State of the NWSL, Week 17: Talent not enough in Portland, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 18

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If you’re a masochistic Seattle Sounders fan looking for reason to doubt your Clint Dempsey-emboldened team, look 174 miles to the south, but not to your rival Timbers. Occupying the same stadium is a team which, gifted during the NWSL’s preseason player allocation, was expected to claim the new league’s title. Now, three games from the regular season finish line, Portland finds itself in another trough, inconsistency evident over their last three games having ceded control of home field advantage to league-leading FC Kansas City.

Inconsistency’s been the theme of year for Thorns FC. They spent much of the season’s opening month in first place, with captain Christine Sinclair winning the league’s first Player of the Month award. But as her feared pairing with U.S. international Alex Morgan failed to meet expectations, Portland found itself out of first, relying on their defense to cover for a struggling attack.

The weird part? Neither Sinclair nor Morgan were playing particularly poorly. They weren’t producing like people expected, and their performances were far from perfect, but they weren’t stinking up the place, either. Portland just weren’t able to convert their talents into goals.

Chalk that up to the “separation” that came to light on Sunday, reminding everybody that there’s more to putting a good team together than getting Sinclairs and Morgans on the payroll. There has to be a plan that can get the most out of them. There has to be a cohesion within the team. And you also need strong individual performances. Without those things, even superstars can be made to look average.

Portland still sit second in the NWSL. If they find a way to click over the next two weeks, the Thorns still have the talent to claim the league’s first title. But until they find that formula they’ll serve as a point of caution: Talent isn’t enough.

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

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) – Gave up 40 shots over the course of two games. Posted eight of their own. Right now, the 2011 Atlanta Beat have nothing on this team.

7. Sky Blue FC (6) – Coach Jim Gabarra’s side was dealt another blow when Danesha Adams hurt her ankle mid-week in Portland. Regardless, the search for answers continues for the former league leaders.

6. Boston Breakers (7) – The Cat Whitehill era started well but ended in disappointment, their inability to take three points from fourth place Western New York further crippling their playoff chances.

5. Seattle Reign FC (2) – Over the course of nine days, Seattle went from beating Chicago 4-1 to losing to them by two goals. Hence this drop.

4. Chicago Red Stars (5) – Credit coach Rory Dames for keeping the team together, the Red Stars overcoming their slow start to carve out a place in the playoff race. Now they wait and see if Western New York stumbles.

3. Portland Thorns FC (4) – Portland’s struggling. They’re struggling relative to Kansas City. They’re struggling relative to expectations. But it’s important to remember they’re still a very capable team.

2. Western New York Flash (3) – Saturday’s game in Somerville wasn’t their best performance of the season, but the road point went a long way toward alleviating playoff doubts.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – They control their path to the regular season title. They have the league’s best player (Lauren Holiday), best defender (Becky Sauerbrunn), and possibly its best coach (Vlatko Andonovski). It almost increases the pressure to see this through and claim that title.

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

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, August 7

Boston Breakers vs. Portland Thorns FC (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – Portland beat Boston at Dilboy on July 21 but not so badly that the Breakers couldn’t reverse that result. For Boston, they need a win and some help to keep their playoff chances alive, while Portland’s dream of home field would be dealt a huge blow without three points. With Boston perhaps coming down from their small coaching change bounce, Thorns FC look likely to replicate July’s result.

Western New York Flash vs. Seattle Reign FC (7:05 p.m. Eastern) – Seattle’s played the Flash tough in the teams’ two previous meetings, taking four points while having marginally the better of play. Yet on Saturday in Chicago, Reign FC showed their momentum may be spent. Western New York better hope so, because a strong Reign performance combined with a likely Chicago win in Washington would make this weekend’s visit from Thorns FC more important than Aaran Lines would like.

Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars (7:30 p.m. Eastern) – An obligatory three points for Chicago, where an unexpected stumble could see their playoff hopes evaporate. They’ll be without their best player, Lori Chalupny still recovering from an ankle injury, but if the Red Stars are half as good as their late season push hints, they should take full points.

Saturday, August 10

Boston Breakers vs. FC Kansas City (6:00 p.m. Eastern) – As Western New York found out this weekend, there are no guarantees when going to Boston. But Kansas City have been able to handle the Breakers this season, including a dominant 3-0 result in their last meeting in Overland Park. With eyes on home field advantage, the Blues should claim full points, though it won’t be easy.

Washington Spirit vs. Seattle Reign FC (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – For the second time this season, the league’s nationally televised game on FOX Soccer features the league’s seventh and eighth place teams. This is a meaningless game in the standings, and even though Seattle’s thoughts may already be on the offseason, they’d have to severely underperform to give Washington their second win of the year.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Sky Blue FC (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – This will tell us a lot about where Sky Blue is going into the playoffs. They’ve struggled for much of the summer, but if they can go on the road and give a good account of themselves (in their next-to-last game) against a strong Red Stars squad, they may prove more than “the team you want to play” come the postseason. For Chicago, this is a must win game, though the result in Rochester could see them out of playoff contention.

