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NWSL Week 18 preview: injuries dot key matches

FC Kansas City (12-6-5) at Chicago Red Stars (7-7-7)
Benedictine University Sports Complex
Saturday, 8 pm EDT
Series:  Kansas City lead, 3-2-1 (2-0-0 in 2014)

The Red Stars begin their home stretch with three straight at home and needing to make up points on the Thorns and/or the Spirit.  They likely need all 9 points as a draw would mean any Thorns win or Spirit draw would bounce them out of playoff contention.  It is likely they will not have Lori Chalupny for this year’s final renewal of the Midwest Melee.  The midfielder is listed as doubtful due to lower back pain.  What they will get is a Kansas City side with nothing to play for in terms of the standings—they have already locked down the No. 2 position.  It is however, their final game of the regular season after which a two-week break will lead into their home semifinal match on August 23.  That means this is their last chance to figure out which lineup will be best served for the playoffs.  Amy Rodriguez trails Kim Little by two for the Golden Boot and needs to make them up here.

What to watch for:  Despite losing twice to FCKC this season the Red Stars have a style that tends to bother the Blues.  Well-orchestrated midfield pressure, particularly high, has the ability to throw off the FC Kansas City possession game.  FCKC will be looking for the keys to unlock that pressure and return to the form they showed during a 10-match unbeaten run earlier this summer.  The Red Stars will be trying to bunch goals together.  They have not scored multiple goals in a win since May 28.

Sky Blue FC (5-8-7) at Houston Dash (5-13-3)
BBVA Compass Stadium
Saturday, 9 pm EDT (ESPN3)

Series:  Dash lead, 1-0-0

The Dash play the final home match of their inaugural season against a Sky Blue team against whom they produced their most complete performance earlier this season in New Jersey.  If they can beat Sky Blue again it will render the third match between the teams—postponed at Sky Blue in July—unnecessary as it will officially eliminate Sky Blue from playoff contention.  As it is, Jim Gabarra’s side needs all 12 remaining available points and loads of help.

What to watch for:  This will be the Dash’s first look at Nadia Nadim, a scenario that other opponents have found troublesome.  The Dash tendency to break down in the back and leave too much space will play right into the hands of Nadim and her attacking partner of choice, Kelley O’Hara.

Washington Spirit (10-8-4) at Seattle Reign FC (16-1-5)
Memorial Stadium
Saturday, 10 pm EDT
Series:  Reign lead, 3-2-0 (2-0-0 in 2014)

The Spirit, last on the table in 2013, are three points away from securing a playoff berth in their second season.  They could be in by kickoff if the Red Stars lose, or if the Red Stars draw they will need just a draw in this one to get in.  But they’ll have to do it without Ashlyn Harris who has concussion symptoms and did not make the trip.  That will throw the spotlight on Chantel Jones who has been a capable backup over the last two seasons without playing in a match close to this important.  The Reign are mostly getting ready for the playoffs, and chasing the 2011 Flash for best points per game in women’s pro soccer history.  They need six to tie, seven to break over their last three matches.

What to watch for:  Harris has been a big part of the Spirit’s season both good and bad.  She has allowed some soft ones, and also made some remarkable plays—none bigger than her save on Christen Press last weekend to set the tone for the Yael Averbuch match-winner.  The Reign are as tough an assignment as a backup keeper can get.  They make very creative runs and no two players in the league provide better service as a tandem than Kim Little and Nahomi Kawasumi.  The Spirit will have to take extra care to stay organized in the back.  They earned six points last week with their leading scorer (Jodie Taylor) on international duty.  Now they’ll try for three more without their top choice keeper.

Portland Thorns FC (9-7-6) at Boston Breakers (4-15-2)
Harvard Stadium
Sunday, 6:30 pm EDT
Series:  Breakers lead, 3-2-0 (1-1-0 in 2014)

If the Red Stars win on Saturday, the pressure will stay on the Thorns who have one less match to play entering the weekend and can ill-afford to stumble.  But if the Red Stars lose or draw then all of a sudden the Thorns can clinch a playoff berth by beating the worst team in the league.  It will not likely be that straightforward though.  Last time in Boston the Thorns were ambushed by the Breakers when they sat many of their star players and won 4-1.  The time before that—last season—Alex Morgan hurt her knee in a 2-1 loss.  The Breakers are still plugging away, and their games have tended to open up, as have the Thorns.  Last time they met—in Portland—they combined for an NWSL record nine goals in a 6-3 Thorns’ win.

What to watch for:  The Thorns’ most recent win, 1-0 over the Dash, was important in that they had not won a defensive struggle in quite some time.  The Breakers will be a bigger test.  Heather O’Reilly, Kristie Mewis, and Lianne Sanderson will continue to push for goals.  A strong defensive effort in front of Nadine Angerer could send the Thorns into the  playoffs with some much-needed confidence and consistency.

Not playing this weekend:   Western New York Flash (they will be eliminated with a point by the Thorns)


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