There is something of an uneasy feeling at Sahlen’s Stadium this summer. The Flash are used to being at the top of the table, cruising into the playoffs, and contending for championships. But 2014 has been different. A 1-1 draw Friday night against FC Kansas City left them two games under .500 approaching the final four weeks of the regular season. A win would have given them temporary possession of all-important 4th place. The draw left them in 6th and they enter this week three points off the pace. Last year’s regular season champions and winners of league titles from 2010 to 2012 have five matches left. And they need points.
“It’s game for game with us right now,” coach Aaran Lines said after Friday’s draw, adding that, “We didn’t deserve to win tonight.”
Earning a draw while being outplayed by a top side can be considered a strong result when things are going well. And the Flash will get what appears to be a break in the schedule the rest of the way. Their next four games are against the Breakers and Sky Blue, currently in 9th and 7th respectively. And even when Sky Blue were a playoff team last season, the Flash seemed to have their number. The season finale will be in Chicago, and could well be a do-or-die affair for both clubs. Lines, though, a master at remaining buttoned up in front of the press, would not take the bait about the schedule easing up.
“It might look like that,” he said when asked about a break in the schedule. “We’ve got a big game, Boston next Friday night at home. Then we’ll have four games left. We’re going to need to win three of them.”
Lines did go so as far as to call out the team’s on-field leadership as a reason the performance has been inconsistent, and why some of the tight matches that used to turn into wins, have recently been more draws and losses. “We need a bit of leadership out there,” he said, directing his head towards the near-empty pitch. “We lack that.”
Asked where the leadership will come from, he mentioned Abby Wambach, who has not played since the 1st of June due to a knee sprain. “A player like Abby Wambach oozes leadership. Obviously that will help if she’s back on the field for us. We had that last year with her in certain moments of the game. If that was needed to earn the point or scrape through and get the win. We’ve missed that this year.”
Wambach could be on the pitch for Friday night’s game against the Breakers, but there was little chance Lines was about to tip his hand on the matter. “She looked sharp (Thursday) in training. But we’ll see. It’s a medical call. We’ll see how she does on Monday and Tuesday in training.”
The only coach the Flash have ever known gave his players the weekend off. But his words and his demeanor seemed to indicate he was already thinking about the next one.
“I’m letting them recoup this weekend, freshen up, and then we’re in preparation for the Boston game. Must win.”
The other side of the 1-1 draw was FC Kansas City. We profiled them two weeks ago and they promptly went to Portland and lost 7-1. The draw at Sahlen’s Stadium was a good way to bounce back.
“After Portland game, everything is good I guess,” coach Vlatko Andonovski joked. “But all jokes aside I am very happy with the performance of the team. First with their fight, and second with the performance altogether and the opportunities we created.”
Unfortunately for the Blues it was one of those nights when Amy Rodriguez could not find the back of the net. Rodriguez has been sensational for Kansas City in the year after she had a baby, but she has a streaky nature, and Friday it was not meant to be in terms of scoring.
“I don’t think we scored as many as we should have,” he said. Andonovski said he kept thinking the team would convert on its next chance but then, “The next thing you know the game is over.”
The one goal FC Kansas City did score a another quality team effort that wound up with Lauren Holiday delivering a looping cross to Sarah Hagen who finished with a touch over rookie keeper Kelsey Wys. But it was Holiday’s presence more than her assist that was a welcome sight for Andonovski. A dozen days earlier she came down with food poisoning after a match at Sky Blue. She stayed in New Jersey four extra days and missed the 7-1 debacle in Portland.
“I feel so much better,” Holiday said after going the full 90. “I was a little bit tired just from missing a week of practice and the game and everything.” She added that she felt great in terms of playing the entire match. Andonovski never thought of subbing her out really, and his reason is simple.
“She (was) not going to be 100 percent for 90 minutes,” he said. “But I think I’ve said this before, I would rather have Lauren at 80 percent than any other midfielder in the league. I’m very confident having her in the team and her teammates are more comfortable with her on the field.”
