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The Lowdown: Tight races for final playoff spots

On the field and off, things have gone well this season for Seattle Reign FC. (Photo Copryight Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Just like that there are only five weeks to go in the NWSL season.  At the moment it seems like two teams rate between very safe and fairly safe to reach the playoffs and three teams rate as longshots.  That leaves four teams to battle for the other two spots.  Presently 3 points separate the four teams and the 4th spot changes hands on the weekend due to goal difference.  These next five weeks figure to be intense, so we’ll be tracking the races here each week.  It won’t always be the focus of the column, but for this week it takes the lead.

Seattle Reign FC (13-1-3, 42 pts.)

The Reign finally cracked on the weekend, losing to the Red Stars after 16 straight without defeat to open the season.  A win would have clinched them a playoff berth, but they should hardly be worried.  Not only will they clinch by beating the Red Stars on Sunday’s return match, they can clinch a home game with a win combined with a Spirit loss in Houston and either a Thorns/Red Stars draw on Thursday or a Thorns win Thursday and loss or draw on Sunday against the Breakers.  The bigger picture is they are very good, mostly healthy, and heading to the playoffs.  At that point it will come down to two weeks to see if they can finish the job.
THIS WEEK:  Sunday vs. Chicago Red Stars

FC Kansas City (10-5-3, 33 pts.)

Sunday saw the end of their seven-game winning streak and a lost opportunity to close the gap on the Reign for 1st place in the table.  So they’re 9 points off the pace with six matches to play and they concede a match in hand to the Reign.  On the bottom side they are 8 points clear of the danger zone and concede that same game in-hand to the Spirit, Thorns, and Red Stars.  Their most immediate concern is the health of Lauren Holiday, who was sick last week and missed the trip to Portland.  With Holiday in the lineup the Blues are every bit as good as anyone in the NWSL, Reign included.  Overall they’re in solid shape, but they’ll finish with five games in 14 days.  A form loss during that stretch could be costly.
THIS WEEK:  Friday at Western New York Flash

Washington Spirit (8-7-2, 26 pts.)

The only team in the top six with a negative goal difference, the Spirit have hung tough and are right in the thick of things heading to the stretch run.  They opened a three-match road trip with a massive, 1-0 win at Western New York and now face a tricky Thursday-Sunday run through Houston and Sky Blue.  After that it’s back to Washington for the Thorns, Kansas City, and Red Stars.  One of head coach Mark Parsons’ favorite lines has been, “It’s in our hands,” and it certainly is with that schedule ahead of them.
THIS WEEK:  Thursday at Houston Dash; Sunday at Sky Blue FC

Portland Thorns FC (7-6-4, 25 pts.)

For the second season in a row the Thorns are the toughest team in the league to figure out.  Their last two wins have been 6-1 away to Washington and 7-1 at home against Kansas City.  But in between they were 0-2-2, a stretch that included an ugly home loss to Sky Blue and a pair of blown leads that led to draws against the Red Stars.  Reigning Player of the Week Veronica Boquete has recaptured her WPS form and is as dangerous a midfielder as there is in the league.  Alex Morgan returned from injury at a torrid pace and Christine Sinclair appears to be snapping out of her slump.  Also, midfielder Allie Long has 8 goals and Jess McDonald and her 9 goals are now coming off the bench.  So why can’t they win more consistently? A huge Thursday night match in Chicago looms before they help christen the ESPN era.
THIS WEEK:  Thursday at Chicago Red Stars; Sunday vs. Boston Breakers

Chicago Red Stars (7-6-4, 25 pts.)

The Red Stars are three games into their five-game, all-Cascadia stretch and they have yet to come out on the losing end.  They pulled two rallies to get draws with Portland and then snapped the Reign unbeaten streak with a 1-0 victory that kept them right in the thick of things.  The stretch finishes this week with a visit from Portland and a trip to Seattle.  Only the Reign have allowed less goals than the Red Stars.  Their problem has been scoring.  Several players have joined the side since the season began—notably Christen Press and Shannon Boxx.  If they can blend in and give the team some sustained attack they could wind up in the playoffs.  They could also dig themselves quite a hole if they don’t get some results this week.
THIS WEEK:  Thursday vs. Portland Thorns FC; Sunday at Seattle Reign FC

Western New York Flash (7-9-2, 23 pts.)

From a distance it seem like the Flash are right in it—and they are.  But a deeper look shows a team unable to string together results and will have to turn to rookie goalkeeper Kelsey Wys after Lydia Williams tore her ACL in Saturday’s loss to the Spirit.  The Flash are also a week or two—at least—from having Abby Wambach in the lineup again, and they have played one game more than the three teams they are chasing.  They probably need a dozen points from their final six matches to have a chance.
THIS WEEK:  Friday vs. FC Kansas City

Houston Dash (5-10-1, 16 pts.)

The Dash are still trying, and they are getting better.  A strong offseason should make them a playoff contender in 2015.  For now though they are languishing in the lower third and searching for some consistency and some finishing touch.  The bright side is they have played less games than every other team in the league, and they maximum point output of 40 just on 1 less than the Flash and 6 fewer than the Thorns and Red Stars, both of whom they play again.  But they’ll need a run of form unlike anything they have done this season, and that would be just to make it interesting.
THIS WEEK:  Thursday vs Washington Spirit

Sky Blue FC (3-7-7, 16 pts.)

They’ve been sitting on a 5-0 home loss to Kansas City for more than a week, and they have been doing so knowing that a return to the playoffs seems like little more than a pipe dream at this point.  They did get Nadia Nadim into game action and will have two weeks to get her integrated with her teammates ahead of Sunday’s tussle with the Spirit.  They would probably have to win six of their last seven to have a chance.
THIS WEEK:  Sunday vs. Washington Spirit

Boston Breakers (3-12-2, 11 pts.)

