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NWSL Week in Review: Maddy Evans says goodbye

Maddy Evans is the latest to cite finances as a big reason for retiring early. (photo by Mark Thor, ISI Photos/courtesy of Orlando Pride)

Maddy Evans wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last, to retire early from professional women’s soccer. Evans got an offer she couldn’t refuse and will join the “real world” in her native Pennsylvania next week, despite – at 26 – having at least seven or eight more years she could play at a high level.

As Evans walks off the professional soccer stage, it’s important to note just how hard it is to get to the NWSL. We sometimes take for granted the thousands (millions?) of young girls that play soccer every weekend at a park near you. From there, the really ambitious and talented make their way to higher-level club teams, which reside in every corner of our country and wherever you are, you don’t have to travel far to find them. All of them dream to someday be wearing the red, white, and blue of the U.S. national team, but the chances of even getting close are infinitesimal. Like winning the lottery infinitesimal.

But Evans got close. She made her way to FC Bucks, one of the top clubs in the country and starred there (along with current Red Star Jen Hoy, whose career path has been very similar). Penn State, one of the very best of the more than 300 Division I programs (not to mention the hundreds more at Division II and Division III), wanted Evans, and by 2012 she was their captain, leading Penn State past every team but one, North Carolina, who beat the Nittany Lions in the national final.

Alas, while she was on their radar, the national team didn’t then and never did come calling for Evans, but she was fortunate enough to have a new USSF backed professional league starting up, and was drafted in the fourth round. Fourth round doesn’t sound like much, but remember all those little girls in every corner of the nation Evans’ age that started kicking a ball around the same time she did? Exactly 32 were drafted (along with college teammates Christine Nairn and Maya Hayes), and Evans was one. From there she fought her way into some playing time with the Breakers and lasted three years before moving to Orlando in the expansion draft last season.

But as hard as it was to get to the NWSL and stay there for five seasons, Evans was blunt on her ultimate reasons for going back to Pennsylvania to start a new career.

“At the end of the day, my decision was made on a bunch of different things. But I’m 26 turning 27 and I make $16,000 a year playing in this league in my fifth year,” Evans said after her final match. “I’m thankful for everything that I get here, but I think eventually we have to grow to a point where players can make some more money.”

College athletics have many drawbacks, but in the world of Division I women’s soccer, most of the top teams are also fine universities that give student-athletes the opportunity to graduate and start a professional career in things other than soccer (which was an NCAA commercial once). And I don’t need to tell you that probably 99.9% of those careers start at more than $16,000 per year.

Obviously the system stinks, and we all wish NWSL players that aren’t subsidized by the national team (who, after fighting for a couple of decades, can now make a decent salary playing soccer) could make enough to live on and not have to retire like Evans at 26 or 24 or even 30.

However, it’s also important to point out that the economic situation in NWSL isn’t a matter of owners taking in bags of money and not distributing it to their employees in an act of pure greed. You can question some of the decision making and methods, but people don’t normally purchase women’s soccer teams to get rich and if you’re a regular around organizations, you can ascertain that pretty quickly.

There were officially 5,243 paying customers at Maddy Evans’ last professional soccer game Saturday in Orlando, which is a decent number and certainly an improvement over past iterations of professional soccer. Television ratings on Lifetime have hovered around 100,000 per week, which is low but – again – steady and improving slightly over the course of the season.

And there are systemic problems at major networks who like to play the “chicken and egg” game by not even putting NWSL scores on the bottom of their screen (let alone play highlights) and then use that to justify not showing matches on said networks in a sad, but vicious cycle.

But if the WUSA from 15 years ago taught us anything, it’s that going above the available financial means to pay players won’t work as a sustainable model, either. And so we all work to promote the league, to get bodies in the seats, and for people to watch the product when it shows up on our televisions. I hope, like you do, that we won’t be having this discussion a decade from now. However, in 2017, the reality remains that Maddy Evans probably won’t be the final player to retire before she should have had to.

