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NWSL Week 9 Preview: The Break is Over

Sydney Leroux will play the Reign with whom she won the Shield in 2014 before losing to her current team in the NWSL Championship (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Sydney Leroux will play the Reign with whom she won the Shield in 2014 before losing to her current team in the NWSL Championship (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Some teams are refreshed and ready to go, while others picked up a few injuries along the way, but either way, the international break is over and NWSL Week 9 is here.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Seattle Reign FC (3-2-3) at FC Kansas City (3-3-2)

Saturday, 8 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 5-3-3 (Kansas City lead playoffs, 2-0-0)
In Kansas City: Kansas City lead, 3-0-3
Last meeting: June 25, 2016; 0-0 draws

Kansas City has been celebrated for its defense even as its offense is slowly putting their pieces together, but neither of those were enough to stand up to North Carolina last week. At its best, Seattle can explode similarly to the Courage’s fast-paced attack, so FCKC’s outside backs want to be at the top of their game to contain them. Regardless, the offense has to find itself sooner rather than later, so both Sydney Leroux and Shea Groom need to put themselves into dangerous situations and finish better than they have so far. Chemistry between the two will be essential for FCKC to climb out of the middle of the table.

Seattle never really could get going against Chicago two weeks ago, and only an inspired performance by Haley Kopmeyer kept the score from being worse. Both Leroux and Groom are at their best running at defenses, so Rachel Corsie and Lauren Barnes want to be aware of leaving too much space or getting caught high, especially on long balls. They’ll be without Rumi Utsugi in midfield, leaving Christine Nairn to step up her game, as Jess Fishlock as proven she can do a lot, but not all. With a win, either team could move into a playoff spot.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brittany Ratcliffe

After being waived by Boston, Ratcliffe is proving both a nuisance for other teams and evidence of Vlatko Andonovski’s ability to get the best out of players. With her high energy work rate filling some of the hole left by Heather O’Reilly, she can keep Seattle chasing her all game.

Nahomi Kawasumi

The Japanese international has been quieter recently than her memorable 4-assist performance against Washington. She’ll have the opportunity to make waves again against a rookie fullback in Christina Gibbons.

Keep an eye on:
• Leroux and Megan Rapinoe, both of whom may have something to prove after seeing little to no playing time on the USWNT’s European trip

***

Washington Spirit (2-5-1) at Chicago Red Stars (5-2-1)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Spirit lead, 6-3-1 (Spirit lead playoffs, 1-0-0)
In Chicago: Spirit lead, 3-2-0
Last meeting: September 30, 2016; 2-1 Spirit AET

It’s a rematch of last year’s exciting semifinal in Maryland, but while one team has an entirely new look, not much has changed for the Red Stars. They may have had to push back Yuki Nagasato’s debut for a little longer, but they’ve been doing pretty well without her so far. The top of the table is within reach, and it’s looking more and more likely for the squad that looks a little better each week. One thing is clear: the old narrative of Sofia Huerta and Christen Press not working well together is done and dusted. It’s been a long time coming, but the creativity and chemistry between the two is driving Chicago’s offense. Taylor Comeau and Casey Short dealt well with Seattle’s width two weeks ago, and a good thing, too, since Kristie Mewis has returned to Washington.

That is good news for the Spirit, who have struggled with injury more than any other team this year, and the woes continue with the loss of Mallory Pugh for at least a week. Pugh was a spark plug at times for the Spirit offense and scored her first goal against the Dash before heading into the international break. However, the Spirit’s rookies have stepped up well, particularly Meggie Dougherty-Howard and Arielle Ship, and have proven a capable supporting cast to unleash players like Francisca Ordega. Possession may not be the difference maker here, and for Washington to win, they have to first keep Press off the shoulders of their defense before figuring out how to move the ball past Julie Ertz at holding midfielder.

Keep an eye on:
• Chicago to counter attack Washington’s high defensive line

{Related: Red Stars Right at Home in Toyota Park}

***

Boston Breakers (2-4-2) at North Carolina Courage (6-3-0

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Courage lead, 9-2-3
In North Carolina: first meeting
Last meeting: May 7, 2017; 1-0 Courage

North Carolina may have stumbled a few times after they roared to the top of the table, but they still hold on to the spot. It may have taken an hour of play, but eventually they broke down FCKC’s heralded defense for two goals in their last match. Defensively, they’ve lost Yuri Kawamura, but a return to the four-back has tightened up the space teams were finding. Boston would do well to target Taylor Smith, whose speed allows her freedom to roam the flanks but isn’t as strong defending 1v1. Boston will also want to keep close tabs on Ashley Hatch, who wasn’t impressive in her first professional start but did manage to score, and with Jess McDonald out and Lynn Williams questionable she’s likely to get the nod again.

