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NWSL Week In Review: In defense of aggressive attackers

Shea Groom (left) has drawn the ire of many opponents with her aggressive play.  (photo copyright EriMac Photo for Equalizer Soccer)

Shea Groom (left) has drawn the ire of many opponents with her aggressive play. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for Equalizer Soccer)

If you’re a women’s soccer fan and have never read “The Man Watching”, it’s a fascinating look at North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance and how he became one of the legends of the sport. One of the many anecdotes involves Dorrance recruiting a young girl at a tournament and getting negative reports about her as he walked to the field; she was too aggressive and always seemed to be on the physical and mental edge, which made them uncomfortable, but just made Dorrance more intrigued.

When he finally saw her play, he knew he wanted her on his team because she clearly had a desire to succeed that could not be taught.

It was Mia Hamm, of course, who would go on to score 158 goals for the U.S. national team and become one of the greatest players in world history.

With all due respect, Shea Groom is not likely to finish her soccer career with the same accolades, but it’s much harder to become an NWSL player than most people imagine, starting with the number of youth players who actually make it to Division I (not many) and then narrowing down the 350 teams to 10 (minus some internationals who didn’t play college, of course).

Groom, like Hamm, is not blessed with great size, but used her heart, tenacity, and a nose for goal to become the 2014 SEC Offensive Player of the Year at Texas A&M and was chosen No. 12 in the 2015 NWSL draft by hometown FC Kansas City, who said they might have even selected her higher if they had to.

With massive losses on the frontline, Groom went from someone who could play off of Lauren Holiday and Amy Rodriguez to having a lot of pressure on her to score goals this season, and it’s been difficult. She has just two goals in 11 games, and – to be fair – hasn’t gotten a whole lot of help (FCKC has just six goals all season).

Along the way, Groom’s aggressive style has seemed to rub some people the wrong way. Last season, McCall Zerboni stepped on her behind the play and got a two-game suspension. Later in the year, Flash goalkeeper Chantel Jones pushed Groom to the ground after a slide and got a suspension of her own. Groom was involved in a couple of incidents in the first half of 2016 and last week flew through the box in an attempt to get on the end of a corner kick and collided with former Texas A&M teammate Merritt Mathias, who decided to unceremoniously push her head into the ground, an action that was missed by the officials by prompted a subsequent one-game ban (eventually) from the league.

Groom has had run-ins in just about every opposing penalty box over the course of the season, and now leads the league in fouls with 22. For whatever reason, Groom was quiet for most of the contest at Washington Saturday, and – not coincidentally – FCKC didn’t create much of anything, either. But early in the second half, Groom courageously got her head on a ball she has no business getting to and hit the crossbar. As the second half dragged on, Groom had another moment on an Erika Tymrak through ball and it was close enough for her to dive feet first. Groom and goalkeeper Kelsey Wys got there simultaneously and Groom’s feet carried through the ball to make contact with Wys.

Groom was called for the foul (her only foul of the night). Wys, Megan Oyster and a couple other Spirit players glared at Groom, but the referee deemed it worthy of only a verbal warning. In fact, Groom has only two yellow cards all season (both in the same game, unfortunately for her). And that was it. No harm done and the rest of the game went on (well for host Washington, who got three more points).

Is there a point where play of an aggressive striker can become reckless? Of course. But in a perfect world, an attacking player should lead a team in fouls, the downside of them getting whistled on the other team’s half of the field is not as much as defenders close to their own goal. And aggressive, talented attackers are not a dime a dozen, which is why someone like Vlatko Andonovski (and the Blue Crew’s “Shea Groom Defense Squad”) is quick to come to her aid when asked.

The bottom line is that most of the time you need to be aggressive and take chances to be a professional striker. And that’s exactly what Shea Groom does. Fair or not, she’ll be under a lot of scrutiny from opponents (and possibly officials) for a while, and it will be interesting to see how she and her team handles it. For now, though, it doesn’t sound like she’s worried.

“I somehow find myself in the middle of those situations,” Groom said to the Kansas City Star. “I credit it to the fact that I play hard and am disruptive, and some players don’t like it.”

What else did we learn as Americans and Canadians were gone, but there were Matildas and Ferns on NWSL fields this week?

FRIDAY

Western New York 2:0 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: The Red Stars had some of the ball in the first half and were able to create a couple of chances, but it was complete domination after the break by the Flash, who were probably unlucky not to score more. The numbers always showed it, but some (yes, me included) thought there might be a lull at some point from the Flash. That is becoming less and less likely. They lead Seattle by five points and could really put themselves in good position by beating the Reign this weekend.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s playoff position could become precarious soon with Seattle apparently ready to make a charge only two points back and a long time until the national team players return. The Red Stars were able to bridge that gap very well last season, but did not look good Saturday and have to go to Washington this week.

