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The Lowdown: A deeper look at the NWSL standings

Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City
Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City

Despite what the standings show, FC Kansas City, led by co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, may be the best team in the NWSL right now. (Photo Copyright Thad Bell for |

When the season began I was approached about putting weekly power rankings in The Lowdown.  I declined.  There were several reasons for this, among them my belief that ranking teams every week gets stale pretty quickly, plus in a single table league it’s fairly obvious to see where teams stand.

All that said the inaugural NWSL season is now five weekends old and that seems like a good time to put together what we can call the every-so-often power rankings.  It is fairly obvious looking at the table that the standings have split with five teams looking mostly solid and the other three—all without a win—facing tough tasks to climb back into contention.

Here’s how I see the clubs after five weeks:

8.  Seattle Reign FC (0-4-1):

Not sure if it is a snap reaction to a particularly poor performance at Sky Blue, but putting the Reign on the bottom was the easiest call during this process.  Putting Saturday’s debacle aside the Reign have done their best work closest to their own goal and have had very few good stretches of dangerous possession.  Jessica Fishlock has been a find at midfield but she does most of her work winning balls after which she is seldom dangerous.

The season began well when 1st round pick Christine Nairn gave them a lead early against the Red Stars.  But they have not led since and Nairn has not looked particularly threatening.

Megan Rapinoe is due in soon and she can only help things offensively.  And Hope Solo said she has the June 15 U.S.-South Korea match circled on her calendar meaning she could soon be back in goal (Michelle Betos has filled in admirably.)

The down side is that their 1st round pick in 2014 belongs to the Red Stars and they’ll also have to ship a U.S. allocation to the Windy City.

7.  Chicago Red Stars (0-3-2):

When the Red Stars scored in added time to eke out a 1-1 draw with Sky Blue on Wednesday, coach Rory Dames said it was the first break the team received all season.  The bad breaks continued on Mother’s Day when Ella Masar and Leslie Osborne both limped off with injuries.  Add to that a soft goal allowed by Erin McLeod to stake the Thorns to an early 1-0 lead and it was another long day for the Red Stars.

The Red Stars do have help on the way.  Shannon Boxx was the team’s best midfielder the only time she started and could be back sometime next month after minor knee surgery.  The club will also happily welcome Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss as the first Germans to play professionally in the U.S. in a decade.

“We have some good players that still aren’t here yet that are going to significantly help us,” Dames said, “so we just have to keep finding out who we’re going to be and keep competing.

Dames acknowledged that, “other teams have luxuries we don’t have.”  But it’s time to start finding ways to win or the Red Stars could find themselves out of playoff contention early.

6.  Washington Spirit (0-2-3):

Among the winless sides the Spirit clearly seem the closest to breaking through.  In fact they nearly opened 1-0 until the Breakers scored in stoppage time to make opening night a 1-1 draw.  In the rematch last weekend they played the Breakers 1-1 again and they carried the play for extended portions.  The goal they allowed was the product of some strong Breakers passing but also a youthful back line’s inability to play a ball out of the defensive third despite limited pressure.

When I asked coach Mike Jorden before the season what the top concern was he offered ‘goal scoring’ for an answer.  In five matches the team has scored five goals.  Two have been from the penalty spot and only one has come from a forward.  Tiffany McCarty has that goal, against the Breakers in the opener, but for the most part McCarty, Stephanie Ochs, Caroline Miller, and whoever else have lined up as frontrunners have failed to put too much stress on opposing defenses.

In midfield Diana Matheson—3 goals—and Lori Lindsey—highlight reel goal—are starting to form quite a dynamic duo.  If they keep it up that should help create space for the strikers and eventually complete the offense.  In back Candace Chapman returned at center back last weekend and pushed Robyn Gayle out to left back.  Ashlyn Harris has been as good as any goalkeeper in the league.

The Spirit just completed a four-game stretch at home during which they were 0-2-2.  NWSL is still young and no team has any sort of lead pipe home field advantage.  Still a two-game trip to the Pacific Northwest looms this week and the Spirit will need to start collecting points sooner than later.

5.  Sky Blue FC (3-1-1):

Sky Blue, for me, is the swing team thus far.  They have shown signs of being able to compete against the best, but they have also looked flat at times as if they could easily lose to any team at any time.  There is room for improvement if Lisa De Vanna can finish more consistently and Kelley O’Hara and Katy Freels can do more to assist in the attacking third.  They will also get Jill Loyden back soon.  Brittany Cameron has played admirably with two of the best saves of the season but she also gets caught off her line too often and her distribution is poor.  Brittany Bock is working her way back from a rib injury.

On the flip side head coach Jim Gabarra said after Saturday’s win over the Reign that the matchup favored them because the Seattle side tried to outplay them instead of taking it to them physically.

“I think teams want to be physical with us and we really didn’t find the answers to break that down,” Gabarra said about a 0-1-1 stretch against the Red Stars and Flash.

The final landing place for Sky Blue may lie in how their defensive line holds up.  Gabarra seems set on O’Hara as a forward—he could have more flexibility to change his mind when Bock gets back—leaving Christie Rampone to play with three first-year players.

“Right now yeah,” Gabarra said about his current back line of Caitlin Foord-Rampone-CoCo Goodson-Kendall Johnson.  “There are still times when players are getting in behind our wide defenders.  But CoCo’s getting better and better every game defensively.  Right now they’re doing a good job.”

