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NWSL Week In Review: Sermanni Redemption Tour Continues

Tom Sermanni

It's in! The Breakers begin to celebrate after breaking the ice with their first goal of the season. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

It’s in! The Breakers begin to celebrate after breaking the ice with their first goal of the season. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Tom Sermanni was hired to coach the U.S. national team on Oct. 30, 2012 (he actually started on Jan. 1, 2013). He was fired on April 5, 2014 and finished with a record of 18-2-4. Those are the facts and they are undisputed.

Exactly how and why Sermanni fell out of favor with the USSF and the players? Well, we still don’t really know. And perhaps we never will. I wrote at the time about the 2014 Algarve Cup disappointment that seemed to be Sermanni’s downfall and why it probably shouldn’t have been.

Granted, the 5-3 loss to Denmark was embarrassing on a few levels, but Sermanni was fairly clear he was experimenting with players before the tournament even began and with the team virtually eliminated before kickoff, he was a little more, eventually putting Becky Sauerbrunn in the midfield, and giving young Samantha Mewis – currently one of the top players in NWSL – her first start with the United States.

We’ll never know how much not starting Abby Wambach and giving several youngsters shots in the lineup contributed to Sermanni’s demise, and this isn’t about that anyway. This is about the Sermanni Redemption Tour currently underway in Orlando, as the expansion Pride sit tied with Portland one point behind Washington and Chicago for the NWSL lead 30 percent of the way through the regular season.

Sermanni was just about to turn 60 when he was canned by US Soccer. Always one of the nice guys around the game from his time two decades ago in Australia to the WUSA to building a young Matildas team that was extremely difficult to stop in 2007 and 2011 (and one with many of the same players that could be a medal contender at the Olympics this summer). Sermanni could have walked away for good, head held high. He latched on as an assistant for Canada in last year’s World Cup, and with Orlando given an expansion NWSL team, seemed right for the job.

His roster features exactly one household name in Alex Morgan, and more than a little ironically, Orlando’s success under Sermanni this season has featured the same direct approach that he set out to change as leader of the USWNT. But that’s the hand he has been dealt, and he’s played his cards exceptionally to this point, allowing Kaylyn Kyle to clean up whatever she can in the middle and getting the ball to Morgan and Jasmyne Spencer as quickly as possible, preferably into space where they can run and get it.

Sermanni has also shrewdly cobbled together a backline that will likely be gutted when the Olympic break commences, but for now has been as solid as any in NWSL, with Steph Catley (arguably the best defender in the league in 2016), Laura Alleway, Monica, and Josee Belanger – all non-U.S. players – making up the rest (all four might be going to the Olympics).

We don’t know what the next few months will hold, but Sermanni – who by reports took his firing hard – is smiling again. And winning.

Even in the midst of his toughest time as a professional, Sermanni was classy as always and a bit clairvoyant about the future of the team who had just told him to get lost.

“I have no doubt in my mind, that barring anything unforeseen, the team has the capability to win the World Cup,” Sermanni said after he was ousted.

What else did we learn as the NWSL saw some real live goals this weekend?

FRIDAY

Houston 0:1 Orlando (recap)

What Went Down: The Dash have plenty of firepower and they had a lot of the ball in this game, but that seems to be overrated these days as the Pride finished with more shots and much better chances, getting the game-winner on a remarkable strike from Kristen Edmonds, her first career NWSL goal in three seasons (granted, she has been a defender for most of that time). Although his team won’t be as affected as some others by international call-ups, Randy Waldrum has to figure out how to create better scoring chances for talented players like Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie (Stephanie Ochs actually did a nice job off the bench as well). Morgan Brian does not look 100 percent, and if you compare the movement in the final third of the Dash and someone like Portland, it’s not real close.

Meanwhile, the Pride seem to understand exactly who they are at the moment. Even if you know it’s coming, Alex Morgan running at your goal is terrifying, and although she’s not getting a tremendous amount of help, it’s been just enough to get by with an excellent defense and Ashlyn Harris behind them.

