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The Lowdown: 2013 finalists return winners

Brittany Taylor (left) and the rest of the Flash back line impressed in a season-opening win over Washington. (Copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

The opening minutes of Saturday’s Portland Thorns’ game went just about how coach Paul Riley envisioned it. One team a bit nervous for the opener, the other quickly pouncing to take advantage. The only problem was that Riley never imagined it would be his league champion Thorns playing the nervous role, allowing the inexperienced, expansion, youthful Houston Dash to take charge of the match.

“We thought that they would be nervous and we would be the experienced team,” Riley, who coached his first NWSL match, said. “We would just roll out the ball and we’d be knocking the ball around and we’d have some good success. It just never happened. We just never got going.”

The Thorns won the game of course, but it was a struggle. The midfield, with Amber Brooks sitting deep and Allie Long in a new, more attack-minded role, struggled to provide service for Christine Sinclair and Jessica McDonald. As a result, Sinclair spent more time in midfield than originally planned, and still there was precious little service into dangerous areas.

“What we noticed in the first half is that Jess (McDonald) and I up top, we weren’t holding the ball enough to bring the rest of the team in. We’d get the ball and we’d give it away,” Sinclair said. “So in the second half I concentrated more on just securing the ball for the team and allowing more numbers to get forward.”

The second half started out a bit better, but then the Dash took control again. If not for the home side’s inability to finish or even create all that much in front of goal, the Thorns may have been in trouble.

“I think had they scored (in the first 15 minutes) we would have been in serious trouble,” Riley said.

“I just tried to calm them down at halftime. I went in the locker room and I thought they were going to get a tongue lashing. I did the complete opposite. I said, ‘You just have to settle down. You look so frazzled all of you just kicking the ball all over the place. Just settle down and play.’ We talk about being brave and courageous on the ball. We did the exact opposite, just kicking the ball to nobody.”

[MORE: Dash do everything right, but lose |  Long: ‘We were lucky to get three points’]

The second half was a bit better, but it still left the Thorns with a lot to do as they prepare to play at Sky Blue FC this weekend.

“In preseason we looked 10 times better than that,” said Allie Long, who scored the goal on an opportunistic header off a throw-in, said. “Or chemistry is fine. I think it’s just finding the pockets and learning to play kind of a different system. And I think people were nervous. It’s their first game.”

The system. That’s a good reminder. Riley took over from Cindy Parlow-Cone, who led the Thorns to a championship, but there were certainly times the team played too tentative, and too direct. They looked similar to that at times on Saturday. But as Long says the coaching styles and personalities of Cone and Riley could not be more different.

“Totally different,” she said. “They’re different people, different coaches, different backgrounds. Paul is attack-minded. He doesn’t care if they have five goals as long as we have six. He wants us to attack and win the ball back as fast as possible. We’re fit and we’ve had double days. We’re all really sharp. Today it didn’t show as much as we wanted, but we’re not worried about it at all.

And as Riley reminded everyone, “At the end of the season when they count the points up they don’t (show) you how you played on opening day. I thoroughly thought that we would at least play better tonight.”

***

The next day in Washington, D.C., the Flash — the NWSL’s other trophy team as 2013 regular season winners — made a solid start to their season in a 3-1 victory over the Washington Spirit. Unlike in Houston, the Flash looked like the more composed side in this one despite playing without several key players.

If it seems like the Flash had a good amount of turnover, they did. But compared to the last three seasons when they changed leagues and levels each time, this must seem like a walk in the park. Adding Vicky Losada, who flew in from Macedonia after playing 90 minutes for Spain on Thursday and scored twice with an assist in her NWSL debut, will hardly hurt. But the real work will be on defense. The stingiest defense in the league in 2013 lost Alex Sahlen (pregnant), Estelle Johnson (not playing this season), and Adrianna Franch (torn ACL) plus Sahlen’s late-season replacement Sarah Huffman (trade).

Sunday, playing without newly acquired but suspended Kat Williamson, the Flash went with returnees Brittany Taylor — wearing the captain’s armband — in the middle and Katherine Reynolds on the right side. Amy Barczuk, a reserve player in 2013, got the start at center back, and undrafted rookie Haley Palmer manned left back. Australian Lydia Williams started in goal. It was hardly perfect—Barczuk scored an own goal—but the signs are there to indicate the Flash are going to be very good again.

“I was proud of the defensive performance. It was very, very good,” coach Aaran Lines said. “Amy played in the holding midfield role for us last year and one game at center back so we knew she could go in there and do a solid job for us. Haley Palmer, undrafted trialist, came on and really impressed us during the trial. Came into preseason and continued to impress. Very good performance (Sunday). The other two, Brittany Taylor and Katherine Reynolds are just solid for us.”

The missing link is Williamson who had the bad luck of being suspended for her Flash debut because of a red card shown in the final last year—against the Flash. She will be eligible this weekend in Chicago. Williamson started every match at center back for the Thorns last season so logic would say that she would swap into the lineup for Barczuk.

“That’s the way it might look on paper,” Lines said, flashing his trademark wry smile that often indicates there is more to the story than what he is offering. “Obviously Kat Williamson has strengths. We’ve brought her in to play and give us depth at center back. I’ve got some questions that I need to see answered later on this week in training.”

A year ago Lines did not have the benefit of an allocated defender and so he built a back line through free agency and drafted goalkeeper Adrianna Franch, who tore her ACL in preseason. This year he has to do much of that job all over again.

