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NWSL Week 18 Preview

The red hot Pride are in Kansas City where the Blues are looking to make a late run for a playoff berth. (photo by Mark Thor, ISI Photo/courtesy of Orlando Pride)

From day one, all eyes are on the playoffs. This week could see the first playoff spot clinched as well as the first teams eliminated. Scenarios exist that can secure a berth for North Carolina even though Hurricane Harvey will keep them off the field this weekend while both Boston and Washington could officially be out of it with losses and certain outcomes of other games. We’re closing in on October as we tackle Week 18.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Orlando Pride (8-6-5) at FC Kansas City (6-8-5)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 2-1-1
In Kansas City: Kansas City lead, 1-0-1
Last meeting: July 15, 2017; 4-1 Pride

Even a month ago, this matchup wasn’t nearly as scintillating as it is now. Both teams were struggling to solidify their defenses enough to get results while their offenses found their form. Now they are two of the most in-form teams in the league, each coming into this match on a three-game winning streak. FC Kansas City’s stretch of goals conceded in July was always bizarre given the level of talent and organization on that backline, so while their return to form isn’t so surprising, their offensive prowess is more so. Sydney Leroux has scored in two of their last three wins, while Shea Groom has added a goal and two assists. It’s often a matter of peaking at the right time, and, not for the first time, FCKC appears to be doing just that. Their defense wants to stay compact and avoid having their lack of pace exposed by the likes of Alex Morgan. Look for Camila to take on Becca Moros on FCKC’s left flank, and keep an eye on Desiree Scott, who will have her hands full with Marta. The Pride dominated FCKC in nearly every stat collected in their last match, an embarrassing 4-1 defeat, so FCKC may be looking for revenge on their home pitch.

There probably isn’t a better partnership in the league right now than Morgan and Marta. Their chemistry is a huge reason the Pride have marched up the chart, and along with it they seem to have brought more out of players like Jasmyne Spencer and Chioma Ubogagu. Their attack is lightning fast and can be brutal on transition, which could work well against FCKC who generally prefer a more patient game. Both teams have no problem looking for the long ball if necessary, too, so Monica may be tested next to Ali Krieger more than she has so far, although Boston had their chances. The Pride do struggle more on the road, but they proved capable of grinding out a win in Boston last week and were a silly, last second penalty away from another clean sheet. They have the chance to jump into third place with a win or draw if Chicago loses again.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brittany Ratcliffe

A free pick off waivers, Ratcliffe has found a home in Kansas City, where her relentless energy fits in well with Groom and Leroux. Her contributions aren’t always reflected in the box score, but she has become a valuable and dangerous piece in the attack.

Steph Catley

Recently referred to as the best left back in the world by her teammate Krieger (who ought to know), Catley has dominated nearly every flank she’s encountered so far this season. Her service is among the best, and she reads the game well enough to rarely get caught up the pitch. Look for much of Orlando’s flank attack to begin with her.

Keep an eye on:
• The keepers, both of whom have historically struggled with injury

Nahomi Kawasumi leads the league in assists. (photo by Lewis Gettier)

Portland Thorns FC (10-5-4) at Seattle Reign FC (7-6-6)

Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: tied. 6-6-3
In Seattle: Reign lead, 4-2-1
Last meeting: July 1, 2017; 2-0 Reign

While not featured as The Equalizer’s Game of the Week this time, the Cascadia rivalry has never failed to be less than highly entertaining. Each team sits on 49 total regular season wins in the NWSL, so the victor of this match takes home some extra bragging rights. Seattle is always better at home, although current form might dictate otherwise. They jumped out to an early 3-0 lead at Sky Blue last week but for the second time this season allowed Sky Blue to come back in the second half. This time they didn’t have Megan Rapinoe to save them and gave up what was at half time an assured three points. Frankly, their defense got lazy and complacent. Portland may not have Sam Kerr, but they have Christine Sinclair, who has been shredding defenses since Kerr was in grade school. They’ll have to do better in order to get back into the playoff race. As always, the team’s fortunes appear to revolve around Jessica Fishlock, who hasn’t been the same since her most recent injury despite (or perhaps because of) a speedy recovery. Better play from her should relieve some defensive pressure.

For the second time this season, Portland passed circles around Houston and dominated the match. Lindsey Horan has proven herself to be the midfield force that Jill Ellis would like her to be for the national team, logging mile after mile as she marks key players on defense and sets up the attack after forcing turnovers. Sinclair, after a very slow start to the season, is now one of the best playmakers in the league, and still very dangerous up top. With Savannah Jordan now on the Thorns’ active roster, they have an almost embarrassing glut of attacking talent. However, all the talent in the world won’t matter if the Thorns can’t shake the lethargy that always seems to accompany them to Memorial Stadium.

