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The Lowdown: Breakers doing everything but scoring

Chicago Red Stars goal-line clearance. (Photo copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Chicago Red Stars goal-line clearance against the Boston Breakers. (Photo copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Matt Beard was always going to build his team from back to front. The entire Breakers offseason was crafted around that mentality. It’s just that no one thought it would take a month to actually score a goal.

The Breakers’ early-season frustrations continued Saturday night in a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Red Stars. It was the club’s fourth straight loss to open the season and the fourth straight game without a goal. Both are league record droughts out of the gate.

“If you look at our history with our club, I know it had nothing to do with me, we had to get that right,” new coach Matt Beard said about building up the club’s defense. “As a coach I always work back to front.”

Still, it was never supposed to take into the fifth match of the season to find a goal. It’s not like there haven’t been chances, none better than Kristie Mewis at the spot against Alyssa Naeher on Saturday night. But all Mewis could find with her penalty was the post. On three other occasions during two sequences, Red Stars field players had to clear balls off the line.

“We just need a little bit of luck around the goal,” Beard said. “These ones that get cleared off the line or are hitting woodwork, what’s that now we’ve hit woodwork five times in the last three games?”

Beard is taking a multi-pronged approach to the goal drought. On one hand he rejects the notion the club is lacking in the final third.

“We’re working the goalkeeper,” the former Liverpool boss said. “Sometimes you’ve got to give the defenders credit. (And) sometimes it’s luck, what more can you say. The one thing that I’ve stressed is at least work the goalkeeper. If we do that then we’ve done our job.”

On the other hand, Beard has told his players it is up to them to push through and find some goals and not get bogged down by a few unfortunate bounces. “Like I said to the players after the game the other day, we’ve got to start turning these positive performances into points.

“Obviously emotions run high because I thought it was another game we didn’t deserve to lose but we can’t keep making excuses saying it’s bad luck, it’s bad luck.”

The Breakers had the lion’s share of the possession against the Red Stars and nearly went ahead on multiple occasions. Still, their coach thought the possession could have been better and he would like to see his side play quicker from back to front—something that plagued them most in the 3-0 loss to Seattle.

“For me it was a frustrating performance,” Beard said of the Chicago loss, “because even though we had better possession stats and stuff like that I felt we could have possessed the ball a little bit better and played through a little bit quicker.”

Defensively the Breakers have played okay. As Beard is quick to point out, of the six goals they have conceded, only one time did the defense truly get pulled apart. The set piece defending, he added, has to improve.

The lone goal the Red Stars scored was a cracking finish by Christen Press who hung at the top of the box and redirected a cleared corner kick. But it was also lazy marking by Steph McCaffrey who gave way too much room to a player who needs little more than the size of a pin to produce something brilliant.

The Breakers finish out the month against Sky Blue FC, FC Kansas City, and the Western New York Flash, all clubs within range of them in the table. And Beard believes his side will excel when NWSL players start to go out for Olympic call-ups since they will have minimal impact in Boston. He still believes the Breakers can be within range of the playoffs heading to the home stretch of the season.

First things first though. They have to score.

“I’m confident once we get one, I think it will be a weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders and we’ll go on and we’ll score a few. We’re right on the fringe of that happening. We just need that first goal to break that duck.”

On the Tobin Heath red card

Portland's Tobin Heath (# 17) gets shown a red card late in Saturday's 0-0 draw against the Spirit. (photo copyright EriMacPhoto for The Equalizer)

Portland’s Tobin Heath (# 17) gets shown a red card late in Saturday’s 0-0 draw against the Spirit. (photo copyright EriMacPhoto for The Equalizer)

The red card issued to Tobin Heath late Saturday night overshadowed a sensational match between the Thorns and Spirit. The game was everything a top-of-the-table clash should be with attacking soccer offset by great defending, some tactical adjustments, and a bit of chippiness. No one scored, leaving both teams undefeated, though it dropped the Thorns out of the top two.

{MORE: Gordon: Thoughts from the nil-nil draw at the SoccerPlex}

The talking point in the match was an 88th minute red card shown to Tobin Heath who spiked the ball in anger after losing possession to and being called for a foul against Megan Oyster. Heath had earlier been booked for blatant encroachment on an Ali Krieger free kick so the red card was the result of seeing a second yellow. (Heath had earlier toasted Oyster who took her down from behind, drawing her own yellow card—just one of several fascinating twists on the night.)

