Following a few tenuous weeks in the aftermath of the World Cup, when the World Cup players were slow to trickle back to their clubs, recent NWSL matches have been dominated by those players. Carli Lloyd scored in her first three matches back for the Houston Dash, including a dazzling, game-winner last Wednesday that lifted the Dash into a playoff position. Christen Press returned to the Red Stars and immediately picked up the scoring binge she was on at the start of the season. Kelley O’Hara and Samantha Kerr returned to Sky Blue and helped alter the team’s entire attacking structure.
And then there are the players whose names can hardly be mentioned without some sort of qualifier about being excluded from the United States’ roster. Crystal Dunn took her opportunity to remain in the NWSL and dominated the league. Saturday night, in front of a packed house at the Maryland SoccerPlex, Dunn’s Spirit squared off against Lloyd’s Dash in a battle for third place. Lloyd finally returned to mortal standards in the match, failing to score for the first time in eight games in all competitions. All Dunn did was turn in one of the most electric opening halves ever seen in women’s pro soccer. Dunn could not outdo Lloyd’s 16-minute hat trick in the World Cup final, but her three goals solidified her position as MVP frontrunner and the Spirit’s as a top-three side.
Here is how Dunn scored three goals against the Dash, the first hat trick in the history of the Washington Spirit.
Goal 1: 28th minute. Play was bouncing around midfield when Francisca Ordega stepped up to pressure Camila’s pass into the midfield. The ball went to Megan Oyster, who played it ahead with a single touch toward Dunn. As the ball arrived at Dunn’s feet, all four Dash defenders were between her and the goal. With a single touch using her left leg, Dunn was able to shield and elude right back Ella Masar. Her initial burst was enough to leave center back Ellie Brush behind. At this point, Dunn was at least 40 yards from goal and there was not another Spirit player in site.
Dunn’s next touch looked like it may have given the other center back, Toni Pressley, an opportunity to break up the play. Pressley made a slight hesitation, however, and Dunn’s huge stride allowed her to maintain possession. Masar recovered and hustled over to help but Dunn was on full throttle and needed only to take healthy touches to keep Pressley and Masar in her rearview mirror.
As Dunn reached the 18-yard box, Masar leaned in for one final effort to stop her while goalkeeper Erin McLeod abandoned her line to act as the final line of defense. With her body between the ball and Masar—who elected not to take a foul for a penalty and likely red card—Dunn met McLeod right by the spot and pushed it past her. 1-0 Spirit.
Goal 2: 36th minute. History will show the goals came eight minutes apart, but most of that time was spent tending to McLeod, who was injured on the first goal and replaced by Bianca Henninger. The Dash put a bit of pressure on and Lloyd hit a shot from distance that missed wide giving Ashlyn Harris a goal kick.
Harris gave the ball a mighty boot all the way across midfield. The final destination was somewhere between the Dash midfielders and back four, all of whom dropped, allowing the Spirit to get to it first. The player who put a head on it was Dunn. Ellie Brush took the next touch but it was not clean and went to Joanna Lohman. The veteran wasted no time going wide to Diana Matheson, who settled and then lofted a probing ball ahead for Dunn. With the Dash shape shifted left, Masar had the best chance to disrupt the play but the converted right back took a poor route to the ball which allowed Dunn to enter the box uncontested. Henninger came out but Dunn hit a beautiful strike behind her that eluded the substitute goalkeeper. 2-0 Spirit.
Goal 3: First-half stoppage time. Christine Nairn lined up for a corner kick while Dunn looked to carve out some space near the top of the six. Rachael Axon read the corner and stepped out to mark Dunn. But she was too late to thwart Dunn’s leaping 5-foot-1-inch frame. The header was perfect, behind Henninger to the far post. It was the first Spirit goal this season off a header.
So how did the Spirit win the corner? Through Dunn of course. Ordega put her through along the left side to a near impossible angle. Dash defenders moved in but Dunn was able to drive her cross for a deflection to win the corner kick.
Week 16 takeaways
FCKC still inconistent: FC Kansas City has now scored a second-half equalizer in three straight games, two of which have ended in draws. They were the first two times the club has ever pulled a result after trailing. The middle match saw the tying goal negated by Carli Lloyd’s wonder strike. The Blues are now 5-6-4 and in fifth place. It is the latest they have ever been either below .500 or outside the playoff bubble. The consistency issue is rooted in the inability to combine strong performances on both sides of the ball. Plenty of time remains to make up the point that separates them from the playoffs, and they are clearly good enough to beat anyone. But FC Kansas City is under some pressure for the first time in their three seasons.
