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The Lowdown: US stars make difference on field

Becky Sauerbrunn and her U.S. teammates returned for a thrilling match in Kansas City on Monday. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Becky Sauerbrunn and her U.S. teammates returned for a thrilling match in Kansas City on Monday. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

It’s Monday night in Kansas City, and FC Kansas City and the Houston Dash are locked in a 1-1 tie.  As the clock passed 90 minutes, a minor battle broke out near FC Kansas City’s defensive goal box. Carli Lloyd had the ball with only Becky Sauerbrunn separating her from a chance to shoot for the match-winner. It was the Golden Ball winner from the World Cup going up against the player many thought should have been at least a finalist, Becky Sauerbrunn.

Lloyd cut inside hoping to draw Sauerbrunn out of position to exploit the space to the outside, but the two-time NWSL Defender of the Year was undaunted though. Sauerbrunn hung with Lloyd and managed to knock the ball away. It rolled into space to the offensive right of the box.

The skirmish was only just beginning. Both players made their way to collect the ball, battling shoulder to shoulder until both were on the ground. Eventually Lloyd was whistled for a foul. It was the sort of challenge that almost always gets called against the attacking player, but it was really more of a stalemate between two of the key cogs in the United States’ World Cup win.

The match, too, ended in a stalemate, 1-1. But not before Amy Rodriguez, in the 94th minute, hustled back to dispossess Morgan Brian as she tried to settled a clearance near the top of the penalty box. Yes, in the first NWSL match fully replete with U.S. World Cup regulars, they did not disappoint.

Prior to the match, FC Kansas City presented all seven members of the winning U.S. squad—four from FCKC and three from the Dash—with commemorative soccer balls, and then all seven started in front of an overflow crowd at Swope Soccer Village.

It was a welcome site for fans of the league which endured two weeks of uncertainty surrounding the status of the 22 players trying to make the transition from World Cup to domestic league. Two days earlier, the Spirit hosted the Reign in front of a club record crowd, but Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris were not available for the home side and Megan Rapinoe did not travel for the visitors (Hope Solo is injured but presumably would not have traveled either.)

The days following the World Cup were a whirlwind for the players. They went to Los Angeles for a victory rally and then to New York to ride on floats in a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes. And then it was back to Los Angeles, where they took down the ESPY for best team performance of the year. It was everything and more for the team and its fans in the wake of snapping a frustrating run of three World Cups without winning one. But the smaller swath of supporters with NWSL loyalties grew frustrated as the players made appearance after appearance with little or no mention of the league even as ticket sales boomed off the World Cup.

The criticisms were fair up to a point. NWSL is on reasonable ground but long-term survival remains less than a sure thing. Many of the World Cup players are its biggest, most recognizable and marketable stars. Any little bit of promotion helps. At the same time, the team was celebrating a World Cup win and had every right to celebrate it the way they saw fit. More disturbing—at least to me—is that the players sat out en masse the weekend after the World Cup. All of the home players—and many visiting players—showed up to matches for media and autograph but none were available to play (the Red Stars listed Julie Johnston on their bench in Houston but she did not wear her cleats.)

The players began to trickle back on Saturday when Alyssa Naeher started for the Breakers, and Lori Chalupny started for the Chicago Red Stars, with Shannon Boxx coming off the bench. The next day, Kelley O’Hara and Chrstie Rampone started for Sky Blue against Whitney Engen for the Flash.

The impact was instant. O’Hara was Sky Blue’s best player. She started—much to the dismay of Sky Blue fans everywhere—at left back and pushed extremely high against inexperienced Flash right back Abby Dahlkemper. When Lindsi Cutshall was forced off near halftime, positions were rotated and O’Hara spent the rest of the day in midfield. Her presence was a big reason Sky Blue finally scored multiple goals.

In Kansas City, Sauerbrunn was her usual fabulous self in central defense and midfielders Lauren Holiday and Heather O’Reilly helped the Blues’ attack turn dynamic again, even if they did not produce the goals to prove it. Lloyd scored on a free kick for the Dash and combined with Brian to make the midfield as dangerous as it has been since—well, since the last time Lloyd and Brian were there.

The takeaway is that the U.S. national team players are the best in NWSL. They make the league better. They may not be collectively shouting about it from the highest mountain tops, but ultimately they make a difference.

The hope, of course, is that the 2015 World Cup will one day be viewed as the tipping point that the swung professional women’s soccer from fleeting to perpetual. It cannot happen without hard work from the best players the U.S. has to offer plus some from other countries. But the work on the field can be just as important as the work off of it.

Week 14 Takeaways

Sky Blue break the hex: We’re as tired of writing it as you are of hearing it. Sky Blue FC had not scored more than one goal in any match this season. That streak is finally over at a league record 12 (14 dating back to last season) games. Ironically enough, it took an own goal to snap the jinx in the 60th minute on Sunday at Western New York. Six minutes later, another unlikely source made it three goals on the day. A corner kick bounced through the Flash’s six-yard box and Christie Rampone marched in unmarked and finished it off. Unfortunately for Sky Blue, they had fallen behind in the 2nd minute and were down 2-0 in the 24th. So the goal explosion was only good for a 3-3 draw. That leaves them seven points behind the last playoff spot with seven matches to play and five teams to leapfrog.

Reign struggle: It was bound to happen sooner to later. The Reign not only lost, they were more or less run off the park by the Spirit. They had not trailed by two goals in a regular season match since August 2013, and that was probably the last time they played out a stoppage time without at least a chance of winning. It seems too simple to peg the performance on not having Kendall Fletcher, who has been a rock on defense since joining the club in 2014. And while the return of Megan Rapinoe this week will add some needed width to the attack, the loss did snap an eight-match unbeaten run that happened entirely without Rapinoe. The biggest concern for the Reign should be their form outside Seattle, where they are just 1-3-2 this season. It is hardly time to panic, however. FC Kansas City lost, 7-1 to the Thorns last summer and not only won the championship but went through the Thorns in the semifinals. Speaking of which, the Reign play the Thorns in a home-and-home beginning Wednesday night. A league record crowd is anticipated for the opening leg at Providence Park.