At least Evans was able to have a proper send off in Orlando’s 5-0 win over Sky Blue Saturday. The Pride honored her and she came on for the final 30 minutes, even getting to take a penalty kick. Unfortunately, Kailen Sheridan wasn’t in on the party and saved it, but it was a nice way for Evans, who had accomplished so much in her career, to finish.

What else did we learn in a weekend where Portland put itself in the NWSL Shield race again?

SATURDAY

Washington 2:2 Boston (recap | Gordon)

What Went Down: It won’t matter in the playoff race, but this is a match where the Spirit should have had three points and had to settle for one. For the most part, Washington’s defense has been much better than most expected, but this wasn’t their best day and it came off a poor showing at mid-week against Orlando as well. As she has done this season, Adriana Leon took advantage for two goals.

Boston can’t be thrilled with its defense, either, the Spirit did hit the crossbar three times and had a couple of other great chances, including one to win it right at the end (although Rosie White ended up with a breakaway at the other end with the final kick of the game if you wanted to know how open it was). Abby Smith had a rare game where she could allow a howler (Washington’s second goal) and still have a great match and save the point. Boston is now 1-28-8 in its last 37 road games dating back to 2014, but four of those draws are this season, so baby steps. And hopefully Rose Lavelle will return soon.

Player of the Game: Adriana Leon – For giving up virtually nothing to acquire her, Leon has had a great season for the Breakers, and has been their biggest offensive threat for a team that didn’t really have one last season (remember Natasha Dowie led Boston with three goals last season). It will be up to Matt Beard to surround her with a little more firepower, which obviously Lavelle should help.

Under the Radar: Ifeoma Onumonu – She hasn’t gotten much playing time this season, but she showed Saturday she can be dangerous, especially on the counter. Can she do enough to earn a full-time spot in the lineup for 2018 (or the rest of this season)? We shall see.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of saves for Didi Haracic in her first start in goal for the Spirit, which was probably more due to her defense hanging her out to dry more than anything she did, but it also shows that Washington was dominant in the contest.

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

Orlando 5:0 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: The question before the season was whether the Pride could get its full cast together (including Alex Morgan) in time to make a playoff run and I guess the answer is a definitive yes as Orlando sits in fourth place (although Seattle has a game in hand). Sky Blue’s defense has been a mess all season, and with Marta and Alex Morgan starting to figure out how to use their powers together, this game got ugly in the second half. Orlando also welcomed Ashlyn Harris back and while you can’t say she had a busy night, she did have some work to do and looked solid.

For Sky Blue, it’s hard to say where to go at this point as it appears Kelley O’Hara might be out for a while, too. They look lost and it has even now reached Kailen Sheridan, who played so well in the first half of the season. The NWSL is not a place where you can just sign multiple players, so Christy Holly pretty much has what he has at this point.

Player of the Game: Jasmyne Spencer – Marta and Morgan will get most of the credit and with good reason, but Spencer has quietly been a big factor lately and is doing enough to allow the dynamic duo to flourish including a brilliant assist on one of Morgan’s goals. .

Under the Radar: Camila – Her effort to set up Dani Weatherholt for a tap-in on the Pride’s second goal was extraordinary. Like Spencer, she is the supporting cast that Orlando needs to go with Morgan and Marta if they want to challenge for a title in a couple of months.

Inside the Numbers: 15 – Number of minutes it took the Pride to score four goals (43rd to 58th minute), which is unfortunately becoming regular fare for Sky Blue these days.

Up next: Orlando – at Boston (Sat.); Sky Blue – vs. Seattle (Sat.)

Chicago 2:3 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: They say all things even out in the end, and maybe this result is for all the times earlier in the season when the Thorns had a lot of the ball and got a draw out of it? Portland recorded only five shots total and scored on its only three shots on goal, but beyond that (and without Allie Long) showed the quality it has in Christine Sinclair, Hayley Raso, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Lindsey Horan, and Amandine Henry, all of whom were involved in the Thorns’ goals and were the difference.

