The NWSL offseason seems to take forever and then the season goes by in a flash. We’re already five weeks in to the 2015 campaign and the landscape has changed with the U.S. World Cup team having gathered, leaving all nine teams shorthanded.
This past weekend also saw a small schism in the table. The top five teams are between 10 and 7 points with a break to the bottom three who are on 5, 4, and 3 respectively. This week we’ll take a look at the nine teams and what they will have to do in order to come out of the other side of the World Cup in good standing.
Chicago Red Stars (3-0-1, 10 pts): Christen Press scored four of their first five goals but in the last two they have shown an ability to win without her. First they beat Sky Blue who held Press in check and then Boston after Press left. More encouraging was a solid performance from Michele Dalton in her NWSL debut deputizing for World Cup bound Karina LeBlanc in goal. There figure to be some bumps in the road while the club relies on a smorgasbord of young players, and the team has yet to play an away match, but the pieces and depth appear to be in place for the Red Stars to remain in contention for the top spot.
FC Kansas City (3-2-0, 9 pts): The panic of an 0-2 start has long since subsided around the league now that the holders have won three in a row, all without conceding a goal. Sure their midfield got lapped in Western New York but they still kept the Flash chances to mostly ones from long range and more importantly found a way to win. The Blues have also received contributions from several of their depth players which will be key to survival over the next two months. They have as good a group of World Cup players as anyone so they need only to hang around until that crew gets back.
Portland Thorns FC (2-0-2, 8 pts): Should we be concerned that the Thorns have trailed 2-0 inside 15 minutes in two consecutive matches? Or pleased that both matches were 2-1 at halftime and eventually finished 2-2? As usual with the Thorns it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The two goals conceded against the Spirit were the product of egregious giveaways in the back that will be impossible to cover up for the long haul. They’re also down to starting an amateur at striker with their big three all off at the World Cup. But Sarah Jackson had some good moments in her first start despite not scoring. In midfield, Mana Shim is playing better than ever and has found a connection with Allie Long who had multiple chances to put the Thorns ahead Saturday including one from the spot. They’re missing many players for the World Cup and so far have been loyal to the 3-6-1. The Thorns have been nothing if not interesting over the years and are probably the most interesting team to watch going forward.
Seattle Reign FC (2-2-1, 7 pts): Special seasons are difficult to come by, and even more difficult to repeat. The Reign have been okay but are struggling on the road and have conceded twice in stoppage time to cost themselves three points. So it won’t be like 2014, but that does not mean the Reign will not ultimately be very good. Their defense and midfield are intact—save for a Jess Fishlock suspension for their next league match—and Haley Kopmeyer has hardly missed a beat filling in for Hope Solo. The Reign also have until May 30 until they play in the league again, ample time to work out some of the kinks on the training field. They’re still very good just maybe not the same as a year ago. Two concerns are getting goals out of their forwards and a 1-4-2 away mark since July 12.
Washington Spirit (2-2-1, 7 pts): Two weeks ago Mark Parsons was sitting in the catbird seat with his roster virtually untouched by the World Cup. Suddenly Crystal Dunn is an injury aggravation away from being in Canada, and Estafania Banini is out for the season after knee surgery. Once Francisca Ordega joins Nigeria, Parsons could suddenly be reaching deep into his reserves to find strikers. Fortunately his midfield is excellent and the back line has potential to be solid. They’re still working things out at right back but Estelle Johnson looks close to her 2013 form after sitting out last season. This team has the feel of one that could go either way, but there are some exciting tools at Parsons’s disposal.
Sky Blue FC (1-2-2, 5 pts): After beating FC Kansas City on the road to open the season Sky Blue have not won in their last four, and are the only team in NWSL not to score two goals in a game this season (6 of the other 8 have scored at least 3 in a game.) The biggest issue has been getting the ball played through their defensive third into dangerous spaces. Without that element Nadia Nadim has struggled to gain quality possession and has not scored in the run of play since the opener. It is an issue that will need to be worked out well before their World Cup players return.
Houston Dash (1-2-1, 4 pts): The Dash are probably the hardest hit club by the World Cup because Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian are capable of controlling a game out of midfield on their own. Brittany Bock is due back soon which should help. The larger concern is the defense which was already going to be a hodgepodge before Stephanie Ochs tore her ACL. Meghan Klingenberg, Lauren Sesselmann, and Allysha Chapman should help after the World Cup, but the Dash will need much better from those there now if they are going to be close enough to pounce come July and August. Toni Pressley was acquired from the Flash this week to bolster things in back.
Western New York Flash (1-3-0, 3 pts): It is early still but it seems the Flash went 4-for-4 with their 1st round picks—Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Jaelene Hinkle. It is just taking some time to get them all prepared to grind out wins. Friday against FC Kansas City was a good example. The Flash won the midfield and possession battle but lost the match 1-0. Dahlkemper dropped into central defense that night to cover for World Cup player Whitney Engen and that seemed to lessen her effectiveness. The Flash are on their way to being good. Whether they get there in time to be a playoff contender will be one of the league’s most entertaining story lines heading into summer.
