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NWSL Week In Review: Low attendance slightly concerning

Francisca Ordega was voted the NWSL Player of the Week for Week 4. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)
Sky Blue was a half step behind Francisca Ordega all night (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Sky Blue was a half step behind Francisca Ordega all night (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

It was chilly and breezy, certainly for May, in the Chicago area Saturday afternoon as The Lifetime Network descended on Toyota Park for the NWSL Game of the Week, and immediately after kickoff, it was obvious that the arena was pretty empty.

In the end, although Chicago never announced it on its Twitter page, the final attendance was just 2,114 after the Red Stars had only 2,153 fans at their home opener the week before. On a scale of 1 to WUSA (to be fair, attendance was not WUSA’s biggest problem) and WPS, how much should we be worried about these early-season numbers?

I’m going to go with about a 5. Numbers have been down in Boston and Washington also, but the Breakers (while much improved apparently this season) have been at the bottom of the NWSL table for nearly four years and the Spirit’s off-field struggles have been well documented both in this space and elsewhere. Kansas City had a poor number Sunday night as well, but it struggled last season both at the box office and on the field.

The Red Stars, on the other hand, have been to the playoffs two years in a row, and boast what should be one of the most marketable rosters in the league with USWNT stars Julie Ertz and Christen Press, perhaps new USWNT starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, Casey Short, and even players like Vanessa DiBernardo, Dani Colaprico, and Arin Gilliland. Chicago has talented, exciting personnel that also win.

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And yet the crowds stay small. The Red Stars averaged only 3,005 at home last season, their first at Toyota Park (in NWSL anyway), just a small increase from the year before when playing at Benedictine College in Lisle, some 45 minutes outside Chicago city limits (a 2015 doubleheader with the Fire artificially raised the final average from 2,898 to 4,210). The optics are much better in a shared MLS stadium (Lifetime probably wouldn’t be broadcasting much from Lisle), and they are closer to Chicago, but still not quite downtown.

The real question here, as it is in any place not named Portland, is how to continue to grow NWSL and the women’s game. As has been discussed before in this space, things are most certainly more stable than they’ve ever been for professional women’s soccer in this country and barring something completely unforeseen, NWSL will be around for a while to come. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be extremely concerned about attendance numbers and strive for better.

Is the Chicago problem the market? Then, with places like Salt Lake City and Los Angeles apparently ready soon, maybe rather than expansion, NWSL can find the 10 best places for women’s soccer and put franchises there. But it should be remembered that Chicago has been a part of the landscape since WPS and actually drew decent crowds (in Lisle) for WPSL Elite games back in 2012.

Is the issue marketing? A visit to the Toyota Park website sees a big advertisement for a July rock concert with Ozzy Osbourne, Korn, and Kiss among others. That’s understandable, I guess. But it also contains much more and prominent information about the Legends Football League’s Chicago Bliss (“one of sports’ ultimate LIVE experiences”) than it does about the Red Stars, which is simultaneously telling and frustrating.

We are now just one-sixth of the way through the 2017 NWSL season, so there is some time to improve the attendance numbers in places like Chicago, especially as the weather gets warmer and school is dismissed for the summer. We know there are people working hard on getting people to the matches in Chicago (Side note: I got my friend to bring his family next week, too. They had a good time at a match last year, but it’s unfortunately much further away for them than Lisle is), but the numbers don’t lie. And they should be better in 2017, the fifth year of NWSL.

What else did we learn from a pretty wacky NWSL weekend with lots of goals?

SATURDAY

Chicago 2:0 Houston (recap)

What Went Down: Chicago has not nearly played its best soccer and has six points to show for it through four games so they can be happy about that. Houston had a great gameplan to frustrate the Red Stars, and should have gone into halftime at 0-0 before a Sarah Hagen own goal just before the break. But it was a Denise O’Sullivan foul 35 yards from goal with the opponent facing the other way that set up the chance in the first place. And although the Dash were organized for the most part, their backline continues to struggle, and that probably won’t change with Morgan Brian (who returned Saturday) back in the fold.

The Red Stars, particularly Christen Press, continue to struggle in the final third, but gave up very few chances to Kealia Ohai and Rachel Daly, which is a credit to central defenders Katie Naughton and Sam Johnson. Chicago largely stuck to its 4-4-2 diamond formation, but Ertz obviously got forward for the goal. You have to think Press, Sofia Huerta, and the like are going to score goals at some point. Right?

