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NWSL Week 16 preview: Cascadia rivalry returns

Kim Little (left) and Nahomi Kawasumi have been key figures in the Reign's march to the top of the table this season.  (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kim Little (left) and Nahomi Kawasumi have been key figures in the Reign’s march to the top of the table this season. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Houston Dash (5-10-2) at Chicago Red Stars (7-6-6)
Benedictine University Sports Complex
Saturday, 2 pm EDT
Series:  Red Stars lead, 2-0-0

The teams above them keep giving away points so the Red Stars have a chance to leap the Spirit and get back to the right side of the playoff bubble.  Earlier this season they ran off five straight wins by beating up on the bottom three teams.  That included two wins over the Dash.  Both teams are much different since then with the Red Stars having brought in Shannon Boxx, Abby Erceg, and Melissa Tancredi.  The Dash have integrated Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, and Kealia Ohai is continuing to improve.  The keeper battle between Karina LeBlanc and Erin McLeod mirrors the battle for the top position in Canada.

What to watch for:  Another player the Dash did not see in May was Christen Press.  The speedy and creative striker is a thorn in the side of any back four.  The Red Stars also have the ability to counter in a hurry especially now that Boxx is back in the midfield.  And the Dash can be vulnerable to counters, especially when they involve speed on the back end.

Sky Blue FC (4-7-7) at FC Kansas City (10-5-4)
Durwood Stadium
Sunday, 6 pm EDT
Series:  FC Kansas City lead, 2-1-2 (1-0-1 in 2014)

The Blues are closing in on another playoff berth and will be looking for a repeat of their recent trip to Sky Blue when they came away with a 5-0 victory.  Sky Blue exits their best performance of the season, a 4-2 win over the Spirit that was 4-0 with just a few minutes to play.  But Christie Rampone came out of that match with a concussion and is listed as doubtful to play in this one.  Sky Blue believe they still have a chance to make the playoffs, but they’ll have to get just about every point available to them the rest of the way.

What to watch for:  Nadia Nadim’s energy and technical precision were a big key in Sky Blue’s breakout against the Spirit.  Sky Blue also won the midfield that day, a task that figures to be much more difficult against Kansas City.  In their last meeting the Blues knocked the ball freely around midfield.  Sky Blue will need to get more pressure on the ball and make good decisions in back—a task that won’t get any easier if Rampone is forced to miss the match.

Portland Thorns FC (8-6-6) at Seattle Reign FC (13-1-4)
Memorial Stadium
Sunday, 7 pm EDT
Series:  Thorns lead, 4-1-0 (Reign, 1-0-0 in 2014)

Their first meeting this season may have been the best match in the league so far.  The Reign won 1-0 on a 90th minute goal by Kim Little and there were some non-pleasantries exchanged afterwards over the voracity of the Reign celebration and the Riveters mixing it up with Hope Solo.  This one will have a different feel though.  The Thorns are in all-or-nothing move having outscored opponents 19-5 over their last three wins, but are 0-2-4 in six other games during that streak.  The Reign recently lost their first match of the season, 1-0 to the Red Stars, and then gave up a lead for the first time in a 1-1 draw against the Red Stars.

What to watch for:  The Thorns have had their trouble in back over recent weeks.  The Reign are the wrong team to tangle with under that circumstance.  They send players forward in various combinations, and the Thorns defense will have to pick up those runs and remain organized.  The Thorns can also counter by keeping possession through Amber Brooks and Allie Long and finding Alex Morgan, who looks fabulous since returning from injury, and Christine Sinclair, who had a hat trick against the Breakers last weekend.

Not playing this weekend:   Washington Spirit (Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash played Friday night)


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