“Better because we won the game,” he said about this year’s defense compared to last year’s at this time (the Flash lost opening day 2013 to Sky Blue).  “We’ve worked pretty extensively on that. We had a lot of our forward players either not in, or in and out. The one stability that we had during the whole three or four week preparation was the back four plus Ang(ela Salem) and McCall (Zerboni). I think you saw that tonight. We were organized. They were on the same page. That’s the result of the work they’ve put in.”

Week 1 Takeaways

Here are three soccer-related takeaways from Week 1:

— It is only one match, but the gelling process in Seattle looks to be ahead of schedule. With Keelin Winters and Jess Fishlock setting the tone by starting attacks from deep in midfield, Kim Little working her magic and Megan Rapinoe leading the way up the field, the Reign dominated the Breakers in their season-opener, winning 3-0. Many—myself included—picked the Breakers to finish bottom so the competition will only get better, but that aside the Reign played a like a club in its 3rd or 4th season together, not one in its first game of the season after turning over about half the roster.

— Becky Edwards played her first competitive match since last June 6. She tore her ACL the following week and had season-ending surgery. Now a Dash player, Edwards ruled the midfield Saturday night against her former team, the Thorns, and did not look even a little tentative going into tackles. “I felt pretty normal. I came in fit and strong and I feel like I’ll be good for this season.” For her efforts, Edwards received my Player of the Week vote (Losada won the league award).

— Robyn Gayle had an excellent game for the Spirit before being taken out due to a slight quad injury. Gayle played left back and more or less neutralized Flash midfielder Samantha Kerr, normally a terror on the flank. The injury is not deemed serious.

Attendance Watch

Houston Dash: 8,097
FC Kansas City: 3,107
Seattle Reign FC: 3,021
Washington Spirit: 2,306

Total: 16,531
Average: 4,133

Notes: the Dash attendance is the highest regular season figure not in Portland; the Spirit attendance is their second-lowest and was barely half of the 2013 opener.

Free Kicks

The Dash confirmed Tuesday that Brittany Bock has a torn ACL and will have season-ending surgery. It is another tough injury blow for a very good player who has had nothing but bad luck in terms of her body. Bock went off in the opening moments on Saturday, returned to the field, and then came off for good after about 20 minutes (she was officially credited with 23 which is when Teresa Noyola replaced her).

Abby Wambach sat out the Flash win because of a broken left orbital bone. She sustained the injury three days earlier playing for the U.S. Wambach thought she was going to play until a CT scan revealed the break. She hinted that she won’t play this weekend in Chicago either when she remarked, “We have a bye weekend the next weekend so I have three weeks to get it healed and get another scan done.” Wambach also said she expects to don a mask for a time once she does return.

— One of the local Houston media members commented that not only was the crowd at BBVA Compass impressive, but it was not just a group of screaming kids. In other words, the potential for a real, sound fan base exists. Before the game, eating near the stadium, I found myself next to a table of four, clearly heading to the game afterwards. I won’t speculate on how old they were, but I doubt any of them get carded asking for senior discounts. One table of four does not make a fan base, but these are good signs for women’s soccer in Houston.

— Speaking of Houston, if you’d like to hear some more of my thoughts on the Houston opener and NWSL in general, check out this week’s Keeper Notes WoSo Podcast.

— Christie Rampone sat out opening day with Sky Blue due to left toe sesamoiditis. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. It is an inflammation on the bottom of the foot near the big toe. As of Tuesday afternoon there was no update to Rampone’s status ahead of the home opener against the Thorns on Saturday.

— The shutout by the Reign was their first ever. They were the only team not to keep a clean sheet in 2013.

— Three players played every minute in 2013. There are two left—CoCo Goodson and Jen Buczkowski. The third, Estelle Johnson, is not playing this season.

— Neither of the top two picks from the draft — Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai — seemed the slightest bit daunted by playing at the pro level. Both are carrying injuries, too.

— Finally a word about two of the best people I have come across in my years covering women’s soccer.

The first is Jordan Angeli. My initial encounter with Angeli was after the Breakers’ home opener in 2011. She was one week removed from tearing her ACL. It must have been a hard night for her, but she could not have been more gracious and generous with her time as she discussed her injury and impending recovery. We have chatted multiple times since and she has continued to impress me with the way she conducts herself. And it was a highlight of my long weekend of NWSL travel to be able to be there when she came on as a second-half sub for the Spirit on Sunday, her first game action (preseason notwithstanding) since that knee injury three full years ago. As media we are not supposed to root for results, but it is easy to root for Jordan Angeli to continue on with what was a promising career before hurting her knee.

The second is Tom Sermanni. I covered him extensively when he coached the New York Power in 2003. Sermanni was the most easy-going coach I had ever been around and remains so to this day. He gladly hosted me in his makeshift office anytime I showed up at training and we discussed various topics, sometimes the Power, other times not. And he was in the process of turning that club around when the league packed it in after that season. Nearly a decade later it was pleasing to see that Sermanni was exactly the same person as coach of the U.S. national team as he had been coaching the Power out of his office in a trailer in the back of Mitchel Field.

Sermanni was fired by the U.S. two Sundays ago. I offer no illusions about the circumstances of his firing because I am far removed from that situation. But I do know that, if it is true that nothing happened on that final day to lead to his dismissal, there is no reason he was let go in such an unceremonious manner. So unless Sermanni did something unseemly that no one is saying (which I doubt), he deserved better treatment being pushed out the door.

Yet Tom Sermanni remained a class act even in unemployment. The now former U.S. coach spent much of Sunday night and Monday returning calls from reporters and graciously answering questions about the sudden end of his term as coach. The U.S. might find a better coach to get them to the World Cup, but they will be hard-pressed to hire a better person.

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