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NWSL Week in Review: Can Returning USWNT Stars Make Big Impact?

Pugh to Spirit

Pugh to SpiritEven if you were in a cave all weekend, you probably still heard that Mallory Pugh officially signed with Washington Saturday, which in all honesty is most likely the best possible outcome for everyone involved. The NWSL did not have to tweak (or bend with heavy equipment) its rules for the second time in two years to help Pugh get to her preferred destination, which would have gotten eyerolls, if not protests, from 90 percent of its organizations. The exception, Portland, didn’t have to reshape its roster a month into the 2017 season to accommodate a 19-year-old who has yet to play a professional game. And Washington gets a possible legitimate superstar to build (or rebuild) its team around.

So everybody wins and lives happily ever after?

That remains to be seen, but Pugh has now joined what could be a somewhat unfortunate group of 2017 potential showstoppers that may be returning to teams that may not be contenders come mid to late summer. It’s likely that Pugh will be in uniform Saturday night when the Spirit host Kansas City (and hopefully a crowd will come see her), meaning she will have missed just five of 24 matches (with one or two more eventually for national team duty likely, and unfortunately). That’s plenty of time for her to make a huge impact, but however talented, Pugh is still going to be a professional rookie, and Washington – picked last by many including me this season – may need much more than one player to be a playoff contender this season.

It still may represent a better situation than is playing out in Orlando, although the Pride finally won a game this weekend, and did it in impressive fashion. But we’re still probably at least a month away from Alex Morgan returning to town to help jumpstart a possible playoff run with Marta. Alas, the season will be half over by then, and Orlando – although they have shown spurts of being a solid team – might have a massive hill to climb by then. And Morgan suffered what appeared to be a significant hamstring injury Saturday while playing for Lyon, so that might set her return to NWSL back as well.

Finally, Carli Lloyd lost to Morgan and Lyon in the Champions League semifinals, but captured the FA Cup for Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in front of 35,000 fans over the weekend. Lloyd’s NWSL squad, Houston, has six points in five games, which is not as poor as Washington or Orlando, but the manner in which they’ve gone about it has not exactly inspired confidence in a playoff run (including a home loss to Sky Blue on Saturday).

It appears, if healthy, that all three will miss some time for the new national team tournament with Australia, Japan, and Brazil from July 27 to August 3 as well, hopefully just one match. But, as I alluded to before, there are only 24 games in the NWSL regular season, making each one extremely important in a playoff race.

Would it be the worst thing in the world if Pugh, Morgan, and Lloyd are on teams that are not contenders in August and September? Defending champion North Carolina has developed an entertaining and successful brand of soccer without national team stars, and while names like Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, and Sam Mewis don’t have the Q rating of the ones mentioned earlier, they are players that the NWSL was designed to help improve and flourish, exactly what they’re doing.

Chicago has marketable stars in Christen Press and Julie Ertz, and has won plenty of games over the last three seasons. If the Red Stars make the playoffs and we’re crying that the “stars” aren’t taking part in the postseason, we might be doing it wrong. Which brings us to Portland, who draws 15,000 fans per game, even without any of three players mentioned above.

The bottom line is that, just as with Pugh, the NWSL wants to put its biggest stars in a place where they will be successful, both at the box office and on the field. But if it plays out that it doesn’t happen that way, as it might here in 2017? Well, for the league to survive long-term, it has to be about more than three players anyway, doesn’t it?

What else did we learn this weekend as things became a bit more crowded after the very top of the standings?

SATURDAY

Houston 1:3 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: Randy Waldrum tried to make some adjustments and was helped by Morgan Brian finally being healthy, but the Dash were second-best at home against a team that was beaten by Washington last week, and still don’t look remotely comfortable in the back, a problem that has persisted seemingly for years in Houston. And I’m not sure how it’s going to be solved. They did look more dangerous with a Rachel Daly, Kealia Ohai, Janine Beckie front line, and with Brian and Lloyd behind them, you’d think that would be a contending team, but we’ll see.

