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NWSL Week in Review: League Should Not Get Complacent

Tori Huster (on ground in red) and Jess McDonald battle on opening day 2017.  Arielle Shipp looks on. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)
Tori Huster (on ground in red) and Jess McDonald battle on opening day 2017. Arielle Shipp looks on. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Tori Huster (on ground in red) and Jess McDonald battle on opening day 2017. Arielle Shipp looks on. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

On this Easter holiday, the women’s soccer community is certainly thankful to have a professional league, one that appears to be stable and in little danger of collapsing rapidly as its two predecessors did, painful memories we’d rather not relive here.

The NWSL not only has the benefit of USSF backing, but now a new collective bargaining agreement that – while not directly involved with the league as a whole – offers more stability and a prophecy (complete with rising salaries for non-USWNT players) that the NWSL need not worry about its very existence for the near future at least. A three-year television contract with the Lifetime Network for a game on national television every week adds to that, what did we call it? Stability? How nice is it to see that word in print as it relates to a women’s pro soccer league, so much so that I’ll throw it in one more time for you: Stability.

However, just because things are improved doesn’t mean we have to let the word complacency set in as NWSL embarks on its fifth season. Like the athletes who have sacrificed so much to play in the league, it must continue to improve, push boundaries, and keep going forward. Most importantly, settling for mediocrity or sloppiness in the name of “being happy to be here” is not how the NWSL came to exist in the first place, is it?

Ten weeks after the deal with Lifetime (which, despite a few expected bobbles, did a solid job in its debut between Orlando and Portland) and 48 hours before the 2017 season was to begin, fans had no idea how to watch the non-Lifetime matches, which happen to comprise 80 percent of its product. We had promises that they would be available and free, but other than that? Nothing, except that they probably weren’t returning to YouTube or going to a platform like WatchESPN or FoxSportsGo.

All of that is perfectly understandable. YouTube was great for a fledgling league, but the quality of the broadcasts varied wildly from professional to Wayne’s World-esque (Google it, kids), not to mention trying to grab revenue. Taking a chance on a vested partner like Lifetime is a bold, but rational decision, rather than fighting for scraps on ESPN or FOX. The downside is, though, that you won’t have the benefit of being on their streaming packages, either, which are widely accessible to virtually all and professionally done. But at what cost?

How does a professional league have zero public plan for how its games are to be broadcast in 2017 as the season is ready to begin? There might yet be a good answer for such a query, but we haven’t heard it. As we know by now (hopefully), the answer was Go90, a Verizon-based service that was reported as “pretty much dead” just two months ago.

Who? What?

Apparently, it had been somewhat popular with young girls, targeting 12-24 year-olds with some low-budget original programming (led by something called AwesomenessTV), and it had broadcast live soccer before, picking up La Liga rights among others for its service.

But the bigger problem was not how they were, but where they were showing the games. Not only are the matches no longer on YouTube, but not on the web, at least not without hooking up a Google Chromecast or Apple TV (which cost money). So most of us were left with downloading Go90 (NWSL finally threw its app out there Friday night, but only for IOS, not for Android) on our phones.

While the quality of picture was slightly better and the broadcasts professional, not having announcers at the game led to misidentifying players throughout, not knowing when substitutions were made (or why, we still don’t know why Arin Gilliland was withdrawn at halftime for Chicago), and missing basic details like Christie Rampone now being Christie Pearce. The Boston-Kansas City match was repeatedly interrupted in the first half by a blank screen, which was reminiscent of issues with YouTube in the past.

Perhaps more importantly, there is currently no way to toggle through the broadcasts as you could on YouTube, even on replay. There is a button that indicates as much, but it doesn’t work yet, unfortunately. This was one of the best features of MLS Live in its early days and what made YouTube somewhat tolerable and now it appears to be gone.

Some of these bugs may be worked out as the season progresses, and it’s understandable to have problems with a brand new undertaking, so I urge patience from NWSL fans like me who were frustrated this weekend. However, it’s also important for the league (who looks like it may be without a commissioner for a little while) to know that the main reason for dismay here is not with the new program, but how it was communicated. Had the league had a press conference a few weeks ago introducing Go90 and explaining thoroughly what it was and why the league felt it was necessary to go this route at this juncture, then it would be easier to swallow.

The way it was introduced last week – haphazardly and without any clarification to accompany it – was poor and just because we’re overjoyed to have a relatively stable pro women’s soccer league in the United States doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be better.

And with that out of the way, what did we learn from a pretty interesting opening NWSL weekend?

