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NWSL Week In Review: Orlando tragedy hits close to home

151020 Orlando PrideThe importance of the sports world was again relegated to the background this weekend, as sadly the worst mass shooting in American history made for a somber weekend in every facet of life.

Although there does not appear to be any direct link from NWSL to any of the victims, it did take place in Orlando – home of one of its teams – and the league (and almost all women’s professional sports across the board) has always had an extremely good relationship with the LGBT community.

For reasons that would take more time and space then we have here, it’s been much easier for female professional athletes to be public with being gay than it has men. That is not to say that things are easy for the LGBT community in women’s athletics. While things are improving, there are still college coaches (the number appears to be dropping, thankfully) out there recruiting that rival schools will “convert” their daughters to homosexuality.

 Soccer in general (at least in the United States, Mexico and many parts of Latin America have some work to do to catch up, while elsewhere things are much worse), has been more tolerant than other sports (although the NBA – owners of the WNBA –  is making plenty of progress lately) with Robbie Rogers’ story being among the great examples. In the NWSL, almost every team has at least one player that identifies at LGBT, and – although abuse from ignorant people at large (some of them in the mainstream sports media, unfortunately) still presses on against the tide – within the NWSL community, there is mostly nothing but love and tolerance, and despite what team you root for or against, it’s a wonderful sight to see.

 As someone whose full-time job involves working with high school students, there may not be a group of young people in need of role models more than the LGBT young men and women. The progress made in tolerance and general human decency in the last decade or so is remarkable, but there’s plenty of room for improvement, and tragedies like those in Orlando don’t help confused and conflicted young minds.

 Among the most conflicted in the struggle might be young athletes, pressured on one end to live up to the social norms of tradition of “being an athlete”, and afraid to be who they really are so not to “disappoint” family and mentors in the process.

 In the aftermath of Saturday’s horrible events, the NWSL (and soccer) communities stood together as best they could. Every role model, every person that shows appreciation and understanding helps more than the person offering it might imagine. And it’s another reason why we need the NWSL to continue on into both the near and far future.

 As LGBT icon Freddie Mercury, who was sadly well before his time, sang in his final recording, the show must go on, and it did across the NWSL this weekend with heavy hearts.

What else did we learn?

FRIDAY

 Boston 1:1 Washington (recap)

 What Went Down: Despite the Breakers abominable road record in NWSL, they have been a fairly feisty home squad and proved it again Friday, even with Kristie Mewis out with an ankle injury. The Spirit dominated possession, but were mostly relegated to long-range shots from Christine Nairn, although they did have great chances from Joanna Lohman and Crystal Dunn near the end (both of which never got to the goal). A lot like Seattle, Washington has been able to dominate possession through the midfield of Lohman, Nairn, and Tori Huster, but only got four shots on goal in the game, and it was another game with no Crystal Dunn shots on goal. Although she set up the Spirit goal from a wide position, and it’s probably the only way to get Katie Stengel (who scored) in the lineup, Dunn is not as dangerous (at least in the NWSL) from that wide spot. Dilemmas for Jim Gabarra.

Boston’s actual penalty was probably a foul outside the box, but they did have a couple of other decent penalty shouts, including one in stoppage time, so maybe things even out? Alas, the Breakers’ offense is just penalty shouts and set pieces these days as it doesn’t appear like Eunice Beckmann or Stephanie McCaffrey is the answer for them at the moment. Neither recorded a shot on goal. But they’re going to be competitive, at least at home.

Player of the Game: Brooke Elby – Elby gives the Breakers some hope of offense from her outside back/midfield position (it looked like Boston tried a 3-5-2 again with Elby and Mollie Pathman playing wide), as she is athletic enough to get up and down the field, as she showed in winning the Boston penalty kick in the first half. It remains to be seen how she handles defensive responsibilities in the long-term, but I think that’s a risk Matt Beard has to make.

 Under the Radar: Shelina Zadorsky – I keep saying Zadorsky is Canada’s answer to Becky Sauerbrunn (she and Sauerbunn have both committed five fouls this season, however), and she’s got a long way to get to that level, but it was another 90 minutes played with composure and solid positioning. It will be interesting to see how she does at the Olympics.

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Number of shots on goal Boston had in the game, one of which was Louise Schillgard’s penalty (she also had the other). It was great for Washington, which started Kelsey Wys in place of Stephanie Labbe (Wys did fine).

Up next: Boston – at Chicago (Sat.); Washington – vs. Orlando (Sat.)

Western New York 1:0 Orlando (recap)

 What Went Down: Temporarily at least, the upstart Flash went to the top of the NWSL table with the win, and although they seemed to be fortunate thanks to a couple of potentially missed calls by the officials, they had good value for the win on the balance of play (although they needed nine saves from Britt Eckerstrom to get the clean sheet). Paul Riley appears to have the team he wants now, a tough group (Elizabeth Eddy drilled Alex Morgan on the endline late in the game, which looked at first glance like it could have been a separated shoulder or arm injury. In Eddy’s defense, there was no foul called) that is going to use its speed up top to score goals. That is what they did with a 4th-minute goal from Makenzy Doniak, who scored her first in the NWSL (and the Flash feed was working to catch it).

Orlando’s back – solid for most of the season – had trouble with that speed, and the Pride never could quite get the support that Alex Morgan needed, although Jasmyne Spencer’s disallowed goal looked onside and Morgan had a couple of good penalty shouts even beyond the Eddy incident. Getting Morgan support seems like it could be a problem going forward, which might be solved by playing Lianne Sanderson more, but we shall see.