4.  Boston Breakers (2-0-2):

Many observers spent the preseason wondering if the Breakers would be good enough defensively to survive—guilty as charged.  Five weeks into the season the story is that Lisa Cole has found magic in the midfield.  Lianne Sanderson, Joanna Lohman, and Heather O’Reilly have found instant chemistry and made this an entertaining team to watch.  The fourth member, Mariah Nogueira, has been strong as well.  The main beneficiary has been Sydney Leroux, who leads the league with four goals including the only hat trick to this point.

There are still issues in back, particularly on the flanks, but Ashley Phillips has shown she has a keen eye for reading plays.  The means Cole, for the moment, is vindicated for her decision not to use a high draft pick on a quality goalkeeper.

3.  Western New York Flash (2-2-1):

Two weeks ago the Flash were 0-2-1 and holding their breath over the condition of Abby Wambach.  They have played twice since then, winning both times with Wambach scoring three of the four goals.

“Obviously it’s no secret we had a rocky start,” captain McCall Zerboni said.  “It could have easily happened that we started doubting ourselves and pointing fingers and we could have unraveled, but instead we banned together and we became stronger.  We’ve got the ball rolling and it’s not going to stop.”

Zerboni is part of a midfield that could be the best in the league by season’s end.  Samanatha Kerr and all of her 19 years has shown signs of being an elite flank player and U.S. national team standout Carli Lloyd is just now back from a shoulder injury.  Then there is Angela Salem who is quietly bidding to be talked about as one of the best defensive midfielders in NWSL.

“You know we kind of like her that way,” Zerboni said when asked about Salem being underappreciated.  “She’s our hidden gem.  Truly and honestly she’s the glue to us right now.  She has so many attributes to each game and fits perfectly into our system.  She’s doing a fabulous job.”

Flash coach Aaran Lines queries every player he brings in and asks if they are ready to commit themselves to winning a championship.  It is a formula that has worked over the last three years and this year’s team is starting to look like contenders to be in the mix again.

2.  Portland Thorns FC (4-0-1):

Yup, I went ahead and put the Thorns second.  It’s not a knock it’s just an opinion, but there are essentially three reasons they are not no. 1, notably how good FC Kansas City are.  The others are that the Thorns appear to have stretches during every match where they struggle to put their best feet forward.  And their four-match win streak is exclusively against the bottom three who are an aggregate 0-9-5.

The good news is the Thorns have much more to offer.  Becky Edwards and Allie Long have yet to fully gel together in midfield and are a dangerous pairing when/if they do.  Potential deficiencies in back and goal have yet to materialize.  The Thorns also possess what might be the most valuable weapon in NWSL.  Danielle Foxhoven has been far and away the most dangerous player off the bench.  With most teams lacking depth Foxhoven could prove key late in the season if she remains in a reserve role.

1.  FC Kansas City (2-1-1):

The Blues get the top spot despite losing their first match of the season on the weekend, 2-1 at Western New York.  Their fifth-place standing is slightly misleading being one of two sides with a match in hand on the other six.  They get the top spot because Vlatko Andonovski has them playing solid soccer and they remain the club with the fewest weaknesses across the board.

“Obviously things have gone well up until this last road trip,” left back Leigh Ann Robinson said.

A week before FC Kansas City went to Seattle and pulled off the difficult task of taking a second straight game against the same opponent with the back end being on the road.  That night’s goal was a masterpiece of beautiful soccer, created mostly by a scintillating run and cross by center back Becky Sauerbrunn.

Robinson says the team clicked early but feels there is still room for improvement.  “Obviously we have a lot to work on.  We certainly have room to build.  I think everyone’s goal would be to peak late in the season so during playoffs you can have a good run.  We read each other very well but the more and more we play together the more things will gel.”

Andonovski has kept his team on task, coming to training each day with a specific element of the game to work on.

The Blues now have a two-match homestand against the Breakers and Sky Blue which will give them an opportunity to do some damage against other teams fighting for the top positions.

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.  There were five matches during Week 5 and 11 goals scored.  Allocated players continue to dominate the goal scoring trends.  Here’s how the goals break down with Week 5 totals in parenthesis.:

Allocated players – 25 (6)

College Draft – 3

Free Agent – 10 (3)

Supplemental Draft – 5 (2)

Discovery et al. 1

Own Goals – 1

Note:  Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category

Free Kicks

-FC Kansas City had an eventful trip to Rochester last Friday.  The team was scheduled for a 45 minute layover in Baltimore but weather issues turned it into a several hour wait on the tarmac.  They wound up arriving in Rochester well after midnight, hours after they were expecting to be resting comfortably in their hotel.  Players are reported to have stayed upbeat during the delay.

-When Alyssa Mautz scored the stoppage time equalizer for the Red Stars Wednesday night she was the latest Supplemental Draft choice (No. 37) to have appeared in a match.  Sunday she was surpassed by Portland’s Jessica Shufelt (No. 40) who played the final minute for the Thorns.

-Renae Cuellar, Sophie Schmidt, and Diana Matheson all had three-match goal-scoring streaks snapped on the weekend.  Schmidt came the closest, hitting the crossbar.

-Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler was a guest on the webcast Sunday and hinted there was a surprise national team call-up coming off the Red Stars roster.  We won’t speculate as to who it is…yet.

-More midweek action this week with Cascadia Thursday kicking off the week.  The Reign host the Spirit in a battle of winless sides starting at 10 p.m. EDT and 30 minutes later the Thorns host Sky Blue FC with first place on the line.  The eastern clubs will stay in the Pacific Northwest and swap venues on Sunday.


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