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The Lowdown: Solid storylines out of Week 6

Alex Morgan-Christie Rampone
Alex Morgan-Christie Rampone

Christie Rampone, named NWSL Player of the Week for Week 6, masterfully contained Alex Morgan in Thursday's 1-0 Sky Blue FC win over Portland. (Photo courtesy of David Blair/Portland Thorns FC)

For my money Week 6 in NWSL was the most intriguing so far.  With apologies to the Flash and Red Stars who had the week off there are several interesting storylines that emerged as the season moved past the quarter mark and prepared to dive headlong into summer.

During the last week the Thorns and Breakers became the last two teams to lose while the Spirit entered the win column.  The Thorns loss came to Sky Blue FC who moved to the top of the table and look like serious contenders.  There were also myriad goalkeeper changes and some injuries that could impact next month’s national team call-ups and long-term NWSL outlooks.

Here are a few of the top storylines with 24 of 88 regular season matches now in the books.

Sky Blue upend Thorns, take top spot

Thursday night’s Sky Blue victory over Portland Thorns FC stands as the seminal result of the first quarter of the first NWSL season.  After 80 minutes of controlled defensive play kept the high-powered Thorns offense off the board, Taylor Lytle smacked a long-range shot that beat Karina LeBlanc and gave Sky Blue FC the lead and eventually the 1-0 victory.  The 24-year-old Lytle had been on less than two minutes when she scored the goal that sent shockwaves around the league.

There were certainly moments early in the match where the Thorns could have struck for a goal.  But the bigger picture is that Sky Blue exposed some holes in the Thorns.  Jim Gabarra brought Kelley O’Hara back to left fullback to add some experience in the rear and the organizer, Christie Rampone, was at her best thwarting Alex Morgan whenever she entered the penalty area.  The Thorns also had trouble varying their attack and with the loss it became more glaring that the Becky Edwards-Allie Long combination in midfield has yet to fully click.

[MORE: Sky Blue FC defender Christie Rampone wins NWSL Player of the Week]

Three days later Sky Blue took their act to Seattle and pounded the Reign for the second time in nine days.  Lytle added her second goal of the week to augment strikes by Lisa De Vanna and Sophie Schmidt and Sky Blue never appeared threatened.

The Thorns also won Sunday, 2-0 over the Spirit on goals from the dynamic duo of Morgan and Christine Sinclair.  Both teams have 16 points from a possible 21 and continue to lead the table.  FC Kansas City are a full six points back but have two matches in hand and have also dropped the fewest points of any team.

Reign still scuffle

Laura Harvey made significant lineup changes for both of last week’s matches but the Reign surrendered seven goals and dropped their 5th and 6th consecutive matches.

The offense broke out with a pair of goals Thursday night against Washington but it was no match for their defense which was nothing short of dreadful around the goal.  It didn’t help that Kate Deines left injured before 20 minutes were up (Deines is expected to miss 3-4 weeks), but the issues were more effort and positioning than anything else.

Harvey sat down Canadians Emily Zurrer and Kaylyn Kyle, inserting Jenny Ruiz into central defense next to Deines and Jessica Fishlock into a more traditional defensive midfield role.  The team also went without Keelin Winters and Elli Reed through injury.  Kiersten Dallstream took Reed’s right back spot.  Zurrer was called on to replace Deines and was a culprit on more than one of the Spirit’s four goals.

Sunday night, Harvey made a goalkeeper switch, taking Michelle Betos out of the first team and giving rookie Haley Kopmeyer her first professional minutes.  Kopmeyer saved a penalty shot and had her moments but was poorly positioned when Sophie Schmidt’s free kick left her motionless and was generally not aided by her teammates.

The match featured some history when Ruiz became the first player in league history to be sent off.  It was a sequence that typified the Reign’s poor start.  Danesha Adams blindly turned on a ball in the Sky Blue half and it headed harmlessly to where the Reign center backs were stationed.  But Ruiz took a lazy touch and the energetic De Vanna pounced on it and won a breakaway.  With Kopmeyer staying at home, Ruiz had little choice but to take De Vanna down, drawing her second yellow card and a penalty for Sky Blue.

