Connect with us

Analysis

The Lowdown: Observations from NWSL Week 6

Both Thorns-Spirit matches this season have been quite physical (photo copyright EriMacPhoto for The Equalizer)

Both Thorns-Spirit matches this season have been quite physical (photo copyright EriMacPhoto for The Equalizer)

If you speak to coaches and other people around NWSL, chances are you will collect a wide variety of opinions about the relative abilities of the 10 clubs. Some don’t think the Spirit or Thorns are all that good—and most anticipate the Thorns struggling when they are forced to play without national team players. And no one seems to think the Breakers were ever as poor as their record showed.

“I just said to Matt, the table is distorted. They’re not the bottom team in this league,” Sky Blue coach Christy Holly said after his team sent the Breakers to 0-5 two Fridays ago. The Breakers of course, got off the duck Sunday by downing FC Kansas City and leaving the two-time champions winless and in the cellar.

Most don’t quite know what to make of FC Kansas City, a club feeling the effects from a slew of retirements and a pair of pregnancies. As one coach put it: “I think by the end of the season (Vlatko Andonovski) will have them playing as well as they can possibly play for what they have.”

Week 6 saw a few phenomenons around NWSL. There was the explosion of goals—a dozen on Saturday alone with only two matches; a continued discussion about the league’s physicality with much of the discussion surrounding the Thorns; and a split in the table with four teams threatening to hide out on top a bit and only one of the other six closer than five points off the pace. This weekend the top five clubs play the bottom five offering a chance for a deeper divide heading to the FIFA dark week—or perhaps the accordion will push the teams closer together.

Here are my latest thoughts and observations from around NWSL as the season crosses 30% complete:

Thorns-Spirit matchup is great for NWSL: The two games between the Thorns and Spirit over the last three weeks represent everything NWSL, its fans, supporters, and advertisers should want. For starters, the teams are both rightly at or near the top of the table and played like it both nights. There was dynamic, attacking soccer from both sides which was often negated by quality defending. There were scintillating, individual matchups between well-known players. And the teams seem to have developed a fair amount of dislike for each other.

Sure the Spirit stunk out Providence Park for the first half last Saturday and they paid for it in the form of a 4-1 loss. But they put it behind them and were equal to the Thorns in the second half and after cutting a 3-0 halftime deficit by a goal came close to getting the next one to make the last portion of the match a spinetingler, only to get caught on the other end. Still they continued to push forward until the full-time whistle.

Individually the Crystal Dunn-Meghan Klingenberg battle was one to behold. Dunn got the better of her national team pal to get off the cross that led to the Spirit goal, but at other times Klingenberg did her part to keep Dunn at bay. Two weeks earlier the key matchup was Tobin Heath against Megan Oyster. Heath drew an early yellow on Oyster, but Oyster had the last laugh when she dispossessed Heath and drew a foul which led to Heath angrily spiking the ball and earning her second yellow of the match. Heath and Oyster are not national team mates, but despite a less than stellar showing on Saturday, Oyster has to be on the short list to get in the rotation when attention turns to the 2019 World Cup.

Another reason this head-to-head is good for NWSL is because it has siphoned oodles of passion out of both fan bases. The Thorns, the villainesses of the league since marching in under the Portland Timbers banner, have taken that reputation up a few notches with a brand of physical play that has bordered on being out of control. Lindsey Horan somehow has four yellow cards already (one short of an automatic suspension with no chance to clear any off her record) and the one she earned for her challenge on Christine Nairn on the weekend was entirely uncalled for. Heath’s reputation for borderline tackles is well established.

The Spirit declined to comment on the physical nature of Saturday’s match only to say they were going through “proper channels regarding a few incidents in our last match.”

I will never condone dirty play, but I do enjoy seeing how the tense nature of these two matches has impacted fans on both sides of it.

On the other end…: How ironic that Whitney Engen admitted to losing Kristie Mewis’s corner kick in the sun before it appeared in the nick of time to head it in at the far post and finally put the Breakers on the scoreboard. For that matter, it was ironic unto itself that after five games and 469 minutes (six games and 561 minutes if you include last season) it was Whitney Engen who broke the ice. But they’ll take it, anyway they can get it.

