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The Lowdown: The latest from Week 17

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Following a midseason crunch in the standings, the NWSL playoff race crystallized a bit during Week 17. The Spirit became the first to officially clinch and maintained control of the Shield race. And the Thorns got well against the Breakers on a Nadia Nadim hat trick and are ever so close to hosting a playoff match at Providence Park for the first time.

Meanwhile the Pride dropped their fifth straight to officially put their playoff hopes to bed while the clock in New Jersey may have struck midnight on Sky Blue when they could not hold an early lead in Kansas City. They are teetering in the brink of elimination as are Kansas City and the Dash.

But the most significant result of the weekend came in Chicago where the Red Stars remained unbeaten in regular season play at Toyota Park despite falling behind the Reign 2-0 inside of 10 minutes. The home side’s comeback for a 2-2 draw was punctuated by a Christen Press penalty, her first go at it from the spot since missing what turned out to be the decisive kick in the U.S. Olympic quarterfinal loss to Sweden.

With the draw the Red Stars remained in third place and remained five points clear of the Reign in terms of safety. That is a pretty good cushion with three games to play. The Reign meanwhile continue to find ways not to string together the sort of consistent results and performances that dotted their consecutive Shields the last two years. They now sit four points behind the Flash with three to play and the Flash play two of those against the Breakers in Boston.

Ah yes the Breakers. The last-place Breakers entered the week with momentum on their side for the first time in, well, a long time, but were dreadful at home against the Dash on Wednesday and showed only brief glimpses in an overall poor showing in Portland on the weekend. The Breakers now need to run the table and hope the Pride lose their three games to avoid a second straight season as bottom dwellers. (They could finish 9th if they win three and the Pride draw one, but considering the first tiebreaker to play will be goal difference and the Pride are currently +18 to the Breakers, that does not seem plausible.)

Overall, Week 17 offered some things to like, some things to dislike, and a few more off-the-field stories worth mentioning. Here goes:

Lauren Holiday

It seems Lauren Holiday preferred to keep her health issue private. But her husband Jrue plays for the New Orleans Pelicans and they announced over the weekend that he will miss the start of the NBA season to be with Lauren. The reason is that Holiday, who is pregnant, has been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and will undergo surgery to remove it sometime after delivery.

Holiday is due in October but the original story on nola.com suggests doctors might try to induce early to expedite the surgery. The 28-year old is no stranger to delicate operations. A congenital heart defect forced her into open heart surgery at age 3 from which she made a recovery to become an Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion, NWSL champion and the league’s inaugural Most Valuable Player.

She retired from soccer at the end of 2015 after winning the World Cup and NWSL.

It did not come across great on the live stream, but there was a touching moment during FC Kansas City’s win over Sky Blue. When the clock struck 12 minutes–the number Holiday wore on her back–the club’s supporters’ group The Blue Crew spent the entire minute chanting her name. Traveling members of Cloud 9, the supporters’ group for Sky Blue, helped lead the chanting as well.

From everyone at The Equalizer to the Holidays, we wish Lauren and her family well.

Rapinoe stands on her knee

Megan Rapinoe’s knee has been in the news much of the summer, but few could have predicted the latest twist over the weekend. The same knee Rapinoe scrambled to rehab after a December ACL tear was on the ground throughout the duration of the National Anthem in Chicago on Sunday. She knelt during the Star Spangled Banner in a nod to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who sparked national outrage by sitting down during the anthem before a recent preseason game. He later amended his protest to kneeling and has been joined by teammates and at least one other NFL player.

The issues that Kaepernick and now Rapinoe are trying to highlight are of vital importance to society. Whether or not their methods are sound is open for debate. This being a soccer column, I’ll spare you my personal opinions which are far from relevant. However, I do applaud Megan Rapinoe for her willingness to use what platform she has to help further a national conversation about prickly issues. Sports are a great way to reach people who would otherwise never hear you. So agree or not, with either the methods or the message, two thumbs up from me to Rapinoe for doing it.

The national team plays again on September 15 which will be Heather O’Reilly’s final game for the U.S. Rapinoe says she will kneel that day too, if called up for the match.

The rise of Kealia Ohai

Several weeks ago this column focused on Kealia Ohai’s strong words following the Dash’s sixth straight 1-0 loss and subsequent performance helping her team break the streaks a week later. She has not looked back since.

The Dash played twice last week and Ohai scored two goals in both games. She hit the post going for a hat trick on Wednesday and had one saved in the six going for the hat trick on Saturday. In all she has nine goals this season, all in the last seven matches. That’s good enough to put Ohai out front in the golden boot race which is remarkable considering the first game she played in July came and went without her having scored at all.

