Every now and then I like to use this space for a rundown of the teams. We’re only three weeks into the season but believe it or not this is the first time every team has played its first three matches over the first three weeks of the season. And we already have something of a split in the table. Two unbeaten teams, the Spirit and Thorns, remain and will showdown this weekend in Washington. Two winless teams remain. The other half dozen are sitting on three, four, or six points.
So here is a look at some pros and cons to the first three weeks of the season for all 10 NWSL clubs.
Washington Spirit (3-0-0, 9 points)
Pros: It seems the adjustment to new coach Jim Gabarra and new goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe has been minimal with three straight wins tying the club record and only one goal conceded thus far. It has been far from perfect, but the name of the game is results, so to secure the first nine available points while still finding optimal rhythm must be quite pleasing to Spirit fans. Additionally, Shelina Zadorsky seems to work well as the new central defense partner to the underrated Megan Oyster and Crystal Dunn is quickly morphing into her new role that allows her to create as much as score. The Spirit are also deep with quality players like Francesca Ordega and Estelle Johnson yet to feature.
Cons: Katie Stengel, despite her fortuitous goal in Western New York on Friday night, has been slow to adapt to NWSL and her touch in the final third has been woefully off. She lost her starting nod in Week 3. Dunn has not scored yet after not going three straight games without a goal through all of 2015. But is that really a con with an assist in every game and three victories?
Outlook: This deep side should continue to get stronger and the possession-to-danger ratio needs some work. But the Spirit figured to be contenders and have offered no reason to this point to think otherwise.
Portland Thorns FC (2-0-1, 7 points)
Pros: Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath have been awe inspiring in midfield. After a recent national team match Heath said she is playing the best soccer of her career and it has shown early in the NWSL campaign. Always fancy in her ball work, Heath’s current form has her doing more with her otherworldly abilities, creating dangerous chances for teammates and helping to wear out opposing defenders. Horan’s first three NWSL matches have been a display of fantastic, two-way midfield play and she has shown an ability to score when given the ball in the right spots.
Cons: Too much of the work has come from the midfield. Nadia Nadim has yet to see much in the way of exciting chances and her teammates have not done much to connect to her. Christine Sinclair is out at least another week and her return could change up the dynamic, but there is too much talent on this roster for some of the long, slow stretches of soccer they have produced thus far. The Kat Williamson knee injury has brought the capable Katherine Reynolds into the starting team and offered glimpses of the summer in the event Emily Sonnett makes the United States Olympic squad.
Outlook: Considering all of the new parts, being undefeated through three matches is a strong start to the season. Eventually they will need to rely on other elements of the team to win them points but part of being a contending side is getting contributions from everyone.
Seattle Reign FC (2-1-0, 6 points)
Pros: The Reign shook off the cobwebs of a stupefying season-opening loss to Sky Blue to win the last two without conceding a goal, doing most of it without Jess Fishlock. The Reign system remains strong and Kim Little continues to be one of the best, if maybe one of the most understated, midfielders on the planet.
Cons: Opening day was a con from whistle to whistle but since then the biggest issues have been health related. The Reign knew from early that Megan Rapinoe would miss much of the season and then lost Fishlock to a broken leg in Week 2. Last week Manon Melis and Merritt Mathias both left the match walking less than optimally with Melis looking by far the worse of the two.
Outlook: There are enough parts of the core left from the last two years that the Reign are legitimate contenders for both trophies again. Unfortunately, the chase for a third straight Shield aside, there won’t be all that much attention paid until the time comes to finish the deal in the playoffs.
Chicago Red Stars (2-1-0, 6 points)
Pros: The back line has been extraordinary especially the last two weeks when the midfield wasn’t getting wrecked. Specifically, outside backs Arin Gilliland and Casey Short have been outstanding and Katie Naughton was more than just admirable subbing in for injured Julie Johnston against the Pride. And what can you say about Christen Press? She is probably the most gifted goal scorer in NWSL and has the stats to back it up. Since the start of last season Press has made 14 appearances for the Red Stars and scored 12 goals.
