personal pride to be taken from the result. They can also take heart in their first sellout crowd of the season.

For Seattle, the run had to end sometime, though seeing it end after a couple of preventable goals is unlikely to placate Laura Harvey. This was an unexpectedly sloppy performance from the Reign, but having been eliminated from playoff contention at halftime (by the Western New York result), maybe their run was over before Grings sealed their coffin.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 9
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Alex Morgan (PTFC) 8 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
2 tied at 7 5 tied at 5

Sky Blue FC 1, Washington Spirit 0 – After giving up 23 shots in Rochester, Washington gave up 17 to a Sky Blue team that didn’t even have to break the glass on the hobbled Lisa De Vanna. Monica Ocampo, quietly up to six goals on the year (scoring every 120 minutes), notched the game’s only goal, though it took the home side 58 minutes to break through on the normally generous Spirit. Chantel Jones, stepping in for the injured Ashlyn Harris, helped stem that tide, though with only one shot on Sky Blue’s Jillian Loyden, Washington couldn’t solve their problems going forward.

Implications: Sky Blue snapped their three-game losing streak, but as was the case with Western New York, this game was an obligatory three points. A 1-0 against the Spirit isn’t exactly a rallying point. For Washington, however, the game was an improvement on the battering they took in Rochester, though after scoring twice last weekend, their goal-scoring problems seem to have returned.

Sunday, August 4

Portland Thorns FC 2, FC Kansas City 3 – The most important game of the season saw the league’s top team visit a record crowd at JELD-WEN Field, with the 17,619 attendance hoping to see their Thorns leapfrog Kansas City into first place. Lauren Holiday, however, was having none of that, scoring twice as the Blues counter attack picked apart Portland’s defense, giving FCKC their second win of the year over the preseason favorites. Portland did get goals from Danielle Foxhoven (a second half equalizer to make it 1-1) and Alex Morgan (a late score to make it 3-2), but with a leaking defense that could seemingly be picked apart whenever Kansas City found the initiative, Thorns FC missed their chance to move top.

Implications: There’s no doubt who the best team is in the NWSL, and if Sunday’s any indication, it’s not really close. There’s also little doubt who the league’s best player is, with Lauren Holiday’s double affirming her league lead in goals and assists. If she doesn’t play another game this season, she’s still the league’s MVP.

Portland is subtly experiencing a minor crisis. The team had high expectations coming into the match but found themselves chasing two goals as control of home field advantage slipped away. Despite having the league’s best talent, they’re not the league’s best team, with a small rift in the team undermining their ability to improve.

Foxhoven mentioned the rift post game, something that’s existed since early in the season  (“there’s been a little bit of a separation in our team and that’s why we’ve struggled in the past”). It’s an ideological divide, with a significant number of players believing the team should be playing differently. The late substitute of Elizabeth Guess for Foxhoven only highlighted the chasm’s persistent influence.

With internal attempts to resolve the divide having failed, Portland’s left to hope their talent will win out.

Video: Modric, Milner show off in training ahead of UCL final

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The UEFA Champions League final hasn’t even kicked off yet, and Liverpool and Real Madrid are already trying to show each other up with some gorgeous golazos.

[ MORE: Everything you need to know ahead of Saturday’s UCL final ]

Both sides had their final training sessions on Friday, and there were several unforgettable moment for each club.

We start with Real, who even got manager Zinedine Zidane involved in a crossing and finishing drill with some of his players.

This is where Luka Modric’s stunning volley came into play (below).

Meanwhile, in an inter-squad scrimmage amongst Liverpool’s team, James Milner unleashed this brilliant curling effort into the top corner (below).

LIVE: Aston Villa, Fulham battle for Premier League promotion

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The task is quite simple for the two sides competing at Wembley Stadium on Saturday; win and you’re back in the Premier League.

Aston Villa and Fulham will battle it out for the third and final promotion spot into the PL (12 p.m. ET) after boasting tremendous 2017/18 campaigns.