Western New York vs. Portland Thorns FC (7:35 p.m. Eastern) – Yet another time the NWSL has elected to keep Abby Wambach vs. Alex Morgan off national television. It’s almost is if they’re not the league’s two biggest stars. Still, the stakes will be high in this one, regardless of what happens mid-week. If the Flash stumble against Seattle, they could need a result to hold off Chicago for fourth; yet if they’re coming in off a good result, Western New York would be pushing for a home playoff game. Portland will either be trying to protect their second place position or be looking to keep the pressure on Kansas City for home field.

What we learned from a crazy PL Saturday

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Breathe. Take a walk outside. Put your arms above your head and try to drink in what you’ve actually seen today.

It is only Matchweek 2, but few Premier League days will match this.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Saturday’s games delivered high drama with VAR outrage, howlers, stunning goals and intense battles playing out.

Below is what we learned from a wild seven games across the league.


VAR DRAMA MARS MAN CITY, SPURS CLASH

Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur played out a gripping, enthralling 2-2 draw, but it was marred by VAR at the death. Gabriel Jesus‘ late winner for City was ruled out for a handball on Aymeric Laporte, which enraged Pep Guardiola and delighted Mauricio Pochettino. Man City dominated the game and Spurs had two shots on target and scored with both of them. City will have a bitter taste in their mouth, especially after the late VAR drama against Spurs in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg last season. Pochettino said he is “in love with VAR” and Guardiola said it “needs to be fixed” as it is too subjective. The VAR debate will rumble on, as the ball clearly hit Laporte on the arm but many will have a bad taste in their mouths at the way it impacts the outcomes of games.


GUARDIOLA, AGUERO FALL OUT

Man City’s all-time leading goalscorer was not happy, at all, after being subbed out in the second half of their game against Spurs. He and Guardiola went at it, with words being said, fingers pointed and both had to be separated.

With tensions bubbling under the surface for years over Aguero’s playing style in a Pep side, this looked a lot more personal.

In the coming weeks we will find out just how damaging this public spat will be for both Guardiola and Aguero, as City may be starting to feel the pressure.


LIVERPOOL SHAKE OFF RUST

Liverpool edged by Southampton 2-1 at St Mary’s on Saturday and it was a really strange game. Saints started well and given Liverpool’s 120 minutes against Chelsea for the Super Cup final in Istanbul on Wednesday, it was expected that they’d start sluggishly. But when they kicked through the gears around half time they tore Saints apart with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino leading the charge. Adrian’s late howler gifted Saints a way back into the game and Danny Ings should have scored his and Saints’ second to snatch an unlikely draw. Liverpool held on and after the travel week they’ve had, Jurgen Klopp was a happy man at the final whistle. Two wins from two for the Reds, and they’ve been far from their best as their stars recover from busy summer tournaments.


PUKKI READY TO STAR FOR NORWICH

Teemu Pukki has four goals in his first two games as a Premier League player. Those questioning whether or not the Finnish striker could translate his form from the Championship to the PL are now having a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. Pukki scored a hat trick in Norwich’s 3-1 win against Newcastle and the first was a stunner. After his spells with Sevilla, Schalke and Celtic, Pukki has finally arrived in the big time and his clinical finishing will be a theme of the season. Norwich have been written off by plenty of teams and the way they hammered Newcastle suggests the Canaries will be well clear of the relegation scrap.


ARSENAL, CEBALLOS CLICKING THROUGH THE GEARS 

Arsenal’s attacking unit now has a deep playmaker as Dani Ceballos starred in their win over Burnley. Ceballos is the perfect replacement for Aaron Ramsey and he not only created chances but worked back defensively. He is the perfect player for Unai Emery to build his attack around. Of course, Aubameyang and Lacazette (who both scored) are stars who can finish, while Nicolas Pepe looked bright off the bench as Arsenal’s attacking options will feel their rivals with serious envy. At the back they had some issues dealing with Burnley’s direct style as David Luiz took a few unecessary risks and Bernd Leno flapped at a few crosses, but overall two wins from two is a very good start for the Gunners. Now come the real tests as they head to Liverpool and host Tottenham in their next two games. Lets see how good the Gunners really are.


Bonus: Harry Wilson and Douglas Luiz scored screamers in a 2-1 win for Bournemouth at Aston Villa. You need to see them.

Pep rages at VAR after Man City denied winner

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Pep Guardiola is absolutely furious.

Whether you think he should be is another story.

Manchester City had its last-gasp winner taken off the board against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium, when VAR spotted the ball glancing off Aymeric Laporte‘s arm before Gabriel Jesus scored in stoppage time.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-2 Spurs ]

The Man City boss had not cooled down after the match, referencing Fernando Llorente’s uncalled handball in the UEFA Champions League last season.

