Yurcak Field, last Wednesday. Following postgame interviews, one of the coaches looks up puzzled by the news that Breakers have a 4-0 lead on the Thorns. But that’s not all. The Breakers have built that lead after benching Heather O’Reilly, Lianne Sanderson, Joanna Lohman, and Kristie Mewis. “This is a wacky league,” the coach says.
Not only is NWSL a wacky league, Week 8 was among the most wacky on record. If you missed Wednesday’s proceedings, the Breakers did bench all of their national team players before dismantling a disinterested looking Thorns side, 4-1. And the week ended Monday with Shannon Boxx returning to the training ground—with a rival team. In between, the Breakers restored their usual lineup and promptly dropped their weekend match to the Spirit. There was also a television deal announced, an injury to the world’s most prolific international scorer, and a 1st Round pick was given her walking papers.
Here is a look back at some of what happened during Week 8:
Wild week in Boston: Tom Durkin rolled the dice Wednesday by benching all of his U.S. national team players plus Joanna Lohman for their match against the Thorns. The tactic worked. Rookies Nkem Ezurike and Jasmine Reeves accounted for all four goals—including a hat trick for Reeves—in a 4-1 throttling of the league champs. Heather O’Reilly and Lianne Sanderson both made 2nd half appearances, but Kristie Mewis remained on the bench and Lohman was not included as an available sub.
“I think it says two things,” Durkin said after the match. “It says that the squad is deeper than everyone thought, No. 1. Two, there is competition for positions for Sunday’s lineup. The nice thing going into Sunday is a lot of our more senior players should be well-rested for Sunday’s game. All that being said, hopefully their minds are in the right place to put in the type of effort that these girls put in tonight.”
Those senior players all returned to the starting lineup Sunday—Sanderson scored twice, one with an assist from Mewis—as did Lisa De Vanna who was on red card suspension for the Thorns match and missed the three matches prior through international duty. Reeves was dropped after her hat trick and wound up playing the final half hour (she also played a day earlier for the Breakers Reserve Team.)
The only problem on Sunday is the Breakers lost after going ahead two different times. The split week leaves them 2-7-0 and on the bottom of the NWSL table. And they will play at least two matches later this month without Mewis, O’Reilly, and Sanderson who are all heading back in with their national teams.
The Breakers, citing a rule requiring 48 hours advance notice to set up interviews, declined to make Durkin available to speak to The Equalizer on Monday.
Thorns’ end: The Thorns were no doubt disappointed to come away empty-handed against Sky Blue over a week ago, but at least they could take solace that they were the better side most of the night. There was no such good will in Boston. Paul Riley admitted the team was surprised by the Breakers’ radical lineup changes, but in essence the Breakers fielded a weaker side and still crushed the Thorns. The only saving grace was Christine Sinclair getting off the mark with her 1st goal of the season although the Canadian said “no” when asked if it felt good to score (as tweeted by Meg Linehan.)
The Thorns are now preparing to integrate the group of players that was missing either through injury or planned late arrival. The red card to Kat Tarr is an open door for Stephanie Catley to slide right into the left back spot, and Veronica Boquete figures to be fit following the European season. Riley told the Portland media that Alex Morgan will play Saturday against the Flash, with the only question being how many minutes. With nine full days between matches, I’m sure there are some spirited training sessions in the Rose City.
Flash: Is it time to acknowledge that the Flash are just not going to be very good this season? Not quite yet, but there is cause for concern. The biggest one is the injury to Abby Wambach, who tried to give it a go after hurting her knee Saturday night but asked off a few minutes later. Wambach tweeted Monday that her knee was fine and the club later said she had a slight LCL (lateral collateral ligament) sprain in her left knee and would make the trip to Kansas City.
But Wambach’s injury is not the reason the Flash have gone four straight matches without a win, including only their second regular season home loss in NWSL on the weekend. The back four remains a work in progress with Aaran Lines starting Amy Barczuk over Kathryn Williamson against the Dash and getting burned when Barczuk allowed Kealia Ohai to turn toward goal and slot home the equalizer. The attacking sequence started when NWSL First XI defender Brittany Taylor made an uncharacteristic mistake and lost the ball to Tiffany McCarty.
The Flash enter Week 9 sitting 6th on the table and have a difficult stretch ahead with three road matches in eight days, beginning Wednesday. The first two are in Kansas City and Portland, followed by a return match with the Dash in Houston.
No Pressing in Chicago: It was thought the Red Stars would have to scrap for points while they waited for Christen Press to bolster their front line. But Jen Hoy has emerged as a legitimate NWSL scorer and the Red Stars took advantage of a soft portion of their schedule to run off six unbeaten, including wins in their last five while playing each of the bottom three teams twice. The competition stiffens this week with a visit from the surging Spirit, followed by a trip to first-place Seattle. They have also welcomed Press to the team and she could be available Wednesday.
“We’re all looking forward to that,” Hoy, whose role could be affected the most, said. “I’m so excited. We’ve been looking forward to it because she’ll bring another dimension to what we already have. So I can’t wait.”
Hoy said she had never met or spoken to Press. Dames said: “I don’t think she shakes things up, I just think she just adds to what we’re doing. I’ve had plenty of conversations with Christen to explain to her what we’re doing and how we’re trying to play. I don’t think when good players come into your roster it’s a bad thing. I think it will raise the level for everyone and make us a little more dangerous.”
Dames added that he thinks people get too caught up in the standings and stressed that all of the NWSL sides are capable of beating the others. Hoy said of facing some of the top clubs: “I think we’re definitely ready. We’re excited to continue playing and competing and getting as many wins as we can.”