Making the effort more impressive for Sky Blue is that they did it without Kelley O’Hara (who was at a wedding), arguably their best player of 2017 so far. But, unlike last week, the youngsters held it together and the return of Raquel Rodriguez should not be overlooked. Kailen Sheridan nearly made a couple of mistakes, but she looks like she has the proper mental makeup to be a goalkeeper that may be on the world stage for a while eventually. Three more points in the return leg of this home-and-home next week could put them in a nice position at the quarter mark of the campaign.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – I had Kerr just behind Christen Press as MVP favorite before the season began, but we hadn’t seen much of it before Saturday. Even beyond her goal and wonderful assist, Kerr is just a big pain to deal with when at the top of her game: a fast, extremely strong player who just goes after everything and mentally wears opponents down.

Under the Radar: Christie Pearce – She wasn’t spectacular or anything, but without her last week, Sky Blue’s defense almost came apart at the seams, conceding four times at Washington. But with Pearce’s calming influence, young Sky Blue was organized for the most part, even when they were under a bit of pressure in the second half.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of times Raquel Rodriguez was fouled, but also the number of times she committed fouls as she was in the middle of just about everything Saturday, including picking up a second-half yellow card.

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

Seattle 6:2 Washington (recap)

What Went Down: You can look a the final score and think the Spirit got embarrassed, and you wouldn’t be wrong in the last 30 minutes or so. But before that, Washington trailed just 2-1 and was pressing for an equalizer. In fact, they were pressing enough that Seattle eventually was able to take advantage of the lack of numbers in the back to make this a blowout. The Reign went back to a 3-4-3, and that – if nothing else – is going to make for some entertaining soccer as they create plenty of chances, but could potentially give up a lot at the other end as well.

Meanwhile, Pugh’s arrival should mark the end of Washington’s 3-5-2 as Pugh will probably slide in as a No. 10 (wearing No. 11 apparently, though) behind Francisca Ordega (or possibly two strikers). That is the spot where Pugh first burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old in the U-20 World Cup dominating games by running at defenses. Jim Gabarra may try Pugh wide, but she will likely have a bigger influence in the middle of the field.

Player of the Game: Nahomi Kawasumi – Again, the numbers are a bit inflated because Washington was giving so much up at the end, but any time you can get a goal and four assists in any match at this level, it is a spectacular performance. Once Seattle gets rolling, especially when playing at home, they tend to keep rolling, and that’s what happened here.

Under the Radar: Megan Rapinoe – Rapinoe has been fantastic so far in 2017, at least going forward. The 3-4-3 allows Rapinoe to not have many defensive responsibilities, and she has he vision to make the proper pass on the counter to spring others, as you saw a few times in the second half Saturday.

Inside the Numbers: 8 – Number of points through five games from the Reign, which was good enough to put them in second place at that close of play Saturday, which is pretty good considering the lack of consistency.

Up next: Seattle – vs. Orlando (Sun.); Washington – vs. Kansas City (Sat.)

Kansas City 0:0 Portland (recap  |  Scoby)

What Went Down: When two teams get together who struggle offensively, this unfortunately is a likely result. FCKC, recently two-time champs you may remember, played this way plenty last year and it’s a tough dilemma for Vlatko Andonovski, who surely does not want a somewhat unexciting style with Sydney Leroux by herself in the middle of a 4-2-3-1, but he has a strong defense and if he opens things up, they may be vulnerable. The insertion of Erika Tymrak seemed to help a little, as Leroux ended up with a breakaway soon after, but couldn’t finish, a chance that FCKC will have to put away if they want to be a playoff contender.

Portland again created little despite winning the possession battle, and got another road point, but can’t get Tobin Heath back soon enough, it would appear. The Thorns have scored just five goals in five matches and do not want to get into the habit they did last year of picking up a lot of draws, but of course, they won the NWSL Shield anyway, so it’s not like it was that bad.

