You rarely get a fourth chance to make a first impression. In professional women’s soccer terms, there’s never been that opportunity, but here we were this weekend. The NWSL, alive and seemingly well, kicked off its fourth season with an expansion team, robust crowds in most places, and an opportunity – in the (possibly distant) shadow of #EqualPlayEqualPay – to make some real progress toward stability and being more like a, well, professional league.
Yet when excited fans tuned in (can you tune into YouTube?) for the opener between Washington and Boston Saturday night at 7 p.m., they got …. nothing. Soon thereafter a blurry picture came up, just in time for what turned out to be the probable Goal of the Week by Joanna Lohman, which also turned out to be the only goal of the game. Eventually, sound kicked in, and people could watch (even though it was still blurry at times). The league will tell you stuff like that can’t be at the top of its priority list, but picture a new fan (perhaps banner in hand) checking out NWSL for the first time, giving it a few minutes and going back to whatever they were doing, perhaps never to be seen again.
Of course, at the same time, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush was making an ill-timed but not terribly classified announcement that this year’s final was going to be in Houston. Sadly, he couldn’t announce any new national sponsors or any games on national television before September (?!?), things that seemed promising after the U.S. run in last year’s World Cup.
You see, like the USWNT, we’ve reached the point in Year 4 of the NWSL Experience that we shouldn’t be “happy to be here”. We know that expenses must be kept down and so we can understand some things are not going to be “professional”. But working live streams (a continuous issue in the league’s first three seasons) in 2016 should be a league priority. In addition, it would allow them to give its current loyal sponsors some plugs. And those new ones, of course.
What else did we learn in the NWSL’s first weekend, other than “Furt” (inside joke, but a good one, even amongst the teams apparently)?
Well…furt. Season begins, home unbeaten streak ends, but the beer garden was a hit! Read the match recap here: https://t.co/sdSNBrTZkY
— Seattle Reign FC (@SeattleReignFC) April 18, 2016
Washington 1:0 Boston
What Went Down: Joanna Lohman scored the opening goal and it really should have been 2-0 inside seven minutes when Estefania Banini somehow missed an open goal from six yards out. From there, though, the much-maligned Breakers played a pretty solid match and were somewhat unlucky to not steal a point. If nothing else, Matt Beard’s club at least looks like it will work hard, which you could probably tell by the additions of McCall Zerboni and Angela Salem.
In the end, the Breakers only forced one save out of Stephanie Labbe, but also held Crystal Dunn without a shot on goal. Dunn was able to do plenty by herself last season, but it remains to be seen whether the combination of Katie Stengel, Banini, and Cali Farquharson will be enough to help. Three points is three points, however.
Player of the Game: Caprice Dydasco – The UCLA (by way of Hawaii) product won a national title, but played in only nine matches a year ago. But her time in Australia seems to have helped, at least through one week.
Under the Radar: Mollie Pathman and Julie King – King has played more center back than outside for the Breakers, but the two combined had a very solid game, particularly against Dunn. Beard’s first order of business appears to be shoring up the defense and that’s probably a wise way to go.
Inside the Numbers: 3,578 – Attendance at the SoccerPlex, lowest of the five games this weekend. Up next: Washington – at Sky Blue (Sun.) Boston – vs. Seattle (Sun.)
Houston 3:1 Chicago
What Went Down: Christen Press took advantage of a mess in the Houston defense, which brought back memories of the last couple of seasons for Randy Waldrum. But this season, he boasts a front line that includes Janine Beckie and Rachel Daly, and – combined with Carli Lloyd and Kealia Ohai – put up the best offensive performance in the opening weekend.
For Alyssa Naeher, it was also a blast from the past in front of a defense that struggled. Samantha Johnson, who played well last season, just had a miserable time trying to keep up with Houston’s forwards and the Red Stars were picked apart on several occasions, which will send Rory Dames to the drawing board this week.
Player of the Game: Rachel Daly – It was largely unnoticed, but Daly tried an audacious volley just two minutes in that nearly beat Naeher from 25 yards out, so it was clear she wasn’t nervous. And it was abundantly clear as the game progressed. It’s very early, of course, but Daly looks like she’ll score goals at this level, which will help the Dash both now and during the World Cup.
Under the Radar: Andressa – The Brazilian didn’t get forward a whole lot, but didn’t have to. Her distribution was fantastic pretty much all night, finding Lloyd and the forwards from her somewhat deeper position. Does she stay there when Morgan Brian returns from injury?
