Walking through Week 18 of the NWSL season

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The minimal certainty we had last week remains just that: Minimal certainty. FC Kansas City is still in control of their playoff destiny, three points clear of the pack, but they were expected to seal up home field advantage on Saturday in Boston. That didn’t happen, and with the three teams vying for second place all drawing this weekend, we also didn’t get much clarity. First place maintains a sliver of doubt. Second place is an enigma wrapped in a passive riddle wrapped in that hip-to-ankle leg brace that sent fans into hysterics on Wednesday night.

Concerns about form aside, Week 18 sets up a dramatic end to the NWSL’s first season. Kansas City need only draw at home against Chicago to earn home field advantage, but the rest of the picture’s unclear. Western New York’s struggled with Boston all season, and that was before the Breakers’ post-Whitehill surge. Portland seemed to be plummeting, but now their Saturday foes (Seattle) appear derailed. And Sky Blue FC — the team that was limping into the playoffs a week ago — are showing signs of life ahead of their season finale in Washington.

But that’s Week 19. Here’s a look back at last week’s action:

Wednesday, August 7

Boston Breakers 2, Portland Thorns FC 1 – Portland’s recovery from their devastating loss the previous Sunday to Kansas City was overshadowed eight minutes into Wednesday match. That’s when Boston defender and former Thorn Jazymne Avant’s challenge on Alex Morgan twisted the U.S. international’s left knee, leaving her to be stretchered from the match moments later. Portland’s replacement, Tiffany Weimer, eventually gave Thorns FC the lead before second half goals from Lianne Sanderson and Heather O’Reilly snatched a surprise victory for Boston.

Implications: Morgan was eventually diagnosed with a grade 1 MCL sprain with a recovery time for 2-4 weeks. The low-end of that timeline would have her back for the league’s semifinals (played on Aug. 24). The high-end might see her miss not only the rest of the NWSL season but also the U.S.’s Sept. 3 friendly against Mexico.

On the field, it was an emotional loss for Portland, whose defensive struggles continued, allowing their eighth and ninth goals in four games. Once the league’s best defense, Thorns FC looked incapable of keeping goals out by the end of Wednesday’s match, Boston scoring twice in the last 24 minutes to reverse Weimer’s opener.

For Boston, the match was a welcome reversal from defender Cat Whitehill’s coaching debut, one that saw Western New York pull back a two-goal deficit the preceding Friday. The win also ran their unbeaten run to three, pulling them back to “five hundred” (7-7-6).

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 21 38 +13
2 2 W. New York 21 35 +15
3 4 Portland 21 35 +6
4 5 Sky Blue 21 35 +5
5 3 Boston 21 30 +2
6 6 Chicago 21 27 -5
7 7 Seattle 21 18 -13
8 8 Washington 21 13 -23

Western New York Flash 1, Seattle Reign FC 0  – Any suspicion Seattle would wilt after being eliminated from the playoffs seemed alleviated in the first half, when Reign FC’s intensity helped push the match to intermission scoreless. One second half breakdown, however, undid Laura Harvey’s team, with Abby Wambach setting up Carli Lloyd in the 54th minute for the game’s only goal.

Implications: Combined with Portland’s loss, the win moved Western New York into second place ahead of the teams’ Saturday meeting at Sahlen Park. Perhaps as important in the long run, the Flash bounced back from a down performance at Dilboy. Instead of ceding control for most of the match only to rally late, Western New York were the slightly better side throughout.

Washington Spirit 1, Chicago Red Stars 0 – Without Lori Chalupny, Chicago became the second team to lose to Washington this season (first at Maryland Soccerplex Stadium) when Lupita Gorbis beat Erin McLeod in the 58th minute, an almost unheard of open play, game-winning Spirit goal. How the match ended, however, was more interesting than the final score, with two long lightning delays near the end of the second half preventing the game from being completed before Soccerplex’s curfew.

Implications: On Wednesday, the weather overshadowed Washington’s breakthrough. In hindsight, who cares. One week after I evoked the 2011 Atlanta Beat when discussing the Spirit, they shoved that comparison down my throat. Congratulations, Washington. I deserved that.

For Chicago, their playoff hopes ended with the loss, something that gave the curfew extra significance. After the match, however, Red Stars head coach Rory Dames took to Twitter to thank Washington for trying to hard to get the match back underway and give Chicago a chance to save their season. Ultimately, Mother Nature wasn’t a Red Stars fan.

