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NWSL Week 3 Preview: It’s Anyone’s Guess

Casey Short was great for the Chicago Red Stars. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Some teams saw drastic changes in play from Week 1 to Week 2, for better or for worse. Only one remains unbeaten, while another is coming off its worst defeat ever. Chemistry is developing and lineups are still being tweaked, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what awaits us in NWSL Week 3.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Casey Short was great for the Chicago Red Stars. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Look for a fun matchup between Casey Short and Nadia Nadim. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Chicago Red Stars (1-1-0) at Portland Thorns (1-1-0)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 4-1-6
In Portland: Thorns lead, 2-1-2
Last meeting: June 22, 2016; 2-0 Thorns

The Red Stars’ only win over the Thorns was their first NWSL win in franchise history, but Portland has stymied them since. The two clubs topped nearly every early playoff prediction, so we could be getting a preview of things to come. Portland returns to their home stronghold after a loss at North Carolina in which they were held to both the fewest shots and lowest passing accuracy of any team last week, the second of which is particularly surprising. With two strong midfields, expect this game to be battled in the middle of the park. The Thorns would do well to build their attack up the flanks as they so often do, given that it’s a weak point for the Red Stars, but look for Christine Sinclair to attempt to split the central defensive pairing of Katie Naughton and Sam Johnson, which is less experienced than the Julie Ertz-Johnson partnership. Adrianna Franch’s uneven distribution could prove fatal against the speed and capability of Christen Press, so her defense may want to consider avoiding a high line.

Rory Dames surprised everyone – including Kansas City – last week when he moved Ertz from center back to attacking midfielder. Although questions remain about the long-term viability of both that move and the resulting switch on central defense, it was effective against FCKC, pushing Sofia Huerta and Vanessa DiBernardo out to provide much-needed width in the attack. Ertz was a midfielder in college and performed well, but to do so facing Amandine Henry is a much taller order. Look for Dames to continue to tinker in attempt to keep Press up top, as Chicago’s success relies on her (perhaps too much).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Nadia Nadim

Nadim is dynamic for the Thorns from a wide role whether she’s delivering service or making diagonal runs inside to play off Sinclair or Allie Long. With Tobin Heath still not likely to get significant minutes, Nadim shoulders a larger role of the creativity. Her matchup against Casey Short should be one of the highlights of the weekend.

Christen Press

No one ever needs to be told to watch Press, particularly in the NWSL. However, she missed both an open net and a penalty kick against Kansas City, and left Houston without a shot on goal (albeit from a midfield role), so the pressure is mounting to deliver. No striker in the league can find a goal out of nowhere like Press, and it’s time for her to do that.

Keep an eye on:
• Heath to get her first NWSL minutes of 2017
• Chicago’s attack on the flanks

***

Orlando Pride (0-1-1) at North Carolina Courage (2-0-0)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: tied, 1-1-0
In North Carolina: first meeting
Last meeting: June 11, 2016; 1-0 Flash

McCall Zerboni, right, battles with Cheyna Williams on Saturday. Zerboni scored the only goal of the day. Williams left with an injury. (photo courtesy: North Carolina Courage)

McCall Zerboni, right, has done well in a more central role for the Courage. (photo courtesy: North Carolina Courage)

One of these things is not like the other. The Courage are already the only unbeaten team in the league and sit on top of the table, while Orlando has one goal and one point in two games. North Carolina delivered an outstanding performance in their home opener and would love to delight their new fans again. While the team retained their trademark physical and athletic game play, Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni also ran the midfield in a manner we rarely saw from them last year. Look for the Courage to attempt to overwhelm the Pride’s backline with both their speed and pure number of shots, often the highest number if not the highest quality.

That will be Ashlyn Harris’ cue. There’s no doubt the keeper will need to be solidly on her game as well as attempt to organize a defense that’s still seeking consistency and chemistry. If Jamia Fields returns at right back, she will be kept extremely busy by Lynn Williams. Orlando’s best chance? Get the ball to Marta. She came inches from scoring in her debut, and as she can both create and score, she’ll draw attention, and perhaps the defense out of shape with her. Look for her to combine with Steph Catley on the left side.

