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Analysis

NWSL Week 20 Preview

Two spots are clinched. Sky Blue and FC Kansas City are still in the hunt, but their chance is rapidly disappearing. Chicago could be the next to punch their ticket to the playoffs as we wrap up NWSL Week 20.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Chicago Red Stars at FC Kansas City

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 6-5-4 (plus Kansas City, 1-0-0 in playoffs)
In Kansas City: Red Stars lead, 3-2-2
Last meeting: August 20, 2017; 3-1 Kansas City

After ending their winning streak against Orlando, FC Kansas City picked right back up again with a 4-1 win over Sky Blue. The tactics they employed are likely to work well against Chicago too – sitting deep to prevent Christen Press from getting in behind and nullifying the midfield by playing over it. Chicago’s backline has been unsteady as of late, particularly in the center, so Sydney Leroux should find some success if she can time her runs correctly. Lo’eau LaBonta and Desiree Scott can provide a physical presence, that FCKC otherwise lacks, to counteract that which Chicago brings. It’s really too late for FCKC’s playoff hopes, but they can play spoiler to rival Chicago as well as help out Seattle and Orlando.

A win, and Chicago is in. Although they’ve slipped to fourth place, three points will see them become the third to clinch a spot in the playoffs. While two wins has seen them bounce back on the scoreboard, they haven’t been all that convincing. A lack of finishing (on both sides) saw them leave it late in their home finale, and had what is possibly the most egregious non-call this season gone the other way, North Carolina likely would have had an opportunity for a penalty kick. Alyssa Naeher’s form has been eluding her since national team duty due to a groin injury, but even more concerning is the poor decision making she’s demonstrated. With a less than convincing backline in front of her and not really a solid option on the bench, Naeher regaining her footing is crucial not only in this game but moving forward. An option to help out might be moving Julie Ertz back into defense, especially as their central midfield is even more crowded with the arrival of Morgan Brian.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sydney Leroux

Despite increasingly good form, Leroux was left off the most recent USWNT roster, and there’s often not much better motivation for a player. She and Shea Groom form one of the most tenacious attacks in the league, with their speed and ability to get under defenders’ skins finally reaping goals.

Danielle Colaprico

The diminutive midfielder tends to fly under the radar behind the battering ram ferocity of Ertz and the technical ability of Yuki Nagasato, but she’s a force in her own right even when she’s pushed out of her natural position into a flank spot. Colaprico is an intelligent player who rarely takes no for an answer.

Keep an eye on:

  • Christina Gibbons in the midfield
  • The Press-Nagasato partnership

Sam Mewis and the Courage are in the playoffs, and one win away from hosting a semifinal in their first season in North Carolina (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Houston Dash at North Carolina Courage

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Dash lead, 4-1-2
In North Carolina: first meeting
Last meeting: August 27, 2016; 2-2 draw

It’s crazy to think we’re in the last month of the regular season with two teams who still haven’t played each other, but that’s exactly the story with Houston and North Carolina thanks to a postponed game that has yet to be rescheduled. They approach this match from different arenas – the Courage have punched their playoff ticket, and a win could see them clinch a home semifinal, while the Dash are wrapping up yet another disappointing season. That said, both teams are coming off losses. The Courage looked like the better team for much of their match against Chicago but gave up what looked like a draw with a late goal. They’ve been dogged by poor finishing all year and with all their firepower on their roster should really offer more than the 5th best offense. Facing Jane Campbell, they’ll want to test her more often. The Courage will be without McCall Zerboni, who is on yellow card suspension.

The Dash will have to wait a few more weeks to return to their home field after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, but they are at least back training at home. It’s a blow to a season that has been nothing if not up and down. They’ll head back to the drawing board for next season with what will likely be a new coach, but they still have four games to play. New Dash player Kristie Mewis played a full 90 without ever stepping foot in Houston and looked like she’ll fit in with the energy of Rachel Daly, who returns from suspension. The Dash didn’t create many chances against Seattle but could probably have scraped out a draw if they’d taken more advantage of the ones they did. Look for their outside backs to get high and provide lots of play from the flanks, which could stretch the Courage defense but will also leave them vulnerable to counter attacks. Cari Roccaro, the most recent choice at defensive midfielder, is likely in for a long night trying to contain Sam Mewis. The Dash will be without Bruna, who is on yellow card suspension.

Keep an eye on:

  • The battle in central midfield

Megan Oyster will have her hands full containing Christine Sinclair. (Credit: ISI Photos/Mike Gridley)

Portland Thorns FC at Boston Breakers

Sunday, 6:00 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Thorns lead, 7-5-1
In Boston: Breakers lead, 4-2-1
Last meeting: May 27, 2017; 2-0 Thorns

Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a race between Boston and Washington to stay out of the bottom spot or a race to take it in order to draft Andi Sullivan. Though tied on points, Boston sits in 9th for the time being. Last time Portland visited Boston, they were held to a 2-2 draw. The Breakers had gone from a winning April to a winless May, but they still had Rose Lavelle, while the Thorns were caught in the mire of waiting on Tobin Heath. Lavelle is back, and so, in theory, is Heath though she is out again for this one. How effective Lavelle can be is still up in the air as she gets her legs back beneath her. The Breakers need her immediately to control this game. The Thorns’ game depends on their control of the midfield, so Lavelle and Angela Salem need to disrupt that. Morgan Andrews is not making the trip from USC for this one. The Breakers also need help up top for either Katie Stengel or Natasha Dowie, who are not single strikers, but Adriana Leon and Rosie White have been inconsistent.

The Thorns have clinched their playoff spot, and thanks to North Carolina’s stumble at Chicago, the Shield is in reach for the second season in a row. They’re also aiming to host another semifinal. Boston held them to a draw on their last visit to the east coast, but a lot has happened since then. Notably, the Thorns adjusted to life without Tobin Heath, and on the backs of the second-strongest defense in the league, they’ve steadily improved. As Boston is working Rose Lavelle back into the lineup, they will want to make sure she is closely marked, probably by Lindsey Horan, and take advantage of an unstable Breakers back line by keeping the ball in the Thorns’ attacking half.

Keep an eye on:

  • The Meghan Klingenberg-Margaret Purce matchup

(photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit at Sky Blue FC

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

Both teams enter this match coming off a blowout. Washington couldn’t put up much of a fight in Portland, while Sky Blue was exposed by Kansas City. With struggling defenses, expect a high scoring match on both ends. Sky Blue didn’t have much to offer defensively against FCKC and could get worked over by Washington’s pace up top. They want to play a quick game and create more space for Sam Kerr to operate. Without Kerr, their offense nearly ground to a halt.

Washington just can’t shake the injury curse, all but limping to this season’s finishing line. Without Stephanie Labbé to clean up their defensive errors, Estelle Johnson injured, and Shelina Zadorsky not having a season to write home about, their backline is in disarray, and Kerr and Maya Hayes could run rampant past it. What they lack for in speed on defense they make up for in the attack, so look for a quick transition game with Tori Huster forcing turnovers and Meggie Dougherty-Howard restarting the attack. The Spirit don’t often go direct, but they could find success with long balls for Mallory Pugh to run down.

Keep an eye on:

  • Set pieces

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