NWSL Championship: Five storylines to watch

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Western New York Flash and Portland Thorns FC face off on Saturday night in the National Women’s Soccer League Championship, and the league got its star power matchup in its inaugural season. Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd lead the Flash against a Thorns side expected to see Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath return from injury for the final, not to mention Christine Sinclair.

We’ve already given you snapshots of what to know about the Western New York Flash and what to know about Portland Thorns FC. Here are five stories to follow in the buildup to and during the final:

• There’s no escaping talk of Morgan’s health, in particular. The face of the league, Morgan sprained her left MCL on August 7 and hasn’t played since. She hasn’t played since, but was available during Saturday’s 3-2 extra time semifinal win over FC Kansas City. Portland has actually, by their own admission, played some of their best games of the season without Morgan, who is more of a direct player. Whether or not she plays will affect both the marketing hype of the match and the Thorns’ style of play. Morgan trained with a knee brace on Thursday at Sahlen’s Stadium and expects to be ready for the final. Coach Cindy Parlow Cone expects Morgan and Heath, who injured her right foot in the semifinal and did not train on Thursday, to play “significant roles” in the match.

“The knee feels good. I’ve been training now for a couple of days. We came early to kind of get adjusted to the time and recover our legs. I think that was good for my knee, personally, because it didn’t react to well to the flight. So getting on the field feels really good and I’m hoping to be full-go for Saturday.”

The Flash’s dominance of any and every women’s soccer league of the last four years is on the line. Western New York has won three straight championships in three different leagues, including the 2011 WPS triumph with Morgan and Sinclair. Flash head coach Aaran Lines says this Flash team has the most leadership of any of the previous three champions.

“Playing their roles as senior players and being good role models and leaders on and off the field has been an integral part of budding young players into the season,” Lines said.  “It’s been a good ride.”

• Wambach and Morgan will easily dominate the headlines, but the midfield battle will be critical. Carli Lloyd has been one of the best midfielders in the league since returning from injury on May 11, but was snubbed from even an all-league second team selection. She’ll have that chip on her shoulder as she aims to continue her stellar form. Lloyd scored both goals for the Flash in their semifinal win. Allie Long will be tasked with tracking Lloyd through the midfield, but whether or not Heath can play – and how healthy she is – will determine just how much of a counter-punch Portland will have to Lloyd. Heath is the catalyst of the Thorns’ midfield.

• Which Thorns defense will show up? Portland’s back line, anchored by U.S. international Rachel Buehler, breakout rookie Kat Williamson and Canadian goalkeeper Karine LeBlanc, had one of the better defenses in the league, but a late season stretch saw Portland give up nine goals in four games, a stretch in which they went 1-2-1. Issues in the back seemed to have been sorted out in the final two games of the regular season – including a 0-0 draw at the site of the final vs. the Flash – but two goals conceded to FC Kansas City in the opening half hour in the semifinal is yet again cause for concern. The Flash, meanwhile, statistically had the best defense in the league and showed few signs of breaking down during the regular season.

 The Aaran Lines vs. Cindy Parlow Cone coaching matchup is enticing. Lines is the man who has guided the Flash to these three consecutive titles and is well aware of the Morgan-Sinclair partnership, having coached the two alongside Marta to a 2011 WPS crown. Recognition of Lines for the impressive feat continues to be lacking, but the Kiwi continues to put together great teams. This year’s is perhaps the most impressive, having not gotten too much help in allocation beyond Lloyd and Wambach. Parlow Cone meanwhile is in her first final and first full season as a head coach. If she can guide the Thorns to a title after the adversity of what looked mid-season like a big-expectations year set for disappointment. Much of what she’ll be judged on in the final is how she manages Heath and Morgan, who are obvious game-changers.

Chelsea needs to wait “48 hours” to assess Mount

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Mason Mount‘s move from the Championship to the Premier League has been nearly seamless.

His adjustment to the Champions League was cut down too quickly to get an understanding of whether it would be too big of a jump.

[ MORE: Match recap | Barkley drama ]

Mount, 20, was chopped down by Valencia’s Francis Coquelin, the former Arsenal man, and had to leave the game after just 16 minutes.

Here’s Frank Lampard, from ChelseaFC.com:

“He’s got an ankle injury but we don’t know how bad it is. We’ll have to assess it in the next 48 hours to see the scale of the injury. It was a shame because he started the game well and it meant we had to make the change early on.”

Mount scored nine times with four assists on loan under Lampard at Derby County last season, and has already chipped in three goals for Chelsea this season.

