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NWSL Week In Review: FCKC a shell of its champion self

Vlatko Andonovskihas passed every NWSL coaching challenge so far, but his biggest one lies ahead. (Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Vlatko Andonovskihas passed every NWSL coaching challenge so far, but his biggest one lies ahead. (Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

It was NFL coach Dennis Green who once uttered in anger after a particularly tough loss, “They are what we thought they were.” (If you haven’t seen it, it’s funnier when you actually watch it, believe me.)

But for the 2016 version of FC Kansas City, unfortunately the opposite may be true. As two-time defending champions with a coach who has been equal to every NWSL challenge in Vlatko Andonovski, FCKC had to be given some respect heading into this season, even though it did suffer some roster turnover. But – at least as this early stage of its life – every team in the NWSL is going to have to deal with that, aren’t they?

Now four games (or 20 percent) into the 2016 campaign, though, it has become clear just how evident and ridiculously extensive those losses are and were. The most obvious is Lauren Holiday, who it’s not fair to say we took for granted, but retired last season as the second-leading goal scorer in NWSL history despite not playing an attacking position. It’s the most prominent spot Andonovski hasn’t been able to fill, having tried Erika Tymrak there in Holiday’s World Cup absence to no avail, and – although she did admirably Saturday night – putting Mandy Laddish there this season.

Alas, while Holiday is the most prominent loss, there are plenty of others. Having traded away Sarah Hagen, FCKC will play this season without Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux (although they hope both will return next year, but who knows?). That has left the attacking almost solely to Shea Groom, who had a decent rookie season, but appears a bit overwhelmed with all that responsibility at the moment. She’s getting a little help from Heather O’Reilly and Erika Tymrak on either side, but because they’re getting outplayed in general, that duo is having trouble getting forward to help her.

In the back, Andonovski went with a 3-5-2 in the opener against Western New York, which made a bit of sense, none of Becky Sauerbrunn, Yael Averbuch, or Brittany Taylor is a natural outside back. But after an ugly opener in which they were outplayed badly by the Flash at home, that was scrapped, Taylor was inserted at an awkward (for her) right back, while Amanda Frisbie stepped in at left back.

Now this week comes the news that Jen Buczkowski – perhaps the most underrated cog in the FCKC machine – is retiring, effective next week. Because of their success and trades, Kansas City didn’t pick until No. 16 in this year’s draft and that selection – New Zealand’s Katie Bowen – has yet to suit up for the champs. They aren’t Portland or Orlando (or even Houston), so it’s hard to see them adding a huge name in 2016. It’s possible they’ll lose only Sauerbrunn and Desiree Scott to the Olympics and that may be a chance to make up some ground and sneak somewhere toward the top four and a return to the playoffs, but right now, it does not look good, and without the stellar play of goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, it would likely be worse at this stage. As with Saturday’s 2-1 home loss to Houston, it’s not like FCKC is getting unlucky.

But, hey, I’ve been wrong before

What else did we learn in the NWSL’s fourth weekend?

SATURDAY

Washington 0:0 Portland

What Went Down: Rightfully so, much of the talk after this one surrounded Tobin Heath’s red card, but from my seat, there isn’t a whole lot of debate in it. She had one of the most obvious cases of encroachment in soccer history on an Ali Krieger free kick to earn the first yellow and spiking the ball in disgust that high will get you a yellow every time. So I don’t care if you’re Player of the Month and arguably the league’s most entertaining draw, you deserve to be ejected. But, hey, it made SportsCenter.

Heath otherwise had another solid game, but still isn’t getting much help from the rest of what should be a high-powered Thorns team. You saw glimpses of Lindsey Horan and Allie Long, but nothing that said they were ready to dominate the league, and Nadia Nadim has done very little this early in the season. On the other end, Washington continues to find help for Crystal Dunn, although Cali Farquharson had some moments as well. But both teams have to find someone to complement their stars if they want to win the NWSL Shield eventually (I know Washington is in front right now, but still).

Player of the Game: Ali Krieger – It has been interesting the way the class of the USWNT has shown through in the season’s first month, which I guess shouldn’t be that surprising, after all they were playing a lot more soccer in the offseason than everyone else. Krieger owned the right side of the field and kept Tobin Heath in check for the most part. At one point, Heath tried one of her tricks, Krieger took the ball and both were smiling as Krieger went back up the field.

Under the Radar: Adrianna Franch – The bad news for Franch is that the depth in U.S. goalkeeping is ridiculous right now. The good news is she might have earned the starting spot for the Thorns with her last two outings; another clean sheet here with a couple of big saves that got her team another point.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of losses for Portland this season. So although they’re not playing particularly well, it’s better than the alternative.

Up next: Washington – vs. Houston (Sat.); Portland – at Seattle (Sat.)


Boston 0:1 Chicago

What Went Down: The Boston scoring drought was finally going to end when Julie Johnston took Kristie Mewis down in the box, but then Mewis hit the post (perhaps thrown off by Alyssa Naeher, who guessed correctly). To be fair, the Breakers probably deserved a goal with the chances they created, even if the majority of them might have been off set pieces. Even if they haven’t converted yet, Boston should be good on set pieces. Julie King seems to get her head on everything, and they were inches away a couple of times to no avail.

Libby Stout dives to no avail as Christen Press's goal eludes her Saturday night on Boston. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Libby Stout dives to no avail as Christen Press’s goal eludes her Saturday night on Boston. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Meanwhile, it was a very fortunate three points for the Red Stars, who played poorly, to be honest, especially their attacking players. Christen Press was put in a deeper role and the experiment was a failure, even if Press found a way to score a ridiculous game-winner off a corner kick. As with Portland, it’s much better to play poorly and win than the alternative. Just ask the Breakers.