Cons: I’m still not convinced about the secondary scoring, particularly the mix between Press, Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy. Amanda Da Costa finally made her club debut on the weekend and nearly bagged one but how the Red Stars will score when Press doesn’t is a legitimate concern. The good news is that in 2015, Huerta thrived while Press was away.
Outlook: If we can agree to write off the Dash match as an anomaly, the back six—back four plus Alyssa Naeher and Danielle Colaprico—should make the Red Stars extremely difficult to beat every week and keep them in just about every match they play. If they score enough, the sky is the limit.
Houston Dash (1-1-1, 4 points)
Pros: The depth in Houston this season is obvious. They may not have scored against Sky Blue but short of the final product they did not labor for offense with Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian both out injured. (Brian was technically available for the match.) Chioma Ubogagu was excellent in her first start and Denise O’Sullivan went from baggage claim to the sub’s list (okay, not literally but almost) and showed off some of her abilities as well. The Dash have bossed long stretches of all three matches including the 3-1 loss in Orlando.
Cons: When pushed by the Pride, the backline showed some warts although they are still developing and 1st round pick Cari Roccaro is ahead of schedule. And while depth is good you never want too many injuries especially to a player like Lloyd who can be average on the day and do enough in one instant to alter a match. And could there be signs of strife after Kealia Ohai—wearing the captain’s armband in Lloyd’s absence—snubbed her coach’s sideline greeting after being subbed off against Sky Blue?
Outlook: This is by far the best Dash team to date but settling for a draw against Sky Blue was evidence they have yet to learn how to win. They’ll have to limit those sorts of point giveaways and start stealing a few when they’re less than their best. But this team is absolutely talented enough to contend.
Sky Blue FC (1-1-1, 4 points)
Pros: Everyone seems to have bought in as new coach Christy Holly has Sky Blue playing a measured, defensive style—at least until Sam Kerr gets healthy and Leah Galton finishes school. The backline, featuring rookies Erica Skroski and Erin Simon, has been a revelation even with two inexperienced goalkeepers in behind them (New Zealand international and World Cup veteran Erin Nayler is on the way.) No. 2 pick Raquel Rodriguez has been fabulous, defensively as well as offensively.
Cons: It was a nice story when Tasha Kai scored the first goal of the season in Seattle but she has not done too much since. That said, she was away from the sport for nearly five years and deserves a chance to work off some of the rust. Without Kerr and Galton it just does not seem there is enough up top for Sky Blue to generate much offense so they’re going to have to keep it extremely tight in back and make the most of whatever counterattacks they can muster.
Outlook: If nothing else, Holly is doing his part to resurrect the culture at Sky Blue and enticing Nayler to come should be considered a good sign. But most weeks, everything is going to have to be clicking to win points and it figures to be quite a struggle on weeks that it is not.
Orlando Pride (1-2-0, 3 points)
Pros: The Pride are very well organized for an expansion team which should help keep them in games. The back line has been very good with Ashlyn Harris ready to make the big save when needed. Lianne Sanderson, still working back to full fitness, is a top player in the league and Jasmyne Spencer’s energy and effort have been off the charts.
Cons: That solid back line? It’s all going to the Olympics as is Harris. That will be a problem that might be too much to recover from. The midfield has also lacked offensive creativity.
Outlook: Early indications show the Pride laying the foundation for a positive culture on and off the field which really should be the ultimate goal of any first-year club. As presently constituted they are capable of competing with anybody but the lack of midfield creativity and impending Olympic absences will likely be too much to overcome.
Western New York Flash (1-2-0, 3 points)
Pros: They were better than FC Kansas City on opening night. They were better than the Spirit for long stretches though it did not result in a goal. Abby Dahlkemper looked more comfortable as a central defender and Jaelene Hinkle did a number on Heather O’Reilly on opening day before being forced out by an O’Reilly tackle from behind.
