Here are six storylines to follow over the last two months of the 2014 NWSL season:
How good will the Reign turn out? This could just as well be titled, “Can the Reign go undefeated?” but there are still 11 matches left and danger lurks around most corners in NWSL. Still, the club has already come through some dicey moments. They beat Sky Blue in a monsoon in their first away match of the season; beat FC Kansas City after the Blues rallied from 2-0 down to tie; and twice trailed the Flash late, earning one stoppage time draw and last weekend’s late rally for three points a day after learning Hope Solo had been arrested.
An undefeated season would certainly be something to crow about, but it is too unlikely and too far in the future to worry about—yet. Instead let’s put the Reign start into some historical perspective. They have already blown away the best start in the history of top-flight women’s soccer in the United States. Next up is eclipsing the highest point percentage. This is the 8th season of pro women’s soccer in the U.S. and the gold standard to this point is the 2011 Western New York Flash team. They burst on the scene in WPS, signed Marta and Christine Sinclair among others, drafted Alex Morgan, and rolled to a 13-2-3 record. Sure they only had to play 18 games—the shortest season in the sequence—but managed 77.8 percent of their available points. A year earlier, FC Gold Pride—with many of the same players—played 24 matches and earned 53 points for 73.6 percent. (In the only NWSL season, the Flash won the league with 57.6 percent, the lowest amount for any regular season champion dating to the 2001 Atlanta Beat in WUSA.)
The Reign have played 13 matches so far and have dropped only four points—draws against the Flash and FC Kansas City. That is 35 of a possible 39 points for a mind-boggling point percentage of 89.7 percent. The 2011 Flash came in at a round number, meaning the Reign will exactly equal them if they finish on 56 points and set a new standard with 57. That means after starting with 35 points in 13 games they need just 22 over their last 11 for the highest point percentage in U.S. women’s pro soccer history.
That is not to say 57 points is a given. That’s still an average of 2 points per match. In the seven previous pro seasons, 52 teams have finished seasons and only the three WPS 1st-place sides—the Flash, Gold Pride, and 2009 Sol—averaged more than 2 points/match for a season. If we assume the Reign will not finish unbeaten, they will have to finish at least 6-1-4 to break the mark. Two losses would require a 7-2-2 finish and three losses would be 8-3-0. Four losses and it can’t mathematically happen.
So the task remains daunting, but the Reign have already proven they can win under a variety of circumstances and with a variety of personnel. And with a playoff spot all but secured chasing history may be the main talking point approaching the final few weeks of their season.
The Solo factor: The Reign won their last two matches with Haley Kopmeyer in goal instead of Hope Solo. The first absence was planned because of national team commitments. But when the Reign beat the Flash on Sunday, Solo was in a Seattle jail cell awaiting arraignment on two domestic violence charges. Solo had missed the second national team match last Thursday for what the team called family commitments. She was arrested late Friday night in Seattle which would seem to indicate she was not scheduled to play for the Reign anyway. However, the police report indicates the dispute was born of Solo’s husband refusing to give her a ride to the airport. So perhaps she was heading to Rochester, N.Y., when things began to spiral out of control. Efforts to reach the Reign for confirmation were not successful and the team appears to have shut off all media including practicing behind closed doors this week.
Solo pleaded not guilty and is next due in court August 11. No one knows for sure what will happen between now and then but the closed training sessions would seem to indicate Solo will be there. From a soccer perspective, Solo is a key cog in what the Reign do and if she is either absent or distracted it could prove a difficult obstacle for the Reign to overcome.
A league spokesperson confirmed to The Lowdown that NWSL contracts do include personal conduct clauses. Those contracts and clauses though are not made public.
The Golden Boot race: The golden boot race appeared to be a battle between Kim Little (11) and Amy Rodriguez (9), but Jess McDonald’s late brace vaulted her into contention with 8. McDonald, though, figures to be at a disadvantage because the return of Alex Morgan is likely to reduce her to a substitute’s role most of the time. That leaves Little and Rodriguez. Of the two, Rodriguez is more of a natural goal-scorer while Little has notched six of her 11 goals from the penalty spot. The Reign are also loaded with goal-scoring talent and Little spends most of her time in midfield. Rodriguez on the other hand is a straight forward who often gets passes played to her in scoring positions. Rodriguez’s FC Kansas City side has also played two more matches than the Reign and if U.S. Soccer adds any more summer friendlies, she is likely to be called in. This could turn out to be an entertaining race.
McDonald is in career-best form and could certainly take the honor if the top two go cold. Jodie Taylor is next on 6 goals and a quartet of players—Diana Matheson, Sam Kerr, Lauren Holiday, and Allie Long—all have 5 goals.