Player of the Game: Julie Ertz – When at center back, you saw it a time or two a game, but now at holding midfielder (where she was Saturday), her marauding runs through multiple layers of Houston’s defense happened every few minutes it seemed. And we know she is going to win tackles, but the ease at which she is able to get from box to box and be a factor in both places (even if she did it at other levels) is striking.

Under the Radar: Casey Short – The ability to get forward has been documented well, but Short is also a very good defender and when she had to, kept Daly and Ohai in check, both athletically and with discipline. Short has made a real case for a starting USWNT spot in the last year or so.

Inside the Numbers: 19 – Minutes played by Morgan Brian, who is expected to be back in the starting lineup by next week, which should help in all facets.

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

Washington 4:3 Sky Blue (recap  |  Gordon)

What Went Down: Despite being outrageously young with Christie Pearce out (none of the back four, nor goalkeeper is in more than their second year of professional soccer), Sky Blue looked remarkably composed last week against Kansas City, but that may be more of a long-term indictment of FCKC than anything else. Washington shredded Sky Blue from the opening kickoff, most notably Francisca Ordega (who mysteriously wasn’t starting to begin the season, although it could have been injury related). By halftime, Ordega had a goal an assist, plus created an own goal and drew yellow cards against half of Sky Blue’s back four. It should be noted that Raquel Rodriguez was graduating from Penn State, so she wasn’t there as well.

The Spirit are going to give people trouble at home, and despite being under pressure for much of the match, fully deserved the three points. Players like Arielle Ship and Havana Solaun are likely not headed for USWNT duty anytime soon, but they have potential to be solid NWSL players and should produce some goals, especially with the help of a healthy Ordega. And Sky Blue’s tandem of Kelley O’Hara and Sam Kerr will produce problems for other opponents as well.

Player of the Game: Francisca Ordega – Ordega is only 23, and – at least at the moment – seems to be their best chance at grabbing some wins this season. Sky Blue just had no idea how to deal with her as they fouled her three times and knocked her around a few more, and she still ended up with a part in all four goals. You may remember that last season’s bottom of the table club, Boston, was led by Natasha Dowie with just three goals.

Under the Radar: Kelley O’Hara – O’Hara has consistently shown her quality this season at a more advanced position and was rewarded with a first half goal before playing a huge part (assist) in the other tally from the run of play. But does Sky Blue need her in the back?

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of official saves Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan made in the contest. After three very solid outings to start her career, the rookie had a tough night in Maryland.

Up next: Washington – at Seattle (Sat.); Sky Blue – at Houston (Sat.)

Portland 2:2 Seattle (recap  |  Lauletta)

What Went Down: Seattle was a little ticked off Saturday. OK, more than a little, and made it show just a minute in when Jess Fishlock put the Reign up 1-0. Seattle took a page out of North Carolina’s book: extremely physical throughout right up to the point of crossing the line in that area. Fishlock got into it with Amandine Henry on more than a couple of occasions, while Megan Rapinoe had a hard tackle on Allie Long. Both were booked for their actions and didn’t actually show much remorse. But coming off a somewhat embarrassing loss to Boston, simple pride dictated such a performance from a team with veteran players and a good coach. But we’ll see if that will drive them enough going forward, and whether they stick with the 3-4-3 high pressure that gave them this success. Certainly Fishlock can handle it, and moving Merritt Mathias up top seemed to pay dividends as well. But it’s tough to do it every week.

Portland is kind of the anti-Chicago, the Thorns have gotten some results, but haven’t really looked particularly overwhelming in any contest this season. A lot of that is playing without Tobin Heath, and there was a big change when Meghan Klingenberg came on for the second half. All of which makes you wonder what the Thorns would actually give up for Mallory Pugh. Yes, they have a little depth when completely healthy, but giving up two national team players for her is quite a change for what they’re trying to build, at least in 2017.

Player of the Game: Jessica Fishlock – Fishlock had one of three NWSL own goals on Saturday (one in each game), and probably wrapped up Goal of the Week with her amazing strike just 60 seconds in. But the own goal was almost equally as amazing because it illustrates how much ground she actually covers in a match, somehow getting deep in her own box after doing the same at the other end. Yes, she was on the edge, but Seattle certainly needed it.