That’s a different competition, however, and a different set of rules. Maybe that’s Pep’s point. Anyway, let’s let him rage:

“I thought we left that situation in Tottenham in the Champions League last season. But it is the same. The referee and VAR disallow it. It’s the second time – it’s tough. It’s honestly tough but it’s the way it is.

“It happened last week with Wolves and we saw for Chelsea on Wednesday – the keeper wasn’t on his line – Adrian in the penalty shoot-out. They have to fix it. The whistle inside matches now isn’t quite clear. But they believe it’s hands with Llorente in the Champions League and sometimes they don’t.

“It was incredible it wasn’t a penalty in the first half [for the foul on Rodri in the box] but VAR said it wasn’t and then at the end they did. I’m pretty sure people were happy today we just need to work harder at scoring our chances.”

He’s not really on point here, is he? As a neutral I hated the moment, but it follows the letter of the law. The Rodri point is a good one, but doesn’t negate the ball skittering off Laporte’s arm (and it looked to have touched Harry Skipp’s arm, too, but after the fact!).

Pochettino: “I am in love with VAR”

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Mauricio Pochettino‘s heart belongs to a set of TV monitors and a referee sat in an office in the suburbs of London.

In others words, he loves VAR.

After Spurs pegged the reigning champions back to 2-2, there was more late VAR drama between these two teams. Gabriel Jesus‘ strike was ruled out in the 92nd minute after Aymeric Laporte was adjudged to have handle the ball in the box after a VAR review.

Pochettino spoke to our partners Sky Sports in the UK after the crazy ending to the game, and simply said: “I love VAR. I’m not so happy with our performance.”

Spurs rode their luck and had three shots to Man City’s 30 and were dominated. Tottenham scored with their two shots on goal, but Man City were left ruing a number of missed chances as more VAR heartache followed.

Pochettino is off to give his nearest TV screen a few smooches as Spurs, once again, have VAR to thank for leaving the Etihad Stadium with a smile on their face.

Bundesliga wrap: USMNT’s Steffen shines on debut; BVB stomps Augsburg

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A day after Bayern needed Robert Lewandowski heroics to rescue an Opening Day draw, more thrills were on the menu Saturday.

Werder Bremen 1-3 Fortuna Dusseldorf

Zack Steffen was under siege but only beaten once in his Bundesliga debut, as the Man City loanee from these United States helped the visitors to a massive three points on Saturday.

Steffen saw 25 attempts from the hosts, including two from American substitute Josh Sargent, as Fortuna Dusseldorf got into the win column. From Bundesliga.com/En:

“It’s a lot of new challenges for me, and I want to perform and execute my job,” said the former Columbus Crew backstop. “I’ve got a good group of guys around me, a good coaching staff to lift me up and give me confidence, and make me feel at home.”

Borussia Dortmund 5-1 Augsburg

Augsburg’s first minute goal from Florian Niederlechner had some thinking that BVB could join Bayern Munich in an opening weekend stumble, but that was simply a mirage.

Paco Alcacer scored twice, new boy Julian Brandt also scored, and Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho found the score sheet as BVB scorched the visitors at the Westfalenstadion.

Bayer Leverkusen 3-2 Paderborn

It was expected to be a cakewalk for the Champions League outfit, but Bayer had to twice overcome pesky Paderborn equalizers.

Leon Bailey and Kai Havertz had their 10th and 19th minute goals answered before Kevin Volland put it to bed in the 69th.

Elsewhere

Bayern Munich 2-2 Hertha Berlin — Friday
Freiburg 3-0 Mainz
Borussia Monchengladbach 0-0 Schalke
Wolfsburg 2-1 Koln
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Hoffenheim
— 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Union Berlin v. RB Leipzig
— Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 1 1 0 0 5 1 4 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 SC Freiburg 1 1 0 0 3 0 3 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Fortuna Düsseldorf 1 1 0 0 3 1 2 0-0-0 1-0-0 3
 Bayer Leverkusen 1 1 0 0 3 2 1 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 VfL Wolfsburg 1 1 0 0 2 1 1 1-0-0 0-0-0 3
 Hertha BSC Berlin 1 0 1 0 2 2 0 0-0-0 0-1-0 1
 Bayern Munich 1 0 1 0 2 2 0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1
 FC Schalke 04 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-1-0 1
 Mönchengladbach 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0-1-0 0-0-0 1
 1. FC Union Berlin 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 1899 Hoffenheim 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 Eintracht Frankfurt 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 RB Leipzig 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-0-0 0-0-0 0
 SC Paderborn 1 0 0 1 2 3 -1 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 1. FC Köln 1 0 0 1 1 2 -1 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 Werder Bremen 1 0 0 1 1 3 -2 0-0-1 0-0-0 0
 FSV Mainz 05 1 0 0 1 0 3 -3 0-0-0 0-0-1 0
 FC Augsburg 1 0 0 1 1 5 -4 0-0-0 0-0-1 0