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).

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

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Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

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In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

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City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

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In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”