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NWSL Week 5 Preview

We’ve had injuries and returns, own goals and penalties, upsets and blowouts, and we’re barely a month in. Expect the unexpected as we hit NWSL Week 5.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Steph Labbe was subsidized back to the Washington Spirit, but she did not want to talk about the team's offseason (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Stephanie Labbe looks to continue her strong form for the Spirit. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit (1-2-1) at Seattle Reign FC (1-1-2)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 6-4-1 (plus 2-0-0 playoffs)
In Seattle: Reign, 4-1-1 (plus 2-0-0 playoffs)
Last meeting: September 11, 2016; Reign, 2-0

A bit of history goes into this game. The Reign defeated the Spirit in the semifinals two years in a row and denied Washington the Shield in their last meeting. Neither team looks quite like their previous playoff selves these days, but they’re on the rise. Washington has improved week over week, culminating in last week’s offensive explosion, led by Player of the Week Francisca Ordega. With Ordega running the show up top, Havana Solaun cementing a starting spot in the midfield, and Estelle Johnson off to the one of the strongest starts of her career, the Spirit are beginning to subvert expectations.

Last week, Laura Harvey turned expectations upside down when she went with a 3-4-3 against Portland, with the players demonstrating much more creativity than they’ve shown thus far. Had Jess Fishlock not equalized her stunning goal with an almost equally stunning own goal, they might have walked away from Providence Park with all three points. However they line up against Washington, they’ll have to do so without Merritt Mathias, suspended for three games after having her best game in some time. Key here may be Christine Nairn, notable both in that she was absent for the Reign’s best performance of the year and that she’s facing her former teammates.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Megan Rapinoe

Her ACL tear is beginning to look more and more like a distant memory with each game. Although still with a tendency to fade in and out of games, Rapinoe is proving to be as lively as ever when she’s on, and her energy along the left side should be exciting to watch against Johnson’s disciplined play.

Francisca Ordega

With so many injuries to Washington’s front line, Ordega was a breath of fresh air in her first start of the season. Sky Blue had no answer, and should the Reign roll out in a 3-back again, Ordega is likely to be able to exploit the space often left by the formation.

Keep an eye on:
• Rachel Corsie, who finally made a return to the Reign’s starting XI
• How many times Mallory Pugh is mentioned on the broadcast with regards to the Spirit

***

Sky Blue FC (1-2-1) at Houston Dash (2-2-0)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 4-1-3
In Houston: Sky Blue, 2-0-1
Last meeting: July 9, 2016; Sky Blue, 1-0

If healthy, Sam Kerr could put her name in the MVP hat. (photo courtesy of Sky Blue)

Sam Kerr still seeks her first NWSL goal of 2017. (photo courtesy of Sky Blue)

The last two times these teams played ended up being a turning point for the Dash. It was their sixth consecutive 0-1 loss, but Kealia Ohai scored in the next game and hasn’t looked back since. With a record that’s probably generous to their play so far and seeking consistency, the Dash might be looking for Sky Blue to provide a kickstart once again. No matter who is in goal, expect them to be tested with an attack that’s about as fast as they come even without Kelley O’Hara (excused absence). Key to slowing it down is Amber Brooks, who needs to have a stronger game than she did against Chicago last week.

Last week Sky Blue brought their offense to Washington, but their defense showed its youth, and even experienced defenders can’t stop getting turned by Ohai. With Raquel Rodriguez and Daphne Corboz back, they’re likely to win the midfield battle and free up Sarah Killion to relieve pressure. Both teams excel in transition play, so whichever midfield can step in to stop an attack in its tracks is likely to take home points.

Keep an eye on:
• Morgan Brian and Andressa to see minutes
• The memorable pre-game ritual between Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills

***

{Read more: Lauletta: What the USWNT Summer Tournament Means}

Portland Thorns FC (2-1-1) at FC Kansas City (1-2-1)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 5-3-3 (plus 1-1-0, playoffs)
In Kansas City: Kansas City, 3-0-2 (plus 1-1-0 playoffs)
Last meeting: July 9, 2016; 2-1 Kansas City

Meghan Klingenberg returned to play 45 minutes for the Thorns on Saturday, (Photo: NWSL)

Meghan Klingenberg is slowly returning for the Thorns. (Photo: NWSL)

Kansas City leads this series in every way, including handing the eventual Shield their only defeat at home in the regular season last year. Also in the pages of history is Kansas City’s evergreen defense, stalwart behind Nicole Barnhart no matter what the offense is or is not doing. And until Sydney Leroux and Shea Groom both get match fit and figure out a partnership, it appears “less is more” may be their offensive motto. They’ve not troubled defenders too often this season, but they make it count when they do. Both are nursing injuries and listed as probable.

