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NWSL’s 7th season opens, looks for bump in World Cup year

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The NWSL opens its seventh season this weekend with some lingering questions about its health, but also the encouraging possibility of a “bump” from the World Cup.

The National Women’s Soccer League has already outlasted any of the other previous pro women’s leagues in the United States. With support from the U.S. Soccer Federation, the NWSL has fared better than the earlier attempts.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns going into Year 7 – many of which were there in the sixth season, too. Possible expansion, the stability of some individual clubs, a need for sponsorships and the lack of a TV deal are among the issues faced by the league that hasn’t had a commissioner since Jeff Plush stepped down in March 2017.

Still, the NWSL could get greater exposure starting in June when the World Cup opens in France. NWSL rosters are filled with national team players from around the globe. Teams will have to navigate player absences during the tournament but could win fans for the latter half of the season – much like after the last World Cup in 2015, which the U.S. won.

Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said she believes the league is still headed in the right direction. But continued success will depend on both investment and the will to see it through.

“The most important thing is investment across the league, in human resources; whether that’s coaching or whether that’s just staff that’s helping out, whether that’s in better fields, whether that’s in better housing, whether that’s in whatever. Making the league better, in the league front office but also the clubs’ front offices, I want that,” she said. “And if we can get that, year after year after year then I think we’ll be in a good place.”

The defending champion North Carolina Courage will open the season Saturday night at home against the Chicago Red Stars, one of four games set for this weekend. The Courage defeated the Thorns 3-0 in the title game in front of a crowd of 21,144 in Portland last fall.

The victory capped a fantastic season for the Courage, who went 18-1-6 overall, won the league’s Supporters’ Shield for best record and never dropped a game on the road.

HOW TO WATCH: The NWSL and A+E Networks terminated their broadcast agreement in February, leaving the league with no TV partner. Last season, a `Game of the Week’ aired on the Lifetime channel. A+E also surrendered its stake in the league, but Lifetime remains a jersey sponsor.

At least for now, the league’s games will be streamed live exclusively on the Yahoo Sports app, or on the Yahoo website.

EXPANSION: The league currently stands at nine teams. Since the Boston Breakers folded just before the start of last season, there have been persistent rumors about whether the team will be revived by a new ownership group. Spanish club Barcelona had expressed interest in fielding an NWSL team, although there has been no movement on that front. Major League Soccer’s LAFC could also jump into the fray, with co-owner Mia Hamm suggesting as recently as last week that it is a priority.

Despite all the chatter, NWSL President Amanda Duffy previously indicated the league likely won’t make any expansion announcements until after this season.

WHAT’S GOING ON WITH SKY BLUE? The troubles that plagued New Jersey’s team, Sky Blue, were well documented last year after former player Sam Kerr, now with Chicago, hinted at issues. But improvements have been made.

In February, Sky Blue announced that Tammy Murphy, the wife of part-owner Gov. Phil Murphy, would take a more active role in running the team. And indeed, improvements have been made, with better housing and staff additions. The team will train this season at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, and have access to the school’s wellness facilities in addition to practice fields.

Tony Novo, who served as team president and general manager, resigned and Alyse LaHue was named interim GM. Novo had been criticized by the Cloud 9 supporters’ group.

SCHEDULE: The league will take a short break during the group stage of the World Cup in France. But a chunk of the league’s players will be away with their national teams for extended periods this season. The NWSL allowed teams to expand rosters to 22 players, in addition to four supplemental players who won’t count against the salary cap.

Teams play a 24-game schedule that wraps up Oct. 12. The championship game is scheduled for Oct. 26.

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

New Jersey first lady to get more involved with Sky Blue

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The wife of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy says she’ll take a more active role in running Sky Blue, the professional women’s soccer club based in the state.

The Murphys are part owners of the National Women’s Soccer League team, whose facilities and player accommodations have been criticized.

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“We recognize there have been challenges, but I am looking forward to working with our team to create a climate of success,” Tammy Murphy said in a statementTuesday. “We are excited about the new players who are now a part of the Sky Blue family, and we can’t wait to see them join our returning players. But above all, we appreciate the dedication and loyalty of our fans.”

Last summer multiple reports surfaced that Sky Blue players faced substandard playing and living conditions, following cryptic comments by former forward Sam Kerr. The team had no restrooms or running water at its training facility, and some players were housed in apartments where cardboard or plastic covered broken windows, among other issues. Sky Blue won just one game last season.

