How do you come up with a game plan to stop a team you’ve never seen before? How do you even know if your team is good enough when you’re playing in a brand new league and saw none of your rivals during preseason?
Those were among the questions being asked by most of the eight NWSL teams over the course of opening weekend. In Kansas City, the Blues were thrown into the fire against Portland Thorns FC. Ever since Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair were allocated to the Rose City earlier this year, the Thorns have been considered one of the favorites in NWSL. And even with limited training time together, players like Morgan and Sinclair need no refresher courses on how to score goals.
“It was something that kept me up a little bit last night,” FC Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn said after Saturday’s match, a 1-1 draw.
Kidding or not, however, Sauerbrunn and her teammates prepared and it worked. Although Sinclair scored the Thorns goal, it came on a penalty kick that was won by Danielle Foxhoven. For the most part, Sinclair and Morgan were held in abeyance by Sauerbrunn and her teammates.
“If we spent time on something, it was containing Alex Morgan and Sinclair,” Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “I want to say that both Becky and Lauren (Sesselmann) did a great job in that with the help of course of Merritt (Mathias) and (Leigh Ann) Robinson.”
The back four certainly played well, Sesselmann’s takedown of Foxhoven for the penalty notwithstanding, but the unsung stars of the day were in the defensive midfield. Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott played in a two-defensive-mid setup, sitting flat on top of the back line. Between Buczkowski and Sesselmann they won balls time and again to keep their back four from having to deal with service to the world-class forwards.
“I have to point out,” Andonovski said, “that Desiree Scott and Jen Buczkowski did their job in screening and cutting those passing lanes perfectly. The thing was not to allow them to get the ball because we know what they can do once they get it.
“If I’m not wrong Sinclair had one shot in the first half and Alex had one right-footed shot in the second half. You’ve got the two best strikers in the world and they only take one shot each, I think that’s not bad defense.”
Sinclair’s shot was probably the Thorns’ best chance in the run of play, but it was not the result of a long buildup. Instead, the Canadian unleashed a long shot from distance that was saved by Nicole Barnhart.
“Overall our back line did really well neutralizing them,” Sauerbrunn said. “We kind of backed off and let them to have the space in front of us, and that also allowed Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott to kind of double down and sandwich them, and that helped a lot. They picked off a lot of balls and kind of swept in front of us and made things a lot easier.”
Whether or not Andonovski has already given the league a blue print for stopping the Thorns remains to be seen. Sinclair and Morgan played higher after halftime, which tipped the possession pendulum towards the Thorns. And FC Kansas City has excellent defensive personnel. Also, it was the Thorns’ first match together and there were undoubtedly some nerves in the early going.
“We haven’t had too many real games in preseason and we haven’t been together a lot in preseason and I think our first half showed that,” Sinclair said.
Franch makes her mark
If FC Kansas City’s back seven were the most impressive unit from opening weekend, it would be tough to dispute Adrianna Franch as the most impressive individual. Tipped by All White Kit’s Chris Henderson in last week’s This Week in Women’s Soccer podcast as the best keeper in NWSL, Franch did nothing to dissuade that notion in her professional debut. (Franch won The Equalizer’s Player of the Week award)
Franch made two saves for the highlight reels, both on Lisa De Vanna breakaways, but she put her imprint on the match in other ways. Notably, anything that came near Franch, she caught. It is not easy to find female goalkeepers with good enough hands to hold on to a large majority of crosses and 50/50s near the six-yard box. Sunday at Yurcak Field, any ball in Franch’s airspace was as good as secured.
Asked what he saw from Franch on the night, Flash coach Aaran Lines said, “I see the future national team goalkeeper of the U.S. As you do.”
Lines then reeled in his enthusiasm a bit. “She needs to do that over 21 games. Not one.”
