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NWSL Week in Review: Did we need June international break?

Rosie White can't look as she receives her 5th yellow card and with in an automatic, one-game suspension. )Photo by Lewis Gettier)

Rosie White can’t look as she receives her 5th yellow card and with in an automatic, one-game suspension. (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

Compromise is, of course, a lost art, and regardless of whether the United States women’s national team has a full two years until its next major tournament, Jill Ellis and her staff have a job to do, which is to evaluate players and experiment with things in an environment with less pressure on winning.

And so several of the NWSL stars jetted off to Europe immediately after club action closed two weeks ago. The USWNT had a relatively productive trip, posted clean sheets and identical 1-0 victories over Sweden and Norway, road victories to try to take some of the sting of a forgettable SheBelieves Cup after a shocking loss to the Swedes in the Olympics last summer.

The cost for the NWSL, however, seemed to be pretty steep. Budding star and early-season Rookie of the Year (with apologies to Kailen Sheridan) Rose Lavelle pulled up with a hamstring injury against Norway that could keep her out until August. Mallory Pugh was hurt warming up for the same match and missed the Spirit’s game on Saturday. Reigning MVP Lynn Williams was also injured and was out. Elsewhere, Allysha Chapman (Canada) and Rumi Utsugi (Japan) also found themselves out of NWSL action after taking knocks while on international duty.

This is certainly a significant list, especially for the Breakers, who were thumped by North Carolina Saturday night without their stars. But the effect of such international breaks reach further than that, forcing players during their “break” to fly around the world, train, and play two international matches, with only a couple of days “rest” on the back side to prepare for their club duty. Again, Ellis has a job to do and we understand that, but – with the SheBelievesCup only a couple of months ago and another tournament coming at the end of next month (not to mention probable matches in the fall after the NWSL season is complete) – was this a time where discretion was the better part of valor?

In addition to the losses, you wonder how much all that travel hurts the quality of play – and therefore the NWSL product – the next week. Someone like Casey Short, who played in both games in Europe, struggled mightily in her return (although she did set up Chicago’s only goal), while Christen Press also looked a step slow for much of the Red Stars’ disappointing draw at home Saturday. Elsewhere, however, Brazilians Marta and Camila, who played in Iceland Tuesday night and barely trained with Orlando, ran Houston ragged in a road victory. Becky Sauerbrunn, the only USWNT member to play in every minute for the national team in 2017, looked fine in her game, while Sam Mewis was her usual active self in the win over Boston. (Counterpoint: Australia did not play over the break and Sam Kerr had a magnificent game in Sky Blue’s upset of Portland.)

You would also be correct to point out that this issue is not a gender-specific one. Men do deal with this intricate club vs. country dance from time to time on their international breaks (Chelsea star Eden Hazard recently broke his ankle playing for Belgium), although I would counter that their club teams have much deeper rosters that allow managers to rotate players in a way that is impossible with the NWSL as currently structured, especially with every match being so important in a 24-game regular season.

And while we can’t go as far as to say that they caused these injuries that have affected the NWSL campaign, the downside to overtraining has plenty of evidence behind it

Unfortunately, given the economics of the situation (most notably the USSF paying the majority of USWNT salaries) we will likely never get very far when it comes to taking a FIFA international break off in the near future. Thankfully, we have another month or so without one.

What else did we learn this weekend where we saw plenty of goals and entertaining play?

SATURDAY

Chicago 1:1 Washington (recap  |  Halloran)

What Went Down: Much is always made of a coach using a high line as a method to overcome a speed disadvantage, but Jim Gabarra took an opposite tack in this one, playing sometimes outrageously deep with a relatively speed-challenged back. By doing so, he conceded the midfield, but he probably figured he was going to get dominated there anyway, playing a 4-4-2 with Meggie Doughtery Howard and Havana Solaun in the center of the park. However, Chicago was baffled when it had to make a decision entering the final third all afternoon and only put four shots on goal.

Only an untimely tackle in the final stages denied Washington – without Mallory Pugh – three road points. For Chicago, they have struggled mightily with teams that have sat back on them, and we’ll have to see going forward who is seeing the same on their videos of them, with Sky Blue and Sam Kerr having the first chance to counter against them next Sunday.

Player of the Game: Whitney Church – She was generally the person in charge of keeping things organized Saturday and she did a masterful job, one that probably should have ended in a clean sheet for Washington.

Under the Radar: Danielle Colaprico – A bright light for the Red Stars on an otherwise frustrating day, Colaprico not only had a couple of good chances, but also attempted to break Washington down with incisive passes, alas to no avail.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of fouls committed by Shelina Zadorsky in the match, but it was costly. Zadorsky, like her American counterpart Becky Sauerbrunn, rarely fouls in general, so it is a bit of a shame to see one mistake punished so severely.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Sky Blue (Sun.); Washington – vs. Portland (Sat.)

North Carolina 3:1 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: If you missed the first two Courage goals, you weren’t alone, as the problems with Go90 continue (the NWSL announced hours before this game that it would be going back to Go90 exclusively in the United States, and then it failed again, so we’ll see what next week brings). It was Kristen Hamilton who scored both those goals, as the Courage dominated without Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, which might be a little scary to the rest of the league. McCall Zerboni did her usual pressing and Sam Mewis had a couple of beautiful passes, including an assist on the first goal. This game was everything that’s made the Courage the best team in NWSL.

Meanwhile, Boston’s first foray without Rose Lavelle was pretty poor, even if they didn’t concede a goal in the second half. Rosie White committed five fouls on the way to her fifth yellow card (and a suspension), but its backline looked a lot like last year’s, disorganized and chasing shadows. Even Abby Smith had a couple of errors on just a rough all-around night for the Breakers.

