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NWSL Week In Review: Rookies have it harder than you think

Olympic teammates Christen Press, right, and Mallory Pugh battle during Week 18 action (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

The NWSL Draft, as in any other American professional sports league, is a chance for fans and organizations alike to look to the future, to fill holes that exist and add young players who can potentially be part of your team for the next decade (we can only hope).

Alas, the transition from the college game to NWSL is sometimes an underrated one, and never has it been more apparent than in 2017, where the Rookie of the Year race is muddled – to say the least – with a month to go in the regular season. It didn’t start off that way. Rose Lavelle was living up to her top pick status and playing well for Boston until she suffered a hamstring injury with the U.S. national team in early June (one of the big reasons while the Breakers have now won just once in their last 17 matches).

So who is Rookie of the Year? No. 2 pick Ashley Hatch could make a case with five goals, even though she has started just 10 games for the current league leaders North Carolina. No. 3 selection Morgan Andrews has started in place of Lavelle, but has yet to have the impact her teammate did as the Breakers continue to struggle. Kayla Mills was next, and along with college teammate Mandy Freeman (No. 10 pick, with both winning a national title at USC with Andrews), have been part of a Sky Blue defense that might rank as one of the worst in NWSL history.

Christina Gibbons (No. 5) has been better since moving to a midfield position, but had trouble keeping up at outside back earlier in the season as Kansas City took a while to get going this season as well, although she has played in all 20 games and started 19 of them. We have yet to hear from the next two: Maddie Bauer has made just two appearances with Seattle, while Darien Jenkins has yet to play in a professional game because of injury. Ifeona Onumonu has started the last couple of games for Boston due to injuries, but has yet to score, while No. 9 selection Margaret Purce may have a case to win Rookie of the Year award, although she has scored just once in 18 matches, she does now have a national team call-up to her credit.

That’s it for the first round of the 2017 NWSL Draft. There have been some success stories in the final three rounds, and you could make a case that the depth of this rookie class is as good as any other season. Of course, we haven’t even talked about the biggest name to enter NWSL this season, Mallory Pugh. Her three goals in 11 games has not been enough to bring Washington out of the bottom of the standings, but will that be enough to win Rookie of the Year?

Kailen Sheridan (selection No. 23) has had a solid rookie campaign, and posted a clean sheet Saturday night, but has given up the most goals in the league and her form prior to Saturday had slipped a bit, perhaps due to the sheer volume of activity she has had to deal with. Second-round picks Rachel Hill, Jane Campbell, and Katie Johnson have shown flashes, but none of them has been on the field the entire season or been really consistent stars. No. 29 selection Meggie Dougherty Howard has had consistency, starting 16 games in Washington, but doesn’t have any offensive numbers (1 goal) to speak of.

Madison Tiernan, Arielle Ship (who may have suffered yet another season ending injury for Washington Saturday), Nichelle Prince, and Sammy Jo Prudhomme have all had their moments, but have not been there week in and week out.

This is not to say, of course, that none of these players will be future stars in NWSL. Surely some of them will, and many have already shown significant improvement. But, as we look forward to 2018 soon, let us remember that there is often a fairly steep learning curve for players making the jump from college soccer to the NWSL, and banking on rookies to turn a team around has not proven to be a strategy that has worked in the recent past.

So who will be Rookie of the Year this time around? Whomever it is, it’s likely they won’t appear in the NWSL Best XI at season’s end, which is not a rare occurrence. In fact, none of the previous winners of the award (Erika Tymrak, Julie Ertz, Danielle Colaprico, Raquel Rodriguez) was given that honor.

What else did we learn in a weekend where Houston’s game with North Carolina was smartly postponed thanks to the record flooding in the city?

SATURDAY

Kansas City 1:2 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: From the “things always even out in the end” crowd, the Pride were in a situation earlier in the season where they seemed to be on the wrong end of some tough results. At the time, it looked like they would be enough to keep them out of the postseason, but obviously that is no more, as they are heavy favorites to join us in the playoffs (and need to win only once to host the final).

Of course, you make your own breaks as well, and Alex Morgan did with yet another goal, this time a late winner in a match were FCKC was probably the better team (albeit slightly overall). While frustrating, Kansas City continued its solid play. It might have been able to dream a bit of a shocking playoff run with a win here, but the hole it dug earlier in the season was just too deep.

Player of the Game: Ali Krieger – She got the benefit of a couple of calls against Shea Groom, but Krieger was solid throughout, and she has played better soccer in Orlando’s latest streak as well as the entire team has gained confidence heading into the stretch run.

Under the Radar: Lo’eau LaBonta – It hasn’t been the best of seasons for FCKC, but LaBonta has been remarkably consistent this year and was finally rewarded with a goal for her efforts. It will be interesting to see how the team is created for 2018.

Inside the Numbers: 9 – Number of total shots for the Pride in the match, with Morgan getting just two and Marta one, but it was enough for three points anyway, even with FCKC doing a great job defensively for the most part.

