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NWSL Week In Review: Marta and Morgan Winning Together Again

It has been a frustrating season for Jim Gabarra and the Washington Spirit (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

It was in a women’s soccer world far, far away known as WPS, but Alex Morgan and Marta have been professional teammates before. In 2011, Morgan was the first overall pick by the pseudo-expansion Western New York Flash and two weeks later, the Flash somewhat surprisingly signed the reigning league MVP Marta, who had led FC Gold Pride to the title only to see the team fold soon after.

Morgan was 21 then, just out of Cal and just beginning her road becoming one of the most recognizable female athletes in the country and perhaps the world. She had scored a massive goal for the United States against Italy a few months before to ensure the USWNT even qualified for the 2011 World Cup, then exploded in the World Cup itself, although Japan eventually won the title.

Sadly, Marta’s international career – at least based on team success – was fading as Morgan’s was rising. While Morgan was still in high school, Marta was destroying the United States in the 2007 World Cup semifinals, and only a Carli Lloyd goal in extra time denied Brazil a gold medal at the Olympics the next summer.

But Brazil hasn’t really been heard from since (although if not for some now famous late heroics in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals, things could be different). Marta went to Sweden when the WPS collapsed, and was – unfairly, in my opinion – its scapegoat in many circles, with her high salary serving as the the low hanging fruit for the detractors.

When it was announced Orlando was signing Marta, everyone knew the tandem of Morgan and Marta could obviously be a game-changing one, but Morgan was playing in France with Lyon for half the season and couldn’t seem to keep herself healthy anyway. Her once untouchable spot in the starting XI for the USWNT was under siege from a host of talented goal scorers led by Christen Press and reigning NWSL MVP Lynn Williams. And what did Marta have left to prove? At 31, her reign of being five-time World Player of the Year was seven years ago now.

Could Marta and Morgan really be expected to carry Orlando to an NWSL title at this stage of their careers? The answer in late August appears to be yes.

If not for Sam Kerr (see below or every week in this space), Marta might be the MVP this season, her skill and vision immediately paying dividends for the Pride, although they were in the middle of the pack until Morgan finally arrived from France and got healthy. After two more goals Saturday afternoon, Morgan has five in her last three games and seven on the season already. The Pride are not only ahead of Seattle for fourth, but tied with Chicago for third, and if the season ended today, would clearly be one of the favorites to win the NWSL title.

“Just coming in here (to Orlando), I didn’t know what to expect because I haven’t played with Marta since my rookie season and I feel like that was a big season to just take everything in,” Morgan said. “I didn’t really get to understand Marta how I understand her now. I also feel like my awareness of the game has improved immensely since then, so I know exactly what she wants and hopefully vice versa.”

With her streak, it would be surprising if Morgan isn’t back to her starting role with the USWNT when it reconvenes next month for a couple more friendlies, and while Morgan is only 28, there were a few that wondered if maybe, just possibly the top form of her career might be just behind her. Morgan was not one of them, however.

“I feel like I’ve been in season since January, so I feel really good,” Morgan said. “I got a lot of goals in France, and it took a couple of games to adjust, and that’s normal. Now I feel like I’m finding my teammates. For example, even the second goal with (Ali) Krieger, we just saw each other, were on the same page, and we got a goal.”

And so two of the biggest names, really ever, in women’s soccer lead a red-hot Orlando team toward the finish line and another possible title, six years and a world away from when they did so in Rochester, N.Y. There are worse story lines for the NWSL to run with in the final couple of months, no?

What else did we learn in a weekend where Chicago is suddenly not a lock to make the playoffs?

SATURDAY

North Carolina 2:0 Washington (recap | Gordon)

What Went Down: On a really warm day in Cary, the Courage did not play a good first half. In fact, they were pretty poor and lucky not to be down at halftime. But an underrated part of their success this season has been getting three points in such situations as they did here. It was Ashley Hatch who broke through just seconds into the second half, which had to be galling to Jim Gabarra, and North Carolina was able to bring it home, led by an underrated defensive unit.

The Spirit traded Kristie Mewis just before the match and are obviously looking toward the future, and they have some pieces to look with. Having Mallory Pugh and now a host of draft picks, it will be interesting to see which way they go, and – if we get expansion as we expect – who they protect.

Player of the Game: Ashley Hatch – Speaking of the draft, drafting Hatch at the No. 2 spot looks like a brilliant move here in late August, even though at the time it did not look like it filled an immediate need. She got the winning goal and was active throughout, so you can score one for just taking the best player regardless of position.

Under the Radar: Abby Erceg – It’s easy to forget at this point that Erceg had some shaky moments last season and seemed to be headed for a defensive midfield role. But not anymore, as the Courage posted another clean sheet.

Inside the Numbers: 3,550 – It was warm in Cary, but that is a disappointing number for a team that leads the league by five points.

Up next: North Carolina – at Houston (Sun.); Washington – vs. Chicago (Sat.)

Boston 1:2 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: Part of it was the frustration of another lost season in Boston, but Matt Beard had a right to be incensed after the game. The first Pride goal came on a corner that looked to be a goal kick, and the second came with Megan Oyster on the sideline and Alex Morgan going immediately into the area she vacated. It does seem at times that Boston is cursed.