SATURDAY

Houston 2:0 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: Chicago does plenty through Arin Gilliland and Casey Short getting forward from their defensive positions, but anytime you play like that, it does leave space behind them. And the Dash certainly have the players in Kealia Ohai and Rachel Daly to exploit that and they did to great effect. That being said, if Stephanie McCaffrey (off a terrible giveaway) hits her 13th minute shot three inches to the left, the Red Stars lead and Ohai isn’t blowing past Julie Ertz at the other end 20 seconds late to put Houston ahead to stay. Small margins.

Rory Dames admitted post game that his team wilted in the Houston heat (those mid-summer afternoon games in Houston or Orlando are going to be outrageous), but he had some curious lineup choices, leaving Sofia Huerta out entirely, and then subbing Gilliland off at half (to be fair, Daly and Ohai were getting behind her at will on the counter). Christen Press played behind Jen Hoy and McCaffrey, and the scoreboard tells you about how well that worked.

Player of the Game: Rachel Daly – I don’t know too much about the England team headed to the Euros this summer, but they must be pretty darn good if Daly isn’t on it. In addition to her probable Goal of the Week, she worked tirelessly and ran Chicago’s defense all over the field. Daly and Ohai seem to have a good partnership going (Ohai has apparently taught her baseball goal celebrations, although Daly needs a little work on her pitching and swing).

Under the Radar: Amber Brooks – Brooks could be a key for the Dash this season in a holding midfield role, as she did an admirable job with Andressa and Denise O’Sullivan in keeping Chicago’s powerful midfield in check, and had the assist on the game-winning goal.

Inside the Numbers: 9 – Total number of fouls in the match, with 5 for Houston and 4 for Chicago. So it was a clean game to open the 2017 NWSL season.

Up next: Houston – at Seattle (Sat.); Chicago – vs. Kansas City (Sat.)

Portland 2:0 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: It was actually a very good start from the Pride until they got somewhat unlucky when Christine Sinclair’s little chip struck Alanna Kennedy’s hand 30 minutes into the match. Before that, a midfield of Kristen Edmonds, Dani Weatherholt, and Monica had held its own with the Thorns in Portland. Unfortunately, minutes after coming on as a sub, Maddie Evans was dispossessed in a terrible area by Allie Long, and then Long set Sinclair up with the second goal to finish things off.

Orlando should have Marta next week, and it will be interesting to see who she replaces. Camila probably won’t be her, she was the Pride’s most dangerous player. Tom Sermanni played Ali Krieger at center back, and – like Julie Ertz – she was beaten for pace a couple of times. There are still some concerns for the Thorns: Even with a clean sheet Adrianna Franch looked a bit shaky, and getting outshot 19-11 is not ideal, although shots can be misleading. Remember they played without Tobin Heath, of course.

Player of the Game: Christine Sinclair – In a week full of injuries, it looks like Sinclair (knock on a wood surface near you), who turns 34 in a couple months, is as healthy as she’s been in a long time, even running past Krieger for Portland’s second goal. If and when the Thorns get to full strength, having Sinclair there to both finish and set up goals will be invaluable to their title hopes.

Under the Radar: Dani Weatherholt – The Pride didn’t get enough from its midfield last season, and are still a bit hamstrung by everything they had to give up to get Alex Morgan. Weatherholt lasted until Round 4 of last season’s NWSL Draft, but put in what you would call a solid shift Saturday, not giving the Thorns time and space to start any assaults and getting involved in the attack as well. They will need performances like that all season long.

Inside the Numbers: 16,145 – Attendance Saturday for a noon kickoff in Portland. Nothing else needs to be said.

Up next: Portland – at North Carolina (Sat.); Orlando – vs. Washington (Sat.)

Washington 0:1 North Carolina (recap  |  Gordon)

What Went Down: Somehow, Paul Riley has put together a somewhat unique system based generally on pure athleticism and tenacity. And you can roll your eyes at that all you want (I did once), but it’s really amazing to pull that off at this level of play. They generally set up in a 4-4-2, but find a way to cover ground that no one else can. Washington has plenty of problems, but they were smothered throughout, unable to string a couple of passes together and under constant pressure, which is just tough to deal with mentally.

One game does not a season make, North Carolina (as Western New York) showed it’s hard to match that intensity every game, and they only scored one goal, although they missed several other chances. The Spirit look like they are going to lose Joanna Lohman for a long period of time, and drew only 2,400 for their opener, both of which are really bad signs going forward.