Can Flash shape up defensively? The Flash have surrendered seven goals over their last two matches and have been particularly woeful on set pieces during those matches. This week they welcomed back Whitney Engen, which forced the hand of coach Aaran Lines to break up the center back pairing of Brittany Taylor and Abby Dahlkemper. Rather than push Dahlkemper back into midfield, Lines moved her to right back while Taylor and Engen played center back. This could be a temporary move while the Flash wait for regular right back Kristen Edmonds to get healthy. The situation represents an issue, though, because all three appear best suited to play central defense. Could the logjam ultimately lead to Taylor being moved during the offseason? Whatever the long-term solution, the Flash cannot possibly make the playoffs unless they start communicating better defensively and cease allowing soft goals.

A note on the Spirit webcast

About an hour before kickoff on Saturday, the Spirit announced that an internet failure at Maryland SoccerPlex the match would not be livestreamed. It was the second such announcement this season after the May 16 match against Sky Blue was not shown live. The news was quickly met with the predictable backlash. Everything from NWSL being a Mickey Mouse league to the Spirit not having a single competent employee reigned down from Twitter accounts.

All was not lost, though. Thanks to an enterprising fan at the Plex and some teamwork, a lower quality version of the stream was able to go live a little more than 15 minutes into the match.

“The primary internet connection failed and our internet provide could not send a technician in time for the game,” the Spirit said in a statement. “The team secured a workable back up solution just before the game began, which allowed for a much lower quality stream. We were able to make take the stream live about 20 minutes into the game.”

The individual that spearheaded the effort was reached by The Equalizer but preferred not to be mentioned by name. It was confirmed, though, that the connection was made via Periscope. The Spirit say they will have a backup plan in place for future home matches to prevent a similar issue. The club also confirmed that the issue that kept the May 16 from being livestreamed was different from the Saturday’s Internet outage.

Attendance

Last week’s attendance numbers:
-Spirit (Saturday) — 5,413 (club record and higher than any Washington Freedom WPS match at the SoccerPlex)
-Red Stars (Saturday) — 3,560 (largest crowd ever for the Red Stars at Benedictine)
-Flash (Sunday) — 3,161 (season high)
-Kansas City (Monday) — 3,557 (season high for Swope Soccer Village)

2015 Attendance                Average                                   Post World Cup Average
1. Portland Thorns FC                13,769                                                                                     —
2. Houston Dash                           5,852                                                                            13,025
3. Chicago Red Stars                    5,097-a                                                                          3,560
4. Washington Spirit                    3,423                                                                              5,413
5. FC Kansas City                          3,338-b                                                                          3,557
6. Seattle Reign FC                       3,174                                                                               5,778
7. Boston Breakers                       2,395                                                                              2,525
8. Western New York Flash       2,306                                                                              3,161
9. Sky Blue FC                               1,584                                                                              3,014

League Average                       4,499-c                                                                          5,004-c

a-includes one doubleheader with the Chicago Fire (16,017) at Toyota Park; Benedictine average is 2,367
b-includes one match at Sporting Park; Swope average is 2,308
c-post World Cup total does not include any Thorns home matches; total average without Thorns games is 3,340

Free Kicks

Direct

— Sydney Leroux will undergo ankle surgery and miss the remainder of the NWSL season. She could return this fall for the end of the United States national team’s victory tour.

— The Flash moved to fill the Leroux void by signing Colombian Lady Andrade. The 23-year-old scored twice at the World Cup including the game-winner in Colombia’s only win—a monumental upset over France. She later made headlines for saying Colombia would beat the United States in the Round of 16 (they lost 2-0) and she punched Abby Wambach in the face during a 2012 Olympic group match.

— Also on the surgeons’ table is Alex Morgan. She underwent minor knee surgery last week and is expected to be out up to three weeks.

— Hope Solo also has a knee injury but has not had surgery. She is being evaluated on a game-to-game basis.

— Jen Buczkowski has now started all 59 of FC Kansas City’s regular season matches plus their three playoff matches.

— Through the first 58 of those matches, one thing Buczkowski had never experienced was a come-from-behind point. Until Monday, FC Kansas City were 0-19-0 (playoffs included) in any game they had trailed in at any point.

— Lindsi Cutshall has concussion symptoms. Her status for Saturday will not be known until later in the week.

— On the expansion front, the league has not ruled out 2016, but says it will likely take a group with existing infrastructure. And Orlando City SC says they are keeping options open but did not specifically mention an NWSL side.

— To put into perspective Sky Blue’s streak of 12 straight games without scoring two goals—and 14 including the last two games of 2014—there have only been two other streaks longer than six in NWSL. The Spirit went 10 straight games (and 15 or 16) in 2013 and the Dash finished 2014 on a streak of eight such contests. Only two teams are currently on a streak longer than one match—the Breakers and Dash with three.

Indirect

— Left back is often the toughest position on the pitch to fill, but rookies Jaelene Hinkle of the Flash and Arin Gilliland of the Red Stars look to have bright futures at the position. They are both more than comfortable going into the attack and both like to cut central. That is where Hinkle scored her first pro goal from on Sunday against Sky Blue.

— If I were Jim Gabarra the next time I would start Kelley O’Hara at left back would be never.

— Get ready for the next round of NWSL debating. It will be about whether the World Cup players who missed approximately half the season have done enough to warrant consideration for year end awards.

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