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NWSL Week 17 Preview: Blues with another chance to clinch

Chicago Red Stars (7-6-7) at Washington Spirit (9-8-4)
Maryland SoccerPlex
Saturday, 6:30 pm EDT
Series: Spirit lead, 3-2-0 (2-0-0 in 2014)

Another version of the biggest game of the regular season pits two teams trying to get themselves into the playoffs after missing out last year. The Red Stars are unbeaten in six, an odd streak in that they have won only once, but that win was the only loss on the season for the Reign. And while the Red Stars sit 5th on the table, they have a higher total point output available to them than the Thorns, and the same as the Spirit, which they can rectify with a win in this one. The Spirit played midweek when they put in a solid team effort to rally from a goal behind at the half to beat FC Kansas City without the services of Jodie Taylor (who will miss this one as well to play for England.) The Spirit have wrapped up the tiebreaker over the Red Stars so a win would leave them three points from clinching a playoff spot. Alyssa Mautz sits for the Red Stars for accumulating five yellow cards.

What to watch for: If the Red Stars are going to wind up playing in late August they will need more consistent production from Christen Press and Jen Hoy. They defend very well in midfield and have players like Lori Chalupny and Adriana Leon who can use their speed and technical ability to create chances either on the counter or more thought out buildups. But as a team they still have only 24 goals in 20 games. The Spirit tend to give up a lot of shots on goal keeping Ashlyn Harris busy. They’ll like need some more good saves by Harris while the Red Stars will need better finishing by their goal scorers.

Seattle Reign FC (15-1-4, 46 pts) at FC Kansas City (11-6-4)
Durwood Stadium
Saturday, 8 pm EDT
Series: FC Kansas City lead, 4-1-1 (Reign, 1-0-1 in 2014)

Technically a top of the table clash, it is more of a showdown between the Shield winners and a 2nd-place club trying for the second straight match to book passage to the playoffs. With the regular season wrapped up the Reign can focus on being rested and sharp for the playoffs or trying to top the 2011 Western New York Flash for highest point percentage for a U.S. women’s team (they need 7 points to tie, 8 to pass.) FCKC will be looking to clinch a playoff spot for the second straight game. A win will do it. So will a Thorns loss on Sunday. And so will draws by both teams. If the Spirit don’t beat the Red Stars, then a win will also mean 2nd place and a home semifinal.

[More:  KC, Seattleset for op-of-table clash]

What to watch for: The first two meetings in May were highly entertaining battles of will between two teams that play similar styles and who do it well. That means it likely comes down to finishing and day-form in the midfield. Kansas City has been tinkering with its personnel during what is a season-ending crunch of five matches in 14 days. Part of that has been moving Leigh Ann Robinson from side to side depending on whether the other full back is Kasey Kallman or Amy LePeilbet. With Megan Rapinoe terrorizing the Reign left, it will be a choice between Robinson and LePeilbet on that side. Will the Blues use their top choice group here for the playoff push or hedge in anticipation of a rematch in the final?

Western New York Flash (7-11-3) at Boston Breakers (4-13-2)
Harvard Stadium
Sunday, 6:30 pm EDT
Series: tied, 2-2-2 (1-1-0 in 2014)

The Breakers play at home for the first time since June 19 following a seven-match stretch of road games that finished with a surprise, 4-2 win at the Flash nine days before this one. That was the Breakers’ only win on the road trip and it prompted Flash coach Aaran Lines to say his team’s playoff chances were dead. A subsequent Flash loss away to Sky Blue on Thursday put another nail in their coffin. Abby Wambach said Thursday that she intends to play 90 minutes the rest of the season, a daunting task here on two days rest after she missed two months with a sprained knee ligament. And the Breakers could get some help depending her with Julie King upgraded to probable. The Flash are eliminated with a loss and at least a draw by the Thorns. They are also done with a draw, a Spirit draw, and a Thorns win.

What to watch for: The Flash seemed hard-pressed for offensive ideas against Sky Blue save for the driven ball into the box for Wambach. That might well work for a goal or two against the Breakers, but it will also open them up for counterattacks, particularly if the Breakers play low pressure as they have done at times this season. The Breakers, who should be tons more organized centrally if King plays, are also playing their best and most inspired soccer of the season while the reverse can be said of the Flash.

Houston Dash (5-11-3) at Portland Thorns FC (8-7-6)
Providence Park
Sunday, 10 pm EDT (ESPN2)
Series: Thorns lead, 2-0-0

The Thorns have already won twice in Houston but both games were competitive and certainly could have swung either way. The Thorns come into this one trailing the Spirit and Red Stars in the maximum available points category, but with those two playing Saturday, a win here will put Paul Riley’s club in the drivers’ seat for a playoff berth with two weeks to go. The Thorns were last seen getting ripped, first on the field by the Reign, 5-0, and then off the field by Riley, who called out the team’s effort and workrate. The Dash are trying to earn enough points to stay off the bottom.

What to watch for: The Thorns have a bevy of options available to them in their quest to score, but the defense has been ragged for nearly two months, including World Player of the Year goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. The Dash are running Kealia Ohai at and through opposing defenses and she is using her speed and skill to cause problems. If the Thorns can keep Ohai from getting into dangerous scoring positions the rest figures to fall into place.

Not playing this weekend: Sky Blue FC

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