New players: Even though the season is more than half over, it could well be some of the new signings or injury returnees that determine who finishes where. Tobin Heath is about ready to play for the Thorns. Last year she arrived late and wound up as MVP of the championship match. Veronica Boquete (Europe) and Alex Morgan (injury) have already made their mark since joining the Thorns’ lineup. Over in Kansas City, all eyes will be on formation with Sarah Hagen in the fold and ready to be part of the side. The Flash just debuted Teigen Allen in an effort to shore up their rearguard. And in Houston, Whitney Engen’s debut yielded 3-0 shutout over Sky Blue and Meghan Klingenberg is now cleared to join Engen.
The Washington Spirit are now losers of three straight and they continue to evolve their roster. Lisa De Vanna was acquired via trade and the club also brought in Nikki Cross and Alex Singer as defenders and Kiersten Garefrekes as an attacking midfielder. Considering injury to Toni Pressley and trading Bianca Sierra to get De Vanna, the Spirit will need strong performances by Cross and Singer. They lost 6-1 at home to Portland so there is work to do.
Sky Blue are in on the fun too. They have acquired Danish striker Nadia Nadim on a loan for the remainder of the season. As of the weekend the club was hoping to have her in by the middle of this week. Sky Blue are desperate for a goal scorer.
Officiating: Picking on referees is not really a feature of this section, but it is abundantly clear NWSL has an officiating issue. On one hand, anyone watching the men’s World Cup is aghast over some of the calls there. That makes it difficult to gripe over some of the things that go down in the women’s pro league. That said it is fair to question whether or not things are getting better, and whether or not the sudden emergence of a disciplinary committee has or will have any positive impact. This week the most noise was about the second yellow card issue to Jordan Angeli that appeared like it was meant for Tori Huster. The replay is almost conclusive—but not entirely as Angeli does join the play at the last moment and may have stuck a foot in. However it also appeared Amber Brooks was commiserating with Angeli, who was then forced to miss the return match. And even if Angeli did something, there is no way Huster should not have been carded.
Another issue is the proliferation of penalties being awarded for incidental handballs on driven balls into the box. The most recent example was Sunday in New Jersey when Katy Freels smashed a free kick into the wall and it hit Lianne Sanderson’s hand. Matches are not supposed to swing on calls like that but it seems to be the norm in NWSL this season. More than one coach has commented off the record about how these calls seem to fly in the space of the spirit of the hand ball in the box rule.
World Cup bounce? The World Cup is everywhere, arguably drowning NWSL in the summer soccer craze. But can the men’s World Cup have a positive effect on a women’s pro league? It is not likely to be much, but perhaps the extra focus on soccer will be a tipping point in some fans deciding to pay more attention rather than less. The true World Cup bounce test comes next summer when the women get their turn
Week 11 Takeaways
Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 11:
— The Flash were so close to having a great week. They locked down the Red Stars on Wednesday in a 2-0 victory and were doing the same to the Reign on Sunday when they gave up two late goals and lost 2-1. They now sit 5-7-2 (17 pts.), three points out of a playoff spot with two teams to pass. They’ve been a difficult club to gage this season, but the continued integration of Tiegen Allen and the return of Abby Wambach could put them over the top.
— It might not be a coincidence that FC Kansas City’s best stretch of soccer this season has come during a more relaxed period following their oppressive stretch of nine matches in 30 days. And after a slow start they might just be better than they were a year ago when they battled for 1st place much of the summer and lost out on a tiebreaker. The missing element remains an inability to put teams away. They had the Reign on the ropes twice and got only a point out of it, but they have to feel like their chances of going all the way are as good as anyone else’s.
— Julie King recently shifted inside to partner Cat Whitehill in the center of the Breakers’ defense. The results have been positive and the King/Whitehill pairing has emerged as a solid anchor in back. The Breakers’ season was torpedoed when Kia McNeill was unable to return for the season. They wound up filtering several players in and out of the position some of whom had never played there. Through it all it appeared the answer was just to their left in King.
— The Thorns’ six goals against the Spirit on Saturday is an NWSL record.
— The Flash lost only once at home last season, and again in the championship match. Sunday’s loss to the Reign was their second home loss in 2014. Overall they are 3-2-1 at Sahlen’s Stadium.
— Michelle Betos and Haley Kopmeyer teamed up to play goal for the Reign last season while Hope Solo recovered from injury. They combined to go 0-7-1 with a 2.13 goals against average. This season, with better teams in front of them, they are a combined 4-0, 0.50 as starters. Kopmeyer is again subbing for Solo and Betos is now in Portland backing up Nadine Angerer.
— The first Reign goal on Sunday has been changed to an own goal against Carli Lloyd. Kate Deines had originally been credited with the goal.
— National team captain Christie Rampone on Hope Solo: “Hopefully I can get a hold of her and get the true story. Last time wasn’t necessarily true so I can’t really believe what I read until I hear it from her mouth. So I’m just being patient and hoping for the best and waiting to talk to her.”
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