NWSL: Other general managers should probably stop taking Laura Harvey’s calls

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Laura Harvey’s become everybody’s fantasy league nightmare –  the person who just won’t stop chasing deals. Since the National Women’s Soccer League season ended on Aug. 31, the Seattle Reign have made five trades, the rest of the league’s general manager surely growing tired of  “Laura Harvey, Seattle, WA” popping up on their called ID.

No, Laura, I don’t need another trade offer from you … Yes, Laura, I do realize you like to deal, and I know you’re interested in all on my team’s best players … I just don’t have time for this … You’ve made so many trades, this isn’t even realistic anymore.

But as anybody who’s ever been in a keeper league knows: The person that won’t stop flooding inboxes always stacks up talent. It’s annoying, and you loathe the fact that they’re putting so much time into it, but through pure persistence, the owner finds people’s weak points. They close deals that make you call their trade partners and scream, “Why did you do that?”

“Don’t you know not to listen to Laura? You are ruining the league for everyone! Just stop taking her calls.”

Take this week’s big trade: Harvey got one of the league’s jewels – one of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s vaunted four-deep world-class attack. Sydney Leroux, arguably the player with more pure potential than anybody in the league, was sent west from Boston, where she grabbed 11 goals in 19 games last season. To get her, the Reign gave up a talented prospect (Kristie Mewis), a fungible backup goalkeeper (Michelle Betos), and first and second round picks in the 2015 draft.

This is the kind classic, Fantasy Manager 101 “bag of stuff” deal that infuriates the rest of the league, the one that leaves every other GM saying “I could have beat that.” Going one way, you have a player who’s capable of leading the league in goals. Going the other, you have your typical focal point-plus-grab bag that Seattle will never miss.

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New Seattle Reign forward Sydney Leroux returns to the Pacific Northwest after scoring 11 goals in 19 games last year in Boston (Photo: Getty Images.)

There were a number of factors that led to the end of Leroux’s time in Boston, factors beyond Harvey’s persistence or the coincidental going home narrative laced throughout the trade’s announcements. Having never played a full professional season before, Leroux’s transition to the professional game was not exactly a smooth one. A relationship with then-head coach Lisa Cole that saw the natural striker sometimes played wide and eventually sat early in the season never improved. As questions about intensity were accompanied by days away from the team documented on the player’s Instagram, the link between star and club seemed to suffer. Leroux’s 2014 would have to be better.

Boston had to decide if they wanted to be in the Sydney Leroux business. Sure, the Pacific Northwest native may have preferred playing on the West Coast, but if Boston doesn’t want to make this deal — if they’re willing to take a chance on rebuilding a relationship with one of the league’s most talented players — they don’t make the deal. And they certainly don’t accept a discount rate for some of the world’s best attackers. If Boston had to decide if they wanted to be in the Leroux game, this week’s trade told us their decision.

It’s not that either side wanted it to fail. It’s that it never clicked. It’s a relationship that ended in a passive, mutually filed divorce. That’s why you didn’t hear a lot of surprised reactions when Breakers general manager Lee Billiard made the tough call, deciding to make a deal where he gave up the best player. Boston wasn’t going to get a Lauren Holiday, Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan in the deal. None of those players were available. He had to trade down.

From his point of view, Kristie Mewis may have been as good a centerpiece as Billiard was going to get. The Boston College and Hanson, Mass. talent has huge local ties, something that’s led Billiard to covet her since January’s draft. But she’s also in transition. A skilled, attacking player at BC, Mewis now projects as a left back for the U.S. Women’s National Team. With Boston short on fullbacks and having traded last year’s number one pick (defender Casey Short) to Chicago, it’s assumed Mewis will be patrolling the left flank at Dilboy Stadium. If Mewis becomes one of the league’s best left backs (and I really should bold and italicize that if), this deal becomes merely lopsided instead of a steal.

But where the swap gets even more interesting (if that’s even possible) is with Seattle. A team that was decimated at the beginning of 2012 by the absences of all their U.S. stars (Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Amy Rodriguez) has completely reloaded. In three months’ time, they’ve done from a team unable to avoid a seventh place finish to a potential competitor.

