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NWSL Week In Review: Our kingdom for some goals

Dash keeper Lydia Williams made several great saves on Saturday helping keep NWSL attackers stymied (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Dash keeper Lydia Williams made several great saves on Saturday helping keep NWSL attackers stymied (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

It’s been said that the hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball (thrown at a decent velocity presumably), but the NWSL would collectively beg to differ at the moment as a mysterious fog has descended over impenetrable goals around the league.

None of the 10 teams in the NWSL managed to scored more than a single goal in this round, with Portland and Seattle’s two-goal “outburst” in a 2-minute span accounting for 40 percent of the goals in the entire league for the weekend. You didn’t have to get to Algebra II to calculate that’s just 1 goal per match. For the season, it’s not too much better, checking in at a robust 1.80 goals per game.

Obviously, that’s not great for the entertainment value of the product, especially for casual fans. But what are the causes? Unfortunately, there are many valid theories and no real way to definitively conclude a single culprit is responsible. The most likely scenario is a mixture of several factors.

Like quality goalkeeping, for instance. You can make a case that Hope Solo, current United States national team starter and by any standard one of the best goalkeepers ever in women’s soccer history, is seventh or eighth best in current league form. Keeper errors have been few and far between, and the likes of Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris, Adrianna Franch, or Nicole Barnhart could probably step in for Solo in Brazil based on current form (obviously they wouldn’t have the international experience) without the national team missing a beat. As could the likes of Stephanie Labbe, Sabrina D’Angelo, or Lydia Williams if they weren’t, you know, not American and such.

Improved defenses, particularly among the league’s center backs, also plays a role, as do the defensive postures of most of the teams, who almost exclusively play a 4-2-3-1, which often does not allow for numbers to get forward quickly. Perhaps the one team that doesn’t, Orlando, is now tied for the league lead in goals with seven (yes, that’s the league lead a quarter of the way through the season).

Some blame has to lay at the feet (literally) of NWSL attackers as well. Even Christen Press was seen missing a couple of good chances over the weekend. Press and Diana Matheson lead the league with three goals each (Press has twice as many shots on goal as anyone else in the league with 18) and only 10 players have scored multiple times so far in 2016. As you likely know if you’re reading this, the Boston Breakers haven’t even scored at all, while defending champion Kansas City has scored just twice.

Despite the somewhat strange aversion to it at the national team level, there are also several superb “destroyers”, or holding midfielders who play mostly a defensive role, like Keelin Winters, Desiree Scott, Tori Huster, Alanna Kennedy, Dani Colaprico, and – of course – Jen Buczkowski, who played her last game before retirement Saturday.

Regardless of the stellar goalkeeping and defending, the lack of scoring is still a bit head-scratching. Every NWSL team has at least a couple of players who were prolific scorers in college, but most have either not been a factor thus far, unable to finish when their chances have come, or both.

Contrary to what some fans will say (especially when their team is losing), NWSL coaches are not idiots and are working hard in training to fix whatever problems ail their respective offenses, so scoring probably won’t stay this low the rest of the campaign (Boston sure hopes not). However, with the Olympics ready to take the likes of Press, Alex Morgan, and Crystal Dunn with them for July and August, someone is going to have to step up (like Dunn did last season, obviously). But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it while complaining about the summer heat.

What else did we learn as the NWSL reached the quarter-pole of its 2016 regular season journey?

FRIDAY

Sky Blue 1:0 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: After they played a dreadful first half, the Breakers were again quite unlucky to come away with nothing, again putting several balls near the target, but few actually on. They almost got a penalty in stoppage time, and – in perhaps the play that sums up their current plight most accurately – Kristie Mewis somehow hooked a free kick low around a poorly constructed Sky Blue wall that was set up to protect the near post … and missed by inches past the unprotected near post.

Still, you do make your own luck. Matt Beard has said repeatedly that he is constructing from the back out, and that’s not a bad strategy for a rebuilding project. And Boston’s offensive woes have more to do with off-field decisions than anything else. The Breakers traded for local product Stephanie McCaffrey (who is really struggling this season) last season, giving up Sofia Huerta and the pick that turned into Dani Colaprico in the process, which does not look like a good deal for Boston at the moment. Their last two attacking draft picks are Nkem Ezurike (2014) and Jamia Fields (2015), neither of which are on the roster, and they traded for Morgan Marlborough, who was released last week.

