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The Lowdown: 5 takeaways from NWSL Week 1

FC Kansas City switched to a three-back late against Sky Blue FC. (Photo Courtesy FC Kansas City)

FC Kansas City switched to a three-back late against Sky Blue FC. (Photo Courtesy FC Kansas City)

After traveling to the inaugural NWSL match in Kansas City two years ago and the maiden Dash match last April, the third season was the first in which I took in the entire opening weekend via YouTube.  And while there is nothing like being at a live match, there is also something to be said for a quiet weekend paying close attention to all the action.  So for the first Lowdown of the 2015 regular season, here are five notable happenings from Week 1.

The Reign are still quite good:  Surely everyone has been in gym class where the teacher, blissfully ignorant to the social and athletic hierarchy in the class, picks two captains to choose sides for a game, leaving zero chance for a fair fight.  That is essentially what the Reign-Flash match was on Sunday.  All but one (Merritt Mathias) of the Reign starters were on the club in 2014 while only two Flash players were holdovers, one of whom—Brittany Taylor—was playing a different position (Jasmyne Spencer was the other.)  The match played out exactly that way with the Reign pouring it on late thanks to Megan Rapinoe taking 16 minutes to complete a hat trick.

Beyond the hat trick and lopsided score was a Reign club that hardly missed a beat from the one that went 16-2-6 in 2014.  Sure, Kim Little missed a penalty for the first time in NWSL but she was also her usual solid self in the midfield playing both side of the ball with equal intensity.  Rapinoe and Jessica Fishlock completely controlled the left flank, especially in the first half.  And as was their usual last season the Reign sent everyone but the goalkeeper on at least occasional runs into the opposing penalty area.

Keep this in mind: Of the 11 players who started only Rapinoe and Hope Solo are going to the World Cup.  The rest of the league should take note, if they haven’t already, that the Reign are still very much the team to beat.

That Dash midfield:  Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian did not even arrive in Houston until the middle of the week.  Neither was on the club in 2014 and neither had spent a second in training camp before that.  So they were slightly less than in sync for the first game, right?  Wrong.  Lloyd and Brian—making her professional debut—dominated the Spirit midfield and combined with Kealia Ohai as if they had all been teammates for a decade.  (It should be noted that Brian and Lloyd are likely to start the World Cup together for the U.S. and that Brian and Ohai played on youth national teams together.)  The performance in the middle of the park was so dominant that the patchwork back four deployed by Randy Waldrum was not tested enough to make a firm judgment.

For me the two most important parts of the Dash performance were this: The first was Lloyd’s goal, a cracker from outside the area that slammed against the bottom of the crossbar and in.  The Dash were holding possession in the attacking third but it was not a goal that came out of any methodic buildup or imaginative pass.  It was just a great player taking a situation and making something out of it.  It is something we have seen from Lloyd before but not from the Dash.  The goal came in 1st-half stoppage time after the Dash created several quality chances that did not turn into goals.  But rather than go to the break touting the age-old line, “We created chances we just have to finish them,” the Dash were able to take a lead into halftime.  In 2014 they just did not have a player who could score a goal like that.

The second thing is Ohai, who said she wanted to pick up in 2015 where she left off in 2014.  Through one game at least, mission accomplished.  She was not shy about taking on whichever defender was in front of her and she made a smart run and a quality finish to bag the second Dash goal of the night.  Lloyd and Brian will spend considerable time away from the club, so a confident and dangerous Ohai could be the difference in getting them points during that time.

As a whole, the midfield will only get better once Brittany Bock is healthy and ready.  And when it is at full strength it will be among the best in the league.

Great strikers make a difference:  Nadia Nadim had a fairly quiet afternoon in Kansas City on Sunday.  But the noise she made was sudden, and it carried the day for Sky Blue who snapped the Blues’ 13-match home unbeaten streak (playoffs included.)  Nadim scored the only goal, running onto a Meg Morris pass that followed a poor throw-in by Leigh Ann Robinson.  Nadim took the ball on one bounce and attempted a shot that had a microscopic margin of error.  But she was able to find a sliver of space over top of keeper Nicole Barnhart and under the crossbar.

Sky Blue is now 5-1-0 when Nadim starts and she has a goal and/or an assist in all of them.  The only time she was held scoreless was her Sky Blue debut, when she came in at halftime with the club trailing 4-0.

There were other positives on the day for Sky Blue, who overall have won their last six games dating to last season.  Hayes looked confident on both sides of the ball and gave Robinson some trouble on Sky Blue’s right side.  Nadim’s goal came shortly after a sequence when Hayes took on Robinson and forced Kansas City into a deep throw.  Rookies Sarah Killion and Kristin Grubka showed well in their NWSL debuts.  And Brittany Cameron, back as the No. 1 after Jillian Loyden retired, was her usual overaggressive self, coming off her line to ward off scoring chances in the last instant.

Three-back era? The Thorns created some pre-game chatter on Saturday when they announced their lineup as a 3-4-2-1.  It played more like a 3-2-2-2-1 up the middle with the wing players, Tobin Heath and Kendall Johnson, freelancing a bit.  Similar to the Dash, the Thorns were too good in midfield to really make a judgment on how well the three-woman back line worked out.  The formation has merit though with the midfield being the key to the operation.