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After returning early from wrist surgery, Hope Solo appeared in 13 of Seattle’s 22 games in the NWSL’s inaugural season. (Photo: Getty Images.)

In goal, Hope Solo will be ready from game one, whereas a wrist injury kept her out of action until the middle of last season. Even when she returned, she didn’t seem right, whether it was her wrist, the lingering effects of shoulder surgery before the 2011 World Cup, or both. This fall, however, she has looked closer to her normal self for the national team, sparking hope she’ll be full-on Hope Freakin’ Solo come April.

Defense, however, was Seattle’s big problem, and although there are still no stars in the squad, there are a lot of decent options. U.S. international Stephanie Cox heads a deep fullback corps that includes Nikki Marshall, Elli Reed, and Kiersten Dallstream. In the middle, Canadian international Carmelina Moscato will try to rebound from a bad 2012, with reliable options like Lauren Barnes and natural midfielder Kate Deines also available. Even if a couple of players flop (as happened last year with Canadian international Emily Zurrer), Harvey has options.

Last season, the midfield, had to carry the team, but the load was so heavy that the team would occasionally hit a wall in the middle of the second half. This year, Jessica Fishlock and Keelin Winters won’t have to shoulder as much of the load, and with promising destroyer Mariah Nogueira having also been acquired from Boston (seriously, why so generous, Boston?), Leroux won’t be the only Breaker gift in Harvey’s squad.

But it’s in attack, where Seattle struggled desperately in the absence of Rodríguez (pregnancy), where the Reign has improved the most. Of course, there’s Leroux, but on Wednesday, Seattle announced the acquisition of Kim Little, a Scottish international who has spent the last six years at Arsenal in England. In her former North London charge, Harvey has a player who already has 32 UEFA Champions League goals to her credit. Once Megan Rapinoe returns mid-year from her time at Lyon, Seattle will have one of the most talented and balanced attacks in the league.

Compared to the team that started on Aug. 17 against the Thorns (the Reign’s last game), there haven’t exactly been wholesale changes. Seven players that were chosen that day could be in Harvey’s XI come April. It’s the fact that she’s been able to acquire the likes of Leroux, Little, Nogueira and Moscato while giving up almost nothing from her core that’s so galling:

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Scottish international Kim Little led England’s Women’s Super League in goals in 2012, scoring 11 times in 14 games for eventual league champions Arsenal. (Photo: Getty Images.)
  • Leroux was acquired with spare parts plus the Mewis, who Harvey got from Kansas City for Rodríguez earlier this fall.
  • Little’s discovery rights were obtained from Washington for Christine Nairn, a talented player but one who is actually the same age as Little.
  • Nogueira, a promising 22-year-old who was staring at Stanford this time last year, was obtained for two third round picks.
  • And Moscato cost Harvey midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, who was one of the worst in the league at her position before being moved into central defense.

Most of these trades make sense for both teams, but from Seattle’s point of view, they’re four upgrades that didn’t cost Harvey anything that worked (Fishlock and Winters in the middle) or drew fans (Rapinoe and Solo on the posters). Come April, Seattle should reap the benefits of Harvey’s rotisserie baseball management.

The offseason’s only three months old, the college draft is still a couple of months away, and teams don’t even know who the next set of allocated players will be. Yet Harvey has already assembled a roster that looks as strong as Western New York’s, Kansas City’s or Portland’s – the three teams that finished bunched at the top of last year’s standings.

While talent on paper doesn’t necessarily mean production on the field, it does mean better odds for a Seattle team that seemed cursed in 2013. But over the course of three months, Seattle’s general manager/head coach has put all that in the past. You may not want her in your fantasy league, but thanks to her Let’s Make a Deal approach to the offseason, Laura Harvey has made the Reign the NWSL’s most talked about team, not to mention a contender in 2014.

Xhaka, Shaqiri display controversial goal celebrations in win over Serbia

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A seemingly innocuous goal celebration performed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri has thinly veiled, politically charged undertones and could potentially land the pair in FIFA disciplinary proceedings following Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia.

Both displayed a bird hand signal as they celebrated scoring goals, and considering their pre-match comments, post-match social media posts, and ethnic backgrounds, those were clearly meant to represent the double-eagle symbol in the middle of the Albanian flag.