Originally the second pick in the 2014 draft, Ohai enjoyed a strong rookie season but did not move forward in 2015 and her slow start to 2016 was illuminated when she snubbed Dash coach Randy Waldrum after being removed from a match. (In the above referenced Lowdown Ohai said she should have shaken Waldrum’s hand but that she would not apologize for being competitive. Their relationship appears to be on steady ground.)

During the run Ohai has shown an ability to score from multiple areas of the field as well as involve her teammates. She has also been one of the hardest working players in the league including a revival of her two-way tenacity. A call-up to the national team can’t be far behind – or can it?

pressed into service

As I mentioned the Red Stars rally was finished off when Christen Press nailed a penalty. I’ll let John D Halloran help out again.

The thing about missing a penalty is that you never know when the next chance will present itself. When a closer blows a save or a kicker misses a field goal, the opportunity to get back on the horse is often just around the corner. This was a great job by Press and Rory Dames to kick this story to the curb as quickly as possible. And while no NWSL playoff game has ever been decided by penalties it’s only a matter of time until one is.

breakers revert to old ways

Last week the Breakers were riding a two-game winning streak and looked poised to finish the season strong. And then Wednesday happened. Less than five minutes into their Wednesday home match against the Dash, a lazy pass out of the back allowed the Dash to take an early lead. By the end of the weekend the Breakers had been outscored 8-2 with both of their goals coming in the waning minutes of blowout losses.

The Breakers were eliminated from playoff contention before the Olympic break and had a chance to build an identity to take into an offseason in which they could hold as many as five of the first 15 picks in the NWSL draft. Natasha Dowie has shown she can play in NWSL, but beyond that the Breakers have reverted to the habits that had them on the bottom of the table throughout the season.

There is certainly a chance for Matt Beard to put together a competitive club for 2017 but there will be precious little in terms of positives to take into the offseason.

Miscellany

-I did not watch enough of the weekend action to make a credible vote for Player of the Week, but figured Ohai would win it even though Nadia Nadim scored a hat trick.

-That hat trick made Nadim the first player with two in NWSL and of course the first to do so for different clubs. She did it for Sky Blue in Houston in 2014.

-Wednesday could go a long way toward determining playoff teams. Scenarios exist in which the Spirit could win the Shield, the Thorns, Flash, and Red Stars could clinch the remaining spots, and the Breakers could wrap up last place. The Thorns can also clinch a home semifinal but it would take a Red Stars loss so that cannot happen at the same time all of the spots get clinched.

-Speaking of the Red Stars their home game against FC Kansas City will be on FS1, the first of three regular season matches to be aired nationally. FC Kansas City will officially miss the playoffs for the first time if they won’t win or if the Flash get a point in Boston. The three playoff games will also be on FS1.

-The NWSL Championship has been set for a 5 p.m. EDT kickoff on Sunday, October 9 at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.

-The golden boot race is going down to the wire. Ohai leads with 9 followed by Nadim and Lynn Williams on 8. Jessica McDonald has 7 and the trio at 6 includes Press, Shea Groom, and Manon Melis. Any of these players are capable of putting up large numbers over the course of the final three games.

-John D Halloran whose tweets are embedded above, is an occasional contributor to The Equalizer However his coverage of Rapinoe and Press is attributed to americansoccernow.com Check out John’s work there.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 17 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

WEDNESDAY
Boston Breakers – 3,762

SATURDAY
Washington Spirit – 4,527
Houston Dash – 6,819

SUNDAY
Chicago Red Stars – 3,355
Portland Thorns FC – 17,152
FC Kansas City – 2,414

WEEK 17 TOTAL: 38,029
WEEK 16 AVERAGE: 6,338

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,819 (8 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 8 games: 14,923

2. Orlando Pride — 9,201 (8 games)

3. Houston Dash – 5,651 (8 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 8 games: 5,969

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,586 (9 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 9 games: 3,984

5. Western New York Flash – 3,868 (10 games)
2015 average: 2,860

6. Washington Spirit – 3,864 (9 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 9 games – 3,906

7. Boston Breakers – 3,780 (8 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 8 games: 2,521

8. FC Kansas City – 3,258 (9 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 9 games: 3,158

9. Chicago Red Stars – 3,033 (8 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 8 games: 4,180 (includes doubleheader with Fire with announced attendance of 16,017)

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,973 (8 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 8 games: 1,840

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