The Reign next head to Portland without Ruiz—who will be suspended for the red card—and likely Deines and Reed.  Liviu Bird, of Soccerwire and an occasional Equalizer contributor, tweeted a picture from well after the game that depicted Harvey and owner Bill Predmore sitting on the Starfire Stadium pitch, appearing to contemplate the magnitude of the team’s 0-6-1 start.  Already 7 points out of a playoff spot to a club with two matches in hand, the road to contention will be a tough one in the Emerald City.

Goalkeeper changes abound

Three teams made goalkeeper changes Week 6 under three very different sets of circumstances.

The Spirit change drew the most attention when Chantel Jones started Sunday in place of Ashlyn Harris.  The Thorns webcast threw folks into a tizzy by suggesting Harris has been benched.  However, the Spirit tweeted—and have since confirmed directly to The Lowdown—that Harris had a slight knee injury.  The club says the injury occurred opening day and was aggravated Thursday when Harris ironically had her worst outing of the season in the Spirit’s first win.

Harris’ injury is not considered serious and Tuesday she was named to the training camp roster ahead of the U.S. friendly vs. Canada in Toronto a week from Sunday.

As for Jones, she left a positive impression playing a strong match in a 2-0 loss against a quality Thorns side.  The Spirit should not fret if the occasion comes to use Jones again.

The Breakers used Cecelia Santiago for the second time in five matches after Ashley Phillips was ruled out for unspecified reasons that are not injury related.  Phillips is expected to be in goal against the Spirit on Saturday night.

The Reign change was documented above.  They’ll be thrilled when Hope Solo finally makes her debut for the team.

Sky Blue’s keeper Brittany Cameron has played every minute so far and co-leads NWSL (with Karina LeBlanc) with a 0.57 goals against average.  Cameron was drafted to be Loyden’s backup but was thrust into the starting role when Loyden broke her hand in the spring.

It will be interesting to see how and when—Or is it if?—Gabarra transitions to Loyden.  Cameron has fantastic numbers, including three consecutive shutouts.  She also saved a penalty on opening day and made another dazzling save against Kiersten Dallstream two weekends ago.  But Loyden was the backup Sunday in Seattle and as good as Cameron has been there are deficiencies in her game.  Notably Cameron tends to be extra aggressive coming off her line and has been bailed out on a few occasions when those forays did not work so well.  Eventually one of them will cost Sky Blue a big goal.

Loyden is the better keeper, but it is difficult to make a change when the current keeper is rolling.  Loyden was a somewhat surprising selection to the U.S. squad for the Canada friendly so that probably makes it a dead issue for at least the next two weeks.

Injuries starting to creep in

FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign FC were bit by the injury bug this week while Sky Blue’s Brittany Bock returned from one injury and picked up another in a span of five minutes.

The Blues took the field Saturday without co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who was nursing a hamstring injury.  Jen Buczkowski dropped in to play centrally next to Lauren Sesselmann and it worked out beautifully.  Buczkowski does not have Sauerbrunn’s knack for sneaking forward but she partnered well with Sesselmann as she once did with Christie Rampone in helping Sky Blue win the 2009 WPS championship.  One level up, Desiree Scott was all-world in patrolling the defensive midfield line she usually shares with Buczkowski.

Things were looking rosy until Sesselmann took a hard hit and had to come off late in the second half.  The club has not released any firm information on the nature of either injury, but it could be that FC Kansas City are forced to use Buczkowski and Katie Kelly in central defense against Sky Blue this weekend.

Sky Blue are likely to be without Bock for that match.  The 26-year-old tweeted that she broke her left wrist in Sunday’s win over the Reign.  Sky Blue later announced it as a broken arm.  Bock was five minutes into her return from a broken rib.  It is not impossible to play soccer with a broken arm but it depends on many factors so Bock’s status will be worth keeping an eye on.