This is a complicated political scenario, but it could be considered by FIFA to be politically provocative. Shaqiri is Albanian, born in Kosovo before moving to Switzerland with his parents and three siblings when he was just a year old. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as a sovereign nation by Serbia. Xhaka is of Albanian descent, and his father previously participated in a demonstration against the communist Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo that landed him a lengthy jail sentence. Albania and Serbia have a particularly tumultuous relationship, with their leaders meeting for the first time in over 60 years in 2014, which caused tempers to flare.

Scoring against the Serbian national team and then displaying a hand signal representing the Albanian flag is clearly meant to jab the Serbian team and its fans. Following the match, Xhaka posted a picture of his celebration on his Instagram story, with the caption in Albanian roughly translated to, “Here you go Serbia, this is why they call me Granit Kosovo!” He deleted the post, and replaced it with an image of his celebration side-by-side with Shaqiri’s, with the slightly more cryptic caption, “We did it, bro!” in English.

FIFA is wildly against any type of political demonstration or involvement in the world of soccer. The governing body has punished individual nation federations in the past for government involvement, while political demonstrations on the field are fiercely frowned upon.

Switzerland captain and new Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner came to the defense of his two teammates after the match. When asked about the celebrations, he said to Goal.com, “We had a lot of pressure, it was not an easy game for us. We have a lot of Albanians, so there is a lot of history between Serbia and Albania. It was a very tough game for them mentally.”

“It was good. Why not? This is the history for them,” Lichtsteiner continued. “The war between them was so difficult. I spoke to the father of one of our players who is Albanian, and he told me about this history. This is more than football. This is more than football because they have this period, this war that gave them both big problems. I understand them. I think it’s normal, it’s part of their life. There was also big provocation ahead of the game from them [Serbia], so I think it’s normal.”

Shaqiri could be in especially hot water. The Stoke City midfielder wore boots with the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo. He has made it clear in the past that he values his roots, saying, “I was born in Kosovo, but I grew up in Switzerland. I live both mentalities, it’s not a big difference.”

Switzerland finishes its World Cup group stage round with a match against Costa Rica on Wednesday in which a win would secure a spot in the knockout stage.

World Cup referees miss yet another physical penalty in box

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Let’s get this out of the way first: VAR (Video-Assistant Refereeing) has been a fabulous addition to the game of soccer. In the 2018 World Cup, the availability of replay has done nothing but improve the ability of referees to correctly officiate the game, providing an outlet for mistakes to be corrected. Earlier on Friday, a referee gave a penalty to Brazil for a foul on Neymar, but with VAR applied correctly, the penalty was wiped off after it was determined Neymar went down easily. The game continued as it should, and a clear and obvious error was erased.

Unfortunately, despite the clear improvement to the game VAR provides, there’s still some work to be done in one very specific area of the game.

[ MORE: Recap of Serbia 1-2 Switzerland ]

On multiple occasions this World Cup, referees have missed wrestling matches in the penalty area, allowing defenders to essentially get away with murder instead of awarding attackers a deserved penalty. The worst example of this yet took place in the 66th minute of the 2-1 Switzerland win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, already with a goal to his name early in the match, went up to meet a set-piece delivery with his head. He was fully bear-hugged by Switzerland captain Steven Lichtsteiner, and while being wrapped up, was then rugby tackled by Swiss central defender Fabian Schar.

Yet somehow, Mitrovic was called for the foul, as the referee whistled him for ending up over the back of his defender on a genuine attempt to play the ball.

With every replay shown, it became more and more evident that not only should a penalty have been awarded, but the referee missed a clear and obvious call. Yet the match referee, German Felix Brych, was given no assistance from the VAR booth, left on an island after blowing the call.

There have been so many instances of this throughout the tournament, despite a public directive reportedly given by FIFA to referees asking them to crack down on physical play in the box, according to Fox rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik. England striker Harry Kane was wrestled to the ground numerous times against Tunisia with no call, while many Egypt fans felt hard done by after Mohamed Salah was bullied in the box repeatedly against Russia.

The more defenders can get away with while defending set pieces in front of net, the more the game will be muddied by controversy, clouding an otherwise glittering debut for VAR on the international stage. That’s frustrating.