In his final post-match comment, Andonovski said, “I just hope we make the playoffs…and hopefully in the playoffs we’re going to make the shots that we need.”
FC Kansas City sits 2nd and has a seven-point cushion on the Spirit and Red Stars. But because those teams play once more the cushion is effectively nine points, since one team has to drop at least two points in that match. That means they need just seven of their own points over the final six matches to assure themselves a return to the playoffs.
The Spirit are an entirely different animal than the Flash and FC Kansas City. They only won three times all of last season. So in a sense, the mere fact they are contending is a modicum of success. Don’t tell that to the players and coaches, though, who are regrouping after consecutive road trips to Houston and Sky Blue yielded only one point.
“Probably (from) 5 minutes just before the first goal (until) 5 minutes after the second goal, that period was key in the game,” coach Mark Parsons said of Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Sky Blue. “We couldn’t get enough pressure on the first ball, and the second ball they did a great job of winning the battle in midfield. They picked up a lot of space in the attacking third. I don’t think they had to earn it, we just got caught out not winning enough first and second balls in that period.”
Parsons acknowledged, but refused to lean on, the absurdity in the schedule that saw his team playing its second road match in four days against a host playing its second straight game at home—with 13 days of rest in between.
“It’s got to be a factor, but I don’t think we did enough to see if it was going to be a factor towards the end,” Parsons said. “I think that period in the first half, we weren’t tired at that point. Maybe Sky Blue were a little bit fresher, but we weren’t tired.”
A better week could have given the Spirit some cushion in their quest to pull a last-to-playoffs turnaround. Instead they lead the Red Stars on a head-to-head tiebreaker as they get ready to host the Thorns, FC Kansas City, and Red Stars for their next three matches. Parsons remains confident though and like most coaches has a clear vision in his head about where his side stands.
“What I said to the players was, this slows us down, this is a dent in what we’re trying to do, but this won’t stop us. There is no way this will stop us. For me, we’re fighting with one other team to get that spot. Before tonight, I think we were in a good place to get third. I think we’re now fighting for a spot with one other team and I’m very confident with the games we’ve got.
“The biggest teams and the biggest games are what’s brought out the best in us. We’ve got three in a row now. It sounds strange, but I think that is what we need. We need to go to an environment where we have to be our best every single area of the pitch, and know that from the start.”
Here are this week’s attendances:
Thursday Dash: 3,561 (season average: 4,580)
Thursday Red Stars: 2,014 (3,552)
Friday Flash: 2,916 (3,071)
Sunday Thorns: 14,383 (12,411)
Sunday Sky Blue: 1,740 (1,508)
Sunday Reign: 3,030 (3,409)
Week 15 average: 4,607
Year to Date average: 4,063
Week 15 Takeaways
Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 15:
— Nadia Nadim is pretty good. The Danish striker was in the starting XI for the first time since joining Sky Blue and she had an immediate and constant impact on the match. Nadim showed good energy throughout, made smart and aggressive runs, and appeared to have instant karma with Kelley O’Hara. The 26-year-old ended the night with a goal and an assist, and O’Hara had two goals and two assists. It was also one of the stronger performances by rookie 1st Round pick Maya Hayes. “She’s a quality forward and that’s the biggest hole in this team all year. I think she brought the best out of Kelley, and Sophie (Schmidt), and Katy (Freels), and Maya.”
— The Flash probably have the most dangerous combination of free kick takers in the league. From long range, Brittany Taylor can hit it from midfield to the top of the six. From closer in, Carli Lloyd can curl it around walls either to find targets or score it herself. Neither of these resulted in a goal Friday, but in general the Flash are dangerous when fouled no matter where it is.