As for fallout, Sky Blue has fared pretty well without Bock, who is a versatile, middle-of-the-park player.  But they’ll be missing her June 1 when national team call-ups are will cost them Rampone, O’Hara and likely Schmidt.

The Reign do not play the weekend of U.S.-Canada, a bit ironic since none of their originally allocated U.S. players are with the team.  It is good news though if injuries on defense make for an all-Canadian pairing of Zurrer and Kyle this coming weekend.

The Red Stars did not play during Week 6 and have been quiet on the Leslie Osborne front.  The midfielder is expected to miss some time with a knee injury, a blow to a club already missing Shannon Boxx.

Sermanni names 21 for camp

U.S. national team coach Tom Sermanni, having made the rounds in the early days of NWSL, has named 21 players to train ahead of the June 2 friendly in Canada.  Here is the breakdown by NWSL club:

Sky Blue FC (3):  Jill Loyden, Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone
Thorns FC (2):  Rachel Buehler, Alex Morgan
Kansas City (4):  Nicole Barnhart, Lauren Cheney, Kristie Mewis, Becky Sauerbrunn
Breakers (2):  Sydney Leroux, Heather O’Reilly
Flash (2):  Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach
Spirit (2):  Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger
Red Stars (0):
Reign FC (0):

There are six players not currently on NWSL rosters, including Tobin Heath, who will join the Thorns in a few weeks.  The other five are Amber Brooks, Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston, and Christen Press.

The notable absence is Megan Rapinoe who was left off the squad to focus on the Champions League final and French Cup final coming up with Lyon.  Hope Solo is not on the roster but will be with the team for evaluation on her surgically repaired wrist.  There are no players on the roster who were not in the mix prior to playing in NWSL.

[MORE: Full U.S. national team roster for June 2 game vs. Canada]

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.  Allocated players continue to dominate as they accounted for 8 of 14 goals during Week 6 and 33 of 59 overall.  Here’s how the goals break down with Week 6 totals in parenthesis:

Allocated players – 33 (8)
College Draft – 4 (1)
Free Agent – 12 (2)
Supplemental Draft – 6 (1)
Discovery et al. 3 (2)
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

-It was strange to see a lineup sheet sans Becky Sauerbrunn, who played every minute for the Washington Freedom in 2009 and 2010.

-Nothing official but I’m told Sauerbrunn and Sesselmann could both play Saturday.  Sauerbrunn’s inclusion on the U.S. roster would seem to indicate at least she is doing alright.

-Diana Matheson became the first NWSL player to have a goal and assist in the same match on Thursday in Seattle.  Two days later Lauren Cheney did the same thing against the Breakers.

-The Breakers were the last NWSL side to lose but the Thorns (4-0-1) went more games than the Breakers (2-0-2) before taking their maiden loss.

-It would have been very interesting if Jenny Ruiz was not carrying a yellow card when she took Lisa De Vanna down for her second and subsequent red card.  Referee Kari Seitz did pull out the yellow card before showing Ruiz the door, but the play was worthy of a straight red card.  As the last defender Ruiz was guilty of denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO in online shorthand)

-The preliminary phase of the 2014 Asian Women’s Cup kicked off Tuesday.  Four of 16 countries will advance to face Japan, Australia, China, and South Korea at next year’s final tournament.  The top five finishers next year will qualify for the next World Cup.  That means at least one of the 16 nations in action this week will be at Canada 2015.  North Korea is not entered after being banned from Canada due to positive drug tests at the last World Cup in Germany.

-Sky Blue FC owner Thomas Hofstetter told The Lowdown last week that despite what appears to be troubling attendance figures, the club is ahead of projections for the season (he would not divulge the projections.)  Hofstetter also confirmed that more than one MLS club is interested in NWSL ownership.  He stopped short of saying Red Bull is ready to become involved in that capacity.

-The Red Stars were expecting Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss on Tuesday.  They will be the first Germans to play in NWSL.  None played in WPS.

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