Under the Radar: Allie Long – For the most part, Long was able to deal with Seattle’s attempts at high pressure, particularly in the second half. Eventually, Long got the equalizer as well. While Henry and Lindsey Horan’s play has been a bit spotty, Long has been excellent for most of this season and was a huge reason Portland got a point in this one.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of times Allie Long was fouled on Saturday. It honestly felt like more watching the game live, but it’s an indication of what Seattle was trying to do and Long’s relative success in dealing with it.

Up next: Portland – at Kansas City (Sat.); Seattle – vs. Washington (Sat.)

SUNDAY

Boston 0:1 North Carolina (recap  |  Lauletta)

What Went Down: The Breakers fought the good fight and did create a few opportunities, even if they were mostly on set pieces, but the Courage train rolls on with three more road points. Boston’s defense put together another pretty solid performance, holding the Courage to just 10 shots, four of them on goal, which should bode well for their future. We saw flashes of Rose Lavelle, but North Carolina – as they seem to do for everyone – made things difficult for players and teams that want to be creative with the ball.

For the Courage, they rotated a couple of players and were not at their best, but a championship team gets three points on such nights just as they did here. The defense, as we’ve talked about before, has been particularly impressive. Even in a 4-4-2 (Jaelene Hinkle was out with an injury), North Carolina held Boston to a pair of shots on goal, and very little in the run of play against a team that tore Seattle to pieces last week on the same field.

Player of the Game: Abby Erceg – Couldn’t really separate the pair of Abbys (Dahlkemper the other), but we’ll go with Erceg here because she nearly scored before Jessica McDonald put home the rebound for the game’s lone goal. Many have said she’s out of position and should be playing higher up the field, but she has looked much more comfortable this year than last and has played there in the World Cup and Olympics.

Under the Radar: Angela Salem – There will surely be a time soon where Morgan Andrews will be a professional starter, but for now, Salem has proven too valuable to remove in the middle of the field. Salem will not give much in the way of attacking, but as she showed here, when she’s playing well, she is a huge boost to a defense, and after last season, you can see why Matt Beard has faith in her at the moment.

Inside the Numbers: 33 – Number of NWSL goals by Jessica McDonald, now the most in league history, passing Kim Little. And she did it without the aid of any penalty kicks. It’s obviously likely that she’ll add a few more before the end of the campaign as well.

Up next: Boston – at Chicago (Sun.); North Carolina – at Orlando (Sun.)

Kansas City 1:1 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: It looked like the Pride was going to escape with a much-needed win after creating the better chances and finally getting a goal when Marta pounced on a ball at the top of the box and made no mistake. Then a controversial equalizer set up by what appeared to be Sydney Leroux getting obstructed on a hopeful ball over the top led to Yael Averbuch bouncing a free kick off the post and Erika Tymrak poking home the ensuing scramble.

In the end, neither team can really be thrilled. Orlando remains the only winless NWSL team and at the bottom of the table with two points, and although they did look a little better, they need to start getting some wins relatively soon and play North Carolina again next week. No one other than Marta had a single shot as that problem continues. Meanwhile, FCKC – after a great opener – has been fairly anemic, especially on offense, where they managed only three shots on goal and their most prolific offensive player was Lo’eau Labonta (4 shots). And they no longer have any players coming back soon.

Player of the Game: Marta – She got only the one goal, but just adds a different dynamic to Orlando on offense. It seems as if the Pride is getting a little more comfortable around her and Tom Sermanni is hoping that that will translate into goals. Fairly soon.

Under the Radar: Brittany Ratcliffe – After being waived by Boston, Ratcliffe signed with FCKC and has taken advantage of her playing time, having another solid performance up and down the wing.

Inside the Numbers: 12 – Months since Erika Tymrak’s last NWSL goal before Sunday. She still looked like she needs to regain some confidence (she did have a giveaway right before the Orlando goal), but FCKC could really use someone like Tymrak was a couple of years ago to help their somewhat non-existent offense.

Up next: Kansas City – vs. Portland (Sat.); Orlando – vs. North Carolina (Sun.)

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