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NWSL Week 13 Preview: Teams challenged by injury, suspension

Last week Sky Blue became the first NWSL team to play their 100th game. This week, Chicago, Portland, FC Kansas City, Boston, and Seattle join them, while the Spirit are one game behind (the Flash/Courage combo will also hit 100). Sky Blue celebrated their milestone with a win, but only one of Boston and Seattle can do so this week, while Portland looks to regain playoff positioning and Boston and Kansas City try to stay out of last place. It’s a busy day with all games on Saturday in NWSL week 13.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Kelley O'Hara helped Sky Blue hand the North Carolina Courage their first shutout of the season. (photo by Lewis Gettier)

Kelley O’Hara helped Sky Blue hand the North Carolina Courage their first shutout of the season. (photo by Lewis Gettier)

Chicago Red Stars (7-3-3) at Sky Blue FC (7-6-1)

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 5-0-6
In New Jersey: Red Stars lead, 3-0-2
Last meeting: June 25, 2017; 2-1 Red Stars

There’s no way Sky Blue isn’t still riding the momentum of Sam Kerr’s 12-minute hat trick that saw them come from down two goals to take all three points last week. That said, two big things to improve on – a defense that gave up two goals at home to an anemic FCKC offense, and the fact that Sky Blue’s attack is increasingly centered around Kerr. For the former, well, things went from bad to worse with an injury to Mandy Freeman on top of Erin Simon’s foot fracture. Look for Erica Skroski to remain at central defense and Kayla Mills to make a return to the starting XI. As for the latter, there’s no other player in the NWSL right now that’s better suited for that role, but if anyone can successfully isolate her (no small task), it remains to be seen who can both create and score.

Enter Julie Ertz, who could be tasked with making sure the ball doesn’t get to Kerr. She’ll tuck in above Katie Naughton and Sam Johnson, showing off that ability to break up plays before they happen that has characterized her game this year. However, Chicago has a similar issue in that if you take away Christen Press, it’s not certain the rest of the attack could fill the hole. Look for Press to get into foot races with Christie Pearce on more than one occasion. Also watch the flanks, where both teams have a lot of speed. For the Red Stars, that comes from their outside backs, leaving gaps that players like Leah Galton can exploit. If Sky Blue wins, it will be their first NWSL victory over the Red Stars.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Kelley O’Hara

O’Hara has been burned a few times on defense this year, but it’s when she gets forward that she’s most dangerous. Her service to Sam Kerr has been top notch, and they’ve developed a very strong partnership.

Sofia Huerta

Huerta has shown flashes of brilliance this season, and her long distance shot can be fatal. While it remains to be seen if she can do so consistently, at her best she is a superb partner for Press and a legitimate threat without her.

Keep an eye on:
• The O’Hara-Casey Short matchup

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The North Carolina Courage once again face off against the Thorns, this time in Portland. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

The North Carolina Courage once again face off against the Thorns, this time in Portland. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

North Carolina Courage (9-4-0) at Portland Thorns FC (5-4-4)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 5-3-3 (plus 1-1-0 in playoffs)
In Portland: tied, 2-2-2 (plus Courage, 1-0-0 in playoffs)
Last meeting: April 22, 2017; 1-0 Courage

Portland is proving to be this season’s biggest question mark, and currently, middle of the table seems about right. They’re still capable of dominating a game, but too often this season they’ve looked lackadaisical, as they did in Houston last week. Although they showed more life in the second half, had it not been for a silly foul by Amber Brooks in the dying seconds that led to Lindsey Horan’s game-tying free kick, they’d likely have left Houston without a point. The Thorns midfield has underperformed more than once, and in order for them to get back into playoff positioning, they need Allie Long and Horan to consistently show play worthy of their allocated spots. Thankfully for Portland, their defense has been solid, particularly in the center, but it’s their outside backs that are likely to be pressed on their heels in this game.

Press is the right word here, because it’s exactly what North Carolina will do for 90 minutes. Their fitness and energy is perhaps the best in the league, and they’ve created a style that embraces it. Whereas flank play was their biggest asset last year, they’ve spent this season going up the spine just as often, with either Sam Mewis or McCall Zerboni driving forward while the other stays back and plays spoiler to any counterattacks. The best thing Portland can do is try to turn the table and remove any breathing space, but that’s easier said than done. A problem for Paul Riley is one that any coach would love to have – now that Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams are both back on the pitch, and Makenzy Doniak and Ashley Hatch have been doing just fine without them, who has to be benched?

Keep an eye on:
• Celeste Boureille, who is in for a busy night at right back
• North Carolina’s throw-ins in their attacking half

{Related: Q&A with Emily Sonnett}

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(photo by Mark Thor, ISI Photo/courtesy of Orlando Pride)

(photo by Mark Thor, ISI Photo/courtesy of Orlando Pride)

FC Kansas City (3-6-4) at Orlando Pride (4-5-4)

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 2-0-1
In Orlando: Kansas City lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: May 7, 2017; 1-1 draw

Orlando still struggles to put together a full game, generally strong one half and struggling the other. They allowed Washington to equalize twice last week, and although both penalties were soft, the Pride still should have been able to hold onto a lead. It’s clear by now that if there’s doubt, the penalty is likely to be given, and as the Pride have given up more than any other team this season, they have to clean up their play inside the box or continue giving away points. Against FCKC, they need to come out strong with a high press and make every attempt to score first. Alex Morgan regaining full fitness and chemistry is key to future success. Orlando has yet to get a result against FCKC, but they probably have no better chance than now.