Player of the Game: Kristen Edmonds – Players like Edmonds are the stories that often get lost in a league like the NWSL. She graduated from Rutgers in 2008 and has chosen to stick it out as a professional player instead of getting a “real job” that would almost definitely be more lucrative. After stints in Iceland and Russia, Edmonds has been a valuable utility player for Sermanni and you could tell how much that goal meant to her. Great stuff.

 

Under the Radar: Steph Catley – It’s nearly impossible for a defender to win an MVP award (ask Becky Sauerbrunn), but Catley has certainly been as impressive and valuable as anyone in NWSL in six weeks, playing a huge role in keeping the Dash at bay and continuing to get forward to help in the attack as well.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of shots taken (and it wasn’t on target) by Morgan Brian so far this season. She’s not a striker, but something is not completely right with Brian at the moment.

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

SATURDAY

Western New York 5:2 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: It was a rough week for Paul Riley, who was suspended for this game (for actions directed at officials) and Lady Andrade left the team after not starting two weeks ago. But Sky Blue learned that if you no-show a game against a Riley coached team, you’re probably going to pay. If nothing else, Riley appears to have a team that is going to bring the energy every week, and on this night, it was plenty as the Flash scored three goals on set pieces in the first half alone. Western New York outshot Sky Blue 7-2 in the first half and had all six corner kicks, scoring on two. Scott Vallow is now undefeated as an NWSL head coach after filling in for Riley.

Sky Blue is not a fast team, and – especially in the back – were just getting sped past for most of the night. SBFC did play without its best creative player in Raquel Rodriguez and lost Maya Hayes to an injury midway through the first half. They were better in the second half, but the game was long gone, and it was hard to look at anyone on the roster and say they had a good match (except for substitute Leah Galton). They will not be harmed much by international call-ups, which makes next week’s clash at Chicago fairly big for them.

Player of the Game: Jessica McDonald – Another veteran who has stuck it out despite not featuring for the national team, McDonald is on her fifth NWSL team in the Flash and did not have a point this season before Saturday night’s barrage that saw her score twice and nearly have a couple other ones. A little confidence might help her add to that, especially without national team defenders around to stop her.

Under the Radar: Leah Galton – There weren’t many positives from Sky Blue Saturday, but maybe it was good for Galton to make her debut in a 4-0 game so she could have less pressure on her. The rookie out of Hofstra immediately looked dangerous, which – apologies to Natasha Kai – has not been said about Sky Blue strikers much this season. Galton should get her chance to start as soon as she is match fit.

Inside the Numbers: 5 (or is it 4?) – Number of assists the Flash picked up in this game (two each by Alanna Kennedy and Jaelene Hinkle — but one of Kennesy’s is under review and the Sam Mewis goal is likely to go as unassisted). Western New York had none in its first five games.

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

Portland 4:1 Washington

What Went Down: Finally, a bit of an advertisement of what the NWSL hopes it will be, a feisty encounter in front of 15,000+ that saw some very attractive soccer from both teams at times and plenty of quality from a Thorns team who is quickly becoming the most disliked team in the league, which may not necessarily be the worst thing for NWSL. Portland picked up 15 (?!?) more fouls, but also bludgeoned a very good Washington team with three first-half goals. Tobin Heath is just undefendable right now, it seems.

The Spirit did show a lot of spirit (I’ll be here all week) after going down three goals, which is encouraging. They will be disappointed in the play of their backline and especially Stephanie Labbe, who had been outstanding, but was at fault on the first two Thorns goals. Still, there is no reason for a complete panic, it was a bad game in a difficult place to play against a team with plenty of attacking talent. It sets up a fairly big game next week at Houston without Crystal Dunn, however.

Even NBA star Damian Lillard thought it was a good win.

Player of the Game: Tobin Heath – Even missing a game, Heath probably has to be the league’s MVP thus far, certainly the most entertaining player. Every time she gets the ball something good seems to happen, including the audacity to try to chip Labbe on a breakaway (she ended up finishing the rebound). Sadly, international dates are coming, but that’s life in an Olympic year, I guess.

Under the Radar: Christine Sinclair – If you’re like me, you’re still a little bit bothered by the Seattle broadcast announcer (albeit fill-in) asking last week< “What can you tell us about Christine Sinclair?” when she was subbed on. “Well, she’s probably one of the top five players of ALL TIME for starters.” So it was good to see a vintage Sinclair performance Saturday, and her quality on the ball definitely helps Portland, even if she has lost a step of straight out speed. With all the talent surrounding her, she could be a key piece to bring them together.