Keep an eye on:
• Referee Farhad Dadkho, as these games are always physical battles

{Related: Q&A with Katie Johnson}

Meggie Dougherty Howard (29) and Havana Solaun (9) take the field together for the Washington Spirit. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Chicago Red Stars (8-6-5) at Washington Spirit (4-10-4)

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Spirit lead, 6-3-2 (plus 1-0-0 in playoffs)
In Washington: Spirit lead, 3-1-1 (plus 1-0-0 in playoffs)
Last meeting: June 17, 2017; 1-1 draw

Washington held their own in the first half against North Carolina last week, but a poor clearance from Alyssa Kleiner immediately upon subbing in at the restart handed Ashley Hatch a goal, and a truly painful own goal off Kassey Kallman late in the match sealed their fate. They actually outshot the Courage, although fewer were on target, and out-possessed as well. Jim Gabarra’s focus needs to be on shoring up his backline. Newcomer Morgan Profitt, though a defensive midfielder (where the Spirit are strong), can also slot in at centerback and may be worth a shot, as the Spirit’s 32 goals against are the second worst in the league. They’re facing a Red Stars side who has struggled to finish all season long, but Christen Press still has nine goals to her name.

Chicago may be in a much better standing than Washington, but they have a similar problem: their backline is in shambles. Alyssa Naeher hasn’t been herself for weeks and is not only giving up goals, she’s giving up poor ones. The defense has been allowing itself to get stretched and exposed, leading to a three-game losing streak at home, once nearly a fortress. The biggest problem is that their defense has been what has led to success so far this season, for they’ve nearly been an offensive juggernaut. Their finishing problems came to a head against FCKC, when they were able to create chance after chance but sent the ball every which way but on frame. Out of 22 shots, only 6 were on goal. That’s simply not good enough, and although they’re likely to get chances at Washington, they’re looking equally likely to give them up.

Keep an eye on:
• Kristie Mewis to face her old team – again

Sam Kerr has delivered time and again for Sky Blue. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Boston Breakers (3-9-7) at Sky Blue FC (8-9-2)

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 6-3-3
In New Jersey: Sky Blue lead, 4-0-2
Last meeting: April 23, 2017; 1-0 Breakers

It was a tale of two halves for Sky Blue in their first match without both their head coach and their captain: the first, in which they might as well have not had a backline, and the second, in which Sam Kerr became the first player to ever score four goals in a single game and with a little help from Maya Hayes snatched three points from Seattle. Sky Blue stays in the playoff hunt for now, but they’re increasingly reliant on Kerr and one has to wonder how far that can take them. Also worrisome are the recent performances from Kailen Sheridan. The keeper has gone from keeping her team in games (and her name in the Rookie of the Year race) to giving up some truly poor goals.

On a seven-game winless streak and still without a road win this season, it’s hard to think of something that is going right for Boston right now. Injuries have done a number, to the point where a once-promising season has seen them fall to the bottom, where they’re above Washington (who has a game in hand) on a tiebreaker but are seven points shy of Houston. While they created some chances against Orlando, they lacked the final ball, and, as is the story with several other teams, they can’t maintain a defensive shape for ninety minutes. A little more pressure relief from the midfield, including Morgan Andrews and Rosie White, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Keep an eye on:
• Sarah Killion, who was benched in an odd choice but had to sub on early for Raquel Rodriguez and notched an assist
• Katie Stengel, who is finding some success with her hold up play but needs someone to finish it off

{Related: The Lowdown: Christie Pearce’s unlikely, untimely ending with Sky Blue FC}

North Carolina Courage (13-5-0) at Houston Dash (7-10-2)

Sunday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Dash lead, 4-1-2
In Houston: Dash lead, 2-1-1
Last meeting: August 27, 2016; 2-2 draw

This game was postponed on Friday in advance of Hurricane Harvey which is expected to make landfall in Southeast Texas sometime early this weekend. The Courage are one win from clinching a playoff berth. It can still happen if both the Reign and Sky Blue lose on Saturday. Makeup information for this match has not been announced.

Keep an eye on:
• A potenial makeup during the FIFA window which could kill Abby Dahlkemper’s consecutive minutes streak.

{Read More: Run of Play: Offense versus defense}

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