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NWSL Week 19 preview: Win and in for Spirit, Red Stars

Sky Blue FC (7-8-7) at Washington Spirit (10-8-5)
Maryland SoccerPlex
Saturday, 6:30 pm EDT
Series:  Sky Blue lead, 4-0-2 (1-0-1 in 2014)

Last season the Spirit held Sky Blue to a draw in the finale, much to the dismay of Jim Gabarra whose Sky Blue side fell 2 points shy of finishing level with the league-leaders.  This time Sky Blue will be hoping to return the favor and delay, or possibly cancel, the Spirit’s clinching party while keeping their own slim hopes alive.  A draw does neither team any good.  It will eliminate Sky Blue and act the same as a loss for the Spirit.  The loss or draw would leave the Spirit needing non wins by the Red Stars and Thorns.  A win would put them in the playoffs.  Sky Blue needs a win, a Red Stars loss, and a Thorns draw (but not loss) to give them a chance to steal the last spot by beating the Dash in Wednesday’s makeup match.

What to watch for:  Sky Blue will not have Nadia Nadim who swept into town, made her mark, and departed after being called up by Denmark.  Her presence changed everything for Sky Blue, and it energized Kelley O’Hara and to some extent Maya Hayes.  O’Hara and Hayes will have to go it without Nadim against a Spirit defense that has not played well against Sky Blue this season.  And they won’t have Ashlyn Harris who will miss her second straight match with concussion symptoms.  Backup Chantel Jones will have to keep things organized in front of her to keep Katy Freels from spraying balls to O’Hara and Hayes.

Western New York Flash (8-12-3) at Chicago Red Stars (9-7-7)
Benedictine University Sports Complex
Saturday, 8pm EDT
Series:  tied, 2-2-1 (1-1-0 in 2014)

After spending the summer hanging on to a tenable position while struggling to score goals, the Red Stars come to their final match of the season with the playoffs in their sights.  It has been a remarkable response by the Red Stars after it looked like their season was sunk by Ashlyn Harris’s great save and Yael Averbuch’s stoppage time winner two weeks ago.  Subsequent wins over FC Kansas City and the Breakers and some help from the Thorns put them in position to reach the playoffs for the first time in the top flight (2009-2010 in WPS, 2013 in NWSL).  On the flipside the Flash were founded in 2009 and this will be the first time they play a match with no consequence.  The Red Stars can also qualify with a draw if the Thorns don’t beat the Reign or with a loss if the Thorns don’t beat the Reign and Sky Blue drops any points (unless they lose by three or more goals in which case a Thorns draw will eliminate them.)

What to watch for:  The Flash have been going showing signs of a team ready to get the season over with (see Sky Blue’s match-winner on Wednesday) so it will be interesting to see how they play now that elimination is official.  They’re not the quickest team through the midfield and that plays into the hands of the Red Stars who are very good when it comes to manning up on the ball.  The Flash are also prone to mistakes in the back, even when they otherwise play well.  Any mistake in the vicinity of Christen Press could be the Red Stars’ ticket to the postseason.

Seattle Reign FC (16-1-6) at Portland Thorns FC (9-8-6)
Providence Park
Saturday, 5 pm EDT (ESPN3)
Series:  Thorns lead, 4-2-0, Reign 2-0-0 in 2014)

We won’t know the magnitude of this one until the Saturday matches are completed.  If the Red Stars win, the Thorns are out and this one is for pride.  If the Red Stars lose or draw then the Thorns are win-and-in.  A Thorns’ draw is good enough only if the Red Stars lose by at least three goals and Sky Blue drops points.  The Reign have already won the league need a win to be the most proficient women’s side in terms of points/game of any team in NWSL, WPS, or WUSA (2011 Flash).  And their fans would dearly love the prospect of knocking out the Thorns.

What to watch for:  Stephanie Catley is listed as doubtful for the Thorns, another blow to consistently on the backline, the unit that’s most consistent element this season has been letting down and exposing Nadine Angerer.  Protecting the defense with strong possession will not be easy, especially if the Reign go with their first-choice lineup and run Keelin Winters out to clog up the midfield and start counterattacks. Jess Fishlock will miss the match due to international duty.

Houston Dash (5-14-3) at Boston Breakers (5-16-2)
Harvard Stadium
Sunday, 6:30 pm EDT
Series:  Dash lead, 2-0-0

The battle to stay off the bottom of the table.  Both teams can claim improvement since the start of the season, but neither has been near good enough and they were the only two sides to drop out of playoff contention before Week 18.  A draw assured the Dash of finishing 8th to the Breakers’ 9th.  A Breakers’ win gets them off the bottom but the Dash can counter when they play a makeup match Wednesday at Sky Blue that will close out the regular season.

What to watch for:  Both teams tend to play a bit frantically and both are capable of extreme defensive breakdowns.  Players to watch at Kealia Ohai for the Dash, a player who has improved leaps and bounds from the Spring, and Alyssa Naeher for the Breakers, who can leave a strong impression in her peculiar candidacy for Goalkeeper of the Year.

Not playing this weekend:   FC Kansas City


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