Things aren’t looking up for Kansas City these days. Their already struggling offense is without Shea Groom (on a red card suspension), although they do get Lo’eau LaBonta back (also from a red card suspension). Their defense completely fell apart at the end of last week’s game and gave up a two-goal lead they ought to have maintained even after Groom was sent off. One bright spot was Christina Gibbons in midfield. Possibly in response to LaBonta’s absence, Gibbons had a heck of a first half and has earned a repeat in the spot for at least one more game. She could do well against a Pride midfield that simply can’t hold onto the ball. FCKC desperately needs a win – they haven’t had one in the last six games, establishing their first-ever three-game losing streak. If they don’t get three points in Orlando, they’ll set a new club record with a seven-game winless streak.

Keep an eye on:
• The Pride’s right flank – it’s a sieve
• Where LaBonta finds her way back into the lineup

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Brittany Taylor of FC Kansas City takes on Mallory Pugh of the Washington Spirit. (photo by Erica McCauley for The Equalizer)

Brittany Taylor of FC Kansas City takes on Mallory Pugh of the Washington Spirit. (photo by Erica McCauley for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit (3-6-3) at Houston Dash (4-7-2)

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Spirit lead, 7-2-1
In Houston: Spirit lead, 2-1-1
Last meeting: June 3, 2017; 2-0 Spirit

Let’s be frank – the Dash are better with Carli Lloyd. They were 2-6-0 without her this season and have gone 2-1-2 with her, establishing a four-game undefeated streak. Unfortunately for them, she’s suspended for this game. They’ve split the series with Washington so far this year, both games in Maryland. Their biggest weakness is defense. Watch for Mallory Pugh to exploit space behind Poliana and for the Spirit to break on the counter. Jane Campbell needs to keep her defenders tight, especially Janine Van Wyk, who has a habit of getting caught high without the pace to recover. The Dash would do well to practice quick, sharp passing and keep possession.

The Spirit cannot catch a break when it comes to injuries, and the latest one is Francisca Ordega, who might miss the rest of the season with a right knee injury. Although Cali Farquharson is cleared to play, it’ll likely be a few more games before she’s match fit. The Spirit got Pugh back just in time, and the goal scoring responsibility really falls on her shoulders now. Luckily for them, she showed signs of an early partnership with Estefania Banini, who brings a creative flair the Spirit midfield lacked up to this point. Individually, Washington has put on good shows, but their last-place standing is a result of an inability to translate those individual good performances into a solid team outing. Without Lloyd in their way, they have an opportunity to dominate the passing lanes and take advantage of their speed.

Keep an eye on:
• Denise O’Sullivan to finally get sprung from Houston’s bench
• Cheyna Williams to get the nod in Ordega’s place

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Nairn signed with the Seattle Reign for the 2017 after spending three seasons in D.C. with the Washington Spirit. She was originally drafted to the Reign out of college in 2013.

Nairn signed with the Seattle Reign for the 2017 after spending three seasons in D.C. with the Washington Spirit. She was originally drafted to the Reign out of college in 2013.

Boston Breakers (3-6-4) at Seattle Reign FC (5-3-5)

Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 9-1-1
In Seattle: Reign lead, 4-0-1
Last meeting: April 29, 2017; 3-0 Breakers

The Breakers defeated Seattle handily last time they met but have gone 1-5-4 since. However, in that time, backup goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme has set two new team records: a 316-minute shutout streak and three straight clean sheets. Boston’s defense has figured things out thus far, but they’re traveling across the country to face the most high-flying offense in the league, including a player tied for the most goals (Megan Rapinoe) and the player with the most assists (Nahomi Kawasumi). It’s a big test for the rookie keeper, who loses left back Allysha Chapman to yellow card accumulation. Elsewhere, Morgan Andrews continues to settle into the midfield, but she’s a different player than Rose Lavelle, and Lavelle’s absence continues to be noticeable. Matt Beard’s strategy of having Natasha Dowie drop deeper doesn’t play to her strengths and hasn’t been effective, so they have to figure out something else to gain points.

Seattle couldn’t get it done on the road against North Carolina last week, but had Rapinoe put her ball a couple of inches to the left when facing an open net,the story likely would have been different. They’ve gotten themselves into the playoff mix but are only one point above Portland, so three could go a long way toward cementing that spot, with the opportunity to jump Sky Blue if they lose to Chicago. Expect Seattle to come out with the energetic high press that has served them well this season, playing up Rapinoe and Kawasumi on the wings in an attempt to draw Boston’s defense out of shape. Look for Beverly Yanez to return to the starting lineup.

Keep an eye on:
• The bench – both Margaret Purce and Katie Johnson have been effective subs

{Read More: ESPN to Cover Euros | NWSL Week 12}

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