Portland Thorns FC win NWSL title: Moments to remember from league’s first championship game

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At the onset of the NWSL season, the Portland Thorns were widely picked to take home the new women’s league’s first title. Somewhere along the way, that favorite’s status waned, with the team finishing the season in third place despite talents like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath.

But on Saturday in Rochester, that talent — along with inspired play from the team’s defense — won out. Heath’s first half bomb from 30-plus yards gave Portland a lead at regular season champion Western New York. In second half stoppage time, their team playing with 10, Portland saw Sinclair ice the club’s improbable title run, a 2-0 win rendering a season of promise and frustration a distant memory.

Portland stayed near the league lead most of the season, but by mid-August, their hopes of winning the regular season title had faded. Ultimately, they’d have to claim their crown on the road, with matches at FC Kansas City and Western New York — thought to be the league’s two best teams — seemingly setting the team up for a disappointing finish.

But forgetting regular season disappointment to find the type of unity that’s eluded them all season, Portland proved the best team over the two weeks that mattered. They overcame injuries (to Heath and Morgan), two excellent teams, and ultimately, doubt. As a result, the team most picked to claim the first NWSL title fulfilled their destiny, shutting out the regular season champions to do so.

Here are the moments to remember from today’s 2-0 result at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY:

source: Getty Images1. Goalkeepers come up big, early

Karina LeBlanc (right) and Adrianna Franch were tested high all day, the first major chance coming in the 12th minute. When Abby Wambach went left and lobbed a ball far post, right wing Samantha Kerr had her way with Nikki Marshall, out-jumping the Portland left back to head what could have been a goal. But LeBlanc reacted quickly, pushed the shot onto the bar, and managed to grab a rebound that nearly went in off her back in. The Portland keeper kept it 0-0.

Ten minutes later, it was Franch’s turn. Portland right back Marian Dougherty was given all the room she wanted to fire a cross in from the right. Sinclair, streaking across the face of Western New York’s central defense, redirected a ball toward the top of Franch’s goal. But the rookie for Oklahoma State, called on to make a pure reflex save, pushed it over, matching LeBlanc save-for-save early on.

2. Abby Wambach gets Kathryn Williamson sent off

Pity the rookie her opponent — the first year defender from Florida matching-up up against a former Gator who just happens to be the world’s best player — but Kathryn Williamson knew what she was getting into. In two games against Abby Wambach in the regular season, the Thorns central defender had held her own. On Saturday, Wambach targeted her in the second half, eventually drawing two yellow cards.

The first came in the 49th minute, when Williamson was lucky to avoid a straight red after a ball over the top looked set to send Wambach in on goal. Four minutes later, Williamson deservds a second yellow for a nasty challenge on hte Flash number nine, but the official had pity. In the 56th minute, however, that pity ran out, with Portland defender taking down Wambach at the edge of the area, drawing a second yellow card.

Portland would play the final 34 minutes with 10, eventually bringing on former U.S. international Tina Ellertson to partner Rachel Buehler in central defense. Remarkably, the teams was still able to keep the league’s best attack off the board, maintaining their clean sheer despite Wambach getting Williamson sent off.

source: Getty Images3. Carli Lloyd shoots. Again. And again.

Counting her double in the semifinals, Carli Lloyd scored 10 goals this season, one of four players to reach double-digits this year. In Saturday’s first half, she had numerous opportunities to add her 11th, including a 25th minute chance set up by Adriana Martin that saw her push her shot wide right despite being one-on-one with LeBlanc.

As the game went on, Lloyd seemed to single-mindedly look for that 11th goal. A try from the edge of the area set up by Wambach. Dead balls from distance around the Portland area. Predatory runs into the box. Lloyd was an attacking midfielder with a sniper’s mentality, racking up eight shots by the final whistle.

Every time she let loose, there was a chance she would equalize. It was worth a gasp. She has that kind of talent. And as her Olympics performances have shown, Lloyd also has that kind of timing.

Tonight, however, it never happened. Ultimately, Lloyd’s most important goal of the season was the one that never came.

source: Getty Images4. Tobin Heath wins the title for the Thorns

Watch her in warm ups and you’ll see the power in Heath’s shot. Released quickly with a slightly more topspin than a normal player’s, Heath can be a special kind of trouble when given too much room within 24 yards.