LIVE UPDATES FOR THE PLAYOFF FINAL 

For both clubs, there is a significance about restoring their role as a PL club, with Fulham last competing in the top flight four seasons ago and Villa two seasons removed.


Aston Villa: Johnstone; Chester, Snodgrass, Grealish, Hourihane, Jedinak, Hutton, Terry, Elmohamady, Adomah, Grabban. Bench: Whelan, Hogan, Bree, Onomah, Bjarnason, Kodjia, Bunn.

Fulham: Bettenelli; Fredericks, Sessegnon, Odoi, McDonald, Johansen, Cairney, Ream, Targett, Mitrovic, Kamara. Bench: Button, Fonte, Ayite, Norwood, Piazon, Christie, Kalas.

Cream of the crop: Ranking all 23 current MLS managers

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When it comes to “who’s the best?” arguments, they usually encompass which team or player has earned the right to call themselves king.

[ MORE: Chicharito says Mexican team always feels welcome in U.S. ]

Recently though, conversations over social media had us thinking about Major League Soccer, and more specifically, the managerial side of the game.

Household names like Gerardo Martino and Bob Bradley are surely considered to be among the best of the best, and that got us here at Pro Soccer Talk listing the all the potential candidates.

We’re ranking all 23 current MLS managers, based on past performance (wins/losses), longevity at their club and ability to construct a high-caliber roster.


23. Ben Olsen — D.C. United

Olsen’s value to D.C. as both a player and manager cannot go unstated, but his struggles in the latter department have been mounting for years now. Outside of an Open Cup win in 2013, Olsen has been quite underwhelming given the team’s history.

22. Anthony Hudson — Colorado Rapids

It was a tough situation to come into, but some of the player moves that Hudson made in his first season were just mind-boggling.

21. Remi Garde — Montreal Impact

Wholesale changes could be coming at the Impact sooner rather than later, and Garde’s early difficulties make you wonder how long he’ll be around.

20. Mikael Stahre — San Jose Earthquakes 

The Earthquakes have made a conscious effort to get younger, so Stahre deserves some more time to get acquainted.

19. Adrian Heath — Minnesota United

It’s been a tough go in Minnesota for Heath, particularly in the injury department. However, his struggles seem to carry with him throughout MLS, whether it was previously in Orlando or currently with the Loons.

18. Jim Curtin — Philadelphia Union

The club’s unwillingness to spend has really crippled Curtin, who deserves to be higher on this list, but there are simply too many quality coaches in the league right now.

17. Veljko Paunovic — Chicago Fire

Since arriving in the U.S., Paunovic has gone heavy with high-profile moves, whether that be Nemanja Nikolic or trading for Dax McCarty. He’s had his shares of ups and downs, so we’ll have to monitor if he gets over some of the humps this season.

16. Brad Friedel — New England Revolution

Friedel’s first season in New England is probably going about as well as he would have hoped for. After getting situated with Lee Nguyen, Friedel has seemed to have brought a real presence that has allowed players like Diego Fagundez and Teal Bunbury to thrive.

15. Giovanni Savarese — Portland Timbers

In a small sample size, Savarese has essentially picked up where Caleb Porter left off with a talented Timbers squad. Time will tell how well he can sustain success in MLS.

14. Mike Petke — Real Salt Lake

RSL boasts one of the best, young squads in MLS with its academy continuing to be a driving force, but Petke has had his share of struggles handling some of the team’s well-known players.

13. Jason Kreis — Orlando City

He has an MLS Cup, so yes, there is a legitimate argument to have him higher. However, his time in New York was one of a nightmare, although not entirely unexpected for an expansion side. That carried over in Orlando until this season, so perhaps a sustained run in 2018 could boost his stock once again.

12. Sigi Schmid — LA Galaxy

Schmid has been stuck with a lot of the holdovers from the previous Galaxy regime, but he has to figure things out very soon because there is a clear gap between the top six and the rest of the Western Conference field at the moment.