On the plus side, they’re probably only one big-time striker from moving up significantly in the standings, but finding them is much easier said than done.

Poor Kassey Kallman:

Player of the Game: Kelley O’Hara – I get tired of putting national team players in these spots week after week, but it was O’Hara who set up the winning (own) goal, and she was the most dangerous offensive player on the field in the first half, not to mention her defensive responsibilities that helped record another clean sheet. It was almost too easy for O’Hara Friday before Boston finally adjusted.

Under the Radar: Kristie Mewis – It has not been a stellar start to the season for Mewis, but she showed signs of the player that at least kept the Breakers from posting an embarrassing record last season, getting into dangerous spots and – of course – shooting. Mewis has taken 16 shots this season, which is good. Only three of them have been on target, which is bad.

Inside the Numbers: 16 – Number of shots on goal Boston has this season, in 56 attempts. By contrast, Christen Press has taken 22 shots and hit the target with 18 of them, with three of them actually going in the goal.

Up next: Sky Blue – at Western New York (Sat.); Boston – vs. Kansas City (Sun.)

Kansas City 0:0 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: A pretty solid effort by FCKC in Jen Buczkowski’s final professional game, even if the Red Stars might have been more dangerous solely because they had Christen Press, who missed a couple of chances to win it that she normally buries. Vlatko Andovoski decided to go with Frances Silva in place of Erika Tymrak, but Tymrak had to play the second half when Heather O’Reilly left injured. Perhaps the most encouraging news of the night for FCKC was the introduction of rookie Katie Bowen, who may eventually help them score some goals.

For the Red Stars, it was their fourth consecutive clean sheet after a nightmarish defensive opener, two of which (including Friday) came without Julie Johnston, who again sat with a minor injury. Again, it is nice to have someone like Katie Naughton in reserve. The other end is a bit troubling, you’d think with a player like Arin Gilliland getting forward as much as she does, the Red Stars could create more scoring opportunities, but it just wasn’t happening Friday as Sofia Huerta struggles to recover the form she had last season.

Player of the Game: Jen Buczkowski – She will make few headlines, even in the women’s soccer world, but Buczkowski was a solid player wherever and whatever league she was playing in, which unfortunately for her was many. In addition to being an outstanding ambassador for the game, if and when women’s professional soccer becomes stable in this country, it will owe plenty to players like Jen Buczkowski.

Under the Radar: Alex Arlitt – The rookie from soccer hotbed LSU had a solid debut for the defending champs, actually looking a lot like fellow former SEC standout Gilliland in her ability to get forward. Alas, it still didn’t result in any goals in this match.

Inside the Numbers: 6 – Number of shots taken by Yael Averbuch, which ranks second on FCKC behind Shea Groom (13). A couple of those are free kicks obviously, but FCKC (like seemingly everyone in the league) needs another scoring option quickly.

Up next: Kansas City – at Boston (Sun.); Chicago – at Seattle (Sun.)

SATURDAY

Washington 1:0 Houston (recap | Gordon)

What Went Down: The Spirit managed only the one goal, but still made a pretty big statement that they are among the contenders to win the NWSL title this season. Whereas last season, it was a lot of hitting the ball to Crystal Dunn and hoping, Washington’s midfield of Joanna Lohman, Christine Nairn, and Tori Huster had the look of Seattle 2015, just not letting Houston get anywhere near the ball and dominating in the middle against an opponent featuring Morgan Brian. The Spirit (who scored one of the best team goals in NWSL history for the winner) still need another attacking option to complement Dunn, but they’re close.

Meanwhile, Houston has a plethora of attackers, but can’t seem to translate that into goals of late. I’m sure Randy Waldrum has spent many hours in the last couple of weeks trying to figure why and he has shaken up the lineup. Brian, especially, has had a rough start to 2016, probably because of the nagging hamstring injury, and although they looked dangerous at times – particularly Rachel Daly – Washington was pretty comfortable through most of the contest.

Player of the Game: Christine Nairn – Now a veteran used to the league, it is a huge difference for Washington when Nairn is healthy, not just because of her ability to strike from long range, but to keep the team calm when under pressure and allow them to keep the ball. Nairn is also very good at finding Dunn in tight spaces or behind the defense.

