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The Lowdown: NWSL mid-season assessment

Amy Rodriguez has given FC Kansas City some much-needed scoring up top. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

With a 19-week season, the just past Week 10 represented the exact midpoint in the season, at least according to the calendar. That means it is time to take a look at where each team stands and where we think some of the post-season honors might land. Let’s get to it:

Seattle Reign FC (9-0-2, 29 pts): Not much to dislike about this club that will reach the midpoint of the season as odds-on favorites to win the regular season. Their lead is 5 points over FC Kansas City, but the Reign have three matches in hand. If you measure the table by total available points the Reign actually lead the Red Stars and Thorns by 12. And they have impressed more during some recent “struggles” as they have secured results even while trailing 1-0 in their last four matches. And they have done it for the most part without Megan Rapinoe. The outlook is rosy.

FC Kansas City (7-4-3, 24 pts): They have played more matches than anyone else so their actual standing may be somewhat artificial, but the Blues are playing their best soccer of the season, and may have had their best win last time out against the Dash. Playing without many regulars they conceded a goal in the late stages—a poor habit they can’t quite seem to shake—but this time they pushed and scored a stoppage time winner, the first time they have ever done so. They seem to be the first team with a distinct system in which players can freely filter in and out of.

Chicago Red Stars (6-4-2, 20 pts): Their five-game winning streak is now a thing of the past and it is time for a young, evolving club to show it can hang with the better sides and stay in the top four the rest of the way. A daunting stretch begins Wednesday in Rochester. It will be the first of seven straight games ending July 20 when the Red Stars play only the Flash, Thorns, Reign, and Kansas City. When it’s over we should know whether or not they are a playoff team. If Shannon Boxx returns anything like her old self it will be a huge boost.

Washington Spirit (6-6-1, 19 pts): The first of three teams that fall into the impossible to figure out category. On one hand they have completely turned around the losing mentality that dogged them much of 2013. On the other hand, an argument can be made that their record is the product of a few fortuitous results. Either way they are continuing to get better and recently secured Kerstin Garefrekes. U.S. fans may still have nightmares about Garefrekes from her days in Germany’s midfield but Spirit fans figure to love her.

Portland Thorns FC (5-4-2, 17 pts): Recent win over the Spirit snapped a three-match losing streak and newcomer Veronica Boquete was voted NWSL Player of the Week. They’re tied with the Reign for fewest games played of anyone in the league so despite looking up at the playoff teams the Thorns are actually in a strong position heading to the 2nd half. They’ll spend the next few weeks working in a slew of new players—all quite talented ones. If they mix, the Thorns are a contender. If they don’t, look for more results like the losses to the Breakers and Flash (9-1 aggregate.)

Western New York Flash (4-6-2, 14 pts): It looked like they may have been back on track after pummeling the Thorns, 5-0, but the encore was a 2-1 loss in Houston. They have now dropped all six points to the expansion side—the difference between languishing near the bottom third and challenging for a home playoff match. They are still figuring out the back four and have rarely had Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd on the field together. There is time, but the Flash need to be much better if they’re going to return to the postseason.

Houston Dash (4-8-1, 13 pts): One of the most important tasks for a first-year club is to install the proper culture. The Dash have done that. Despite myriad injuries and bad luck the Dash have not deviated from the style Randy Waldrum wants to play, and they have gradually improved to where they recently won three straight matches. They’re likely too late, and have a few too many holes, to make a serious run at a playoff spot, but the first half-season Dash history has to be considered a success.

Sky Blue FC (2-6-5, 11 pts): Dating back to last July 13, and including their playoff game, Sky Blue are 3-10-8. This season began with concerns over who would score. Not only have goals, and good attacking play, been tough to find as expected, the back line of late has alternated between subpar and horrible. They somehow left Chicago with a draw last weekend, but last time they got a strong, away result they came home and lost three in a row. They’ll host the Breakers Sunday before heading west to play the Thorns and Reign. Tough to see much light at the end of their tunnel.