McCall Zerboni and Sinead Farrelly sat deep with Allie Long and Mana Shim as the attacking half of the midfield.  They were able to control things enough—with help from Heath and Johnson—to somehow have numbers up whether they were going forwards or backwards.  Again, the Breakers did not pose enough of a threat to get a good picture of things, and there are questions as to whether or not the setup would work against better sides, or if Paul Riley would even try it.  The Reign, for example, are deadly on the counter attack which could expose a lack of coverage in the back.  There is also the future challenge of having to work Christine Sinclair into the mix, but it is almost always easier to solve the problem of too many players as opposed to not enough.

Tactics aside, Shim and Long were on fire and combined exceptionally well throughout the night.  They were finally rewarded with two goals—Shim to Long for both—less than 90 seconds apart that iced the match.  Alex Morgan got lost in the shuffle of the formation and Long’s brace but also played a strong match.  And Michelle Betos got the nod over a fresh-off-the-plane Nadine Angerer and made two excellent saves midway through the 1st half to keep the Thorns on the front foot.

FC Kansas City also played with three in the back for the last 25 minutes.  Sure they were losing but 25 minutes is a long time to go with a three-back, especially trailing only 1-0 and having an edge in shots and possession.  FCKC has the personnel to play the same way the Thorns did.  This bears watching in the coming weeks.

Attendance:  Everything worked in favor of a good attendance week and that’s what it was.  Yes, Thorns’ home weeks are always good ones, and yes FC Kansas City played at Sporting Park and received some help selling the game from Sporting Kansas City.  And yes, the Red Stars and Sky Blue were not at home, where they generally pull the average down.  The average for the four matches was 7,632.

The Reign’s figure of 2,642 came in a bit low.  It was their lowest attended match since last April 27, 2014 and nearly 400 less than last season’s opener.  The Dash drew 6,012, second highest after their debut match.  But the club publicly stated a desire to draw 10,000 for the opener and fell well short of that mark.

This weekend will not average as many as last, but the strong start is good.  You never know when a sponsor or investor will be swayed by solid early numbers.

This Week

— FC Kansas City at Washington Spirit (Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT) – Playoff teams that looked shaky in their openers will be trying to avoid 0-2 in the opener at the Plex.

— Western New York Flash at Portland Thorns FC (Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT) – New-look Flash complete a challenging, early trip to the Pacific Northwest and will need a much different performance to avoid a repeat of their 5-1 loss in Seattle.

— Houston Dash at Sky Blue FC (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET) – Both teams will be looking to follow-up on excellent open day wins.  Yurcak Field opener.

— Seattle Reign FC at Chicago Red Stars (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET) – Red Stars finally get to play soccer when they host the Shield winners in a challenging start to their season.

Free Kicks

Direct

— Ali Krieger traveled home with the Spirit after being concussed in a scary collision early in the match in Houston.  All reports from Krieger and Washington are that she will be okay but no update has been given on her playing status for the weekend.

— Spirit coach Mark Parsons tells The Equalizer’s Jennifer Gordon that he expects Christine Nairn to be available this weekend.  Nairn appeared to injure her arm in the 2nd half in Houston after Parsons had exhausted his subs.

— Friday was only the second time the Dash have had a two-goal lead.  The first was last June 8 when they shut out Sky Blue, 3-0 in New Jersey.

— FC Kansas City has the most wins—23—of any team in the NWSL, but they have never won their opening game.  They drew the Thorns in 2013 and Sky Blue in 2014 before losing to Sky Blue this year.  The Breakers (0-2-1) and Spirit (0-2-1) are also winless in season-openers.  The Reign (2-0-1), Sky Blue (2-0-1), and the Thorns (2-0-1) are unbeaten as are the Red Stars (1-0-1), who have yet to play in 2015.  That leaves only the Dash (1-1-0) and Flash (1-2-0) who have both won and lost on opening day.

-Per Hal Kaiser at keepernotes.com, commissioner Jeff Plush said an expansion announcement could come early in the summer. The Equalizer’s Jeff Husted was there and reports that per Plush, three of the six expansion candidates are MLS teams and there are three to the east of the Mississippi River and three to the west of it. Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are known to be interested in the NWSL.

— Anne M. Peterson of the Associated Press spoke to Abby Wambach who said she will likely train with the Reign a few days a week before the U.S. national team convenes for final World Cup preparation.

Indirect

— It was a good weekend for NWSL rookies.  Boston Breakers forward Stephanie McCaffrey showed maturity with her ability to hold up the ball and make good decisions with it.  She was eventually rewarded with a goal.  Later, with the Breakers trailing 4-1, she was seen tracking all the way back to the goal line to try and win the ball back off the Thorns.  More performances like that should make her popular in Boston.

— Sabrina D’Angelo’s stat line was gaudy but it will also belie a solid performance in her debut.  The Flash keeper played behind a defense what was probably the worst unit on the field in Week 1.  Her double-save that ended with a recovery to stop Mathias point-blank will be difficult to top for the best save we see all season.  And when her backs and midfielders were not turning the ball over and leaving everyone stretched, D’Angelo did a nice job controlling her penalty area.

— Another bright spot for the Flash was Jordan Angeli scoring her first goal since 2011.  Last time she scored was in WPS, when she tallied for the Breakers and then tore her ACL all before the season was a half-hour old.  A long, arduous recovery kept her away until she returned with the Spirit in 2014.

— For my money, Amy LePeilbet was the best player on the field in Kansas City.  I had heard positive things about her play in what will be her first full season since major knee surgery.  Through one game, she has delivered.

— Depth issues will be prominent all season.  The Breakers were down 2-0, went to the bench, and came up with Amy Barczuk.  The Spirit were behind and brought in Angela Salem.  Defensive-minded players can certainly help turn the flow of play up field but there won’t be many players who sub on late that will be expecting to score.

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