In the 40th minute, she was far beyond 24 yards. After a Western New York foul just inside Portland’s attacking third, Heath was closer to 32 yards from Franch’s goal, but with one of the most spectacular strikes of her career, Heath paved Portland’s title path.

Opting for power over precision, Heath straight-on approach launched the ball above the Flash wall with that typical top spin, her heavy strike dipping below Franch’s cross bar as the rookie goalkeeper leapt under the ball. Having set herself up to defend the left side of goal, Franch had no chance, eventually clattering against the opposite post as Heath’s shot bend the net and recoiled out. The most important goal of the season was also the best.

Heath was scoreless in seven regular season games after joining the Thorns from mid-season Paris Saint-Germain. In two playoff games, she scored twice, each time overcoming an injured right foot to help push Portland to their title.

5. Christine Sinclair seals it

As full time approached, there was something about Portland that made you believe they were going to close this out. Despite being down a player; despite the presence of Wambach and Lloyd; despite being on the road; and despite the occasional lapses of their defense this season, it was hard to imagine the Flash finding and equalizer. In the last game of a tumultuous season, Portland had finally looked the part. They finally looked like a team that would pull away from the pack.

One minute into stoppage time they sealed it. Sinclair — a Portland resident and a University of Portland alum — was put in alone on goal after a long throw in deep in Western New York’s half. The huge gap between right back Katherine Reynolds and the next defender was a complete breakdown by a team pressing for the equalizer, one that left Franch with no chance to stop Sinclair as the former Flash forward pulled up from 15 yards.

With the shot headed far post, Western New York’s only hope was for “Sinc’s” shot to catch the post. No chance. The insurance goal nestled against the left side netting as the 30-year-old Canadian ran for the sideboards, celebrating in front of fans silenced by her title-clinching goal.

It was her ninth of the season, and certainly her most memorable. Seeing her team come together after an inconsistent, often frustrating season, Sinclair had captained her hometown club to the NWSL’s first title, the Thorns’ 2-0 win Saturday in Rochester allowing the preseason favorites to finish an improbable if expected championship run.

CCL Wrap: LAFC makes history, Sounders eliminated

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Major League Soccer already saw three clubs into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Two more needed to overcome obstacles to see MLS remain perfect through the Round of 16. While LAFC did its share of heavy lifting, the Seattle Sounders collapsed late as Olimpia advanced to the quarterfinals.

LAFC, in front of a brilliant tifo from the home fans at Banc of California Stadium, needed to overcome a 2-0 first-leg loss. The home side poured on the pressure all match, winning 3-0 to become the first MLS side to eliminate a Liga MX club after falling behind by multiple goals in the first leg. They absolutely battered the Mexican club, proving vicious on the counter and solid at the back.

Carlos Vela had an early miss, breaking down the right flank before firing wide of the near post with the outside of his boot on seven minutes. LAFC had another chance for the opener in the 11th minute but Marc-Anthony Kaye was denied by a brilliant reflex save from Rodolfo Cota who got a hand to the close-range shot despite falling down backwards on the line. Cota was on hand again to reject LAFC its much-needed breakthrough as he lept to tip a long-range Eduard Atuesta effort over the bar.

The hosts were robbed of first blood in the 26th minute when LAFC broke spectacularly three-on-two but Diego Rossi hit the post and while Carlos Vela put the rebound into the back of the net, the flag went up for offside on the initial effort. They would finally break through moments later, however, as a ball across the end line found Vela at the near post who tipped the ball towards the goal mouth, with the final touch coming off Cota who fumbled the ball over the line.

LAFC absorbed some pressure to end the first half, and Kaye was lucky to stay on the field as, already on a yellow card, he stamped on the ankle of Luis Montes and absolutely could have earned a second caution. After the break, LAFC regained the front foot but past the hour mark could not find the critical second goal. They had another huge chance on 71 minutes but Rossi whiffed after Vela teed him up on the doorstep. As LAFC became more desperate, Vela struck with 14 minutes to go, punching home Tristan Blackmon’s feed from deep on the right.