The team’s supporters group, Cloud 9, has called for the firing of Sky Blue president and general manager Tony Novo.

Sky Blue’s two top draft picks this year, Hailie Mace (second overall) and Julia Ashley (sixth overall), have opted to play elsewhere. Ashley, a New Jersey native, will play in Sweden. Midfielder Carli Lloyd is the team’s lone allocated U.S. national team player.

In her statement, Tammy Murphy pointed to “upscale apartments and new furnishings” for the players. She also said staff would be increased by 40 percent, and administrative offices would be moved closer to player housing.

Tammy Murphy also suggested that both practice and playing facilities would be improved, but offered no specifics. She promised additional information would be shared shortly.

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

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

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She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

Kerr, Huddersfield Town’s Mooy named Australian Footballers of the Year

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SYDNEY (AP) England-based Aaron Mooy and United States-based Sam Kerr have been named Australia’s Footballers of the Year at Professional Football Australia’s annual awards, both winning the title for the second time.

Mooy, who plays for Huddersfield in the Premier League, became the first player to be named the PFA’s Men’s Football of the Year twice after claiming the award last year.

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He said “these awards are extra special to players because they are voted by your peers.”

The 24-year-old Kerr claimed the women’s award for the second time after being honored in 2013. She is currently the leading goalscorer in the United States National Women’s Soccer League.

Kerr said “to be voted by your fellow players as the PFA Footballer of the year is a huge honor.”

US women ‘focused’ as Wambach aims for history

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MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Thursday’s United States women’s national team match falls smack in the middle of the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season. It’s a friendly. It’s against the same team, Korea Republic, that the United States just handily defeated 4-1 on Saturday.

But its relevance is critical, particularly to Abby Wambach – and for more reasons than the obvious.

“People might say that these games are irrelevant and that they don’t matter, but it’s about putting ourselves in a position to learn more about each other every single match,” Wambach said after Tuesday’s training session, which lasted almost 2 ½ hot, humid hours.

“And if you do that consistently and if you commit yourself to learning about each other and how we are going to play this specific game, you give yourself a better chance of winning a World Cup, and for me that’s all I care about. That’s my focus and every single game does matter, no matter who we are playing, or how many times in a row we are playing them.”

Wambach is team-first — always. But the individual brilliance can’t be ignored. She is, of course, two goals away from tying Mia Hamm’s all-time international goal scoring record of 158. Wambach drew one closer on Saturday with a goal from the penalty spot in the final of 45-plus minutes. She’s likely to start on Thursday at Red Bull Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra), in no small part to help get on with the talk about her chase of the record.

“Of course I would love for it to be over and done with at some point. You never know what could happen – I’m an older player,” Wambach said, acknowledging, as always, that she has to earn time in the lineup first.

“I’ll be glad when it’s over so we can all stop talking about it and move on to 2015.”

U.S. coach Tom Sermanni agrees that it would be good to end the hype and hone in on putting together a “focused” 90-minute team effort.

“It would be nice to kind of get it out of the way, because it’s one of those constant things that’s now been talked about for six months – a long time,” Sermanni said. “So it would be good to get it out of the way, get it off the table and focus on going forward.”

If Wambach doesn’t tie or break the record – something very possible against a Korea Republic team that proved shaky in the back on Saturday – she’ll have to wait until September. The national team will take a break until the National Women’s Soccer League season ends on August 31.

She’ll certainly get her chances, though. Sermanni says that “if she feels up to 90 minutes,” then she’ll play.

For club and country

Sermanni will likely make several changes to the starting lineup that played against the same opponent six nights earlier. Part of that comes with managing a team based primarily on NWSL players. Sermanni is well aware of the full weekend ahead of league play, including the Portland Thorns FC-Sky Blue FC matchup. Both teams are tied for first with identical 8-2-1 records.

While Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said he has had dialogue with Sermanni to get an idea of how Thursday may play out, Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone says she hasn’t contacted the U.S. skipper, “and that’s by design.”

Combine Sermanni’s awareness of Saturday’s match just down the Garden State Parkway (which Thorns forward Alex Morgan could be available for) with his noting how Sydney Leroux has been “on fire” in training and Leroux could line up next to Wambach to start Thursday’s match.

Hope Solo is likely to start in net, but won’t play the full 90 minutes.

Thursday will also mark the first time Megan Rapinoe has played on U.S. soil professionally or internationally since Feb. 13, when she scored in a 3-1 win over Scotland.