NWSL Update: Western New York, Portland into league’s first title game

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If women’s soccer fans were told five months ago that first NWSL season would end with Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan in the title game, some would have happily taken it. Others would have cried conspiracy. Few would have disputed it as a boon in the league’s first year, when every bit of publicity helps.

After Saturday’s semifinals, the league has their dream matchup, though it’s still unclear if all the stars will be on stage. Whereas Wambach is guaranteed to lead her team onto the field in Rochester after Western New York eliminated Sky Blue (2-0), Morgan has not played since suffering a knee injury in Boston nearly three weeks ago. Without her, Portland upset FC Kansas City on Saturday, Allie Long’s extra time winner giving Thorns FC a 3-2 win, giving FOX Sports license to run a week’s worth of Abby vs. Alex promos ahead of Saturday’s final.

But for anybody who watched Saturday’s game in Kansas, “a 3-2 win” feels like a gross understatement. Here’s how the Thorns (and Flash) advanced to the NWSL’s first championship game:

source:  Semifinal 1: FC Kansas City 2, Portland Thorns FC 3

Favorites coming into the season, Portland slipped to third place by the time the last game was played, meaning their route to the final would go through Overland Park. In two regular season games at FCKC, Portland had only taken one point, generally being outplayed during their trips to Shawnee Mission District Stadium. Yet with Vlatko Andonovski’s team limping into the postseason — a two-game losing streak to non-playoff teams costing them first place — there was reason to doubt Kansas City carried the same quality that troubled Portland during the regular season.

Those doubts irrelevant after 25 minutes. Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak, whose half season starting for Andonovski has earned her a national team call-up, scored from distance in the 12th minute. Melissa Henderson, goalless in 17 regular season games, beat Karina LeBlanc near the half’s mid-point, priming Portland for an embarrassing end to their season. With league MVP-to-be Lauren Holiday pulling the proverbial strings, the Thorns were getting steamrolled. Favorites before game one, eliminated at game 23, Portland’s lopsided elimination would bring joy to the throngs who’ve come to view PTFC as the NWSL’s Galactic Empire. Merritt Paulson’s Darth Vadar, and FC Kansas City were routing his stormtroopers.

Much to their chagrin, the Rebellion wasn’t meant to be. The narrative that won out in Overland Park was Kansas City’s demise, not Portland’s failure to play to their talent. Whereas the Blues once seemed destined to win the league comfortably, a slew of late capitulations over summer months (in New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, and at home against Chicago) served as a wakeup call. Only as Saturday’s collapse showed, Kansas City never woke up.

In the 35th minute Tobin Heath, playing on an obviously ailing right foot, pulled Portland within one. Tiffany Weimer, coming on strong after joining mid-season, pulled Portland even in the 65th, setting the stage for a bit of redemption. Scrutinized all season long for her play in Portland’s midfield, Allie Long forged the match-winner in the first period of extra time (103′) and, as is if to reinforce the Portland’s image as the league’s pantomime villain, spent the rest of the match committing fouls that teased a second yellow card. Like her team, though, she survived, with Portland’s 3-2 win putting them into Saturday’s final.

It was Portland’s best 90 minutes of the season, finally claiming some of their promise while on the verge of bowing out. For Kansas City, however, it was a heart-breakingly appropriate conclusion to their season. Though they seemed like the best team, their inability to finish games killed them. After this week of postseason awards ends, Kansas City will have the league’s best player, defender, rookie, goalkeeper and coach, but they’ll also have an unexpectedly early end to what has to what was ultimately a disappointing season.

source:  Semifinal 2: Western New York 2, Sky Blue FC 0

Sky Blue’s last two months were all about Saturday. Whereas Kansas City slid into the playoffs and Portland had the postseason thrust upon them, Sky Blue had the final four in the sites ever since it became clear the formula vaulted them top of the league in June was not going to carry them through August. While falling to fourth, Jim Gabarra’s team consolidated, forging their best possible formula for playoff success, though their slide left them with a nightmare playoff matchup. Western New York, the regular season champions, had beat them three times in a row, outscoring them 8-1 in the process.

Gabarra, who had played a 4-3-3 formation for most of the year, decided to throw the Flash a curve. He went 3-5-2, a system nobody had played this season in the NWSL. Whether he did that to load up in defense, get more defenders to combat Abby Wambach, or put players wide on to deal with the Flash Sam Kerr-led wing play, it seemed to cause some confusion. While Western New York were better over the first half hour, a stalemate looked possible.

Then Carli Lloyd broke through. It was a big game, so the Flash midfielder, who most know from her two goals in the 2012 Summer Olympics’ final, was obligated to step up. Clutch is what she does. Converting on a cross from fullback Katherine Reynolds in the 33rd minute, Lloyd lived up to her reputation, putting the home side in front.

Sky Blue held on for the next hour, fostering the impression they could nick an equalizer at any time, but against the league’s best defense, an attack that had come reliant on one player (forward Lisa de Vanna) never broke through. They finished the game outshot 15 to 5, losing 2-0 after Lloyd’s 93rd minute goal completed the U.S. international’s double.

Ultimately, and despite Gabarra’s attempt to change it up, the game played out exactly as expected. While Sky Blue had recovered  from their summer funk, they still didn’t have an answer for the Flash. Their new formation stalled the inevitable, but come full-time, the Flash had still controlled play, won a relatively straight forward game, and looked every bit the title favorite. They finished the regular season number one, and come kickoff in Rochester on Saturday, they’ll be favored to retain that mantle.

Final: Western New York vs. Portland Thorns FC

Ever since Kansas City’s slide began, Western New York has been the scariest team in the league. Now, with Lloyd clicking while  Wambach continues to demand the defense’s focus, the Flash are on track for their fourth title in four years (across four leagues: W-League, WPS, WPSL Elite, NWSL). In a league down to two teams, they have the best defense, the best attack, the best coaching, and home field advantage. Despite drawing both their meetings with the Thorns this season, Aaran Lines team will be deserved favorites Saturday night.

The threat Portland poses depends on their health. Heath had to leave Saturday’s game after Kansas City’s Desiree Scott stepped on her foot. She’s expected to play, but her exact status won’t be known until later this week. Likewise, what Cindy Parlow Cone can count on from Alex Morgan depends on how much the Thorns star improves. The team’s optimistic, though if she’s healthy, the coaching staff face a challenge integrating her into a team that’s gone 2-0-1 without her.

That draw came two weeks ago, when Portland visited Western New York. Both teams seemed willing to accept the stalemate, the 0-0 result playing out as one of the league’s least compelling games of the season. But without Morgan, Portland were emboldened by the shutout, their improvement in defense giving them confidence going into their season finale.

Two wins later, the Thorns have a shot at the title. And with any luck, the NWSL will get an Abby vs. Alex matchup in its inaugural final.

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
Photo credit: @FulhamFC
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
Photo credit: Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
Photo byJacques Feeney/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+