Still lacking several regular starters, Portland appears to be a team searching for its stride. They struggled with Seattle’s pressure last week, but they’re unlikely to face that again. Midfielders Allie Long, Lindsey Horan, and Amandine Henry have all looked good at various moments, but not often at the same time. The same can be said for the Emilys, Sonnett and Menges, in central defense, who have clearly been on different pages at times. Look for a tactical battle, as both teams prefer to build out of the back. Hayley Raso will be key as she takes on rookie Christina Gibbons at left back.

Keep an eye on:
• Lo’eau LaBonta, proving a force in midfield
• More minutes for Meghan Klingenberg

***

North Carolina Courage (4-0-0) at Orlando Pride (0-2-2)

Sunday, 5 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Courage lead, 2-1-0
In Orlando: Pride, 1-0-0
Last meeting: April 29, 2017; 3-1 Courage

Lynn Williams tried to evade Emily Sonnett (sliding) during the first ever North Carolina Courage home match (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Lynn Williams will keep Orlando’s defense busy. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Let’s just get this out of the way – North Carolina hasn’t lost this season, Orlando hasn’t won. If the Pride don’t pull off a win (which they haven’t done since July 10 of last year), they’ll tie the league’s winless streak at 13, set by Washington in 2013. Four of the players on that team are now on the Pride, and it goes without saying they don’t want to repeat that honor again. They’ll look for the tide to turn behind Marta, who beat Courage head coach Paul Riley in two successive WPS finals. Not surprisingly, Marta was a force to be reckoned with against Kansas City, although she attempted to set up her teammates more often than not before going for goal herself and bagging her first NWSL goal. The Pride defense, with yet another lineup change with the insertion of Toni Pressley, looked more solid than they have all year, but they were rarely tested by FCKC and gave up a last minute equalizer off a dubious foul and a messy non-clearance.

There’s no doubt that North Carolina has found their game, and no one has been able to successfully disrupt it so far. Their successful fast-paced transition play has been augmented by a strengthened ability to hold possession and build out, led by the aggressive play of McCall Zerboni and Samantha Mewis. If the Courage have a weak spot, it’s their left flank, particularly if Jaelene Hinkle remains out, so look for Ali Krieger and Marta to continue to combine in the attack on that side. Elsewhere, Abby Erceg and Abby Dahlkemper have proven to be a significant force together.

Keep an eye on:
• Jess McDonald’s long throw-ins versus Danica Evans’ flip throws

***

Boston Breakers (2-2-0) at Chicago Red Stars (2-2-0)

Sunday, 6 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 8-1-1
In Chicago: Red Stars, 4-0-1
Last meeting: June 18, 2016; 3-0 Red Stars

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

Casey Short will take on the Breakers once again. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Rory Dames said it would take four games for the Red Stars to click, which means if all is going according to plan, the Breakers defense is in for a game. However, even Dames couldn’t have foreseen that Julie Ertz would not only be his leading goalscorer, she’d be his only goalscorer (not counting an own goal from Sarah Hagen). It’s time for the Red Stars attack to fulfill its promise. They have the potential, but they just haven’t looked threatening enough from a striker who should be competing for the Golden Boot and a midfield that was once called the best in the league. Ertz has been impressive in her role changes, but one has to wonder if pushing Danielle Colaprico out wide of her natural position is worth it.

Meanwhile, it’s easier to list the Breakers starters who haven’t impressed rather than those who have. They’ve stepped up on every line, and although they lost to North Carolina, they put up one of the best fights of the season. Should Christen Press and Sofia Huerta find their form, they’re still facing Abby Smith in goal, who is making an incredibly strong case for herself as a national team prospect. The Breakers want a quicker game than Chicago, with Rose Lavelle pulling the strings, and should look for a high press to keep the Red Stars at bay.

Keep an eye on:
• The matchup of Adrianna Leon and Casey Short

{Read More: Barcelona: We’ll Have a Team for NWSL in 2018}

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