Player of the Game: Jess McDonald – McDonald has some finishing trouble, but she did get five shots off and assisted on the winning goal with a nice turn and lead ball to Doniak. The tandem of McDonald and Lynn Williams has been quietly very effective in Riley’s system, and could lead the Flash to the playoffs in the end.

Under the Radar: Maddy Evans – The selection from Boston in the expansion draft was all over the field on Saturday, covering Jess Fishlock levels of ground in 90 minutes. Alas, it didn’t result in any Orlando goals, but it was still impressive.

 Inside the Numbers: 16 – Number of fouls committed by the Flash, which resulted in two cards. It should be noted that Orlando had more fouls (8) than Western New York (7) in the second half.

 Up next: Western New York – vs. Portland (Fri.); Orlando – at Washington (Sat.)

Sky Blue 1:1 Kansas City (recap)

 What Went Down: It’s hard to say either team is completely happy with this result, although FCKC looked much more like itself and had the better of the play and chances, particularly in the second half. However, let’s be honest, Kim DeCesare scored in the first half for Sky Blue, even though it wasn’t ruled that way, so maybe the result is justified, even if it doesn’t help the fading playoff hopes for both.

SBFC was able to bring Leah Galton and Sam Kerr off the bench, and both should help their cause, even if Kerr going to the Olympics with Australia is imminent. It’s not that Sky Blue looked bad, they just didn’t look like they were going to beat any of the top teams right now. With Shea Groom and Erika Tymrak starting to connect (and neither going to the Olympics), it’s possible that the champs could go on a run, but it’s a long way to go.

Player of the Game: Shea Groom – We get on Groom for her physical play, but she showed she can take it as well as dish it out Saturday, as she ended up with a few stitches for her trouble, but also a great goal that she started before finishing with a left-footed blast from outside the box.

Under the Radar: Kim DeCesare – The non-goal was a tough break for DeCesare, who has been on quite a few teams (including in Sweden) and positions in her professional career and recently stated one of her dreams is scoring in an NWSL game. But hopefully her strong effort will lead to more playing time. You have to root for the players who keep trying to make it despite the obstacles.

 Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of fouls by Groom, giving her the league lead (ahead of a host of Thorns) at 16, so there’s that.

 Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Seattle (Sun.); Kansas City – at Houston (Sun.)

SUNDAY

Chicago 1:1 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: The Thorns came out and dominated the first half, using their world-class talent to knock the ball around and create chances, eventually getting a bit fortunate on Christine Sinclair’s goal, but it was certainly deserved on the balance of play. However, they couldn’t maintain it, and eventually Christen Press took advantage of a bit of an error from Adrianna Franch and both teams got a point.

Portland is in an odd spot. Yes, the Thorns are undefeated, but with five draws and a boatload of national team players leaving soon, the Thorns have to be a bit uneasy where they sit in the standings. In the end, Franch didn’t record a single save, but Portland only generated one shot after halftime, and that probably wasn’t good enough. Chicago will be happy with the point, but it too has some work to do if they want to be title contenders. The Sofia Huerta-Press relationship on the field continues to be a bit baffling.

Player of the Game: Emily Sonnett – It’s likely a bit late for Sonnett to head to Brazil (maybe not?) and the Thorns will probably be thankful for that. Sonnett had another solid game in the middle and was able to keep Press and the other Chicago forwards at bay for most of the contest, especially in the second half.

Under the Radar: Tobin Heath – Heath’s best moments were in the first half, but she was somehow fouled five times in another physical Portland contest.

 Inside the Numbers: 12 – Number of fouls Portland committed in the contest, and it seems to be dropping. Allie Long had only one, and had a bit of a sense of humor for her newfound attention from opposing supporters.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Boston (Sat.); Portland – at Western New York (Fri.)

Seattle 1:0 Houston (recap)

What Went Down: Again, the Reign had all kinds of trouble finding a semblance of offense for most of the game, but eventually got bailed out by a Havana Solaun Goal of the Week (it better be) strike in the second half. Seattle dominated possession and did have a little more urgency after halftime, outshooting the Dash 11-3, but they still don’t seem quite what they were a year ago. But having the three points is much better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, Houston looks a bit lost. The Dash played without Rachel Daly, who apparently is having visa trouble in England, and obviously don’t have Carli Lloyd, but they probably should be better. One sequence does not a game make, but Morgan Brian made a nice steal in the latter part of the second half, but chose to go for goal from 30 yards out rather than use another option. She got it on frame, but Hope Solo had a rather easy time with it. Just not much confidence in Houston at the moment.

Player of the Game: Havana Solaun – Like Kim DeCesare, Solaun battled through injuries last season, missing all of 2015 with a bad ankle break that required surgery. But she took advantage of getting the start and that could be a massive goal for Seattle going forward.

Under the Radar: Jess Fishlock – Watching Fishlock for 90 minutes can be remarkable entertainment in and of itself. Sometimes she steals the ball and makes 60-yard runs to support the attack, then she pops up in her own box chasing down opponents, then she’s making runs on through balls at the other end. It’s hard to underestimate how important a role that is for a team.

 Inside the Numbers: 8 – Number of goals the Reign have scored this season. They scored 41 in 20 games in 2015 on their way to the NWSL Shield.

Up next: Seattle – at Sky Blue (Sun.); Houston – vs. Kansas City (Sat.)

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