11. Wilmer Cabrera — Houston Dynamo

Cabrera has erased a lot of the aftertaste from his time at Chivas USA, and 2018 has been even more impressive given the fact that he and his squad lost Erick “Cubo” Torres during the offseason.

10. Oscar Pareja — FC Dallas

Last season’s second half struggles were likely an anomaly for Pareja and Dallas. He continues to develop talented players through the academy pipeline, which is why Dallas will be in contention in the West once again this season.

9. Patrick Vieira — New York City FC

The Frenchman has brought stability to the Bronx since arriving in 2016, and despite the team’s lack of playoff success, NYCFC has built a strong roster that is honestly one of the most entertaining to watch when clicking on all cylinders.

8. Carl Robinson — Vancouver Whitecaps

His record is dead even across the board 70-49-70 since taking over the Whitecaps, but Robinson has helped his side make the playoffs in three of four seasons, while also hoisting a Canadian Championship.

7. Brian Schmetzer — Seattle Sounders

Consecutive trips to MLS Cup, including one title, is no small feat. Schmetzer may very well be the most-underrated coach in MLS.

6. Greg Vanney — Toronto FC

2018 hasn’t been ideal for Vanney and TFC, but he helped construct one of the best teams in league history, and when healthy, they are still capable of living up to that billing.

5. Gregg Berhalter — Columbus Crew

Despite some of the off-field turmoil surrounding the Crew, Berhalter has instilled a winning culture, and this season might be his best job yet as a manager.

4. Peter Vermes — Sporting KC

There’s a reason why Vermes is the longest-tenured manager in MLS. The club has qualified for the postseason in seven straight seasons under Vermes, including an MLS Cup win in 2013.

3. Bob Bradley — Los Angeles FC

Bradley’s journey back to MLS came with criticism based on his time outside the states, but it’s very clear he knows what he’s doing in the U.S.. LA FC is following in the footsteps of Atlanta from a season ago, which is a scary thought.

2. Gerardo “Tata” Martino — Atlanta United

Martino’s already-impressive reputation has only increased since arriving in Atlanta last year. All the credit cannot solely go to Martino, but much of the team’s success in less than two seasons can go to the Argentine.

1. Jesse Marsch — New York Red Bulls

It’s easy to argue for some of the names other than Marsch at number one, but his system with the Red Bulls has become iconic. The club doesn’t overspend on players, and Marsch manages to get the most out of his Homegrowns and other young squad members.

Workers to fix automation issues on Atlanta stadium’s roof

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ATLANTA (AP) Workers will begin the final construction phase of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s tricky retractable roof on Tuesday, nine months after the facility opened.

The $1.5 billion stadium will be open in good weather for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United games. Automation problems kept the roof closed for most of the stadium’s first year.

Beginning Tuesday, the roof will remain in a locked open position for 10 days, including June 2, when Atlanta United plays the Philadelphia Union.

The management group of Arthur Blank, who owns the Falcons and Atlanta United, says the final commissioning work to complete the automation will last several weeks.

When work is completed, the roof is expected to close or open in as few as 12 minutes.

“The complexity of the design and our heavy events schedule has made it take longer than we had hoped, but great things take time and we’re happy to see the finish line,” Steve Cannon, CEO of Blank’s management group, said in a statement.

The stadium will be host to the 2019 Super Bowl. The NFL prefers for the roof to be open for the Super Bowl, weather permitting.

The roof has been closed for most major events at the new stadium, including the Southeastern Conference championship game, Peach Bowl and College Football Playoff national championship game.

For the Falcons’ first season in their new home, the roof was open only for the first home regular-season game against Green Bay.

Falcons CEO Rich McKay said on Jan. 24 the plan was to have more games played with the roof “fully operational.”

“Fully operational means you will see us go to much more of an open configuration as we designed at the beginning,” McKay said. “When it’s ready to go, we’ll be open depending on weather.”

Ongoing work on the roof delayed the 2017 opening of the stadium by about a month. Atlanta United used Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium as its temporary home for the inaugural season in 2017 before moving to the new stadium.

The stadium will host the men’s NCAA Final Four in 2020.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL