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The Lowdown: What we learned in Week 11

Cindy Parlow Cone watches her team cool down at Yurcak Stadium in New Jersey after drawing Sky Blue FC 0-0. (Photo copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

Saturday’s match at Yurcak Field pitted the two teams tied for the most points in the National Women’s Soccer League.  Sky Blue FC and Portland Thorns FC ended the night in the first scoreless deadlock the league has seen and they trudged off with matching 8-2-2 records.  Here are five things we learned:

The teams do business quite differently:  At least publicly, the teams could not have been much different in the approach they took to the contest.  While Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said things during the week like, “This is a huge game,” and, “The points are crucial,” his counterpart Cindy Parlow Cone took a different tactic, opening a conversation with The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf by saying, “Every game is a big game.”

Thorns defender Nikki Marshall acknowledged the importance of the tilt but also added, “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing the team at the bottom or the team at the top, I think it’s always the same and we come out wanting to play the best and win every game.”

The likelihood is that the Thorns simply played things closer to the vest and that all of the players on both teams were fully aware that the match could well have been the 90 minutes that separated hosting the final later this summer and being the road team.  And consider this from Cone: approached by a member of the Sky Blue broadcast team less than 20 minutes before kickoff she flatly refused to disclose where her players—two of whom had never started for the club before—would be lining up.

(Full disclosure:  yes, I am part of the Sky Blue broadcast team; no, I was not directly involved in this discussion with Cone.)

[MORE: Sky Blue, Thorns draw to stay level]

Christie Rampone gets more remarkable with age:  Rampone played a shade more than a half for the U.S. team two nights earlier, but there she was penciled into the Sky Blue lineup.  Not only did Rampone play the full 90 but for the second time this season she just about took Alex Morgan out of the match with her smart play and venerable speed.

“I was hoping to get through 90 minutes tonight, yes,” Rampone said before deferring credit to U.S. coach Tom Sermanni for limiting both her and Morgan’s minutes on Thursday.

“There’s always a little trickling of doubt but she’s played for so long she knows how to manage her body,” Gabarra said.  “She didn’t have an awful lot to do against (South) Korea the other night.  And she’s probably in a rhythm of playing a couple of games a week this year.  I would look more at having games Wednesday and then again Sunday, kind of the cumulative effect.”

If anything, Rampone—playing her last match as a 37-year-old—looked fresher and more energetic than Morgan, who had one golden chance early in the match and not much thereafter.  When it was over, Rampone deflected praise.

“I’m very aware of Alex going against her every day in training,” she said, “but I think our midfield has dominated the games.  Becky Edwards tearing her ACL is a big loss for them and Taylor (Lytle) and Katy (Freels) did well today just possessing the ball and being calm.  I think our midfield won the battle today.”

On having two more matches this week Rampone said: “With my age it’s about taking the rest when I can take it and then putting all the effort out when it’s game time.”

Alex Morgan could be getting frustrated:  Morgan has been neutralized twice by Sky Blue and when asked about what had to happen when the sides meet again July 31 she offered a surprisingly insightful answer.  “We definitely need to look at getting forward a lot more,” she began.  “A lot of times I felt alone up top and I felt like when I got the ball there wasn’t many options with me.  I felt we were too defensive minded coming here so I would hope that we would come out of the gates more attack-minded.”

The deeper problem would seem to be the Thorns’ midfield, which has rarely had the clear upper hand this season.  Or perhaps the problem is keeping Christine Sinclair at the withdrawn forward spot, which more or less prohibits her from acting as a full-time sidekick up top to Morgan.

Cone rarely discusses tactics, but she did say, “Sky Blue is an outstanding team and they showed it again tonight.  They got in behind us several times and obviously created a lot more chances than we did.”

Sky Blue is better–for now:  See Cone’s comments plus the fact Sky Blue’s midfield has outplayed the Thorns’ both times they have met.  This does not mean the Thorns won’t finish ahead of Sky Blue or even beat them in a playoff game somewhere down the line.  But Sky Blue are one of the few teams who can attack on the flanks or down the middle, they have depth when it comes to players that can score, and they have Rampone helping guide an otherwise youthful back four to great heights.  The Thorns have had midfield issues all season and are now dealing with the loss of Becky Edwards to ACL surgery.

Gabarra called Saturday’s match, “by far the best game of the year.  Two quality teams and good scoring chances at both ends.”  He added that, “With the exception of the last 10 minutes I thought it was a just result.  I thought we did enough fitness wise and creating chances at the end there that we should have got a goal and won the game.”

Kelley O’Hara is struggling:  O’Hara was thought to be the versatile player that could hold the team together at several different places on the field.  She started out at left back to add some veteran presence but has mostly been up top in recent weeks.  O’Hara has two assists, but her finishing has been poor and Saturday night she struggled with her first touch.

“Her rhythm’s been disrupted simply because of the injury (sprained ankle) and the national team,” Gabarra said.  “I think she’s probably in a little bit of a trough that she’s coming out of.  It’s going to take some time but I thought she was very effective tonight.  If she was on her normal sharpness I thought she would have had a goal or two.  She was good for us tonight.”

Other things we learned in Week 11

The Red Stars keep getting betterDropping two points by giving up a late equalizer to the Flash on Wednesday made the Red Stars’ march to the playoffs exceedingly difficult but the match showed how far the team has come.  The additions of Sonja Fuss and Inka Grings have stabilized things on both ends of the pitch.  The downside for the Red Stars is that they will have to maximize their opportunities the rest of the way in order to be a playoff team.

Reign allocations really would have helped:  Megan Rapinoe suited up for the Reign on Sunday and helped snap their nine-match losing streak in a 1-1 draw at Western New York.  The draw puts the Reign at the midway point of their season without a win, but Rapinoe’s impact was poignant.  Her aggressive play on the left flank helped turn the tide of the match in Seattle’s favor to the point they were the ones pushing forward even after being reduced to 10.

Hope Solo also returned to the net and her presence has made the backline a far better unit than before she arrived.  In three matches Solo has conceded only one goal in the run of play. Clearly Rapinoe and Solo are not the catch-all solutions but the Reign’s season sure would have looked different right now had they been there from the outset.

Blues are versatile after all: The main criticism of FC Kansas City during the first half of the season has been that Vlatko Andonovski has been too attached to his 4-5-1 system with Renae Cuellar as the lone front-runner.  Sunday, Andonovski upset the apple cart by making sweeping changes to his usual lineup.  Cuellar came off the bench in favor of Melissa Henderson.  In back, Merritt Mathias went to the bench, Leigh Ann Robinson moved from left back to right, and Kristie Mewis dropped from midfield to play left back.  In midfield, Sinead Farrelly was dropped, allowing Erika Tymrak and Courtney Jones to start as they had been when the national team players were out.

“I felt that against Washington, and with all that we’ve had going on lately, this lineup was the best way for us to win today,” Andonovski said.  “I think the results speak to that, Melissa gave us a different dimension offensively that we haven’t had before and then Renae was fresh and fast when she came in second half.”

Cuellar did not get an assist on the second FC Kansas City goal but she created it by taking on two defenders and getting off a shot that was saved, but led to Mathias finding Lauren Cheney on a cross for an easy finish.

The Blues now head to New Jersey on Wednesday to face Sky Blue, who they lost to at home 1-0.  But the match was not representative of their full team since Lauren Sesselmann took a red card midway through the opening half, leaving the squad to chase a goal playing a woman down.

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.  Week 11 saw the first 0-0 draw in the NWSL but the other three matches produced eight total goals. Here’s how the goals break down with Week 11 totals in parenthesis:

Allocated players – 53 (4)*
United States – 30 (4)*; Canada – 15; Mexico – 8
College Draft – 8
Free Agent – 29 (3)
Supplemental Draft – 12 (1)
Discovery et al. 11
Own Goals – 1

*-One of these goals was scored by Keelin Winters who was originally allocated to the Red Stars but acquired via trade by the Reign

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

– The Reign have allowed three goals in three games started by Hope Solo, and 17 goals in eight games started by Michelle Betos and Haley Kopmeyer.  Of the three goals Solo has allowed two have been on penalties and a third was a poor play by her at the near post on what should have been a harmless half-chance.

– The Spirit played Sunday without Diana Matheson and Lupita Worbis, both out through injury.  Worbis only recently joined the team, but the midfield is clearly wanting without Matheson, who at times this season has teamed with right back Ali Krieger to form a lethal right-side combination.

– Abby Wambach now leads the league with 7 goals and has scored in the last six league matches in which she has appeared.

– Wamabach, of course, broke Mia Hamm’s international goals record on Thursday with four goals in a 5-0 win, giving her 160 career goals for the U.S.

– Wambach on former magicJack WPS owner Dan Borislow: “I’m just so thankful that (my family is) here. The magicJack owner flew them all in, so I’m really thankful for Dan Borislow for doing that. No matter what –obviously there is a lot of controversy, but — he is a friend and he’s my family. So for him to do this for me, to make sure my family was here — I don’t know how the heck he knew that it was going to happen tonight, but I’m really glad that he did and got my family here.

– The Spirit beat the Reign 4-2 on May 16, after which both teams went dry in terms of scoring.  The Reign went their next four matches without a goal until Keelin Winters snapped the drought after 431 minutes.  On the same day the Spirit were blanked for the fourth straight match and will carry a 366-minute scoreless streak into Friday’s match at Western New York.

– The Flash will play that match without Adriana and Samantha Kerr, who have been called in for international duty.  Kerr and Australia will play the Netherlands in a friendly on Saturday.  Adriana is gone from the Flash through the end of the European Championship, which begins July 10.  Spain plays their final group game July 18.

– I’m taking a wait and see approach as to why Aaran Lines decided to claim Ingrid Wells off waivers from the Spirit.  She was not particularly effective in eight starts in Washington and the Flash are fairly well set in midfield.

– The Thorns say Becky Edwards’ estimated recovery time from ACL surgery is six months.  That rules her out of the remainder of this season plus any chance she had at being called into U.S. camp this fall.

– Mid-season bump or the effect of Abby Wambach breaking Mia Hamm’s goal-scoring record? The Flash drew 6,347 to Sunday’s game against the Reign.  That is more than 2,000 higher than their previous high crowd this season.

– Conny Pohlers started for Washington on Sunday making her the second—and presumably last—player to play in WUSA and NWSL, but not WPS. Pohlers’ WUSA highlight was scoring in stoppage time for the Atlanta Beat in the 2003 semifinal against the San Diego Spirit.  The Beat eventually won it on a Charmaine Hooper goal in sudden death extra time to advance to the Founders Cup.  Pohlers’s Beat teammate Maribel Dominguez is the other player who skipped over WPS.

– The league announced that it would be pairing with the U.S. Soccer Foundation as the exclusive charitable partner for the first season of the league.  Most notably, the Foundation will receive all fine monies collected during the course of the season and will earmark them for its Soccer for Success program. So that’s where Seattle’s money will go.

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