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

Seattle 1:2 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: Looking at the current table, it’s easy to forget how much the Thorns struggled at the beginning of the season, and with the number of injuries, international call-ups, and other absences, it was hard to see tremendous improvement for much of the campaign. Well, much of the campaign is now over, Portland is rolling, and could still add Tobin Heath and Savannah Jordan for the playoff run in the final few weeks. The Thorns are so deep that Allie Long came off the bench again, as did Dagny Brynjarsdottir.

Of course, both Portland goals came off large mistakes in the Seattle defense, but the Thorns outshot the Reign 25-4, and there was little doubt who was dominant. With Megan Rapinoe not close to returning, it does appear that Seattle’s playoff hopes are dead and it appears to be a team that will need plenty of help next season. We’ll see from where it comes.

Player of the Game: Hayley Raso – There was a time (earlier this season), where Raso had a reputation as a hard worker who couldn’t necessarily score. She was the difference in this match, and a likely Player of the Week. It’s worth remembering also that Raso is one player that any NWSL team could have probably picked up, but didn’t. Their loss at this point.

Under the Radar: Lindsey Horan – As I’ve pointed out earlier this season, when Horan dominates the midfield as she did Saturday, there doesn’t seem to be much stopping Portland. Ironically, it was the likes of Kim Little and Keelin Winters who did the same for the Reign in years past. But those days are gone, unfortunately, which was never more obvious than this match.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of points between Seattle and fourth place (Chicago and Orlando) at the moment, which is a tough, tough ask to make up with only four matches left in the season.

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

Sky Blue 1:0 Boston (recap | Lauletta)

What Went Down: I was promised nine goals. Did the people at Yurcak Field get their money back? Just kidding, of course, Sky Blue – with a full week under its new regime – will be happy to post a clean sheet with the bucket loads of goals it has conceded in the last month. Sam Kerr came close to scoring a couple more times after her fifth minute goal, and while Raquel Rodriguez did not play, Kelley O’Hara returned in the second half and should be a big help to the Sky Blue defense, although their playoff hopes are likely still nil.

For Boston, it’s now 17 games with just one win and nearly four years with just a single road victory (none this season), which makes it really hard to be competitive. It just seems that whomever Boston has tried at striker over the years hasn’t been able to produce consistently (although Adriana Leon has had her moments this season). And a reward for finishing last (if it beats out Washington) will likely be Andi Sullivan, who is a great player, but not a striker. Rose Lavelle should at least return next week.

Player of the Game: Domi Richardson – Given a second chance to start this season, Richardson performed very well and should have a chance the rest of the way to earn a job for 2018. Give credit to Richardson for sticking it out with Sky Blue this season.

Under the Radar: Nikki Stanton – It’s been an up and down season for Stanton as well, but she played a very solid defensive midfield and also got forward a few times to help with the attack.

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of road teams that won Saturday in the NWSL, with Boston being the only one that didn’t. As was pointed out earlier, the Breakers’ road record has been downright abominable over the last few seasons.

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

Washington 1:2 Chicago (recap | Gordon)

What Went Down: Christen Press committed the foul that led to Cheyna Williams’ equalizer midway through the second half, and appeared to be so angered by it that she took it upon herself to get it back and finally did, giving the Red Stars what could be an invaluable three points in the playoff chase. It was far from a perfect effort from Chicago, who was still under a lot of pressure in the second half, but right now, they have to get into the playoffs and then worry about the rest.

Meanwhile, the Spirit looked like they lost another player to a knee injury in Arielle Ship as they will have some difficult decisions to make in the offseason. Mallory Pugh did deliver a fantastic free kick that led to Washington’s only goal, but the Spirit would like to find a way to get her more involved in the future, and we’ll see what personnel they choose to do that with.

Player of the Game: Casey Short – One of the reasons why Pugh was so quiet had to do with Short, who did not fall for any of her tricks and played her usual solid outside back spot. The Spirit’s only official shot on goal was the one that went in.

Under the Radar: Kristie Mewis – Mewis was inserted directly into the starting lineup and scored a first-half goal against her former team. She has bounced around of late and Chicago’s midfield (when healthy, Vanessa DiBernardo was still out Saturday) is pretty loaded so Rory Dames fitting her in could take some creativity. But her left foot is still lethal if given chances like she was Saturday.

Inside the Numbers: 3 – The number of points between Chicago and Sky Blue for the last playoff spot, which tells the story of how big these three points really were.

Up next: Washington – vs. North Carolina (Wed.); Chicago – vs. North Carolina (Sun.)

SUNDAY

Houston Ppd:Ppd North Carolina

What Went Down: Houston is experiencing record floods which only seem to be getting worse by the hour as of this writing (late Sunday night), so it was a no-brainer to cancel this game. Finding a makeup date could be tricky, in fact, there is no guarantee next Sunday’s home game (against Chicago) will get played with the current forecast, which doesn’t have the rain stopping until Thursday. There is also a football game scheduled for BBVA Compass Stadium next Saturday, so it’s wise at this point just to make sure everyone in Houston is OK before worrying about anything related to soccer.

Up next: Houston – vs. Seattle (Sun.); North Carolina – at Washington (Wed.)

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