There was some sentiment floated that Heath should not have been sent off for something so harmless (and best anyone can remember the first NWSL player to get zapped by two yellow cards, neither of which involved contact with an opposing player). Thorns owner Merritt Paulson tweeted out—and then deleted—his disgust over the referee keeping Heath out of next weekend’s Derby match against the Reign. Even Chris Spivey seemed hesitant, calling Heath over for a short chat before pulling out the cards. (The league confirmed to The Equalizer that the card was for spiking the ball.)

I say it’s all hogwash. If anyone is to blame for Tobin Heath missing this weekend’s match it is Tobin Heath. Players know when they are on yellow cards, and being a star player one booking away from the locker room is not license to show up the referee. It was a yellow card all the way.

Furthermore, how many NWSL Mondays—or really any other league around the world—does not include at least some discussion about a questionable decision by a referee? Asking them to decipher the star power of a player before making decisions about bookings, besides being a blight to the overall integrity of the league, is only asking for the refereeing to get worse instead of better.

For comparison, check out the aftermath of Samantha Mewis’s game-winning goal against Sky Blue on Saturday night. It followed a 50/50 challenge between Flash forward Jess McDonald and Sky Blue keeper Caroline Stanley, who thought she was fouled. Stanley was clearly annoyed. She was also on a yellow card for arguing over a penalty call. She kept her mouth shut.

Meghan Klingenberg offered some interesting commentary on the situation. While not exactly defending Heath she did speak to the value of prominent players being so passionate about NWSL contests.

“I freaking love it. That means people are invested in this league and invested in this game and invested in their club and that’s how it should be. Unfortunately, I wish we could have reined it in just a little bit so we could have Tobin for next game but at the same time she’s our captain and seeing her light up on the field and get fired up that makes everybody else work that much harder and I think it’s great. I see nothing wrong with that as long as there’s not dirty tackles, as long as there’s not bad fouls.”

I’m down with Klingeberg’s comments about passion, just not about the manner in which Heath conducted herself. Both of the cards against her were correct. Period. Heath is having a wonderful season and will be missed on Saturday night. But she only has herself to blame.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 4 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

SATURDAY
Washington Spirit – 4,333
Boston Breakers – 3,622
FC Kansas City – 3,282
Sky Blue FC – 1,252

SUNDAY
Orlando Pride – 8,211

WEEK 3 TOTAL: 20,700
WEEK 3 AVERAGE: 4,140

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,073 (1 game)
2015 average: 15,639
thru 1 game: 13,386

2. Orlando Pride — 15,807 (2 games)

3. Houston Dash – 6,261 (2 games)
2015 average: 6,413
thru 2 games: 5,099

4. FC Kansas City – 4,775 (3 games)
2015 average: 3,091
thru 3 games: 4,267

5. Seattle Reign FC – 4,035 (2 games)
2015 average: 4,060
thru 2 games: 2,673

6. Washington Spirit – 3,956 (2 games)
2015 average: 4,087
thru 2 gams – 3,616

7. Boston Breakers – 3,688 (3 games)
2015 average: 2,863
thru 3 games: 2,302

8. Western New York Flash – 3,615 (1 game)
2015 average: 2,860
thru 1 game: 1,873

9. Chicago Red Stars – 3,277 (2 games)
2015 average: 4,210
thru 2 games: 2,252

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,912 (2 games)
2015 average: 2,189
thru 2 games: 1,348

SEASON AVERAGE: 5,778
2015 Average: 5,046

Free Kicks

Direct

-Jen Buczkowksi announced her retirement last week, effective at the end of FC Kansas City’s Friday home match against the Chicago Red Stars. If Buczkowski starts that match—and why wouldn’t she?— her NWSL career will end having been in the lineup for all 71 of her club’s regular season games, and all five of its playoff games as well. Before that she set the Notre Dame record for appearances and played every minute for the 2011 Philadelphia Independence in WPS.

Buczkowski is starting physical therapy school in June, an arrangement the club knew about when they brought her back for 2016. She was to be a veteran presence on a club that underwent massive turnover last season. Unfortunately for the Blues they are off to an 0-3-1 start amid the roster turnover.

As a holding central midfielder, Buczkowski won’t leave behind any great statistics short of her consecutive games mark. But she has been on teams that reached the playoffs each of the last seven years, and only one of those teams—2013 FC Kansas City—failed to reach the final. Those that did won three titles including 2009 Sky Blue when Buvzkowski stepped in masterfully at central defense after Anita Asante was called up to England for the European Championship.

See more thoughts on Buczkowski below in indirect.

{HUSTED: Thoughts from Dash’s 2-1 win over Kansas City}

-Sky Blue FC signed New Zealand goalkeeper Erin Nayler and are hopeful she will be cleared this week. That means either Caroline Casey or Caroline Stanley will be waived.