Lampard turned to Pedro off the bench on Tuesday, but any lengthy absence for Mount will spell more time for American youngster Christian Pulisic.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday preview: Man City, Spurs debut

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Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur begin their UEFA Champions League campaigns on very different results and with very different vibes.

City is coming off a stunning 3-2 loss to injury-hit Norwich City, and is set up in Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk for the third-straight season, a side which beat Pep Guardiola once in four tries between 2017/18 and 2018/19 in the UCL.

[ MORE: UCL Tues. wrap ]

But on Wednesday, Guardiola’s men are going to carry a similar feel to one of his old Barcelona teams, as Pep seemingly will have Fernandinho pull a Javier Mascherano and drop into the back line.

Yes, Fernandinho and Nicolas Otamendi are Manchester City’s hopes at center back, now that John Stones has joined Aymeric Laporte on the shelf.

“For me as a manager it’s an incredible challenge,” said Pep Guardiola. “But I believe a lot, people don’t know the spirit and resolve to solve this problem. The players going to come back with Dinho, Eric Garcia, Taylor Harwood-Bellis. … It’s happened, but what we are not going to do is complain. We have to have 11 players on the pitch and I like it, to find a solution. For the players as well to find an incredible step forward.”

Spurs, meanwhile, will simply be trying to build on any momentum gained by a 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace at the weekend, a win which came after manager Mauricio Pochettino begged his side to “re-focus” after a relatively poor start to the season.

Now a bit more relaxed, Spurs head to Greece as the clear favorites against stingy Olympiacos. These are, after all, the finalists of last season’s tournament.

Pochettino won’t be sleeping on the challenge, from The London Evening Standard:

“They have good players and if we are not focused and don’t take our best game we are going to suffer. But last season we played in the final of Champions League, so it’s normal people think before the game, Tottenham is one step above Olympiacos but in the end you need to show it on the pitch.”

Spurs are one of two early kickoffs on Tuesday.

Full UCL Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Club Brugge v. Galatasaray
Olympiacos v. Tottenham Hotspur

3 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Paris Saint-Germain v. Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v. Juventus
Dinamo Zagreb v. Atalanta
Bayern Munich v. Red Star Belgrade
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Manchester City

American coach Marsch speaks after landmark Champions League day

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Jesse Marsch made his UEFA Champions League debut on Tuesday, a historic first for not just the Wisconsin native but also his country.

Marsch, 45, oversaw Red Bull Salzburg’s 6-2 demolition of Genk, becoming the first American to win a UCL match as manager.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

“We knew we were going into the match full of confidence,” he said, via the Salzburg site. “We knew too that we could put in a performance of this quality. I wasn’t pleased with a few situations, such as conceding for 3-1. That shows our incredible mentality though as it prompted us to give a few more percent and immediately score two goals.”

The ex-New York Red Bulls manager and RB Leipzig assistant manager got another three goals from incredible 19-year-old striker Erling Braut Haland, who nows has 17 goals in nine matches this season.

“It is an absolute joy to work with this team. We have a lot of players who just know how to battle, and that rubs off on the others. You can see that on the pitch on nights like tonight.”

There will be tougher nights ahead for Marsch, who is in a group with Liverpool and Napoli, but Tuesday was a fine start for the tactician. And it was a banner moment for American coaches abroad, who’ve been led by past and present USMNT coaches Bob Bradley and Gregg Berhalter.

Maybe one day that’ll be Marsch’s title… but it seems like he may have some loftier ground to cover on his path through world soccer.

Klopp: Liverpool made wrong decisions; Penalty also incorrect

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is going to bat for his left back after Andrew Robertson gave away what became the decisive penalty in a 2-0 loss to Napoli in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s a penalty,” Klopp said. “What can I say, for me, it is clear and obvious no penalty. He jumps before any contact, we can’t change that.”

[ RECAP: Napoli 2-0 Liverpool ]

For what it’s worth: It sure seemed like both a foul on Robertson and a comical embellishment from Callejon, but we digress.

Liverpool just didn’t have it on the day, like when Sadio Mane played a terrible pass to Mohamed Salah on what could’ve been an easy 1-0 lead.

In the moments they did have it, there was Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret making a splendid save.

“We played a lot of good football but didn’t finish it off. We controlled moments but had not enough chances in the end. We made decisions that were not right and have to accept the result. It was very often the final ball that was not right.”

Also, forgive Klopp if he has stopped enjoying the beautiful country of Italy.