It is hard to believe but the Breakers are much better today than they were in April.  They don’t have much to show for it in terms of results, and the timing of their seven-match road trip could not have been worse.  So far they are 0-3-2 with matches in Portland and Western New York to go before they return to Harvard Stadium.  They’re already officially eliminated from a top two finish and will soon be eliminated from playoff contention.  The country will see them Sunday on ESPN2 in a rematch of their shock, 4-1 win over Portland in May.
THIS WEEK:  Sunday at Portland Thorns FC

Attendance Watch

Back by popular demand is a look at NWSL attendance in 2014.  It has been a strange NWSL season.  First, the schedule was torn up and redone to accommodate the Houston Dash, and the odd number of teams meant more midweek matches.  The result was 67 percent of matches scheduled on weekends (including all Friday matches, but not Memorial Day), down from 76 percent in 2014.  Weather, always a wild card, has been just a bit wilder this season.  Sky Blue played a match in unrelenting, torrential rain, while the Red Stars played once in wind and bitter cold, and another in chilly temperatures after a multi-hour delay.  FC Kansas City moved to a smaller stadium and have endured a steep drop in attendance, but the Reign moved downtown and started winning, the results of which have been evident at the box office.

Another factor is that teams added an extra home match to the schedule this season.  That might not seem like a big deal, but if you figure on a certain number of people attending a predetermined number of games a season, their presence is now divided over 12 games instead of 11.  And every team has a different outlook on this depending on how the extra game impacted season ticket sales and how much it costs to open their venue on match days.

Here’s a closer look, team-by-team with the change from 2013 averages.

Portland Thorns FC (12,192, -8.5%):  The Thorns are down when they thought they’d be up, and while that is not totally irrelevant it’s difficult to criticize the league’s flagship team.  Who thought, even 18 months ago, a women’s soccer team could average five figures with no gimmicks?

Houston Dash (4,693, –):  The Dash are the first to acknowledge they are not drawing quite the way they envisioned it, but they have a chance to beat out FC Kansas City’s 2013 season for the highest average for a team outside Portland.  The Dash are here to stay and this is an excellent start for them.

Chicago Red Stars (3,771, +120.3%):  Sure, this number is largely inflated by the doubleheader at Toyota Park that drew 15,743.  Take that game out and they’re up less than 100 on average.  And they have five home matches over the last five weeks, including three in the final eight days of the season.  Those will be challenging draws.

Seattle Reign FC (3,457, +49.9%):  This is the best story in the league in terms of attendance.  The Reign moved to Memorial Stadium in the shadow of the Space Needle, added enough players to move to the top of the table, and have seen attendance explode.  And the feeling is they could continue to move forward.  And they still have very little web presence.

Washington Spirit (3,255, -10.2%):  The Spirit have rebounded nicely after a slow start to the season and have a chance to match last season’s figure with a strong finish.  Playoff contention could help that cause.  Women’s soccer has always held its own in and around the capital.

Western New York Flash (3,088, -31.1%):  Attendance has been steadier this season, but down overall and by a significant margin.  A late surge in 2013 helped get the average where it was, but there is no sign of a similar surge this time around.  Club also drew well for two playoff games, not included in last season’s average.  This one is a bit troubling.

Boston Breakers (2,033, -16.2%):  The move to Harvard Stadium was supposed to buoy the business end for the Breakers.  Not the case so far.  A quirky schedule could be partly to blame with the opener on Easter Sunday and a later Thursday-Sunday series against the same opponent (Red Stars).  They are currently without a home date since June 19 and it remains to be seen what things will look like when they return August 3.  Fans could come back in droves or they could look at the club’s record and stay away.

FC Kansas City (2,014, -56.5%):  The Blues boldly declared they wanted to average 4,000 per game last season and had that figure locked up ahead of the final home date.  This season they moved to a smaller stadium and have seen attendance tail off much further than the new digs necessitated.  Business-wise this might be the most interesting team to follow.  Can they bring things back up to speed in 2015 or were they a one-year flash in the pan?

Sky Blue FC (1,482, -11.0%):  Last season’s worst attended team is off last year’s pace and pretty much assured of finishing in the same spot again.  Sure, they had the monsoon game that drew less than 1,000 people, but the weather was much nicer a week later when they again drew three figures.  If they reschedule the postponed game against the Dash it is not likely to help as a game not on the original schedule.

Week 14 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 14:

— The Thorns ought to take the game tape from Sunday’s 7-1 win over FC Kansas City and attempt to burn it into their subconscious.  Veronica Boquete was masterful.  Alex Morgan was clinical.  Allie Long was everywhere.  And Christine Sinclair finished a fabulous header that everyone in Portland hopes will shake her out of her slump.  And while FC Kansas City made their share of uncharacteristic mistakes, they were also toe-to-toe for most of the first half and continue playing hard throughout despite the ugly score.

— Kealia Ohai may have been overdrafted at No. 2, but her recent form has offered some examples of how good she can be.  Friday she scored a golazo from outside the penalty area and minutes later scored with the other foot when she got on the end of a textbook through ball.  Ohai was injured in the Dash’s opening game and her explosive speed was on hold until the last few weeks.  She will continue to be a huge part of the Dash as they build towards trying to contend next season.

— The Flash lost Lydia Williams on Sunday and the received the worst news about her injury.  It was a torn left ACL, the second time in three years she has torn the same ligament.  That means the job falls to Kelsey Wys, the first goalkeeper picked in this year’s draft.  Wys had some playing time earlier in the season when Williams was at the Asian Cup, and she showed some promise.  But Wys lacks experience.  Her back line will have to be on their game if the Flash are going to be a playoff team again.


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