Inside the Numbers: 9 – Minutes played by Stephanie Ochs, in her first game back after tearing her ACL last season. When she is healthy, Ochs could help Waldrum in a couple of spots on the field. Up next: Houston – at Orlando (Sat.) Chicago – vs. Western New York (Sat.)
Kansas City 0:1 Western New York
What Went Down: We know the defending champs lost a lot, but it was quite surprising the way they were pretty much dominated at home by a Flash team that has a new coach and not too many recognizable names. Riley said in preseason he had a lot of speed, and he put it to good use, frustrating the likes of Heather O’Reilly and Erika Tymrak.
Michaela Hahn was the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft and appears to be a good pairing with Sam Mewis in the middle. Maybe Riley is a better fit with a young team where not much is expected of them?
Player of the Game: Jaelene Hinkle – Contrary to some people’s opinions, the USSF coaching staff is not completely incompetent. Hinkle is very athletic and a tremendous 1-v.-1 defender, as O’Reilly found out the hard way Saturday. Without too many of those to be had in the national pool (even now), she may have a national team future.
Under the Radar: Nicole Barnhart – Kansas City lost the game, but it would have been much worse without Barnhart, who made a couple of spectacular saves in the first half and probably hopes to not be called on as much in future games.
Inside the Numbers: 2 – Number of penalty kicks called, with Mewis converting hers, but O’Reilly hitting the post in stoppage time. While O’Reilly is not a regular penalty taker, she did take them with the Breakers and made the only one she took in the preseason.
Up next: Kansas City – vs. Portland (Sat.); WNY – at Chicago (Sat.)
Seattle 1:2 Sky Blue
What Went Down: One of the most shocking results in NWSL history, and while the Reign had the better of the play, it wasn’t exactly a classic “smash and grab”, Sky Blue was able to create more than a few chances against a Reign defense that, frankly, looked terrible, including Hope Solo, who saved a penalty kick but didn’t read Sky Blue’s first goal correctly and her poor clearance led to the second one.
The Reign didn’t have any trouble scoring goals last season, but their forwards had their struggles in this one against a somewhat makeshift backline (other than Kelley O’Hara, who played a great match). Christie Rampone is still at it, while the other two were rookies, Erica Skroski out of Rutgers and undrafted Erin Simon from Syracuse. Manon Melis, in particular, struggled, and it will be interesting to see how long she takes to come up to speed in the NWSL.
Player of the Game: Sarah Killion – Among the many, many names that Jill Ellis seems to be able to look at these days is Killion, who was fantastic in the center of midfield, even dealing with the Seattle trio of Jess Fishlock, Kim Little, and Keelin Winters.
Under the Radar: Kelley O’Hara – It is O’Hara’s fourth season with Sky Blue, which allows her to take on a leadership role as well, and it showed Sunday. She had an assist on the first goal and generally seemed to calm the rookies around her (along with Rampone, of course).
Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of years Kelly Conheeney took off from playing soccer after it looked like her career was over due to concussions after starring at Virginia Tech. But there she was, scoring the game winner in her NWSL debut Sunday night.
Up next: Seattle – at Boston (Sun.); Sky Blue – vs. Washington (Sun.)
Portland 2:1 Orlando
What Went Down: The Thorns went down a goal early, and while there still seem to be many things to work out, they at least got out of there with three points. Like Seattle, the Thorns had their problems defensively and Michelle Betos did not have her best night in goal, but you can see the sheer number of offensive weapons they have, led by Lindsey Horan and Dagny Brynjarsdottir (with Allie Long and Tobin Heath, of course).
Orlando, although they had trouble dealing with Heath, looked solid in the back, but will need to find a way to give Alex Morgan some support up top. Veteran Kristen Edmonds had a solid game on the wing, and they did create some scoring opportunities.
Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – Horan is just so strong on the ball, and Orlando had trouble dealing with her physically, but she also obviously has plenty of skill to go with it.
Under the Radar: Dagny Brynjarsdottir – Well, she wasn’t quite under the radar, but still wanted to recognize that she had a good game and should be a force in the NWSL this season. Expert analysis, I know.
Inside the Numbers: 20,000 – Attendance that Orlando is shooting for next weekend for its home opener. That should be a sight.
Up next: Portland – at Kansas City (Sat.); Orlando – vs. Houston (Sat.)
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