Cons: The attack is still coming along and the loss of Hinkle—who did play in Week 3—was a blow at the back.
Outlook: Always the wild card team, their season has kind of played out like that through three matches. It still seems they have the talent to enjoy a very solid season if things click on time.
FC Kansas City (0-2-1, 1 point)
Pros: The Blues can still knock the ball around pretty well and bringing Amanda Frisbie in to return to a standard, four-back was a good move. Heather O’Reilly’s work rate on the flanks is as high as ever. They definitely dominated long stretches against the Thorns and shorter stretches against the Reign.
Cons: The scoring is just not there. Shea Groom might play with more energy than anyone in the league now that Ella Masar is gone but she likely can’t carry the load on her own and you saw what happened in Seattle when she was suspended. O’Reilly can score but doesn’t do enough on her own to make it happen.
Outlook: A rival coach recently suggested that Vlatko Andonovski will get this team playing at its absolute peak by season’s end and that it is simply a matter of whether they are good enough. At this point they’re not but they’ll be tough to beat all season long.
Boston Breakers (0-3-0, 0 points)
Pros: This Breakers team is far better defensively than either of the two seasons under Tom Durkin, and take away some early sloppiness against the Spirit and that match was pretty close to a stalemate. Abby Smith’s pro debut in goal was a promising one.
Cons: After three straight seasons of not being shutout in consecutive matches, the Breakers have opened this season by being blanked in their first three. It’s four in a row if you pin on the end of last season. Clearly the roster construction focused on defending and it shows.
Outlook: If it is possible to be 0-3 without a goal and show progress, the Breakers are doing it. Eventually they will figure out how to find Kyah Simon and Stephanie McCaffrey in goal-scoring positions and results will come. But it’s not too early to be concerned about the season slipping away.
Injury news not as bad as feared
A week ago the NWSL world was holding its collective breath after a tough Week 2 that left several players with what looked like serious knee injuries. In the end the news was not as bad as feared and at no point was the ACL world brought out.
Old news now, but Carli Lloyd was diagnosed with a Grade I MCL sprain and will be out up to six weeks; Jess Fishlock has a fractured left tibia and is also out up to six weeks; Kat Williamson had surgery to repair a meniscus injury and will be out, altogether now, up to six weeks.
That timeframe should have Lloyd back in more than enough time to take her place on the United States Olympic roster and allow Fishlock and Williamson to provide cover when some of their teammates go off to Rio. Williamson in particular will be important since her central defense partner Emily Sonnett is on the bubble to make it for the U.S.
Other injuries dotted Week 3—some reported, some not. Jessica McDonald missed her first game in three years due to a right meniscus impingement. Julie Johnston missed the Red Stars match with an adductor strain. Morgan Brian was available but never made the field for the Dash. She is still battling a hamstring injury that held her out of Week 1. Abby Smith’s start for the Breakers was brought on at least in part by a quad strain for Libby Stout. Tiffany McCarty missed FC Kansas City’s game with a hamstring strain.
In unreported injury news, wosoOffThePOst reported at Jeon Ga-Eul has been nursing an injury and will be out at least another two to three weeks. Jeon has not been listed on the injury report but has also not made a game day roster for the Flash.
The Flash played their home opener on Friday night. That means every team now has a measure of comparison to last season.
