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NWSL Week In Review: Boston, Washington close on on Andi Sullivan

Jess McDonald and the Courage remain pole position for the Shield while the Spirit keep sliding toward a possible last-place finish (photo copyright EriMacPhoto for The Equalizer)

Boston and Washington will meet on Sept. 23 in a battle of the two teams that have struggled the most in the second half of the NWSL season. However, it may turn out to be the most important match of the campaign’s penultimate weekend if Orlando and Chicago can get some separation between themselves and Sky Blue and Seattle for the final postseason spots before then.

Why? Because there is a very good chance that the loser (barring 2018 expansion, which is seeming less likely with each passing week) will get the No. 1 pick in January’s draft. And while that is still a few months off, that player will probably be Stanford’s Andi Sullivan, who has four caps with the U.S. full national team, whom either team could definitely use for 2018.

It’s an awkward facet of American professional sports. In Europe, this might be a massive match as well because the loser might find themselves relegated to a lower division in 2018. Neither the Breakers nor Spirit need to be concerned about that (Boston especially is thankful as it closes in on its third straight last-place finish and fourth consecutive in the bottom two), but is it a situation where an organization is best served by losing a match?

Luckily, we won’t have to worry about the professionalism of either team, and although Boston is unbeaten in two meetings with Washington this season, the Breakers still have an edge in the Andi Sullivan sweepstakes as the game in question will be played in Maryland and Boston (after another lopsided defeat Saturday) has a 2-34-8 record away from home over the past four seasons.

It is worth looking at how these teams got here after strong starts to 2017. Boston was 2-1 (winners of two straight) through three games and thumped Seattle 3-0 on April 29 behind Rose Lavelle and Adriana Leon. It has won only once since (18 matches). Some of that is due to a hamstring injury to Lavelle, which has kept her out for more than half the season (she returned as a sub Saturday). There have been other injuries, with the apparently season-ending one to Christen Westphal being a killer, but the confidence in players like Leon has waned as the months have passed. Unfortunately, in a franchise that has struggled for as long as Boston has, the change in attitude is much easier said than done, especially in a league with as little margin for error as the NWSL.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to rehash the tumultuous offseason in Washington that saw several key players that led them to the brink of the NWSL title last season depart under acrimonious circumstances. But for much of the 2017 season, Washington appeared to be rebuilding nicely, including adding Mallory Pugh after trading (with Boston) to be on top of the allocation order.

Injuries are never a complete excuse, but the Spirit suffered another ACL injury last week when Arielle Ship went down against Chicago. It is so bad that Mallory Pugh was pulled at halftime Saturday after a slight tweak, only to see Estefania Banini (herself injured for much of the season before returning) get hurt again a few minutes later. Washington basically tiptoed through the final 40 minutes of the match with no subs. Fortunately, it was able to get to the end with 11 players, which is a minor victory these days.

Ironically, if it weren’t for an ACL tear to Sullivan last fall, she might already be in a Washington uniform. On Nov. 16 of last year, Boston and Washington completed a trade that included Kristie Mewis and Megan Oyster, but also saw the two teams flip-flop in the allocation order, putting the Spirit on top. With Mallory Pugh headed to UCLA, the move was seen to possibly entice Sullivan, a DC-area native to forego her senior year at Stanford and sign with Washington as an allocated player.

But two days later, Sullivan tore her ACL in the NCAA Tournament, and so I guess we’ll never know. Will the Spirit eventually end up with Sullivan and Pugh as they look to change their luck with a strong young core in 2018? It may depend on what happens at the Soccerplex in two weeks.

What else did we learn in a weekend where the top kept rising and the bottom kept sinking?

SATURDAY

Portland 4:0 Washington (recap)

What Went Down: On top of everything else, the Spirit had to deal with 90-degree heat and a red hot Thorns team. Sadly for a national television game, Washington – as you might expect – was never in the game. Interestingly, new league guidelines say that no game can be played when the wet-bulb temperature is more than 95 degrees, and it was getting close in the second half. If it ever comes to that (and if they are still playing afternoon games in the summer next season, it likely will at some point), it will be interesting to see how it is handled. Of course, Mark Parsons went with a shirt and tie anyway.

North Carolina continues to be in pole position for the NWSL Shield, but Portland would obviously love a home game in the playoffs. They lead Chicago and Orlando by five points with three to go, but one of them is at Orlando, so it is not sealed yet. Can the Thorns keep Lindsey Horan, Amandine Henry, and Nadia Nadim playing in top form for another month? If they can, they’ll be tough to stop.

Player of the Game: Emily Sonnett – Sonnett finished with a goal and an assist and since basically being dropped from the national team picture has been outstanding. She might have a case to be Defender of the Year when all is said and done next month with a couple more solid performances.

Under the Radar: Meghan Klingenberg – While not as long as Sonnett, Klingenberg has put together a few good performances in a row, and has been one of the biggest keys to Portland’s recent success.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Official amount of times Allie Long was called offside Saturday. In her defense, most of them came after the game was pretty much decided and Washington wasn’t offering too much resistance, but still funny.

Up next: Portland – at Boston (Sun.); Washington – at Sky Blue (Sun.)

Orlando 4:2 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: It was hard to tell at many times during the game exactly what formation Boston was trying to play as Margaret Purce found herself way up the field on the first two Pride goals on a miserable night in Orlando. Boston showed a little fight in the second half, and although it was nice to see Rose Lavelle on the field, the wisdom of bringing her on with a wet field and the outcome decided is a bit questionable. It will remain to be seen what fight the Breakers have in them the rest of the way, starting with a home game against Portland this week.