Player of the Game: Ashley Hatch – Hamilton (rightfully so) will get a lot of press out of this game, but Hatch scored an extremely difficult goal and was involved in the other two: an assist on the second and high pressure that created a turnover and led to the first. Hatch posted a Lynn Williams-esque eight shots in the game as well. Paul Riley is going to have to find a way to get Hatch some time when everyone is healthy.

Under the Radar: McCall Zerboni – Again, Zerboni’s activity in the other team’s half wreaked havoc, and it will be interesting to see how teams try to combat that going forward.

Inside the Numbers: 3,780 – Attendance in Cary, which is actually fairly weak for a first-year site and a team as good as the Courage has.

Up next: North Carolina – at Boston (Sat.); Boston – vs. North Carolina (Sat.)

Kansas City 2:2 Seattle (recap)

What Went Down: FCKC likely deserved all three points in one of their best outings of the season, but instead we got a result that doesn’t really help either in the playoff chase. While Kansas City had the better of the play, the Reign were extremely dangerous going the other way, especially after subs Katie Johnson and Christine Nairn came on. To score twice and not get three points is always going to be frustrating for FCKC, but they will be encouraged by the way they played.

Seattle did not play badly, either, and will be a bit frustrated themselves by taking the lead with 10 minutes to go and not getting three points. It was Merritt Mathias who got the start in the middle over Johnson with Beverly Yanez sitting a bit deeper, which was interesting, but it did free up Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi to have solid matches. The backline looked a bit more shaky than we’re used to for Seattle, something that might be worth keeping an eye on.

Player of the Game: Nahomi Kawasumi – Naho got a well-deserved goal to give the Reign the lead as she was extremely dangerous throughout on the wing, perhaps her best outing of the campaign.

Under the Radar: Shea Groom – Again, no goals from Groom or Sydney Leroux, but Groom was extremely active in the match, including a couple of run-ins with old friend Mathias, the final one earning her a yellow card. You have to think the goals will come if the effort continues.

Inside the Numbers: 1,891 – An attendance number so bad that the NWSL didn’t even put it in its boxscore on the website. Should we worry about the NWSL’s future in Kansas City?

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

Houston 2:4 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: With at least the fourth playoff spot open (and possibly more), the Pride are rounding into a form that has the look of one of them, even without Ashlyn Harris. Houston has been extremely poor, no doubt, but they were also unlucky in this game, with Camila breaking out a 30+ yard blast to open the scoring, and then the Pride doubling the lead off a counter of a very good Aubrey Bledsoe save on Carli Lloyd. After that things fell apart, and the Dash defense looked pretty poor again, but if those things don’t happen to them early, maybe it’s a different story?

Moving Alanna Kennedy has definitely helped the Orlando midfield and Marta is going to help any attack, especially against a defense that has struggled and needs to push the game because they are behind. There are still questions about the Pride defense with Kristen Edmonds certainly bringing speed, but being new there (at least professionally) and Ali Krieger and Toni Pressley forming an interesting center pairing. But it’s working well for now and the Pride are coming up the table quickly.

Player of the Game: Marta – Marta does not get enough credit for the effort she gives every time she takes the field, which of course you’re supposed to, but coming off a game in Iceland Tuesday, she was everywhere, and leading her team as well. Just look at her reaction to the goals that she didn’t score. Can she keep it up? We’ll see.

Under the Radar: Alanna Kennedy – Australia did not play any matches over the international break, and it showed in the play of Sam Kerr and Kennedy, as she had a very good game in the midfield, which appears to be her new home.

Inside the Numbers: 6 – Number of goals scored in this contest, none by Americans (4 Brazil, 1 Australia, 1 Canada).

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

Portland 1:3 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: One of the most exciting things coming out of this weekend was not just the number of goals, but the number of chances created, and I’m not sure if that was due to poor defense or just solid offense, something that has been lacking in previous NWSL seasons at this point. After Raquel Rodriguez scored 24 seconds in, the game somehow made it to halftime 1-0 (thanks in part to a missed Sky Blue penalty), but there was no way it was staying there, and the second half belonged to Sam Kerr.

The Thorns, who now might be without Tobin Heath for the rest of the season, also played without Nadia Nadim and Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and as has been pointed out before here, even a team like Portland can only deal with so many people being out for so long. Full credit to Sky Blue, though, Kerr is playing at a level as well as anyone in the world, and moving Kelley O’Hara back to defense seemed to help the cause back there a little, even if a combination of missed chances and Kailen Sheridan (who also saved a penalty from Canada teammate Christine Sinclair) kept the Thorns from scoring a couple more goals.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – There’s not much else we can add to the Kerr hype train leaving a station near you, but know that there are very few defenders that are going to be able to outrun her, and Portland could not Saturday. Kerr is just such a handful to deal with for 90 minutes, and like a great player, she eventually gets hers..

Under the Radar: McKenzie Meehan – Meehan is slowly making her way into the Sky Blue lineup, and seemed to complement Kerr well in this match before being subbed out midway through the second half. If you didn’t know, Meehan fell victim to perhaps the freakiest injury in women’s soccer history while at Boston College, so it’s good to see her getting minutes in NWSL.

Inside the Numbers: 31 – Number of combined fouls (16 Sky Blue, 15 Portland) in this match as things got rather testy in the second half.

Up next: Portland – at Washington (Sat.); Sky Blue – at Chicago (Sun.)

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