Saturday, August 10

Boston Breakers 1, FC Kansas City 0 – Kansas City’s 4-6-0 formation that was talked about two weeks ago? They started it on Saturday, inserting former Hermann Trophy-winner Teresa Noyola into the lineup for the willing-if-ineffective Melissa Henderson. The change resulted in Kansas City’s flatted performance in the season, their 10-match unbeaten run snapped after Sydney Leroux’s 11th goal of the season. The Blues went on to be outshot 7-2 (shots on goal), surprising given how successful their striker-less formation was against Boston in Overland Park.

Implications: For the Breakers, the removal of Lisa Cole hasn’t been too little, too late as much as it’s just been too late. They’re 2-0-1 under Cat Whitehill, have taken points from the league’s top three teams, and have only given up a three goals in as many games. Granted, all the games have been at home, but Boston may have actually been able to salvage their season had they installed Whitehill three weeks earlier.

For Kansas City, the streak had to end sometime. Better now than in the playoffs. Still, they had a chance to lock down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, leaving the coming weekend’s season finale to work out kinks and rest ailing bodies. Now, their game against Chicago means something.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 9
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 11 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 7
4 tied at 8 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
Katy Freels (SBFC) 6

Chicago Red Stars 3, Sky Blue FC 3 – Against the newly eliminated Red Stars, Sky Blue solved one problem, failed to address another. Three goals (two from Monica Ocampo) and a strong performance from Katy Freels gave SBFC fans reason to think their attack’s returned. Unfortunately, their team also gave up two leads, with Red Star Jackie Santacaterina providing two second half equalizers in one of the season’s more exciting matches.

Implications: Yes, this was a missed opportunity for Sky Blue, but bigger picture, it’s progress. The team hadn’t been playing well for some time headed into this match. Against a good team, on the road, they had their moments. Again: progress.

For Chicago, two second half comebacks showed a lot of heart, considering the team was still without their best player (Chalupny) and had been eliminated from the playoffs three nights before. And for Santacaterina — somebody whose been a valuable squad player for Dames all season — it was a deserved moment in the spotlight.

Washington Spirit 1, Seattle Reign FC 0 – All that fight the eliminated Reign showed in Rochester? In Boyds, not so much. Given the difference in quality between the two squads, Seattle should have won this match. Instead, they played down to their competition. To Washington’s credit, they took advantage, with Diana Matheson’s eight goal of the season in the 83rd minute giving the team their third win.

Implications: Don’t take too much away from the Spirit. Over the course a season you’ll play teams that are on their games and teams that are down. Part of the challenge is taking advantage of the latter, which Washington did. Earlier this season, they weren’t making the most of these opportunities.

It’s important to note how far Washington’s come. They’re still the eighth of eight teams, but whereas last week we were talking about the Spirit as one of the worst teams in U.S. women’s professional soccer history, now they’ve turned it around. Two straight wins over quality teams? That’s unquestionably progress; progress that wasn’t apparent seven days ago. Well done, Mark Parsons.

Western New York Flash 0, Portland Thorns FC 0 – Last week I was complaining that the NWSL and FOX Soccer didn’t put this game on national television. They clearly knew something I didn’t. Not only was Alex Morgan not available (having flow back to Portland with her knee injury), but this game was an absolute dud. Western New York seemed tired. Portland seemed in survival mode. While that seven-eight matchup at Boyds wasn’t exactly the best advertisement for the league, either, it was better than the game in Rochester.

Implications: Western New York stay second in the league, but thanks to Sky Blue’s draw in Chicago, there’s a trio of teams sitting three points behind Kansas City.

The scenarios (correct me if I’m wrong):

  • Kansas City takes home-field outright with a point on Sunday against Chicago. The only way they don’t take home field with a loss is if they’re involved in a three- or four-way tie that also includes the Flash. In that scenario, KC’s head-to-head advantage gets usurped by Western New York’s edge in goal difference.
  • Western New York needs to win, have Kansas City lose, and have Portland or Sky Blue win to take home field. A win guarantees them at least second place (and a home game). Barring any outlandish results that significantly change goal difference, they’ll win tiebreakers with Portland, Sky Blue, or a three-way tie between all three clubs.
  • Portland needs to better Western New York’s result (Thorns are at Seattle; WNY hosts Boston). They also need to stay ahead of Sky Blue (at Washington) on goal difference. Do both those things, and Thorns FC hosts a playoff game.
  • Sky Blue needs to better Western New York’s result. They also need to, vis-a-vis Portland:

(a) better Portland’s result; or
(b) stay even with Portland and pull ahead in goal difference (they’re -1 right now); or
(c) stay even with Portland, pull even on goal difference and out-score Portland, which will give them the edge on the league’s third tiebreaker: goals scored; or
(d) stay even with Portland, pull even on goal difference and even in goals scored, which will give them the edge on the league’s fourth tiebreaker: head-to-head road record (Sky Blue has three points at Portland; Portland has one point at Sky Blue).