Who’s tired? The Flash were on both sides on an interesting phenomenon last week. Wednesday they hosted the Thorns, who had played three days earlier in Seattle after which they flew to Rochester on a red-eye flight. After failing to convert on two chances in the opening 10 minutes, the Flash were virtually shut down the rest of the night. Meanwhile the Thorns snapped a three-match scoreless streak and won 2-0. That left the Flash to head south to play at Sky Blue for their fourth game in two weeks. And they beat Sky Blue, 2-1 on a late goal by Elizabeth Eddy. And for all of the struggles in Western New York this season, they are two teams and two points outside the playoffs.
Breakers in 2016 mode? The Breakers’ fifth straight home loss and club-record eighth straight game overall without a win assured they will finish with more losses than wins. They are also officially out of a top-two spot even if they win their last five and get favorable results around the league. So where do they go from here? They’ll have to make a decision about whether the Kassey Kallman-Julie King tandem in central defense is the long-term plan. They can also use an upgrade at outside back and someone who can command the midfield. Is it time to start planning for that now? Or is the club holding out hope of climbing back into the race?
Here are last week’s NWSL attendance figures:
Western New York Flash (Wednesday) — 2,979
Houston Dash (Wednesday) — 6,425
Boston Breakers (Saturday) — 4,325 (NWSL era club record)
Washington Spirit (Saturday) — 5,418 (club record
Sky Blue FC (Saturday) — 3,152 (season high)
Chicago Red Stars (Saturday) — 3,477
2015 AVERAGE ATTENDANCE | POST WORLD CUP AVERAGE
1. Portland Thorns FC 14,823 | 21,144
2. Houston Dash 5,934 | 9,725
3. Chicago Red Stars 4,827-a | 3,519
4. Washington Spirit 3,882 | 5,310
5. Seattle Reign FC 3,621 | 6,041
6. FC Kansas City 3,338-b | 3,557
7. Boston Breakers 2,721 | 3,418
8. Western New York Flash 2,616 | 3,417
9. Sky Blue FC 1,840 | 2,744
NWSL Average 4,710 | 5,397
a-includes one doubleheader with the Chicago Fire (16,017) at Toyota Park; Benedictine average is 2,589
b-includes one match at Sporting Park; Swope average is 2,308
— Jen Buczkowski’s consecutive game streak has reached 61 regular season games plus three playoff games. That covers the entirety of FC Kansas City’s existence.
— The league-record minute streak is over. Brittany Taylor was held out of Wednesday’s lineup by the Flash, ending her streaks of 41 straight starts and 3,690 minutes. She was back at it Saturday.
— Dunn’s hat trick put her back in the lead in the Golden Boot race a few hours after Beverly Yanez tied it up with her ninth goal of the season in the Reign’s win over the Breakers. Christen Press had two of her own on Saturday and now has eight. Press has played less than half the number of games as Dunn or Yanez.
— McLeod’s injury seemed like it might be scary, but word out of Houston is that it was nothing serious.
— Caroline Stanley made her NWSL debut for the Reign and earned the win, 2-1 over the Breakers.
— Here are some of the highlights from Saturday’s ceremony at Soldiers Field honoring Cat Whitehill who retired from the Breakers earlier this year.
— It seems I caused a bit of a stir last week by suggesting Steph Catley was playing out of position against the Reign last weekend. After hearing from several people about this—including a dig from Thorns’ coach Paul Riley—I hereby stand corrected on the matter.
— Last week it appeared Lianne Sanderson was about to head to the Thorns, but the trail has cooled for the moment. The Breakers currently hold Sanderson’s NWSL rights.
— I was at the Flash game Wednesday so did not get to watch the Fox Sports Go stream live, but it appears the myriad issues that haunted the debut match on the platform were almost entirely gone.
— Lady Andrade had much to say ahead of Colombia’s World Cup match against the United States. But after netting her first NWSL goal in the Flash’s win over Sky Blue on Saturday, Andrade was hesitant to speak to the press, citing a language barrier. She eventually answered a few questions with some help from Ashley Nick. Asked if she was in Western New York for the long haul, Andrade said she did not know what the future held.
— There seems to be an increase in interactions between NWSL supporters groups. This past weekend, several Blue Crew members traveled to Chicago and stayed the weekend with Local 134 folks. No one had bragging rights after the 2-2 draw.
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