With LAFC level on aggregate with a 2-0 home lead, Diego Rossi atoned for his early miss with an absolutely stunner to win it for the hosts, delivering a cross brilliant ball to the far corner that came off the underside of the crossbar, then the inside of the post, and into the back of the net.

Up the coast to the north, Seattle had plenty of chances, leading 4-3 on aggregate late, but they collapsed as Olimpia equalized to send the game to penalties, where the Honduran side advanced 4-2.

Just five minutes in, Olimpia went in front on a set-piece as Elvin Oliva headed in a corner, with the ball squeaking past Cristian Roldan who was guarding the near post. The early strike mirrored the first leg when Seattle scored six minutes into the eventual 2-2 draw.

El Savladorian referee Ivan Barton was not shy about handing out early cards. In the very first minute he cautioned German Mejia for barreling through the back of Joevin Jones, while Seattle’s Nouhou Tolo was cautioned for a seventh minute foul in the air. The Sounders finally built themselves into the match, holding more possession than in the early minutes, and it paid off as Christian Roldan headed in off a set piece to put Seattle level on the match 1-1 and on aggregate 3-3, holding the away goal advantage.

Nouhou had the ball in the back of the net on 27 minutes, but the flag correctly went up for offside. Seattle continued to pressure the Olimpia back line after the break, and nearly had a second. Jordan Morris delivered a 56th minute cross along the goal mouth that Edrick Menjivar couldn’t handle and a streaking Joao Paolo just missed the bobbling ball.

The sealing goal would come in the 64th minute as Roldan delivered a vicious ball from the right flank and it found Paolo who this time converted, thanks in large part to a slight deflection off the knee of Johnny Leveron that wrong-footed Menjivar. Olimpia would not be phased, waiting until the 86th minute before drawing back level as Carlos Pineda rifled a long-distance equalizer.

In the penalty shootout, Christian Roldan skied his effort over the bar and Kelvin Leerdam’s spot-kick was saved by Menjivar. Stefan Frei got his hand to Edwin Rodriguez’s penalty but couldn’t keep it out as Olimpia didn’t miss any of its four efforts to advance.

MLS Week 1 preview: New teams, players, and stars

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AThe 2020 Major League Soccer season is here. This weekend, the new campaign gets under way with two new teams, a new defending Supporters’ Shield winner, and a new superstar.

Debuts are the theme as Inter Miami and Nashville SC both take the field for the first time this weekend across Saturday and Sunday. The defending champions Seattle Sounders host the Chicago Fire and their new logo. Chicharito leads the L.A. Galaxy as the visit the Houston Dynamo.

The new clubs both get tough welcomes to the league, with Nashville hosting Atlanta United and Inter Miami traveling to Western Conference finalists LAFC. Atlanta has plenty of new faces of its own, with captain Michael Parkhurst retired while both Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel having departed. Miles Robinson is injured to start the season, and given how Atlanta started the season last year, they could be vulnerable this weekend. LAFC has seen Walker Zimmerman and Tyler Miller move on, and after playoff disappointment last season, they have plenty to prove themselves.

Last year’s Eastern Conference regular season champions NYCFC starts the season on the road at Columbus on Sunday afternoon, under new management in Ronny Deila. Gedion Zelalem also joins, although he struggled last season at Sporting KC. The Philadelphia Union, off a 55 point season last campaign, visit FC Dallas who doesn’t have much new of note except new contracts for Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira.

The defending champs host the Chicago Fire, with Seattle seeing a designated player depart in Victor Rodriguez with Joao Paulo arriving in his stead. RSL, who finished third in the West last season, announced Thursday the addition of Guiseppe Rossi and he could be in line to see time as they travel to Orlando S.C. on Saturday. After a promising season of growth, Minnesota United switched out goalkeepers, bringing in LAFC’s Miller for Vito Mannone. Abu Danladi is also gone, having departed for Nashville in the expansion draft, and Luis Amarilla has arrived in his place with a promise of goals, with a West Coast trip to Portland his first challenge.