Better than just getting a goal, the Breakers rode it for the final 71 minutes and beat FC Kansas City, 1-0. The result snapped an eight-game losing streak dating back to last season and extricated the Breakers from last place at the expense of FCKC.

“It was a relief to get the goal and a relief to get the win because now we can actually enjoy the football,” Breakers coach Matt Beard said.

The win allowed the Breakers defense to take some of the limelight as well. Whitney Engen had a strong game in back as well and has formed a good partnership with the steadily understated Kassey Kallman. And Libby Stout’s comfort level in goal appears to have grown leaps and bounds from her frantic, opening minutes of the season when she gave up a bicycle kick goal to Joanna Lohman and nearly blundered away another. McCall Zerboni and especially Angela Salem were superb disrupting things in midfield. The Breakers have looked solid defensively all season but it means little when you do not score.

Beard said his team was fantastic from start to finish. That’s a stretch if you ask me but they certainly saw the match out in a professional manner. They still need to create more chances and do better when they do get the ball into the final third. But the win figures to do Beard and his players some good.

On the flipside what is there to say about FC Kansas City? Their two goals are still one more than the Breakers, but their two points is one less leaving them in last place and already a full 10 points adrift of the playoffs. And there does not seem to be much of an end in sight. Shea Groom is a bundle of energy but as the lone player looking for service up top is finding it difficult to get on the ball with more than a sliver of time and space. Tiffany McCarty has not hit the mark as of yet. And this week they will have to make do without Heather O’Reilly and Becky Sauerbrunn.

There have been a few bright spots. Alex Arlitt has started once at each fullback spot and has done well. Fellow rookie Katie Bowen, starting opposite Arlitt, also showed some promise in her first start. Look for Vlatko Andonovski to keep tinkering, but in the depths of the FC Kansas City world it may be time to start thinking about a top draft pick to go with the return of Amy Rodriguez and/or Sydney Leroux in 2017.

{MUST READ: NWSL Week in Review: Sermanni’s redemption story continues}

Christy Holly makes no excuses: Time will tell if Christy Holly becomes a successful NWSL coach. He was certainly on the right track when he and Sky Blue FC pulled off one of the great, single-game upsets in league history by winning opening day in Seattle. Most recently though Sky Blue threw up a stinker at Western New York, a performance that if we’re being honest, often falls at the feet of the coach.

“I’m not going to make excuses,” he said when asked if the performance was flat or simply a night they got beat. “We got beaten in every area of the field in the first half.”

More succinctly, Holly said: “We didn’t do well in our 1v1 battle which led to set pieces. And we really failed on the set pieces. You can’t do that at this level. We got punished.”

Sometimes a Sky Blue player was first to get to the ball on defensive set pieces, but even then the Flash were winning the second ball. Samantha Mewis scored when she went up to get the second ball after Nikki Stanton popped it up from near the goal line out toward the top of the 18. So now what to do for Holly and Sky Blue?

“We have to lick our wounds,” he said. “We have to throw our shoulders back and move forward. We’ll put our heads down over the next couple of days and fix it and sure as hell not allow it to happen again. These girls will lick their wounds and look at that scoreboard and not let this happen again.”

Reign in a rut: The Reign lost Steph Cox to retirement and Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock are on the shelf due to injury. So is Manon Melis, though the Dutch striker has yet to stake her place as a regular contributor to Reign victories. But even playing shorthanded there is something not quite right in Seattle right now.

“Just never really got going,” coach Laura Harvey said in her postmatch press conference. “I thought Chicago were the better team.”

Harvey went on to acknowledge that while missing key players was an issue (Red Stars coach Rory Dames said the same), there were plenty of elements to the Reign performance that were lacking. She also expressed concern over why “some weeks we turn up, some weeks we don’t.”

The Reign went 29-5-10 over the last two seasons and you don’t do that without turning up way more often than you don’t.

Personally, I am concerned about Lauren Barnes who has not shown much of her Best XI form from a year ago.