The Pride were able to dominate even with Marta having a sub-par match and probably not enough attention has been given to the play of their midfield, which has been outstanding. Their defense (with Camila at right back) still seemed a little more focused on getting forward than shoring up the back, and we’ll have to see if that becomes a factor against playoff-caliber squads like Portland down the stretch, but for now Orlando has as good a chance as anyone to win the NWSL title.

Player of the Game: Dani Weatherholt – Her play has gone a bit unnoticed, but she has controlled the midfield along with Alanna Kennedy, allowing Marta and Alex Morgan (and others like Rachel Hill Saturday) to do their thing in the final third.

Under the Radar: Chioma Ubogagu – It hasn’t been a consistent season for Ubogagu, but she was all over the left side of the field Saturday to the point that you wondered whether anyone was actually there to stop her. The Pride could use that the rest of the way.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Wins in Orlando’s first seven games this season (1-3-3). They have been 9-3-2 since, right there with North Carolina and Portland.

Up next: Orlando – vs. Seattle (Sat.); Boston – vs. Portland (Sun.)

SUNDAY

Kansas City 4:1 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: At some point, people were going to adjust to Sam Kerr and FCKC did it by playing about as deep as you possibly can in a professional soccer match, not allowing Kerr to run by them. It worked perfectly, Kerr and Sky Blue didn’t really have a Plan B and it will be interesting to see whether everyone else in the league follows suit (some have tried in the past, but not been able to pull it off as well as FCKC). 2018 will be fun, no?

FCKC can look to 2018 with renewed optimism and hopefully a healthy Amy Rodridguez to pair with Shea Groom and Sydney Leroux (if she stays). Sky Blue’s defense will see a complete overhaul in the offseason as they are (almost) literally bringing people in off the street to play these days, as 2016 Rutgers grad Cassidy Benintente was signed this week and played in the second half (Benintente has actually trained with Sky Blue for much of the season). The first two FCKC goals came directly from long balls via Nicole Barnhart.

Player of the Game: Shea Groom – Like her team, Groom has had an excellent finish to the campaign and had a part in the first three FCKC goals and took advantage of almost every mistake Sky Blue was making. Her confidence has been contagious among her team.

Under the Radar: Becky Sauerbrunn – It hasn’t been a vintage year for Sauerbrunn, but she played a very intelligent leader of the defense in this one, keeping Kerr and Sky Blue in front of her and knowing where to be and when, just as she has done so many times in her career.

Inside the Numbers: 1,571 – Another embarrassing attendance number from Kansas City, who has a lot of figuring out behind the scenes in the offseason as well.

Up next: Kansas City – vs. Chicago (Sat.); Sky Blue – vs. Washington (Sun.)

Chicago 2:1 North Carolina (recap)

What Went Down: The Red Stars looked dead and buried in the first half, outplayed and outworked at almost every turn and were a hair away from being down two goals when Lynn Williams was ruled offside after scoring against a suddenly shaky Alyssa Naeher. But the Red Stars, in their home finale, found a way to get off the deck and stun the Courage with a couple of second-half goals.

North Carolina still dominated in just about every statistical category and is still heavy favorite to win the NWSL Shield. But one of the Courage’s likely opponents is Chicago and this result will at least strike some fear into them should it happen. In general, there isn’t too much to worry about, though, although maybe the backline may be thinking a bit too much in key situations and the goalkeeping is a bit unsettled.

Player of the Game: Julie Ertz – Ertz did have a bad tackle which brought back memories of a couple of them from her rookie days, but was the dominant force in the Red Stars’ comeback, winning several balls in the midfield (including the one that led to the first goal) and then scoring the game-winner. She has almost certainly been Chicago’s best player this season.

Under the Radar: Yuki Nagasato – Nagasato didn’t start, and we’re left to wonder why after she played a part in both goals and generally seemed to be in the right spot every time the Red Stars mounted an attack. If Chicago is to repeat this result in the playoffs, Nagasato will likely have to play a role.

Inside the Numbers: 14 – Difference in shots between the Courage (21) and Red Stars (7). North Carolina has been wasteful in many matches this season and gotten away with it, but they did not here.

Up next: Chicago – at Kansas City (Sat.); North Carolina – vs. Houston (Sat.)

Houston 0:1 Seattle (at Dallas) (recap)

What Went Down: The Dash played a good first half on a neutral field in Dallas (with Houston still recovering from Hurricane Harvey), but the desperate Reign took the play to them for most of the second half, with Merritt Mathias netting the game-winner. Seattle’s playoff hopes are still slim, but Megan Rapinoe returned late and it will have a shot next week in Orlando to make things very interesting if it can win.

The Dash are a shell of themselves at this point, with Morgan Brian apparently wanting out and getting traded to Chicago and Kealia Ohai, Carli Lloyd, and Rachel Daly (suspension) all out of action. Those were arguably their four best players going into the season, so it’s hard to judge based on that. But Bianca Henninger was back on the bench, with Lydia Williams posting a clean sheet for their opponents.

Player of the Game: Rachel Corsie – Corsie was moved to the middle for this match, and didn’t seem to mind, able to deal with what the Dash threw at her, even if the attack was muted a bit by all the absences.

Under the Radar: Kristie Mewis – On yet another new team, Mewis went 90 minutes and had a solid match for the second week in a row. When the Dash get everyone back (if they ever do), it will be interesting to see what kind of role Mewis plays for them.

Inside the Numbers: 90999 – You can text HARVEY to that number to donate $10 to the hurricane relief fund as the Houston community commences the long recovery from the flooding. The Dash have one more home game this season, Sept. 23 vs. Chicago.

Up next: Houston – at North Carolina (Sat.); Seattle – at Orlando (Sat.)

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