Serbia 1-2 Switzerland: Late Shaqiri break shatters Serbian hearts

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One of the most exciting games of the 2018 World Cup proved entertaining from start to finish, ended by a stunning breakaway goal by Xherdan Shaqiri that capped a 2-1 Switzerland comeback victory over Serbia.

The start of the game was all Serbia, with Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic the most dangerous option up front, and he delivered on that promise just five minutes in. After a pair of chances just kept out by Yann Sommer, Mitrovic powered in a header off a Dusan Tadic cross to put Serbia in front early on.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The goal confirmed yet another game without a 0-0 draw, 26 in a row to start the tournament, marking the World Cup record set back in 1954 when every single game in the Switzerland event featured a goal.

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After the goal, the game exploded, with Serbia looking to double its lead and Switzerland hoping to gain a grip on the match. Without a second coming, Switzlerland began to build promisingly, and had its first chance right on the half-hour mark as Steven Zuber through-ball sprung Blerim Dzemaili, but his sliding effort was saved brilliantly by Vladimir Stojkovic at the last second. They had a second chance minutes later, but for some reason Xherdan Shaqiri decided for one too many crosses rather than taking the open shot himself.

Serbia didn’t just look to see out the first half, though, as the star of the first half Dusan Tadic nearly gave his team another lift. First, he delivered a fabulous corner that stunningly skipped through the box untouched. Then, just before the break, Tadic came agonizingly close to what would have been a fabulous half-volley strike that flew viciously wide.

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After the break, the back-and-forth action continued, and Granit Xhaka struck an absolute stunner on the counter to level the match seven minutes into the second half. Shaquiri’s initial attempt from the right edge of the box was blocked and the rebound fell to the Arsenal midfielder outside the penalty area. His follow-up was a laser, curling through the defense and past a wrong-footed Stojkovic.

The chaos continued, with Serbia swinging back into the initiative. Mitrovic had a penalty shout turned down after being bear-hugged and wrestled to the ground by a pair of defenders, and minutes later Aleksandr Kolarov delivered a luscious cross into the box but nobody was there to tap it home.

Serbia began to tire as the game inched towards the final minutes, and Switzerland had most of the late pressure. One moment of brilliance caught the Serbians sleeping, and it proved the difference. Mario Gavranovic fed Shaqiri on the break from his own half, and free on goal the Stoke City winger made no mistake as the last ticks of regulation came off.

The win for Switzerland moves them to four points through the first two matches, leaving them level atop Group E with Brazil on points but in second thanks to an inferior goal differential. Serbia, meanwhile, sits third with three points. Switzerland would advance to the knockout stage with a win or draw in their final match against Costa Rica, while the winner of Brazil vs. Serbia will advance as well, with Brazil advancing in the event of a draw.

Southgate asks media to “help the team” after lineup leak

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England management is unhappy with the media after a coach was snapped with the proposed lineup for Saturday’s match against Panama.

Assistant manager Steve Holland was photographed holding a teamsheet that appeared to show a pair of changes in the England attack, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford partnering with Harry Kane up front. While Southgate attempted to play down the leak, stating the piece of paper was “just a squad list” and “the next sheet has different players in different positions,” he was also clearly frustrated with the media’s decision to run the photos.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“Obviously any time, if we were to give the opposition the opportunity of having our team it’s a disadvantage to us,” Southgate said in his pre-match press conference. “So of course our media has to decide whether they want to help the team or not.

The teamsheet showed no changes to the defense, with the team playing a three-center-back system as Kyle Walker continues his role along that back line. Kieran Trippier stays in at wing-back opposite Ashley Young, with Jordan Henderson sitting in the midfield between them. Jesse Lingard retains his place in the attack centrally with help from the addition of Loftus-Cheek, and the pair of strikers ahead of them.

Walker was also asked about the leak, and he said Holland apologized to the team, even if they felt it was unnecessary. “He’s apologised to us all in training, which we had a bit of banter with him about, and that was it.”

“I think if you guys try to keep it to yourself and don’t bring it out to the world,” Walker added, “because it’s not going to help us come the later stages of the tournament, please God we get there. All the rest of the world’s seen our team now, if that is the team or if not. As I say, you guys have to do your little bit, so if you could just please help us with that it would be polite.”