Player of the Game: Casey Short – Much has been made of Kelly Conheeney’s remarkable comeback, but Short’s road back to the NWSL was almost as long. With Boston’s luck, she was their first ever NWSL pick (fifth overall, two behind Kristie Mewis), but missed the entire 2013 season with an injury. After being traded to her hometown team, Chicago, she couldn’t play in 2014, either. She did play in 2015, in Norway, and did well, giving her a path back to Chicago for this season, where she has done exceptionally well.

Under the Radar: Louise Schillgard – It also makes sense that it will take Schillgard a little while to get up to speed after a year off, but she had a solid game Saturday and could finally help the Breakers be some kind of offensive threat as the season progresses.

Inside the Numbers: 35 – Number of goals scored by Boston in 2013, second-most in the NWSL, with 11 of those being scored by Sydney Leroux. Seems like a long time ago.

Up next: Boston – at Sky Blue (Fri.); Chicago – at Kansas City (Fri.)


Sky Blue 1:2 Western New York

What Went Down: Sky Blue seemed to be in complete control and was playing very well, but only had a single goal to show for it, and the Flash – who have been feisty if nothing else – won a penalty and then took advantage of a hopeful ball that wasn’t dealt with to steal a big three points in New Jersey.

Maya Hayes was a prolific scorer in college at Penn St., but it never translated into her professional career until recently as she scored again Saturday and was dangerous a few other times. But, even without many scoring options (and Lynn Williams out), the Flash battled back. Sam Mewis and Alanna Kennedy make up a young, fearless duo that is fun to watch and will do their best to keep WNY competitive in each and every game.

Player of the Game: Samantha Mewis – Mewis has shown exceptional workrate in her professional career, seeming to pop up everywhere on the field, including in the box to scoop up a Caroline Stanley miscue for the game-winning goal. In all, she filled every part of the stat sheet: 5 shots, 3 shots on goal, 4 fouls, 2 fouls suffered. Jill Ellis has to be noticing.

Under the Radar: Raquel Rodriguez – Teams are not going to be able to give Rodriguez the time that Western New York did and expect to get away with it, as Rodriguez seemed to be running at them all night. Her assist was tremendous and she could have had a couple of other ones, but it was not to be.

Inside the Numbers: 1,242 – Attendance at Yurcak Field. With the NWSL strengthening overall (maybe), it’s hard to see the franchise remaining here past 2016. There were extenuating circumstances like weather, but still.

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Boston (Fri.); Western New York – at Orlando (Sat.)


Kansas City 1:2 Houston

What Went Down: FCKC actually had a lot of good moments in the first half, but the Dash showed why they probably have the most offensive firepower in the league at the moment, eventually scoring twice in a 2-minute span to secure the victory. And they could have had 4 or 5 in the second half alone, that’s how many chances they were getting.

When they’re all healthy, Randy Waldrum almost has too many options on his hands. A week after Kealia Ohai was clearly upset at being substituted, she started on the bench, but to her credit played very well in the second half. And it’s hard to say any of Rachel Daly, Janine Beckie, or Chioma Ubogagu (who scored what turned out to be the winner) is struggling, and Houston is without Carli Lloyd at the moment. A nice problem to have.

Player of the Game: Denise O’Sullivan – After fellow Irish international Stephanie Roche lasted only a couple of months with Houston, it was easy to be skeptical of the O’Sullivan signing, but the 22-year-old has done extremely well so far. You wouldn’t think an O’Sullivan for Morgan Brian sub at halftime would turn the game around positively at this point of their careers, but there we were, with O’Sullivan scoring a goal and generally showing up everywhere on the field.

Under the Radar: Mandy Laddish – It won’t be easy to get FCKC out of its rut, but Laddish really tried Saturday, running at the Houston defense and creating a few chances for her team. They’ll need her to continue and get some help in the process going forward.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of shots this season by Erika Tymrak, two less than Desiree Scott. If FCKC is going anywhere this season, they’re going to need Tymrak to step up a bit.

Up next: Kansas City – vs. Chicago (Fri.); Houston – at Washington (Sat.)

SUNDAY

Orlando 2:0 Seattle

What Went Down: This was no fluke. There is a time for relatively direct play and Tom Sermanni has decided this was it, and you can’t argue with the results. Sermanni has a target forward in Sarah Hagen and Alex Morgan, who can pass defenders with the best ever. So the Pride decided not to mess with Keelin Winters and Kim Little and serve past them whenever they could, and they dominated the game to the point where the final score could have been much worse.

The Reign seemed to have little going forward, which is a little strange for a team that led NWSL in goals a year ago by a pretty wide margin with 41. But Jess Fishlock had eight of those and Megan Rapinoe scored five, with the pair also combining for seven assists. Steph Cox also had three assists and replacing her has proven problematic as well. Rookie Carson Pickett has looked shaky, and had another poor game, allowing Sarah Hagen to go right by her for an easy header goal in the first half. It’s very early to do any panicking, but Laura Harvey has some work to do.

Player of the Game: Steph Catley – Catley was mysteriously unimpressive in the Portland Paul Riley-era, but was also very young (now just 22) and appears to be closer to her international and World Cup form with Orlando. She is very athletic at left back and is also technically solid, a name that should be heard in world soccer circles for a while.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Orlando was the only home team to win this weekend and is now perfect at home and hasn’t gotten a point on the road yet through four games.

Up next: Orlando – vs. Western New York (Sat.); Seattle – vs. Portland (Sat.)

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