Western New York Flash – 3,615
Houston Dash – 5,081
Boston Breakers – 3,698
Chicago Red Stars – 4,024
Seattle Reign FC – 4,083
WEEK 3 TOTAL: 20,501
WEEK 3 AVERAGE: 4,100
TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS
1. Orlando Pride — 23,403 (1 game)
2. Portland Thorns FC – 16,073 (1 game)
2015 average: 15,639
thru 1 game: 13,386
3. Houston Dash – 6,261 (2 games)
2015 average: 6,413
thru 2 games: 5,099
4. FC Kansas City – 5,522 (2 games)
2015 average: 3,091
thru 2 games: 5,478
5. Seattle Reign FC – 4,035 (2 games)
2015 average: 4,060
thru 2 games: 2,673
6. Boston Breakers – 3,721 (2 games)
2015 average: 2,863
thru 2 games: 2,523
7. Western New York Flash – 3,615 (1 game)
2015 average: 2,860
thru 1 game: 1,873
8. Washington Spirit – 3,578 (1 game)
2015 average: 4,087
thru 1 game – 4,136
9. Chicago Red Stars – 3,277 (2 games)
2015 average: 4,210
thru 2 games: 2,252
10. Sky Blue FC – 2,571 (1 game)
2015 average: 2,189
thru 1 game: 1,742
SEASON AVERAGE: 6,325
2015 AVERAGE: 5,046
-Jen Buczkowski started her 69th consecutive regular season game for FC Kansas City to extend the league’s irwonwoman streak. But her closest rival Jessica McDonald sat out with a knee injury ending her consecutive games played (not started) run at 46. She last missed a match on the last week of 2013. Christine Nairn is now next in line with 42 straight appearances (not all starts.)
-The Breakers are close to selling out Saturday’s game against the Red Stars and have released 200 additional tickets for the match. That’s not bad considering it is the third straight week playing at home and the week after the Thorns, not to mention the team’s lack of either a point or a goal on the season.
-Crystal Dunn went three straight games without scoring for the first time since 2014 but she has an assist in all three matches, tying Lisa De Vanna’s Spirit record for consecutive matches with an assist.
-Sky Blue have dipped into the international pool to sign New Zealand goalkeeper Erin Naylor. A veteran of the 2015 World Cup, Naylor brings loads of experience to the position currently manned by rookie Caroline Casey and second-year player Caroline Stanley. Naylor is likely heading back in with New Zealand for the Olympics this summer.
-The Breakers said goodbye to Morgan Marlborough who was waived on Tuesday. Originally selected No. 12 by FC Kansas City in 2014, she was part of that season’s NWSL Championship side before being traded to Boston in the Heather O’Reilly deal.
–Here is my Player of the Week ballot:
1) Kim Little – extraordinary, two-way effort from the Reign midfielder; yes the move to beat Amanda Frisbie for the game’s only goal dazzled but it was her work in the defensive 18 that put her over the top on the Reign’s first full week without Jess Fishlock
2) Arin Gilliland – locked down the right flank for the Red Stars with several forays forward and helped neutralize Alex Morgan all night in second straight Red Stars shutout
3) Diana Matheson – In a week without much finishing Matheson was flawless on two occasions, first at the end of a perfect Crystal Dunn pass and then from the spot to settle things down after the Spirit dodged a bullet at the other end when Sam Mewis’s would-be equalizing penalty hit the post
Also considered: Casey Short was a perfect left-sided foil to Gilliland; Abby Smith had a solid debut in goal for the Breakers, losing 1-0 on a goal she never had a chance on; McCall Zerboni was a strong presence in the Breakers midfield, winning balls and playing them forward to spring what little attack the club mustered on the day.
-Speaking on Gilliand and Short, they are the best outside back tandem in NWSL right now. Period.
-Did some random back-of-the-envelope brainstorming on the U.S. Olympic team and came up with 17 of 18 spots, some of which are either/ors for a certain spot. Here’s what I came up with:
A dozen spots are golden: Hope Solo in goal; Kelley O’Hara, Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnson, and Meghan Klingenberg on defense; Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, and Carli Lloyd in midfield; Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh, and Alex Morgan up top
There will be a backup keeper and a backup center back. Right now I would lean toward Alyssa Naeher and Emily Sonnett. I would also be surprised to see Christen Press, Heather O’Reilly, and Lindsey Horan not make it.
If I’m right—and I most certainly am not—my hunch is the 18th spot is being kept warm for Megan Rapinoe.
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