Player of the Game: Steph Labbe – Labbe apparently wanted out of Washington like several other players, but after Kelsey Wys tore her ACL in Australia, decided to stick it out. She officially made 8 saves, but at least half were of the spectacular variety as she kept the Spirit in the contest. While great for Labbe, for the Spirit to have its goalkeeper as a possible NWSL Player of the Week after a home loss is a sub-optimal way to begin the campaign.

Under the Radar: Debinha – Her signing didn’t get much hype, but it looks like she’ll fit right into the Courage system as a hard-worker with some quality to help Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams. Her finishing was a bit lacking on Saturday, but everything else was great.

Inside the Numbers: 8 – Number of shots from Lynn Williams in the opener, as she picked up where she left off last season. Alas, none of them went in, as McCall Zerboni scored the contest’s only goal.

Up next: Washington – at Orlando (Sat.); North Carolina – vs. Portland (Sat.)

Seattle 1:1 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: Life without Kim Little and Keelin Winters got off to a shaky start in the Reign’s opener, but they did get a point as Megan Rapinoe and Sarah Killion converted penalty kicks a couple minutes apart in the second half. Especially in the first half, Sky Blue (called “New Jersey” on the broadcast) dominated proceedings, led by Sam Kerr and Leah Galton running at the Seattle defense. Alas, they couldn’t find a goal.

The Reign played much better in the final 20 minutes with Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock doing their thing, but they didn’t get a lot of help, and that’s where Seattle may be in some trouble this season. We’re so used to the Reign just knocking the ball around, especially at home, but it’s probably not going to happen anymore and how they adjust will be interesting to watch.

Player of the Game: Sarah Killion – It’s easy to forget that Killion was the second overall pick in the 2015 draft (after Morgan Brian), and she looks like she may be ready to live up to that billing. She improved last season, and was the best player on either team in the midfield on Saturday, controlling play and stopping what attacks Seattle could muster. With Kerr, Galton, and Kelley O’Hara in attacking roles, getting the ball to them often should pay dividends.

Under the Radar: Megan Rapinoe – Rapinoe made more news off the field than on it last season, as you may remember she tore her ACL at the end of 2015 and did not play in NWSL before the Olympics. With Seattle missing the playoffs, Rapinoe’s 2016 season was over before it really started. But she looked healthy Saturday, and Seattle really needs her to be if they have any shot at getting back to the NWSL postseason.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of shots on goal Megan Rapinoe recorded Saturday, which leads NWSL through one round.

Up next: Seattle – vs. Houston (Sat.); Sky Blue – at Boston (Sun.)

SUNDAY

Kansas City 2:0 Boston (recap  |  Scoby)

What Went Down: Everything was just about perfect for FCKC until early in the second half, when – just after scoring her first NWSL goal in two years – Amy Rodriguez went down with a non-contact left knee injury. There won’t be an official diagnosis until Monday and everyone hopes for the best, but her and the team’s reaction indicate that this probably will be something serious. Which is a huge shame, because Sydney Leroux had already scored and FCKC looked like the two-time defending champs they were before they were decimated a year ago. We’ll see what it means long-term, but it sucked all the life out of this game.

Boston was not good, by any means, and getting blanked may give fans flashbacks to last season, but there were some signs of hope as Rose Lavelle showed flashes of brilliance and Tiffany Weimer came off the bench to create a few chances that Nicole Barnhart (who wasn’t NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year last season) was equal to. Matt Beard did not start Morgan Andrews or Ifeoma Onumonu (and put Midge Purce at right back), so a decision will probably have to be made at some point to just play the rookies. But that’s why he’s coaching and I’m not.

Player of the Game: Amy Rodriguez – Before the injury, A-Rod looked like A-Rod, coming back into the midfield to start attacks, including the one she ended up scoring on, playing a beautiful ball to Shea Groom before getting on the end of her cross. She had matured plenty as a player since entering the league and a Groom-Rodriguez-Leroux front line with Vlatko Andonovski coaching might have been unstoppable. Now we just have to wait.

Under the Radar: Becky Sauerbrunn – Yeah, you can probably do this every game, but if you ever get the chance, just watch her for 90 minutes. When Boston threatened, Sauerbrunn – as she always does – seemed to be in the right place.

Inside the Numbers: 7 – Number of minutes it took for Sydney Leroux to score in her season debut, her first NWSL game since 2015 (like Rodriguez) as well.

Up next: Kansas City – at Chicago (Sat.); Boston – vs. Sky Blue (Sun.)

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