Waldrum excoriates attackers: Is it time to worry about the Dash? After a moving performance on opening night against the Red Stars, the Dash are 1-3-1 with only three goals over that span. Sure they are young and sure they are missing Carli Lloyd, but I’d say it is not too early to start worrying. Check out what the coach had to say about it.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 6 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

FRIDAY
Houston Dash – 6,293

SATURDAY
Western New York Flash – 3,910
Portland Thorns FC – 15,823

SUNDAY
Boston Breakers – 3,288
Seattle Reign FC – 4,056

WEEK 5 TOTAL: 33,370
WEEK 5 AVERAGE: 6,674

{Equalizer Newsletter: Sing up today and get The Lowdown delivered straight your inbox each week!}

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 15,948 (2 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 2 games: 13,267

2. Orlando Pride — 13,152 (3 games)

3. Houston Dash – 6,271 (3 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 3 games: 4,575

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,189 (4 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 4 games: 2,484

5. FC Kansas City – 4,136 (4 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 4 games: 3,599

6. Washington Spirit – 3,819 (3 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 3 games – 3,583

7. Western New York Flash – 3,763 (2 games)
2015 average: 2,860
2015 thru 2 games: 1,838

8. Boston Breakers – 3,588 (4 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 4 games: 2,521

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

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,699 (3 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 3 games: 1,419

SEASON AVERAGE: 5,615
2015 Average: 5,046

Free Kicks

Direct

-The new ironwoman streak in NWSL belongs to Christine Nairn. She has appeared in 45 straight regular season matches for the Spirit dating to May 3, 2014.

-Paul Riley was not on the sideline for the Flash’s 5-2 win over Sky Blue FC on Saturday. Instead he was suspended a game for actions directed toward match officials following the Pride’s loss at Orlando the previous week. Assistant Scott Vallow ran the bench in Riley’s absence.

-Laura Harvey intimated that Jess Fishlock could possibly return to action this weekend. Fishlock, appearing on the Reign halftime show, said she was hopeful of being in the Wales side for a Euro qualifier next week.

-Hope Solo missed the Reign match against the Red Stars to attend a memorial service for her grandmother who passed away last week.

-The Red Stars broke the team record for shutout minutes at 485 to 435 for Sky Blue in 2013. The streak finally ended when Kim Little converted an 88th minute penalty. The Red Stars were bidding to be the first team to put up five straight clean sheets, previously accomplished by Sky Blue and FC Kansas City.

-On the other side the Breakers futility streak reached 561 minutes before Whitney Engen snapped it. The 2013 Spirit had the old mark of 542 minutes which remains the longest run without a goal all in the same season.

-The Spirit do not know the full extent of Cheyna Williams’s injury but the initial diagnosis is a sprained ankle.

-FC Kansas City became the last NWSL team (other than the Pride) to be shutout in back-to-back games. They went their first 71 plus five playoff games without being blanked twice in a row. They were not shutout at all in 2014.

-Amandine Henry will be in NWSL soon. Get some of her thoughts on the move.

Indirect

–Here is my Player of the Week ballot:
1) Tobin Heath – Her season has evolved to the point where every time she touches the ball you wonder if the Thorns are going to score; she is doing it all and was the driving force behind Saturday’s dominant first half and subsequent victory; 2) Vanessa DiBernardo – May have had her best match as a pro dictating things in midfield for the Red Stars and unleashing two gorgeous passes leading to both Red Stars goals in Seattle; 3) Jaelene Hinkle – Had two assists and generally won her flank battle against Kelley O’Hara as the driving force behind the Flash’s best offensive performance of the season

Also considered: As good as Heath was, the presence of Christine Sinclair brought composure and opened up much needed space for the entire Thorns attacking group. The fact she did not last an hour in her first start of the season dropped her into the also-rans. Whitney Engen and Angela Salem were both tremendous for the Breakers in their first win of the season. Haley Kopmeyer proved yet again that the Reign don’t miss much of a beat when Hope Solo has to go out of the lineup.

-I loved how the Breakers crowd reacted to the final whistle on Sunday. In a fledgling sport, too often the results don’t matter. It’s nice to see when it does.

Comments

Your account

MORE EXTRA


More in Analysis