The Red Stars can actually be quite infuriating with their slow starts and they finally got burned here, even if they did come back from two goals down first. This was a match that looked like a playoff match, two quality teams with some very good soccer (minus the early defensive lapses from Chicago, although Portland’s second goal was well created) in a matchup we may see again in October.

Player of the Game: Christine Sinclair – One of the peak Sinclair plays might have been when somehow she and Hayley Raso ended up behind the defense early. Sinclair was smart enough to know Raso had a better angle and if she just ever so subtly went in Sam Johnson’s path, Raso would have just a split second more to get a better shot off, and that might have been the difference. Little things from perhaps the most aware player ever.

Under the Radar: Alyssa Mautz – On her 100th appearance for the Red Stars (inclusive of WPSL Elite), Mautz had a solid match, even if it came in a losing effort. Like Jasmyne Spencer and Camila, Chicago will need players like Mautz if it wants to win a title.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of yellow cards given to Portland, which wasn’t that surprising in a pretty clean match, but somehow Tyler Lussi escaped without one even after pulling Dani Colaprico’s hair in a play that saw Colaprico leave injured (amazingly, Chicago had no one on the injury list this week). I suspect that will draw at least a one-game suspension from the NWSL.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Seattle (Wed.); Portland – at Kansas City (Wed.)

SUNDAY

Houston 0:1 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: The Dash lost Carli Lloyd to an ankle injury in the first half and never really looked like the team that had been one of the hottest in NWSL just a couple weeks ago. A lot of the credit for that goes to FCKC, of course, who did look more like their old selves with a very solid defense and creating at least enough chances to win.

It was a particularly impressive performance for an FCKC team that had played three days before and really has little to look forward to this season. Yet they were clearly the better squad in this one, even if Houston nearly stole it a couple of times. The Dash, who play again Wednesday, will hope Lloyd’s injury is not serious.

Player of the Game: Shea Groom – Groom missed a glorious chance early in the second half and was upset at herself a couple of other times for not doing better in the final third. But she never stopped working, and eventually it paid off with the game-winner.

Under the Radar: Cari Roccaro – It was Roccaro who got the call when Lloyd left injured and Roccaro put a solid performance together, even though her entire professional career had been in defense before that. It didn’t turn out to be one that got the Dash a result, but we’ll see if she ends up there again.

Inside the Numbers: 9 – Number of matches it had been since Kansas City had won prior to Sunday, and it also gets them out of the league’s basement, jumping both Washington and Boston.

Up next: Houston – at Boston (Wed.); Kansas City – vs. Portland (Wed.)

Seattle 1:2 North Carolina (recap)

What Went Down: Yes, Megan Rapine is now injured and Jess Fishlock did not play, but it’s still not easy to win in Seattle, and the Reign proved that by really getting after it from the opening kickoff. But the Courage survived a couple of waves of pressure and took advantage of the opportunities they got to get a big road win in the NWSL Shield chase. They are now five points clear of Portland and host Washington next week (on Lifetime).

Seattle became the last NWSL team to lose at home (ending a 15-game unbeaten streak) and now is two points in back of Orlando for the last playoff spot, and it seems unlikely that Rapinoe will return this season, which could be a crippling blow for the Reign. They did show some very positive signs, and easily could have gotten a result against perhaps the league’s top team, so all is not lost. But we shall see.

Player of the Game: Sam Mewis – It hasn’t been that quietly, I guess, but Mewis has been one of the most consistent players in the league this season and with Rapinoe and Sam Kerr dropping in the NWSL MVP race this week, it might be a chance for Mewis to fill that void. A probable Player of the Week nod by scoring twice here won’t hurt.

Under the Radar: Merritt Mathias – She was perhaps the Reign’s most impressive player, at least in the first half, and played a huge part in Seattle’s goal. Mathias has been in good form the last few weeks and Seattle will need her to stay that way if it wants to make the playoffs.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of draws for North Carolina this season, as the streak continues, now at 17 matches, which is pretty remarkable in a league with so much parity.

Up next: Seattle – at Chicago (Wed.); North Carolina – vs. Washington (Sat.)

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