Boston Breakers (1-3-0, 3 pts): The Breakers have a team goals against average of 3.00 which quite simply is not going to get it done. Even with Alyssa Naeher in the box they have held only one opponent to less than three goals and never to less than two. Cat Whitehill is their only World Cup loss–to the commentary side–and she has been out since Week 1 with a rib injury. She should help some upon her return, but defensively they just don’t seem good enough, particularly on the outside. The bright spot has been 1st round pick Stephanie McCaffrey who has shown an ability to shoot and create as well as hold up play in the attacking third.
More Week 5 Takeaways
Good night/bad night for refs: Neither side was particularly pleased with the refereeing in the Sky Blue-Regin match on Saturday. For me, Keelin Winters’s trip on Maya Hayes was a clear penalty and a blatant miss. But hey, it happens. And on the bright side the crew showed good communication to arrive at the correct call on the penalty and red card to Jess Fishlock. Physical mistakes will happen, even for referees. Working with the assistants seems like an easy thing to do, but it does not always happen.
Tymrak on defense: The biggest thing holding Erika Tymrak from being an elite player is her defending. Just check the tape on the Thorns’ winning goal in the 2013 playoff game for proof. But 2015 has seen Tymrak give more attention to the defensive side of the ball, something on full display against Western New York on Friday night. Her play went a long way towards allowing Nicole Barnhart to keep another clean sheet.
Spirit high pressure: The Spirit are making a habit out of scoring goals created by high pressure leading to defensive giveaways. Crystal Dunn and Francisca Ordega have both proven very adept at disrupting opposing defenses. What makes it such a dangerous proposition is that both can finish as they proved with a goal each after turning over Thorns’ defenders. But the Spirit still need to produce more goals off their buildup. That will make them supremely dangerous and extremely difficult to game plan against.
Western New York Flash at FC Kansas City (Thursday, 8 p.m. EDT) – A rematch six days after FC Kansas City won 1-0 while being badly outshot in Western New York.
Chicago Red Stars at Houston Dash (Friday, 8:30 p.m. EDT) – The undefeated Red Stars will be on the road for the first time against a Dash side trying desperately to settle things on the back line.
Portland Thorns FC at Boston Breakers (Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT) – The Thorns blasted the Breakers on opening day and have rallied from 2-0 down to draw their last two. The Breakers have allowed a dozen goals in four matches.
Sky Blue FC at Washington Spirit (Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT) – Sky Blue are winless in four including a 3-1 home loss to the Sprit and have yet to score twice in any game this season.
Portland Thorns — 3 games, 13,590 (2014 avg — 13,362)
Chicago Red Stars — 4 games, 5,481 (2,949)
FC Kansas City — 2 games, 5,478 (2,018)
Houston Dash — 2 games, 5,099 (4,539)
Washington Spirit — 1 game, 4,136 (3,335)
Seattle Reign FC — 2 games, 2,673 (3,632)
Boston Breakers — 1 game, 2,376 (2,437)
Western New York Flash — 2 games, 1,838 (3,177)
Sky Blue FC — 3 games, 1,419 (1,640)
We’ll wait for next week and then so some critical analysis. One note though. The Red Stars’ average for both seasons includes a large number from a doubleheader at Toyota Park. Their average over 11 matches at Benedictine University Sports Complex last season was 1,786. Through three games there this season the average is 1,969.
FC Kansas City also played a stand-alone match at Sporting Park, but their numbers will not be so comparable to 2014 due to a change in the club’s regular venue.
— Nadia Nadim converted a penalty Saturday and a few hours later Allie Long was stopped by Kelsey Wys. That makes penalty takers 1-for-3 this season. Kim Little missed the frame entirely April 12 against the Flash.
— The Jessica Fishlock red card was the first in the league this season. She will miss the Reign’s next match which is not until May 30 against the Red Stars.
— In the interim the Reign will host China, May 22 at Memorial Stadium. The match will not be streamed.
— Jen Buczkowski extended her streak to 51 straight games played and started since NWSL kicked off. Lauren Barnes has missed one game and played her 50th on Saturday when she scored her first goal in the league. Buczkowski has one goal in league play.
— The Flash and Dash completed the first in season trade of the season with Toni Pressley going to Houston in exchange for Ashley Nick. The Flash probably got the better player but the Flash plugged a hole with Pressley who is a center back. Nick was battling Rachael Axon for playing time and would have fallen further down the depth chart with Brittany Bock nearing a return. Word is the Dash attempted to acquire a second player in the deal but that the clubs could not come to an agreement on who it would be.
— According to the Canberra Times, Australian defender Ellie Brush will also join the Dash. Brush was not part of Australia’s recently named World Cup roster.
— Congratulations and best wishes to Sarah Hagen on reaching 10 years cancer free last week.
— Also congratulations to Spirit forward Caroline Miller for her return to competitive action. Miller came on as a late substitute for the Spirit on Saturday, her first NWSL action since May 19, 2013. Major ankle surgery and a stress fracture conspired to keep her away nearly two years.
— The rookie class is off to a strong start and now Sofia Huerta is the first of the group to be Player of the Week. After struggling in her first three matches Huerta scored twice and added an assist in the Red Stars’ 3-0 win over the Breakers.
— Before the hand ball and red card, Jessica Fishlock was the best player on the field in any of the four matches over the weekend.
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