Full MLS Week 1 slate

Saturday:
D.C. United v. Colorado Rapids (1:00 p.m. ET)
Montreal Impact v. New England Revolution (3:00 p.m. ET)
Houston Dynamo v. LA Galaxy (3:30 p.m. ET)
San Jose Earthquakes v. Toronto FC (5:30 p.m. ET)
FC Dallas v. Philadelphia Union (6:00 p.m. ET)
Orlando S.C. v. Real Salt Lake (6:00 p.m. ET)
Nashville S.C. v. Atlanta United (8:00 p.m. ET)
Vancouver Whitecaps v. Sporting KC (10:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday:
Columbus Crew v. NYCFC (12:30 p.m. ET)
New York Red Bulls v. F.C. Cincinnati (1:00 p.m. ET)
Seattle Sounders v. Chicago Fire (3:00 p.m. ET)
LAFC v. Inter Miami (5:30 p.m. ET)
Portland Timbers v. Minnesota United (7:30 p.m. ET)

Arteta ‘hurt’ by Arsenal’s Europa League exit

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Mikel Arteta wasn’t shy about his feelings towards Arsenal’s Europa League elimination.

“It hurts, big time,” Arteta said after the match. “We had a lot of hope in this competition. It was a great way for us to be able to go to Europe and it is a very beautiful competition to try to win.”

For much of the second leg against Olympiakos, Arsenal was flat. The Gunners conceded a goal shortly after halftime, and with the aggregate score 1-1 through 180 minutes, the game went to extra-time. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang appeared to have struck the winner for Arsenal in the 113th minute, only for Olympiakos to level the score back up in the 119th minute and go ahead on away goals.

[ ROUNDUP: Early Europa League kicks | Late kicks ]

“I think we did a lot of positive things in the game,” Arteta said. “I think we created enough chances to win, but if you concede two set-pieces again in a tie like this you put yourself in big trouble.”

The Gunners, in truth, did not create much, at least not through regulation. It may have been enough to expect victory, but it was not enough for a team with an attacking mentality. Arsenal racked up 2.19 expected goals through the match, but their two best chances came late with Aubameyang’s last-gasp miss and Alexandre Lacazette failing to strike with a 77th minute diving header.

“This is football and sometimes it is very cruel when the emotions are right here [raises hand high],” Arteta said in the press conference, “then in another moment they’re somewhere else [lowers hand]. You have to able to handle that if you want to be in this industry so now it’s up to us, and up to me, to bring this place back in and move forward.”

The Gunners are still in the FA Cup, with a fifth round match against Portsmouth on Monday. They sit ninth in the Premier League table, four points back of Manchester United in fifth.

Giuseppe Rossi signs with Real Salt Lake

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Former Manchester United, Villareal, and Fiorentina forward Guiseppe Rossi has signed with MLS side Real Salt Lake in yet another bid to revive his injury-plagued career.

Rossi, a New Jersey-born striker who infamously chose to represent Italy at the international level, has struggled mightily for game time over the past few years thanks to a string of bad injury luck. He most recently made 9 Serie A appearances for Genoa through the latter half of the 2017/18 season, without a competitive match since May 20, 2018.

“For me, MLS has been growing every year and has produced an exciting product,” Rossi said upon signing. “I’m lucky enough to have RSL be my first contact in the league during this process. The club’s respect and kindness towards me is something I appreciate immensely. I can’t wait to see and meet the fans and immerse myself in the RSL culture. Along with the rest of the team, I can’t wait to begin this season and enjoy the journey together.”

The 33-year-old has suffered five major knee injuries throughout his career, including three ACL tears. According to the soccer database Transfermarkt, Rossi has missed upwards of 1,200 days due to injuries throughout his career.

The signing represents an exciting moment for Rossi, who despite his struggles is thought to be a supremely talented player when healthy. No matter how this tenure goes, Rossi’s chance to play back in the United States marks a significant transition for a player who has had a contentious relationship with USMNT fans due to his national team decision. While it’s not as exciting a signing as it would have been 5-7 years ago, Rossi’s return to his home nation is a move with plenty of upside.

Through his European career, Rossi racked up 170 La Liga appearances, 62 in Serie A, 16 in the Premier League, and 12 in Champions League play. Rossi has 29 caps for the Italian national team, scoring seven goals including two against the United States in a 2009 Confederations Cup match.

Real Salt Lake starts its 2020 season against Orlando City on Saturday.