Player of the Game: Allie Long – The days of Long being someone who might be a fringe USWNT player appear to be over, and Long deserves plenty of credit for making that happen. As an attacking player, she has improved tremendously, and is the Thorns’ best player week in and week out, even if she didn’t help create any goals on Saturday.

Under the Radar: Becca Moros – Moros took the place of Desiree Scott at defensive midfield Saturday and did a really good job, even coming close to scoring a winning goal late in the game off a botched Portland clearance. It makes sense, Moros’ game lends itself to this spot, and she showed it in this game.

Inside the Numbers: 1,796 – Attendance in Kansas City. Maybe the fans knew that there wouldn’t be a lot of offense, but this is another data point in what is becoming a somewhat troubling trend of declining attendance in NWSL this season.

Up next: Kansas City – at Washington (Sat.); Portland – at Boston (Fri.)

SUNDAY

Orlando 3:1 North Carolina (recap)

What Went Down: We’ve marveled at the consistency of North Carolina’s pressing game, but on a 90-degree day in Orlando, things unraveled a bit and the Pride – playing with a lot of pride as the lone winless NWSL team – took the game to the Courage in the second half and got a deserved result (at least we think so, Go90 never got started, so it was tough to watch most of the first half). Once Abby Erceg got sent off (for two yellows), the game was largely done. The long-term damage remains to be seen, but you did see some vulnerabilities in the champs. The first goal was a defensive mess, and they never looked comfortable.

For Orlando, it was a result they needed, and should give them plenty of confidence going forward. Their backline has looked better on paper than it has played out (which is probably the basis for Ashlyn Harris’ comments a couple of weeks ago), but were able to deal with Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams much better than most this season and wore them down in the heat.

Player of the Game: Ali Krieger – We’ve wondered whether Krieger is slowing down a little but, but she took advantage of Paul Riley switching to a 3-4-3 to get down the right wing with seeming impunity, eventually leading to an assist on the opening goal. The Pride will need her to continue to do that.

Under the Radar: Toni Pressley – I haven’t been the biggest Pressley fan over the years, but her athleticism was a huge boost for Orlando in this match, and she did well to cut off more than a couple of through balls that might have sent either Williams or McDonald on their way. And she may an answer to Orlando’s issues on defense.

Inside the Numbers: 17 – Seconds after kickoff from Orlando’s second goal that North Carolina got what turned out to be its only goal of the game. In fact, the first three goals of the match were scored in a three-minute span.

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

Chicago 1:1 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: In front of another sparse crowd in Chicago, Boston looked like it was headed for three more points until Christen Press equalized off a great ball from Sofia Huerta in the 89th minute. Press actually had a chance to win the game late, but that would have been harsh on the Breakers, who (while it is very early) look like they could be hanging around the playoff race for a while this season, even surviving a crazy indirect kick scenario after an illegal backpass.

The Red Stars still have many questions and I’m not sure where the answers are, other than Press getting back into 2015 NWSL form. That late goal might go a long way toward that happening, but with all those players that can do wonders with the ball, the Red Stars should be creating more scoring opportunities. But right now, it’s just not happening and Chicago keeps dropping points.

Player of the Game: Rose Lavelle – There was a point where Lavelle ran right past Casey Short with the ball and pulled away from her, which just doesn’t happen. Like ever. Then, of course, she added the goal off a scramble with a perfect left-footed finish. So I think she’s going to be fine in this league.

Under the Radar: Sofia Huerta – It was a brilliant ball from Huerta that eventually salvaged a point for the Red Stars, and they will need her to be solid if they want work their way through this mini-funk that they’re in.

Inside the Numbers: 7 – Number of points both teams have currently, which leaves them tied with Sky Blue and within a point of Portland and Seattle. It’s pretty crowded in the NWSL table right now.

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

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