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NWSL Week 2 Preview: Lace up your boots tightly

Poor defenses, outstanding goalkeeping, heartbreaking injuries, and Sportscenter Top 10 goals – we’ve seen it all, and it’s only been five games! Well, lace your boots tightly, because with a semifinal rematch, a budding rivalry, and the arrival of an international superstar, the next five promise even more. It’s Week 2 of the NWSL.

Game of the Week

Christine Sinclair scored the first of three Thorns' goals on the night. They were not enough though, in a 4-3 loss to the Flash (photo: Portland Thorns FC)

Christine Sinclair is in goal-scoring form. (photo: Portland Thorns FC)

Portland Thorns FC (1-0-0) at North Carolina Courage (1-0-0)

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Thorns lead, 5-2-3 (plus 1-1-0 in playoffs)
In North Carolina: first meeting
Last meeting: October 2, 2016; 4-3 Flash

You won’t meet many people who’ll disagree that the semifinal between these two teams last year was one of the most exciting games in the history of the NWSL. While no one anticipates seven goals again, you should expect a physical, end-to-end battle. It’s the very first home game for the North Carolina Courage, and the pressure of not only that but being reigning champions is there. They retained the majority of their championship squad, and their most notable addition looks to be Debinha, who was everywhere last Saturday. She’s a quick and dynamic upgrade to a quick and dynamic side. Their speed proved problematic for the Thorns last time around, and there’s no reason to think it won’t again, particularly on the flanks.

The Thorns are already at a disadvantage without their best player in Tobin Heath, and Adrianna Franch didn’t exactly put on the most inspiring performance in goal last week. However, Christine Sinclair repeatedly put herself into dangerous positions, and when Allie Long was moved higher in the midfield, the two kept Orlando’s defense in peril. Along with Lindsey Horan and Nadia Nadim, they should be able to put the Courage backline to a test it wasn’t subjected to last week against the Spirit. Keeping possession of the ball will be crucial, as the Courage are so devastating on the counterattack.

Players to Watch:

Samantha Mewis

Mewis is rising up the ranks of the best American midfielders, and she is the glue on the Courage. Whether breaking up the opponent in the center of the pitch or creating chances with her increasingly impressive vision and passing, she is the key, particularly against a Thorns midfield that’s one of the best in the game. Look for her to hold her own in the center of the pitch.

Emily Menges

Officially, Franch registered nine saves on Saturday, surprising to anyone who watched Orlando’s puttering offense. Stephanie Labbé recorded eight against the Courage, and it’s up to Menges to organize her defense into not letting North Carolina get that many looks again, or it could be painful. Her stellar season last year was one of the key parts in the Thorns’ run to the Shield.

Keep an eye on:

  • Paul Riley, coaching the Courage for the first time
  • The positioning of Long and Amandine Henry

***

Washington Spirit (0-1-0) at Orlando Pride

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Spirit lead, 2-0-0
In Orlando: Spirit lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: August 26, 2016; 2-1 Spirit

Steph Catley (right) is out for the rest of the NWSL season. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Steph Catley (right) looks to play a big role on both sides of the field for Orlando. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

It’s Orlando’s first game in their new stadium, and potentially their first with Marta. They’ve devoted significant resources to marketing their opener, and whether or not they sell out, it’s time for them to match expectations on the field. While their new-yet-lauded defense didn’t quite live up to expectations last week, they should build chemistry with time, and it was the offense (or lack thereof) that’s a cause for concern. Their best chances came from long balls launched by Ali Krieger or Steph Catley, and despite several clear opportunities, no one could find the back of the net.

Fortunately for the Pride, if Washington plays as they did against North Carolina, that may be enough. The Spirit looked disorganized, lost both Joanna Lohman and Cheyna Williams to injury, and had only one real bright spot in an outstanding performance by Stephanie Labbé between the posts. Going forward, the Spirit need to utilize players like Kristie Mewis to bring width to the attack, which could be particularly effective if Jamia Fields returns at outside back for Orlando. If Marta is on the pitch, it will be up to Shelina Zadorsky to anchor the backline against one of the best players in the world. No small task (but Orlando still has to get the ball to her).