Atletico Madrid roster for MLS All-Star Game includes Felix

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Major League Soccer fans will get a good luck at one of the hottest prospects in world soccer when the MLS All Stars take on Atletico Madrid in next week’s MLS All Star Game.

Joao Felix, the $142 million 19-year-old, is among the roster announced by Diego Simeone for the match.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

Felix scored 20 times with 11 assists in 40 matches for Benfica before moving to Atleti in the summer. Those numbers include a hat trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals first leg.

The other stars will be there, too, provided no transfers happen in the interim. Koke, Thomas Lemar, Diego Costa, and Saul Niguez are in the squad.

New Atleti defender Kieran Trippier and longtime El Tri hero Hector Herrera will also be sure to help drive attendance in Orlando City.

The full roster is here.

Leagues Cup preview: MLS gets its next shot at Liga MX

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It’s not a typo; The s is very real.

The Leagues Cup — not the League Cup — is the new competition pitting Major League Soccer sides against some of the top sides from Mexico’s Liga MX.

The tournament has been expanded before it’s even seen a ball kicked in competition, as the second edition with go from eight to 16 teams.

[ MORE: Newcastle in for $28M Saint-Maximin ]

For now, though, we’ve got four American and four Mexican sides meeting over the next two months in a bid for North American supremacy not unlike a CONCACAF Champions League stripped of all the minnows.

Much like the CCL, the Mexican sides will be expected to triumph, even with all of the quarterfinals being staged in the United States.

Chicago Fire hosts Cruz Azul on Tuesday, followed by the LA Galaxy’s visit from Club Tijuana.

Wednesday will see the Houston Dynamo host Club America, and Tigres UANL at Real Salt Lake.

The winners meet Aug. 20, while the final will be played Sept. 18 in Las Vegas.

There’s a lot of promise in this, and it gives MLS another chance to make some statements about the distance between it and Liga MX. The Mexican sides have flat out dominated the CCL, and it’s not difficult to make the same prediction for this tournament.

But, like many tournaments, it also gives success-starved clubs a chance to give their fans something big and their players a tonic. For Bastian Schweinsteiger‘s Chicago, for one, it’s a huge opportunity. And for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy, it’s a look toward another piece of silverware for one of the world’s biggest trophy cases.

USMNT prospect Ledezma earns praise from van Nistelrooy

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Even for talents of the highest levels with top soccer education, sometimes a kid’s gotta learn how to eat.

Richard “Richie” Ledezma, 18, is in the midst of his first year at Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven, a spot which beckoned after a five-match, one-goal season in the USL with Real Monarchs of the USL.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Ledezma starred for U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup after his first half-season with PSV, which saw him play with the U-19s while trying to lose some weight.

From Goal.com:

“PSV help me with my nutrition, with my food and how I eat. It’s the quantity of food you eat, I guess,” he added. “Because I came a little chubby, when I got here, I guess. They all called me ‘fatty’ and stuff, so I was like, cool, you know? So no more McDonald’s.”

Goal’s James Westwood had a wide-ranging interview with Ledezma and also spoke with soccer royalty: longtime Real Madrid and Manchester United scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy was Ledezma’s coach with the U-19s.

“He’s making a difference in midfield with very quick-thinking passes, movement, can score a goal, play people in, he’s creating chances for the whole team.”

That’s not just good praise from a legend, but a solid sign for fans of the United States men’s national team. A proper No. 10 or playmaking midfielder could allow Gregg Berhalter or another future USMNT coach to use Christian Pulisic on the wings.

Ledezma has some work to do before he breaks into the first team of the Dutch runners-up, who have signed former Stoke City man Ibrahim Afellay and has Gaston Pereiro in the fold as well.

Newcastle reportedly in for $28M mercurial Nice attacker

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L’Equipe says that Newcastle United have returned to Nice in the hopes of landing Allan Saint-Maximin.

The Ligue 1 outfit wants $28 million for the playmaker, who could team up with Miguel Almiron and (maybe) Joelinton to give the Magpies a much-improved attack.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

Saint-Maximin, 22, has 10 goals and 10 assists across his last two seasons with Nice, and played everywhere in attack for Patrick Vieira: both wings, center forward, second striker, attacking mid… even some left and right midfield.

The player, however, has been a headache for Vieira at times, with the manager saying Saint-Maximin believes that he has enough talent to reach the highest level without the required amount of work.

That said, the youngster’s skill set is electric. He’s a March birth date, too, so a relatively young 22. That $28 million would be another transfer record broken for Newcastle, assuming it happens ahead of the Joelinton move.

Or… as Newcastle fan knows, neither could go through.