Reign, Sky Blue show colors: Through 45 minutes it looked—again—like the Reign might be headed for their first loss of the season. Sky Blue generally outplayed them in the opening half and went to the break ahead after Katy Freels blasted a shot over several defenders and by Hope Solo. And then the 2nd half happened. And the Reign scored three times, each courtesy of a combination of quality offensive soccer and defensive lapses. The postgame comments by each coach spoke volumes about where each team sits nearing the season’s halfway mark.
“We just spoke about a few things we didn’t think we were doing great in the first half,” Reign coach Laura Harvey said. “We felt like we were one pass away or one win away from causing them a problem in the first half. I think two of the goals came from that.”
On the other side, Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said that, “We just had a period when we shut off and gave up two goals. (We’re a) young team and we have to stop those moments when we stop playing. The first goal was clearly that.”
Gabarra said the mentality will not change for a team now 2-5-4 (10 points) a year after leading the league much of the 2013 summer and qualifying for the playoffs. “We just have to stop the moments where we stop playing. We also have to do a better job of putting our chances away.”
Asked if there were any signs of the “shut off” that allowed the Reign to score in the 50th minute and again in the 53rd, the coach said no. “It just happens. You can talk about it, but it comes from each player individually and the collective group on the field. They have to find a way to stop it.”
Captain Christie Rampone said the match was a flurry of inconsistency and believes the team is playing well. “Overall,” she said, “I think we are playing good soccer we’re just not getting that final third ball in or that crisp, clean cross for a goal.”
Rampone also echoed Gabarra when she said: “We just tend to lose a little focus at the wrong time.”
Harvey admitted the Reign may have been lacking some focus in the 1st half, partly the result of having played now 10 straight matches to start the season without a loss. But as good teams usually do, they found enough in the 2nd half to go home with three points.
“We had a slow start again,” Jess Fishlock said. “But we came back and I think the 2nd half proved what we’re about. We dictated the play and got three great goals.”
Week 8 Takeaways
Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 8:
— Bianca Henninger was strong in goal for the Dash, subbing for the injured Erin McLeod. Henninger’s most notable save was off Samantha Kerr and the Dash found the equalizer less than two minutes later.
— The fate of the Flash season might hinge on their two Australian players. When Samantha Kerr was at the Asian Cup the midfield missed her speed and bite. It was too often disjointed and the team played a more direct style than usual. Kerr returned Saturday and despite the loss, helped wake up the midfield at Sahlen’s. Her Australian teammate Lydia Williams also returned and continues to have some trouble finding the right position to be in ahead of some attacking plays. That could be an issue as important matches get decided by small miscues, usually in back.
— Don’t often mention teams that did not play in this space, but FC Kansas City must have enjoyed their week off after playing an absurd nine matches over 30 days. There were some potholes along the way but they finished the stretch 4-3-2 and sit 4th on the table (the Thorns and Flash, both behind them, have dropped fewer points). They will play four of their five June matches at Durwood Stadium, starting Wednesday against the Flash who they have never beaten.
— Reeves is the third NWSL player to record a hat trick. Sydney Leroux, then of the Breakers, had the first one and Carli Lloyd added a three-goal game later in the season.
— The Flash waived Courtney Verloo this week less than five months after making her the 9th overall pick in the NWSL draft. That is a rare miss on a key acquisition for Aaran Lines who also parted ways with fellow New Zealander Emma Kete. Verloo played only 1 minute (Kete played 25 over three matches) and could not crack the rotation even when Abby Wambach missed games due to an injury and national team camp.
— Going back a year, only three of the eight 1st Round picks from the 2013 draft remain with their clubs and only No. 1 Zakiya Bywaters is a firm part of the rotation having appeared in all nine Red Stars matches. The other is Lindsi Cutshall with Sky Blue but after making two starts early in the season, Cutshall has appeared only twice more for a total of 138 minutes. The other 1st Round picks of 2013 are: Tiffany McCarty (then Spirit, now Dash via expansion draft); Kristie Mewis (then Kansas City, now Breakers via Reign after two trades); Casey Short (then Breakers, now Red Stars, no NWSL minutes due to injury); Adrianna Franch (always with Flash, will not play this season through injury); Christine Nairn (then Reign, now Sprit via trade); and Kathryn Williamson (then Thorns now Flash via trade).
— Jen Hoy, by the way, was the 25th player taken in 2013.
— Jill Ellis’s mandate upon being named head coach of the U.S. national team was clear – stop fiddling with the roster and figure out how to win the 2015 World Cup. So Megan Rapinoe and Rachel Van Hollebeke aside, it is reasonable to think the entire World Cup roster could be contained within the 26 players Ellis called into her first camp as the permanent coach. That is good news for Shannon Boxx, who is returning from maternity leave, and relative newcomers Allie Long, Sarah Hagen, Ashlyn Harris, and Julie Johnson. And it can only be seen as bad news for, among others, Jillian Loyden, Becky Edwards, and Yael Averbuch.
— Boxx has been training this week with the Thorns near where she lives. The arrangements was made between the respective coaches, Rory Dames of the Red Stars and Paul Riley of the Thorns, whose relationship goes back more than a decade. Boxx is expected back with the Red Stars once she is ready to play matches.
— FC Kansas City’s week off froze Jen Buczkowski’s streak at 33 games and 2,970 minutes played since NWSL launched. It also allowed CoCo Goodson to play a pair of full 90s for Sky Blue, matching both numbers. Buczkowski and Goodson are the only players never to miss a minute in NWSL.
— Most NWSL fans look at Jess Fishlock as a physical presence in the Reign midfield. But 27-year-old Welsh player admits that after her first match last season she was a bit overwhelmed by the physicality. “I nearly jumped on a flight back home after that one. You can ask Laura, I told her I can’t do this. But I think that was just a one-off, beginning of a new season.”
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