Keep an eye on:

  • Orlando’s attendance numbers as they aim for a new league record
  • Line Sigvardsen Jensen, who may find increased playing time without Lohman

{Read more: Keepers are doing it for themselves | How was your Go90 experience?}

***

FC Kansas City (1-0-0) at Chicago Red Stars (0-1-0)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 5-4-4 (plus FC Kansas City, 1-0-0 in playoffs)
In Chicago: FC Kansas City lead, 3-2-2 (including playoffs)
Last meeting: September 11, 2016; 0-0 draw

Shea Groom (left) will have the luxury of playing with Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux this season (photo copyright EriMac Photo for Equalizer Soccer)

Shea Groom (left) needs to form a partnership with Sydney Leroux. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for Equalizer Soccer)

Let’s just get it over with – Amy Rodriguez is out for the season. It’s a blow even with Sydney Leroux back and in goal-scoring form. With Mandy Laddish and Desiree Scott out for a time as well, it looks as though FCKC are going to struggle with injuries off the bat. That said, there was still plenty of encouragement to be found last week. Christina Gibbons hardly looked like a rookie, and on the opposite side, Katie Bowen could provide the engine in the spot vacated by Heather O’Reilly. FCKC likes to play their game, and it’s ball on the ground, possession-based soccer. They may not have all their players on hand, but they have enough to aim for a return to championship ways.

Who else likes to play through the midfield? The Chicago Red Stars. They didn’t make it out of Houston with any points, but they looked the better side for the majority of the time. Their defense did struggle with the speed of the Dash, and Leroux can run at a backline with the best of them, so Alyssa Naeher needs to be ready for action. However, Chicago’s biggest hurdle remains their attack. Either Christen Press scores the goals, or she creates the goals. Rarely can anyone do both for any length of time, especially facing two players who can read the game like Becky Sauerbrunn and Yael Averbuch. With Rory Dames seeming to prefer Press in the attacking midfield role, Stephanie McCaffrey needs to step up. The Red Stars also have a stronger midfield, so they would do well to clog up the center of the park. It’ll be a tactical battle at Toyota Park.

Keep an eye on:

  • Chemistry between Leroux and Shea Groom
  • Chicago’s right back

***

Houston Dash (1-0-0) at Seattle Reign FC (0-0-1)

Saturday, 10 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 7-0-0
In Seattle: Reign lead, 4-0-0
Last meeting: September 25, 2016; 3-2 Reign

(Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

(Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

The Dash have never beaten the Reign. Ever. In their last meeting, Houston was up by two at home only to give up three unanswered goals, and three points, in the second half. They’re looking to change that narrative and build on last week’s momentum, but they’ll have to do so at Memorial Stadium, which, though not quite the fortress it used to be, is still formidable. The speed of Houston’s attack is their most valuable weapon, particularly against a Reign defense that was easily pulled out of shape by Sky Blue. Look for them to try to catch Seattle in transition, but they’ll have to do so without their most technically skilled player, Andressa, who is out with a hamstring strain. Last week, goalkeeper Lydia Williams praised her backline for staying strong, and for the Dash to have success, they have to prove they can do so consistently.

Seattle salvaged a point from Sky Blue on the hands of Haley Kopmeyer last week but was otherwise outplayed. They’ll want to use Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi out wide to stretch Houston’s defense and see if they can’t test the still-tenuous partnership of Bruna Benites and Janine Van Wyk, and allowing Jess Fishlock to pop up in the box as she has a habit of doing. Christine Nairn was largely invisible in her Reign return and needs to be much more effective in moving the ball up the pitch as well as performing defensive duties.

Keep an eye on:

  • Merritt Mathias and her propensity for giving up penalties
  • Amber Brooks, so good at restarting the attack

***

Sky Blue FC (0-0-1) at Boston Breakers (0-1-0)

Sunday, 4 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 6-2-3
In Boston: tied, 2-2-1
Last meeting: July 17, 2016; 3-2 Sky Blue

Abby Smith (gray jersey) had her rookie season cut short by a torn patella tendon. She will undergo surgery (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Abby Smith (gray jersey) looked strong coming back from injury. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

The redesigned Breakers didn’t exactly impress in Kansas City last week, but they did grow into the game as it went on and generated some attacks that a lesser goalkeeper than Nicole Barnhart wouldn’t have stopped. With so many new faces on the pitch, it’s going to take time for cohesion to develop. Two players need to see the ball more often for Boston right away: Natasha Dowie and Rose Lavelle. Dowie was dynamic late last year and can create as well as score. Lavelle proved herself against the best international teams in the world, and although her NWSL debut was underwhelming, the talent is still there. They want to do their best to stay on the attack, because they’re probably outmatched at the other end of the field.

Sky Blue is likely hungry for victory after being single-handedly (literally, at times) robbed of two points by Haley Kopmeyer last week. They rival North Carolina and Houston in having one of the fastest attacks in the league, and given the struggles Boston had keeping a defensive shape against Kansas City, they should be relentless with their press. With Raquel Rodriguez distributing to the three-pronged attack of Sam Kerr, Leah Galton, and Kelley O’Hara, Sky Blue’s offense is potent enough to make up for any weaknesses they may have in their mostly-young defense.

Keep an eye on:

  • Abby Smith, who showed glimpses of a return to a potentially-national team form
  • Daphne Corboz, who got curiously few minutes for such an applauded signing

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