-The Breakers may be in line to grab the waived keeper. Rookie Abby Smith suffered a non-contact knee injury on Saturday and while the extent of it has not been made public, Smith will have surgery.

-The Breakers also signed German forward Eunice Beckmann who recently parted ways with Bayern Munich. The club does not expect her paperwork to clear until at least next week. To make room on the roster, Morgan Marlborough was waived. The Reign grabbed Marlborough’s rights off waivers but say they do not expect her to play this season. The rights are good through 2017 preseason.

-Alyssa Naeher now has three straight shutouts and 306 straight shutout minutes, both Red Stars records. Ironically though, the old records were held by Michele Dalton, and both of her streaks are active. Using only regular season numbers, Dalton has shutouts in her last two starts and has not conceded in 235 minutes of NWSL play. (Erin McLeod also had two straight shutouts for the Red Stars.)

Ashlyn Harris’s clean sheet for the Pride was the first in club history.

-On the flip side, the Breakers are nearing dangerous territory. When they were blanked in their first two games this season it already made them the first NWSL team to go that long without scoring. Now they have doubled it, and tacking on the 2015 finale, have been shutout in five straight matches and 452 straight minutes. The five games without a goal equals the league record set by the 2013 Washington Spirit. That team also set the league mark for most minutes without a goal—543.

-Yael Averbuch’s late penalty on Saturday kept FC Kansas City as the only NWSL club (besides the Pride) yet to be shutout in back-to-back matches.

-Christine Nairn came off the bench for the Spirit on Saturday and nearly won the game on two different occasions. Her appearance extended her consecutive games played streak to 43. If she keeps it up Nairn will inherit the longest active streak after Jen Buczkowski retires.

-In 2013, seven FC Kansas City players were named to the Best XI or Second XI. Jen Buczkowski was not one of them. She didn’t make it in 2014 or 2015 either.

Indirect

–Here is my Player of the Week ballot:
1) Alex Morgan – Morgan was a handful for the Reign back line all afternoon in Orlando and directly contributed to both goals and in very different ways. She was also dangerous around the goal and could have scored a few if not for some great saves by Hope Solo.
2) Crystal Dunn – Dunn ran circles around the Thorns defense, creating space and opportunity when there was none. Somehow she did not score a goal but was an effective presence much of the night.
3) Hope Solo – Solo made a series of breathtaking saves and a world class read and play to get off her line and get a punch on a cross before Alex Morgan could head it home; neither of the goals was remotely her fault. It was a spectacular showing despite the 2-0 loss.

Also considered: Lydia Williams kept the Dash in it early against a Kansas City side that played better than most are giving them credit for; Stephanie Catley is quickly turning into one of the world’s elite left backs; Lindsey Horan put in another strong performance for the Thorns.

-Back to Buczkowski. Much of the “bucz” in the aftermath of her announcement was how she should have been given a chance to play for the national team. Whether that was because Pia Sundhage did not believe in using a traditional holding mid or because Tom Sermanni was still tinkering or Jill Ellis didn’t have enough time to tinker, it will forever remain a mystery.

Personally I’m not sure Buczkowski was good enough to do it at the international level. But I am quite sure she was good enough to have received a look, a call-up, something. After all, part of why NWSL exists is to help prepare players for the national team.

Pending Friday’s scoring, Buczkowski will finish her FC Kansas City career with 2 goals and 7 assists. She just wasn’t about that. She also has 3 yellow cards—that’s right 3 yellow cards across 70 matches. Okay so if you add in her playoff totals it’s 4 yellow cards, but that is simply amazing for a player whose main job was to break up plays before they got to the back line, often taking on the league’s most creative midfield while doing it.

That’s why it will be important for all who saw Jen Buczkowki play to pass down her legacy to the next line of NWSL fans that come along. Because in this era of attempting to define everything and everybody by a statistic, there was and is no single number that can define her. All she did was play soccer, and play soccer extremely well.

-Buczkowski was the subject of a harsh lesson I learned in 2009 when I chickened out of voting her MVP of the WPS Final. Instead I voted for eventual winner Heather O’Reilly who scored the goal and pulled off a dramatic tackle in the box against Aya Miyama. But Buczkowski was the best player on the pitch that day. And I’m proud to say I have voted with my gut every time since then.

-I think I’ve seen Becky Sauerbrunn have more subpar games—by her standard anyway—this year than I have in the last five years combined.

additional reporting by Jennifer Gordon

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