— The Red Stars finished their five-game Cascadia streak undefeated after holding the Reign to a 1-1 draw Sunday in Seattle. The Red Stars were 1-0-4 in the stretch which included three come-from-behind draws against the Thorns. In their two games against the Reign, they snapped the first-place side’s unbeaten run at 16 and in the draw became the first team to take points off of them after falling behind. Next up is a visit from the Dash and then a critical trip to Washington.
— NWSL offered quite an introduction for anyone catching the league for the first time on ESPN2. The Thorns and Breakers combined to score a league-record 9 goals on Sunday. The Thorns had 6 of them and won 6-3. Christine Sinclair had half of those 6 to become the first Thorn to record a hat trick. Next up is the ESPN3 online broadcast of the Reign and Dash on Wednesday, July 30. Reportedly, 177,000 people watched the first broadcast, up almost 300 percent from the league’s Fox Soccer debut last year.
— The 6-3 win means the Thorns last three wins have been by an aggregate 19-5. However, they have played five other matches in between, going 0-2-3 and being outscored 7-5.
— The Reign are officially in the playoffs for the first time. And the combination of two points either earned by them or dropped by the Thorns will secure them a home semifinal match.
— Failed to mention this when it happened, but Shannon Boxx has joined Christie Rampone and Karina LeBlanc as the only players to participate in every season of professional women’s soccer in the United States. It is only eight seasons but they span 14 years to when they debuted with WUSA in 2001. Back then Boxx was a 3rd Round pick by the San Diego Spirit, Rampone was allocated to the New York Power, and LeBlanc was a 3rd Round pick by the Breakers—taken two slots after Boxx. Jim Gabarra has coached in all eight seasons.
— It looks like the Sky Blue-Dash postponement will be made up only in the event either team needs the points to get in the playoffs. Someone has work to do if that is going to happen.
— While the Flash continue to grind in hopes of making the playoffs, one of the big culprits is something that cannot be fixed until the offseason. The influx of new internationals has not worked out. Sonia Bermudez and Vicky Losada have shown snippets of brilliance but have not made consistent impacts on matches. And defender Teigen Allen has played just 169 minutes and did not start Friday even with Katherine Reynolds out.
— The Golden Boot race, once thought to be a two-woman battle, has become very interesting. With Kim Little and Amy Rodriguez slowing down, Jess McDonald and Jodie Taylor have joined the fight. McDonald’s cheeky goal against the Breakers gave her 11 and a share of the league lead with Little. Taylor scored her 10th on the weekend, level with Rodriguez one goal back. Allie Long has 9 and is also in the mix.
— Finally another scheduling note. In the wake of the most astoundingly unfair bit of scheduling in the league this season in New Jersey on Sunday, more than one person volunteered that one team was getting the bulk of the breaks in terms of playing as a rested team against a team on a short turnaround. “That team is running away with the league,” one person said. That team of course, is the Reign. So we went to check it out and sure enough the Reign have played seven matches this season on six or more days rest against an opponent on four or fewer days, and have played only two in the opposite position. By season’s end it will be 8-3 in their favor. No other team will have played more than one additional match with the rest advantage in their favor.
By contrast, the Red Stars are 3-6 against, though they will circle back to 5-6 by season’s end. Sky Blue is 3-5 against and will drop to 4-8 over the last four weeks. The Spirit will finish with seven games in each scenario, but they have played a whopping three games when their opponent has been on 10 or more days between games to their four or less. And one of their advantage matches was just six days for them and four for the Breakers.
Below is the full list with matches in favor of rest-matches with opponent in favor of rest. The figures in parentheses are how the teams will finish the season. The list does not take into account travel or multiple match sequences. And it should be noted that the Red Stars smoked the Breakers on a four-day break to the Breakers’ 12 days.
Boston: 5-3 (6-5)
Chicago: 3-6 (5-6)
FC Kansas City: 5-5 (5-7)
Houston: 3-1 (4-3)
Portland: 3-3 (5-4)
Seattle: 7-2 (8-3)
Sky Blue: 3-5 (4-8)
Washington: 4-6 (7-7)
Western New York: 1-3 (3-4)
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