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).

Bologna draws 3-3 at Lazio to secure Serie A safety

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ROME (AP) Bologna secured Serie A football for another season after drawing at Lazio 3-3 in a thriller on Monday.

Bologna moved four points clear of the relegation zone with one match remaining.

Lazio was still celebrating winning the Italian Cup midweek and Joaquin Correa fired the capital side in front in the 13th minute.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

However, two goals in the space of a minute from Andrea Poli and Mattia Destro saw Bologna take the lead early in the second half.

Bastos curled in a stunning effort to level for Lazio in the 59th but Riccardo Orsolini restored Bologna’s lead shortly after.

Substitute Sergej Milinkovic-Savic secured a draw for Lazio with a sensational free kick 10 minutes from time.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Choosing a USMNT XI for the Gold Cup

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Noting that most positions on the international stage are up for grabs based on form, there are special opportunities on the wing, right back, and center back when it comes to the USMNT at the Gold Cup this summer.

That’s because of two related things, one fact and one close to it:

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

  1. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are missing from the lineup due to injury. Brooks is easily the Yanks’ No. 1 center back, and Yedlin is a right back when Tyler Adams is unavailable and good enough that Gregg Berhalter tries to shoehorn him in at right wing when Adams is manning that spot.
  2. Mexico’s the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament with more in-form club players in Europe than the U.S., including would-be Premier League Best XI forward Raul Jimenez of Wolves. And who’s going to have to deal with Raul? You guessed it, the big American center backs.

Presuming Berhalter is still wed to Adams as the part-fullback, part distributing midfielder role, that has our lineup for important Gold Cup matches with few sure things.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — XXXXX — XXXXX — XXXXX

McKennie — Bradley

XXXXX — Pulisic — XXXXX

Altidore

Now you may not like that I’ve assumed Bradley and Altidore’s places here, but there’s little doubt both are still quite capable against CONCACAF competition and also have the experience in this exact competition and against Mexico. Surely both are motivated for a bit of redemption as well.

Friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela will give Berhalter a chance to try out players like Tyler Boyd, Marlon Fossey, and Miles Robinson should they impress amongst a 40-player field (although the Jamaica match on June 5 in Washington, D.C. is a day before the final rosters are due for the Gold Cup).

Now what we are trying to solve here is who is the best bet to help the Yanks win the dang thing.

Defenders: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream are the favorites to start at the two center back spots and left back, but Daniel Lovitz will try to push Ream after a rough season at Fulham. Both Walker Zimmerman and Omar Gonzalez are in good form, and you can bet Berhalter will give Cameron Carter-Vickers a chance to earn some time. A flat back four role gives Antonee Robinson hope in place of Ream, and if Adams moves into the midfield, Nick Lima did alright in his right back role in January.

Midfielders/Wingers: The spots around Pulisic should be filled by those who can keep the width of the field but also serve somewhat as enforcers for the No. 10. Sebastian Lletget gives them a good shot on one side, and Paul Arriola provides a similar spot. While Joe Gyau, Josh Sargent, Duane Holmes, and Djordje Mihailovic can hope to challenge, the MLS vets with experience outside the country are good bets to get the gigs.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — Miazga — Long — Ream

McKennie — Bradley

Arriola — Pulisic — Lletget

Altidore

Does that get the job done against Mexico? Probably not, but it’ll give Tata Martino’s men a hassle.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).