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.

Saudis, Bahrain, UAE join to bid for FIFA’s U-20 World Cup

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GENEVA (AP) Middle East neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are jointly bidding to host the Under-20 World Cup in 2021.

FIFA says the Gulf plan is among five to express interest in bidding, including Brazil.

Indonesia, Peru and a Myanmar-Thailand joint bid are the others.

FIFA announced the contenders Thursday, one day after dropping a proposal for Qatar to share hosting duties for the 2022 World Cup with regional neighbors.

The 2021 U20 contenders must submit a formal bid by Aug. 30. FIFA’s ruling Council will pick the winner, likely in October.

The 2019 edition kicks off Thursday in Poland.

Putin awards medal to FIFA president Infantino

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MOSCOW (AP) Vladimir Putin has given FIFA president Gianni Infantino a medal.

The Russian president awarded Infantino the Order of Friendship at the Kremlin on Thursday.

Infantino has often said last year’s World Cup in Russia, where the host nation surprisingly reached the quarterfinals, was the best of the 21 editions of the tournament.

Putin thanked the FIFA leader for “your glowing assessment of our efforts.”

Infantino says of Russia’s “bonds of friendship” with soccer “is not the end, it is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”

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

Why Derby deserve Premier League promotion

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With the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 27, the richest game in soccer will see one of Aston Villa or Derby County promoted to the Premier League.

[ MORE: Latest Championship news ]

Which club deserves a spot in the English top-flight, and the estimated minimum $120 million it will generate, more?

You can use metrics such as fanbase, stadiums, players, historical success and quality of coaches to try and sort this out, but the fact of the matter is, the playoffs are always a complete, and utterly brilliant, lottery.

The path Villa and Derby took to get to the final this season proves that.

We’ve already focused on why Villa deserve to return to the PL after a three-year absence, so now it is time to see why Derby should return after an 11-year absence…


The Rams are on a roll and Frank Lampard, in his first season as a manager, has led Derby to Wembley to play Aston Villa with the latter the favorites to win.

Like Villa, we are talking about a team which has some magical moments in its history. Derby were Champions of England under Brian Clough twice in the 1970s but since then success has been hard to come by. A five-season spell in the Premier League from 1996-2002 was followed by a miserable season in 2007-08 (the worst in PL history) and the Rams haven’t been back to the top-flight since.

Owner Mel Morris, a local businessman who is behind gaming apps such as Candy Crush, has led their crusade back towards the PL in recent seasons but Derby have come up short in the playoffs time and time again, with the Rams failing in the playoffs in three of their previous five campaigns.

Heading into the final weeks of this season Derby were in the chasing pack after a poor second half of the campaign. For most of the season it seemed like Frank Lampard’s youngsters were nailed on for a top six finish, but then they wobbled and it seemed like they may miss out on the playoffs altogether.

But a run of four wins in their last six to finish the season gave them extra momentum heading into the playoffs.

Then came that incredible night at Leeds.

1-0 down from the first leg, then 1-0 down on the night in the second leg, Derby had a mountain to climb with a 2-0 aggregate deficit at Elland Road as Leeds’ fans started the party… Then Derby scored three unanswered goals in a wild 13-minute spell to turn the game on its head before Jack Marriott added his second and Derby’s fourth of the game late on to stun Leeds and send them to Wembley.

With the backdrop of the spygate scandal — which saw Leeds and Bielsa punished earlier in the season for spying on Derby’s training sessions — and the fact Leeds were heavy favorites to get past Derby, this was a sweet moment for Lampard and his adoring squad and fans.

Derby don’t have a lot of cash to work with. They have relied this season on Lampard’s contacts as some of the best young talents at the Premier League level (Mason Mount and Harry Wilson) wanted to learn from him and that is why they arrived at Pride Park on loan. Lampard has translated his knowledge as a player who had an amazing career to several of his Derby players, and it is exciting to think what he can go on to do.

This Derby squad is made up of youngsters from the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool and veterans like Richard Keogh, Ashley Cole and Bradley Johnson who are desperate for one last chance to play in the Premier League.

Lampard has galvanized the entire club and the Chelsea legend regularly bounces in celebration with the Derby fans after games. Runs in both the FA Cup and League Cup saw them beat Manchester United and Southampton on penalty kicks, while they also pushed Chelsea close to show they are capable of competing with PL clubs regularly.

Derby are full of guts and their young stars Wilson and Mount have the ability to win games with one swipe of their foot.

Lampard is a loveable character and if Derby do beat Villa to clinch promotion, he can work his magic to secure some big names signings and they will be an intriguing squad who, like Villa, will play open, expansive soccer. If Derby don’t get promoted then Lampard is already being lined up for Premier League jobs, even at the club where he became a legend, Chelsea. If the Rams do go up we will get to see Lampard and this exciting attacking side put on a show.

That is why Derby deserve promotion to the Premier League.

Real Betis beat DC, as US U17 star scores (video)

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Remember the name: Griffin Yow.

It shouldn’t be too hard, as the Clifton, Virginia native has a pretty cool name, and it seems like a new star could have well been born at Audi Field on Wednesday.

16-year-old D.C. United forward Griffin Yow scored in their 5-2 friendly defeat to La Liga side Real Betis, as the U.S. national team U-17 star continued his speedy rise at DCU.

His goal came just after half time and halved Betis’ lead after first half goals from Loren and Sergio Leon put the Spanish side in a commanding position.

After Yow’s goal made it 2-1, legendary winger Joaquin made it 3-2 before Quincy Amarikwa made it 3-2 as late goal from Marc Bartra and Robert put some gloss on the scoreline for the visitors.

As for Yow, he made his MLS debut as a late sub in April against New York City FC after some impressive displays for their USL affiliate, Loudoun United FC.

After coming on as a sub in the 32nd minute in this game, Yow certainly made an impact.

He has scored six goals in 11 appearances for the U.S. under 17 side, and it seems like we will be hearing a lot about this guy in the years to come.