For her part Franch—who actually lost the game 1-0 on McCall Zerboni’s own goal—downplayed her saves on De Vanna. “They’re saves, that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Lines says he enjoys working with young players, especially those burning to get better. “I enjoy developing players. When they’re willing to learn and are hungry to achieve as she is, it’s a pleasure. Again, it was a good performance from her. She won’t be happy with the goal that we conceded, but she needs to focus on doing that another 21 games and playoffs.”
Franch was part of the U.S. national team roster for the Algarve Cup but did not see the field and is not capped by the full team.
“It was a great opportunity,” she said. “I went in, learned a lot, and the girls were really welcoming. Everything there I tried to bring back here.”
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and head coach Tom Sermanni were in Kansas City on Saturday and each took some time to address reporters. Some highlights:
Gulati on goals for the first season of NWSL: The play on the field has to be good. We know it won’t be as good as it will be five years from now. That’s normal. The second is it has to be economically viable. Those two are not completely unrelated. Having people react to what is happening on the field and coming out and supporting the game, over time, will add some sponsors and other commercial partners. For this first year it’s really about on field and fans.
Gulati on why Nike has not been announced as a sponsor: We’ve got a couple of things we want to do first. We can all understand what a swoosh means. So that will certainly be one (sponsor). And there will be a couple of others, but we’ve got some sequencing that we want to do in terms of a media partner. That will happen (this) week.
Gulati on outside interest in future ownership: We’ve had people contact us about participation with in the future. I think an important part of the puzzle for us is to take that slowly. It shouldn’t be the case that our off-season is spent trying to find new owners in order to get expansion fees or lessen the losses for the existing group. We want to be very slow and methodical about this in terms of the buildup, make sure we’re stable, make sure the quality of any new potential owner is up to what we need to make this stable in the long-term. There’s been interest which is a good thing. A couple of MLS owners have been in touch with (Thorns and Timbers owner) Merritt Paulson and I’ve talked to some of them, but we want to make sure we’re doing this in a stable and planned way.
Sermanni on whether he will avoid selecting too many players from the same team for this summer’s friendlies: Not really because that’s not fair to the player. When you’re picking the national team you’re picking the team of what you think is the best team, the best players. If one of these club teams is good enough to have six players that are good enough for the national team then they should be doing okay in the league.
Where are the goals coming from?
Throughout the season The Lowdown will track where the goals are coming from in terms of the different levels of roster building. Seven goals from Week 1:
Allocated players – 3 (one each from United States, Canada, and Mexico)
College Draft – 2
Free Agent – 1
Own Goals – 1
-The Flash say Angela Salem has a lower body injury and is day to day. The midfielder was injured just before halftime Sunday night and was replaced after the break by Amy Barczuk.
-Merritt Mathias was carried off the field late in FC Kansas City’s 1-1 draw with the Thorns. According to her coach, Mathias suffered from cramps and should be good to go Saturday vs. Boston.
-Ashlyn Harris had a few anxious moments after making a save on Sydney Leroux during Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Boston. After taking a few moments to collect herself Harris was alright. The team later revealed that she was playing with flu-like symptoms.
-Leroux had the last laugh, netting the stoppage time goal to give the Breakers the point. The decisive play started with a long ball from, who else, Cat Whitehill.
-Maybe the most interesting tactical move of the weekend was seeing Sky Blue deploy Kelley O’Hara at left back after using her mostly as an attacker during preseason. Coach Jim Gabarra said the move was made to avoid having Christie Rampone and three untested players in back. O’Hara said she is fine either way and that it is not an issue if she plays up to in the league and in back for the national team.
-Opening weekend was a bit rough on the streaming front, but at least one team believes the technical kinks are worked out. Once everyone figures it out this will be an outstanding feature of NWSL.
-Can’t go without a word on Red Stars-Reign. The teams exchanged early goals starting with Christine Nairn snagging the first Reign score on the 10th minute before Lori Chalupny equalized in the 19th. Michelle Betos, given the start for the Reign in the absence of Hope Solo, received high marks on her play.
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