Under the Radar: Becca Moros – Moros seemed like an odd fit at center back for Waldrum, a place where he has struggled to find consistency in his first two NWSL campaigns, but she has been very good for the most part and had an excellent game Saturday against Dunn and friends.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Team leader in goals for Houston, who has had six different players score (Rachel Daly, Carli Lloyd, Andressa, Chioma Ubogagu, Denise O’Sullivan, and Janine Beckie). And there are other talented players (Kealia Ohai, Morgan Brian) that haven’t scored yet. So the Dash have attacking depth, for sure.

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

Orlando 1:0 Western New York (recap)

What Went Down: As they’ve done a couple of times this season, the Flash came out very strong and unfortunately had the miss of the season when Lynn Williams could not hit an open goal from about seven yards out. That play may sum up the entire NWSL state of attacking right now, but it certainly does the Flash, who have one goal from the run of play and nothing from anything resembling a striker. If they can fix that, they might be able to dream of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Tom Sermanni’s redemption tour gets another three points and the Pride would be in the playoffs if the season ended today (it doesn’t). His fairly direct 4-4-2 continues to free up Alex Morgan and when she got loose after a perfect pass from Kristen Edmonds, she buried the game-winner. There’s some work to be done, but so far, so good from Mr. Sermanni, who actually got upset enough to yell at referees Saturday (it wasn’t a well-officiated game).

Western New York did not exactly concur with the referee giving Abby Erceg a second yellow card late in the contest:

Player of the Game: Alex Morgan – She wasn’t great throughout the whole 90 minutes, but she continues to look more like her dangerous self by running into spaces and channels where defenders simply can’t catch her. Morgan has nine shots on goal, second in the NWSL to Press, and at least has Sarah Hagen or Lianne Sanderson to work off.

Under the Radar: Kaylyn Kyle – The sometimes maligned Kyle unsurprisingly leads the Pride in fouls committed, but she was very solid Saturday, keeping the Flash’s talented duo of Sam Mewis and Alanna Kennedy at bay for the most part and doing her job – winning balls in the midfield and disrupting opponents’ attacks – extremely well. Even if she didn’t think so.

Inside the Numbers: 7 – Number of crosses this season by Steph Catley, which leads NWSL and is more than three other teams. Orlando leads the league by a pretty wide margin in that category with 17.

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

Seattle 1:1 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: Finally some entertainment for the weekend, even if a lot of it came through chippy play and some heated words between the two teams. Unfortunately, it seems to be a bit of a pattern for the Thorns, who lead NWSL with 56 fouls and have two of the league leaders in Lindsey Horan (12) and Allie Long (10). Still, a road point at Seattle without Tobin Heath isn’t the worst thing in the world. Again, if you’re glass half full with the the Thorns, they are undefeated through five games and in much better shape than last season. But half empty, they have three draws and probably should be a lot more dangerous going forward, even without Heath. Against good competition, granted, but we didn’t hear much from Horan in this one, which is a little concerning.

For Seattle, Hope Solo had another rough night, including failing to claim Nadia Nadim’s goal and it appears her lack of confidence at the moment is affecting the rest of the team (not having Jess Fishlock is big as well). Their response to Portland scoring early in the second half was very good although they didn’t get a winner, but they look far from the dominant team they were a year ago.

Player of the Game: Beverly Yanez – There are some that think her scoring output last season was more a product of who she played with rather than her excellence, but it’s never that easy, and Yanez stepped up Saturday when her team needed her, scoring the equalizer and generally being Seattle’s most dangerous attacker from her midfield position.

Under the Radar: Carson Pickett – Seattle lost Manon Melis to a knee injury just three minutes in, which led Laura Harvey to put Pickett, removed from her outside back spot after a tough start to the season, in an attacking role and she thrived, getting into spots up and down the left wing to serve good balls into the box. If Melis is out, it is likely Pickett’s spot for now.

Inside the Numbers: 15 – Days between rivalry games as these two teams meet again next Sunday in Portland in what promises to be another physical contest..

Up next: Seattle – vs. Chicago (Sun.); Portland – vs. Washington (Sat.)

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