Boston comes into this game a bit down on their luck. Injuries suffered during international breaks have taken away two of their most effective players in Rose Lavelle and Allysha Chapman, and their lack of depth may be exposed. Brooke Elby took Chapman’s place against Orlando after the fullback was suspended for a red card, and she’ll be one-half of the matchup to watch as she faces Makenzy Doniak. The Courage will try to run this game on the flanks, but the Breakers will likely have better success trying to work down the middle, although much of that rests on Morgan Andrews as she steps into Lavelle’s boots.

Keep an eye on:
• McCall Zerboni, one yellow card away from suspension
• Emilie Haavi, who had a strong game last Sunday against the USWNT

***

Orlando Pride (2-3-3) at Houston Dash (2-6-0)

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Pride lead, 3-1-0
In Houston: tied, 1-1-0
Last meeting: September 3, 2016; 4-2 Dash

Make no mistake: Houston is in about as much of a must-win situation as a team can be one-third of the way through the season. If they lose to Orlando, they’ll equal last season’s six-game losing streak – with an even worse goal differential. Firing Randy Waldrum was supposed to be the first step toward salvaging the Dash’s season, but an uninspired performance against Washington wasn’t a great sign for interim coach Omar Morales, who will see out the season. However, the Dash get a big boost with the return of Carli Lloyd. At her best, Lloyd is perfectly capable of poaching goals against the Pride defense, but with only two days of practice with the club and a midfield that will likely struggle to get her the ball, her effectiveness is up in the air. Look for Rachel Daly to return up top, but the real test will be if the rotating cast of defenders can stand up against Marta.

Two weeks ago, Orlando debuted a new look against Boston, and although the Breakers weren’t at full strength, the Pride controlled large swathes of the game and won 2-0. The Dash may not present much more of a challenge, but they’re structured differently than the Breakers, so look for Tom Sermanni to shake things up again. The return of Dani Weatherholt from international duty will give him more flexibility to do so. If Kristen Edmonds appears at right back again, she faces a much taller task against Kealia Ohai. However they line up, the Pride would do well to come out in a high press, which the Dash have struggled against, and use the creativity of Marta and Camila to work around an unstable defense and test Lydia Williams.

Keep an eye on:
• Poliana to return to the starting XI
• Orlando’s centerback pairing

***

Sky Blue FC (4-4-1) at Portland Thorns FC (4-1-3)

Saturday, 10 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: tied, 5-5-2
In Portland: tied, 3-3-0
Last meeting: June 3, 2017; 2-0 Thorns

It may not have been as strong a start as last season, but the Thorns are finally beginning to look like a consistently dominant team. Much of that has to do with the midfield, which has adapted to a style sans Tobin Heath that focuses more on build up through the center, led by Lindsey Horan. Although Sky Blue led in nearly every stat in their last meeting, the Thorns built a first half lead and never looked back, helped by an Adrianna Franch save on a Sarah Killion penalty kick in the second half, the first time a Killion PK was saved after seven straight conversions. The Thorns would like to possess the ball more and be stronger defensively on the flanks in order to ensure a second straight victory over Sky Blue. They may also have to make do without Nadia Nadim who is doubtful with a hamstring strain.

Sky Blue may have held their own in the battle of the midfield, but they didn’t do enough with it in the end to get a result. With players like Sam Kerr and Leah Galton, they want to expose the Thorns’ lack of pace and do damage in transition. Killion needs to do her part to relieve pressure on a defense that misses Erica Skroski and has uneven performances from the rest of the defenders. The key to all of this rests with Raquel Rodriguez, who is the link between offense and defense and is often responsible for restarting the attack.

Keep an eye on:
• Dagný Brynjarsdóttir to get further minutes
• Madison Tiernan’s yellow card count versus minutes played

{Read More: Vancouver NWSL Expansion Team Uncertain | Jordan Angeli and the ACL Club}

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