Inside the Numbers: 13 – Number of yellow cards Portland has in six games (technically 12 and a red because of Tobin Heath a couple weeks ago). It’s not that surprising when you consider they have a league-high 71 fouls. Lindsey Horan has four of those yellows (and will be suspended for a match with one more), but actually only committed one foul Saturday.

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

SUNDAY

Boston 1:0 Kansas City

What Went Down: THE BREAKERS SCORED! In all seriousness, Boston had been pretty dangerous on set pieces in previous games, so it wasn’t all that surprising that Whitney Engen found the back of the net off a corner. Somehow Shea Groom was marking her, as FCKC can’t seem to do anything right at the moment. The Breakers never did get a second goal (or one from open play), but they had control of the game pretty much throughout. Matt Beard took some chances with his lineup (including sitting Stephanie McCaffrey, who looked inspired when she came on as a second-half sub), taking a page from Tom Sermanni by going 4-4-2 and direct, which got the much-needed three points.

FCKC, unfortunately, looks like a lost cause at the moment (as I talked about a couple of weeks ago), generating little going forward and just not having many options to do so. Vlatko Andonovski put Katie Bowen at outside back and sat Erika Tymrak, placing Yael Averbuch in the midfield, but it didn’t help. While Boston has scored once, FCKC has scored just twice, and is actually behind the Breakers in expected goals. How they’re going to turn that around? I don’t know.

Player of the Game: Whitney Engen – Engen didn’t do anything spectacular (except scoring the only goal of the game, I guess), but was solid in the back and has been for most of the season. Beard has said he would build from the back and he has, the Breakers have conceded only seven times in six games.

Under the Radar: Katie Schoepfer – It seems to be the week for non-national team veterans, as Schoepfer – who had only played 52 minutes this season before Sunday – put together a solid performance in place of McCaffrey, even though she didn’t show up on the scoresheet. Schoepfer has been with the Breakers since 2011.

Inside the Numbers: 10 – Number of times FCKC was offside in this contest, with five of them credited to Groom. Boston was not offside once.

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

Seattle 1:2 Chicago

What Went Down: Seattle was somewhat surprisingly only eighth in expected goals through five games, and they didn’t do too much to help that here, as the Reign look like a shell of the team that took the NWSL Shield the last two seasons (by 13 points two years ago). Only a Kim Little-Beverly Yanez hookup late which drew a penalty kept them from getting blanked and now sees them five points adrift of the playoffs with 30% of the regular season now complete. Of course, without Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock, and Hope Solo (who missed the match for personal reasons), it’s hard to have too much continuity in this league, but it seemed like the Reign had more cover for players missing a year ago.

Meanwhile, we knew Chicago was a legitimate title contender before the season and – after a hideous opener – the Red Stars have proven it. Getting the three points here was no fluke. It was Jen Hoy that got both goals, but Christen Press and Vanessa DiBernardo who dominated the middle of the field (moving toward the Seattle goal at least). Chicago’s shutout streak ended, but a team with a solid defense and Christen Press running around up top can go pretty far. We’ll see how they do without the internationals next week.

Player of the Game: Vanessa DiBernardo – Many times DiBernardo fits the next category as she just does her thing, last season posting two goals and five assists while starting every game but one in the middle. Sunday, though, she had two brilliant passes to set up both goals (although she only got one assist because the first goal was a rebound). But no matter how good other positions are, you need a solid midfield and DiBernardo has provided it for the Red Stars since she joined the team.

Under the Radar: Christen Press – Yea, I know, but even in a game where she doesn’t score (and full credit to Jen Hoy for scoring the goals, obviously), Press was magnificent, moving all over the field and just having some brilliant touches and being a handful to mark. With three more shots on goal, Press has 21 for the season, far and away the league lead.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of corner kicks Seattle had in the game, which doesn’t tell you everything, but it does tell you something about their offensive struggles, or their difficulty in general.

Up next: Seattle – at Portland (Sun.); Chicago – vs. Sky Blue (Sun.)

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