Then again, while the referee had a tough afternoon, he saw Oyster with her hand on her face and was checking for a head injury, so he had her go to the sideline. As it turned out, Oyster had something in her eye, but he wasn’t to know that at the time. And the Breakers could have defended the set pieces better in both cases, of course. Do you make your own luck or not?

Player of the Game: Alex Morgan – You forget (if you have a bad long-term memory) how dominant Morgan could be running off defenders and getting behind seemingly at will. With Marta (and Camila’s) ability to deliver the ball to her, she will be tough to stop the rest of the way in this form.

Under the Radar: Amanda DaCosta – DaCosta scored in the final kick of her career, a penalty kick in the 98th minute, which was a feel-good moment for everyone but Ashlyn Harris, who lost a clean sheet. DaCosta (who played for Portugal in the Euros) said after the match that her retirement was not a sudden decision, and she was able to hold it together until she saw her family after the match. Another retirement too soon, but good luck to DaCosta.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of official saves for Ashlyn Harris in the match, and that was not due entirely to the officiating.

Up next: Boston – at Sky Blue (Sat.); Orlando – at Kansas City (Sat.)

Sky Blue 5:4 Seattle (recap | Lee)

What Went Down: So let’s talk about Sam Kerr missing a penalty kick, shall we? No?

There’s far, far too much to recap here, but I was reminded while watching this one of the people who call women’s sports boring on principle, which is a really crappy principle to stand on. It’s kind of a shame that Sky Blue is likely to waste an all-time great season by Sam Kerr thanks to an all-time porous defense, but damn if it hasn’t been exciting to watch.

Seattle and Laura Harvey could not have been happy to blow a lead like that in such a key spot, especially in the manner they did. Kerr basically toes a ball in in a sea of bodies, then the Reign – despite a second half lead and the most dangerous player on the planet on the other side – somehow got countered twice to allow Sky Blue to level the match. That’s pretty inexcusable. The rest was a crapshoot and nine goals later, a Sky Blue victory.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – You honestly don’t know where Kerr can go from here. All of her goals were in the second half and she somehow scored the fourth after missing a penalty kick in stoppage time. I’m no stats guru, but there can’t be too many incidents of that at any level of soccer ever.

Under the Radar: Christine Nairn – Back in the yesteryear of the first half, Nairn had several incisive balls that shredded the holes in the Sky Blue defense even wider and led to a couple of Reign goals that unfortunately will be lost to the annals of history.

Inside the Numbers: 34 – Number of goals scored by Sky Blue this season, which is seven more than any of the teams in the top three of the NWSL standings.

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

Portland 2:0 Houston (recap)

What Went Down: This was a veritable snoozefest compared to the previous game, but then again, what isn’t? If you remember earlier in the season, we were lamenting why the Thorns’ national team players couldn’t match their form with the club, but no more. While the scoreline isn’t terribly lopsided, Portland was in control against a wounded Dash team throughout.

As they methodically try to hunt down North Carolina, it’s also worth giving Mark Parsons a shoutout, as he had a lot of egos to try to manage as well as a slew of injuries and national team call-ups (not to mention Tobin Heath hasn’t even played this season). But here the Thorns sit, looking like they’ll at least host a semifinal playoff game, which will certainly make the league happy.

Player of the Game: Meghan Klingenberg – It hasn’t been a great season for Klingenberg, who seems out of the national team picture at the moment and has had a few tough moments for the Thorns. But she was excellent here, getting up and down the sidelines and just being tough to find in the Portland attack while still manning her defensive duties.

Under the Radar: Christine Sinclair – Just a typical Sinclair performance where she controlled play, found space, and made the correct decisions throughout. Hopefully she gets the credit she deserves when she retires.

Inside the Numbers: 19,672 – The Portland attendance numbers just never get old. And they never will for me. Well, if everyone else catches up, maybe.

Up next: Portland – at Seattle (Sat.); Houston – vs. North Carolina (Sun.)

SUNDAY

Chicago 1:3 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: The funny thing about the Red Stars’ seemingly inexplicable slide is that they actually started extremely well in this match, with Yuki Nagasato running wild and Chicago creating several chances that they obviously didn’t take because soon thereafter FCKC was up two goals and despite a 24-9 shot advantage, it wasn’t enough to get anything out of the match and puts them in real playoff peril.

As surprising as Chicago’s collapse is, Kansas City’s rise has to be equally so, a team that could not score and just had very little in the final third has suddenly found themselves with everyone from Maegan Kelly to Sydney Leroux contributing and confidence in defense rising along with it. Meanwhile, the Red Stars center back duo of Sam Johnson and Katie Naughton suddenly looks really shaky after doing a fantastic job in the first half of the season. That’s what makes coaching so hard, folks.

Player of the Game: Shea Groom – It was after a game in Chicago last season that Vlatko Andonovski said Groom would be on the national team sooner rather than later, which hasn’t materialized, but more performances like this, where she created both first half goals that eventually won the game, will help.

Under the Radar: Sydney Miramontez – Miramontez had a really tough time in her last start, but filling in for Yael Averbuch here, she looked much more comfortable, even when the Red Stars produced a lot of pressure in the second half.

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of consecutive home losses for the Red Stars, which is made more amazing because only Houston and Washington have lost more than three home games (4 each) all season..

Up next: Chicago – at Washington (Sat.); Kansas City – vs. Orlando (Sat.)

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