Boston Breakers (3-8-0, 9 pts): The last place Breakers host the 1st place Reign on Thursday opposite U.S.-France. That means no U.S. players for either team, a scenario that has been in place for two of the Breakers three wins. So what if they beat the Reign and make it three-for-three without Heather O’Reilly and assorted other top players? It would make for some very interesting coaching decisions the rest of the way.

I’m not big on analyzing awards every week, but since we’re at the halfway mark here is a look at who might be a good vote for some of the NWSL year-end awards.

MVP – Amy Rodriguez: The most irreplaceable player on a playoff team added an ingredient that was missing in Kansas City last season. Other Contenders: Kim Little, Nadine Angerer

Defender of the Year – Elli Reed: The best on what has been a very good, very underappreciated back line for the Reign. Holds down the right flank and almost always makes an impression in the attack. OC: Julie Johnston, Robyn Gayle

Goalkeeper of the Year – Hope Solo: Angerer may be better in the long run, but Solo has been more consistent, giving her the nod here. OC: Angerer, Alyssa Naeher

Rookie of the Year – Julie Johnston: Gets it done at both ends and took on an immediate leadership role on a young Red Stars team. Upside is through the roof. OC: Jenna Richmond, Emily Menges, Crystal Dunn

Coach of the Year – Mark Parsons: This one is not close. Parsons has transformed a losing, mentally beat down team into a playoff contender that can win even when they’re not at their best. OC: Laura Harvey, Rory Dames

Week 10 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 10:

-Really have to like how good FC Kansas City looked while they were missing their best players at all four levels. It helps when you lose Becku Sauerbrunn and get to replace her with Amy LePeilbet, but the midfield looked stout even without Lauren Holiday. They also received a solid, if not spectacular, debut from Sarah Keane filling in for Nicole Barnhart in goal. They still seem to play better than their results but that aside they are now clearly the top challengers to the Reign.

-Meg Morris is not the answer for Sky Blue at left back. They seem to have moved on from Kendall Johnson, who is not quick and not having a good season. Morris was beaten in the air on both of the Red Stars goals and did little in terms of getting forward. On the brighter side for Sky Blue, 1st Round pick Maya Hayes finally scored so perhaps the floodgates are about to open.

-Becky Edwards, Elli Reed, and Lauren Barnes. All three should consider camping outside of Jill Ellis’s office until they get a look for the national team.

Free Kicks

-The Spirit have another “huge” player announcement scheduled for Wednesday. The brief history of NWSL has taught us that teams tend to overhype trades and player signings. But you never know who or what it could be.

-The Breakers also have player news scheduled to drop on Wednesday.

-Paul Riley was fined an undisclosed amount for criticizing the red card given to Nadine Angerer plus the appeal process, or lack thereof. I could not disagree more with this fine. Here we have a team with actual beat reporters and a coach willing to talk. NWSL remains a fledgling league that needs every edge it can get. Allowing—encouraging?—coaches and players to speak their minds without worrying about financial ramifications would be a good edge to take. And while it makes sense for powerful leagues like the NFL and NBA to stifle complaints about referees, I see nothing to indicate where it hurts NWSL for a coach to speak out about a call he thought went against his side. So long as the intentions and integrity of the referee are not being called out, the rest should be fair game.

-Julianne Stich was sat down for two games—the first already served—for elbowing Keelin Winters. This one was close for me. Based on intention (at least my perception of Stich’s intention) and league precedent, I would have left it alone.

-One of Riley’s complaints was that Angerer should have been allowed to serve her suspension last weekend when she was in camp with Germany. But red card suspensions can only be served when a player is available for selection so Angerer much sit this weekend against the Spirit.

-FC Kansas City’s stoppage time winner in Houston leaves the Thorns as the only NWSL original not to change the outcome of a match with a goal in the 90th minute or stoppage time. The Dash have yet to do it either.


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