Keep an eye on:
The presentation of 2016 NWSL Championship rings to the former Western New York Flash
• Orlando’s pairing in central defense

***

{Related: Q&A with Kristen Edmonds}

Seattle Reign FC (1-1-0) at Boston Breakers (1-1-0)

Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Reign lead, 9-0-1
In Boston: Reign lead, 5-0-0
Last meeting: July 2, 2016; 2-0 Reign

The Boston Breakers celebrate Natasha Dowie's first half strike against Sky Blue FC. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

The Boston Breakers celebrate Natasha Dowie’s first half strike against Sky Blue FC. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

A year ago we would have approached this match with skepticism. However, Boston has wasted little time proving that last year was last year and this year is this year. Much of that has to do with Rose Lavelle, demonstrating last week that she belongs centrally, but the rest of the Breakers squad are finding their places as well. Particularly impressive has been Abby Smith in goal, who looks as if she didn’t just miss a year from injury. Although there is still progress to be made, particularly on defense, the Breakers came out last week playing their game, and they ought to do so again.

Will the real Seattle Reign please stand up? After a forgettable opening performance, the Reign ran roughshod over Houston, scoring nearly at will. Boston looks prepared to put up a fight, so look for Jess Fishlock to run the show all over the pitch as usual. Megan Rapinoe would do well to draw Julie King out on the left in an attempt to expose the young pairing of Megan Oyster and Christen Westphal. The difference maker may be Christine Nairn, who has had a quiet season so far and will be called upon to counteract Lavelle.

Keep an eye on:
• Boston’s tifos
• Katie Johnson off the bench

***

Houston Dash (1-1-0) at Washington Spirit (0-1-1)

Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Spirit lead, 6-1-1
In Washington: Spirit lead, 4-0-0
Last meeting: August 18, 2016; 2-1 Spirit

Estelle Johnson, left, and Cameron Castleberry defend against North Carolina in the Spirit's preseason match (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Estelle Johnson, left, and Cameron Castleberry defend against North Carolina in the Spirit’s preseason match (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

The Spirit thought their injury woes had worsened last week and certainly breathed a sigh of relief that Katie Stengel has only a bone bruise. However, she’ll still miss this game, and an already depleted Washington attack takes another hit. Tori Huster, although perhaps lucky not to have been sent off last week, has stepped up big for the Spirit this year and needs to continue both her strong play and leadership. The bright side? Lindsey Agnew and Havana Solaun combined well and may have earned more playing time. The other bright side is that they’re playing a team coming off their worst performance ever.

Nothing can be said about Houston last week that hasn’t already been said. It was bad, and the biggest hurdle they face now is probably their own mentality. The second of a three-game road trip is not the best time to shake it off, but another dismal game will bring back memories of last year’s long winless stretch. They’ve found their best success in transition, using Amber Brooks to quickly restart the attack and letting the speed of Rachel Daly and Kealia Ohai wreak havoc. Without Andressa or Morgan Brian to keep possession in midfield, the Dash need to play stout defense and break on the counter in order to win.

Keep an eye on:
• Who brings creativity to the Spirit attack
• Lydia Williams to return to goal

***

FC Kansas City (1-1-0) at Sky Blue FC (0-1-1)

Sunday, 6 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 5-2-3
In New Jersey: Kansas City lead, 3-0-2
Last meeting: September 4, 2016; 2-1 Kansas City

Mandy Freeman and Lindsay Elston battle for possession in Seattle and Sky Blue's 1-1 draw. (photo by Jane Gershovich, ISI Photo)

Mandy Freeman and Lindsay Elston battle for possession in Seattle and Sky Blue’s 1-1 draw. (photo by Jane Gershovich, ISI Photo)

Kansas City enters the match with a lead in all categories of previous matches, as well as a lead on points. Sydney Leroux will be increasingly dangerous as she regains match fitness. She will have more work than ever though as a rib injury sends Shea Groom to the sideline this week leaving Leroux as the only starting striker from Week 1 (Amy Rodriguez was the other). Leroux will be looking to pressure a backline that Boston took apart more than once last week and will now be without Christie Pearce. Nicole Barnhart looks on her way to having her best season yet (which says a lot) and could be the third goalkeeper in a row to deny Sky Blue points.

Sky Blue will be without their best offensive and defensive weapons this week.  Sam Kerr is home at an awards ceremony in Australia, likely forcing the bulk of their attack to their speedy flanks, where Kelley O’Hara might prove more than a match for rookie Christina Gibbons. Surprisingly, they’ve only scored one goal so far this year, and that was a penalty kick. Then again, Pearce is in concussion protocol which might force O’Hara back to a defensive role. Some Sky Blue’s attacking issues lay at the feet of a rather stagnant midfield which has yet to live up to its talent or promise. With pace in the offense and stumbling midfields on both teams, look for this game to be an end to end battle.

Keep an eye on:
• The effect of Sky Blue’s NYC bus initiative on attendance
• How prominent can Katie Bowen be for the Blues

{Related: Gibbons Relished Underdog Role}

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