Player of the Game: Abby Erceg – Erceg’s move to a holding midfield spot seems like another stroke of genius for Paul Riley as Erceg was able to have a lot of the ball against the likes of Dani Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo. With the speed the Flash possesses, Erceg isn’t called on to do anything spectacular, but just did not let Chicago get out of its own end.

Under the Radar: Lynn Williams – Her speed is definitely not under the radar, but her finish Saturday might have been. You really have to watch her to see how fast she really is, there have been a few times this season where she has started yards back of a defender only to at least make things interesting 20 or 30 yards later.

Inside the Numbers: 12 – Number of combined shots by Williams and Jess McDonald (6 each). As I said, it’s not a really complicated gameplan that Riley has had of late in an old-school 4-4-2, but it’s been extremely effective.

Up next: Western New York – vs. Seattle (Sat.); Chicago – at Washington (Sat.)

SATURDAY

Washington 2:0 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: As I mentioned, things might have been a little different if Groom’s header early in the second half had gone in, but FCKC seemed to wear down toward the end of the game and were eventually made to pay thanks to a bad clearance and a nice finish by Francisca Ordega. Like Boston (and Seattle), it’s just tough to keep going when it’s as hard to score as it is right now. They fielded only three field player subs and used just one, so with Katie Bowen’s departure imminent, it’s going to be tough for the defending champs to get through the next month.

The Spirit, despite some anxious moments, will take any three points without Crystal Dunn, and although they are six points in back of the league-leading Thorns, they do have two games in hand. Scoring seems like it will be the biggest issue in Dunn’s absence (duh), but it would be surprising to see Ordega on the bench much in the upcoming matches.

Player of the Game: Francisca Ordega – There are other lurking variables involved, but the game did seem to start to swing with Ordega’s introduction in the second half. Ordega has played only 160 minutes this season, but that number is sure to rise soon.

Under the Radar: Brianne Reed – The draft pick out of Rutgers had a very good NWSL debut, going 90 minutes at right back in place of Alex Arlitt and winning most of her individual battles on that side of the field. Andonovski will definitely need her for the next few weeks.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of subs that Kansas City used, with Caroline Kastor coming on for Tiffany McCarty in the 76th minute. Will probably not be the last time a NWSL team uses less than three subs during the next month.

Up next: Washington – vs. Chicago (Sat.); Kansas City – at Portland (Sat.)

Seattle 2:0 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: Well, the Breakers were much more competitive in a tough spot, even if they rarely threatened the other goal. Goalkeeper Jami Kranich did come up big a little at the end as the second Seattle goal seemed to deflate them a little midway through the second half. The Reign, bolstered by the addition of Naho Kawasumi, looked more like themselves, although the opponent was the worst team in the league at the moment and they did manage only two goals. Big, big game for them in Rochester this weekend.

Unfortunately for the Breakers, Eunice Beckmann went down with a second-half injury and Kyah Simon now departs for the Olympics, so they’ll hope they can get Kristie Mewis back really soon.

Player of the Game: Naho Kawasumi – Interestingly, Kasawumi was one of the players who was dropped by new Japan coach Asako Takakura after Japan did not qualify for the Olympics, as part of the youth movement as the Japanese look toward 2019. But Kawasumi looks like she’ll pay immediate dividends for Laura Harvey (you expected differently?) as Seattle begins a playoff push.

Under the Radar: Manon Melis – Melis came in with high expectations, but had only 1 goal and 5 shots in seven games heading into Saturday. She looked much more aggressive against Boston, and although she didn’t score, had 3 shots and was a factor. Alas, she was limping again when she left in the 71st minute.

Inside the Numbers: -21 – Current goal difference for the Breakers, who are on pace to break Washington’s all-time futility mark of -23 set by Washington in the NWSL’s inaugural campaign (2013). The Spirit did score 16 goals in 22 games that season.

Up next: Seattle – at Western New York (Sat.); Boston – at Orlando (Sun.)

Portland 2:1 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: It was another gutsy effort from the Thorns who saw off a challenge from a Sky Blue team that is probably going to be a handful for people the rest of the way. The Thorns are obviously shorthanded for a while, but seem better prepared this season, even if they’ll lose Amandine Henry from the lineup. Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Nadia Nadim, and Hayley Raso will all help the cause, even they’ll probably be a few amateurs on the roster.

Player of the Game: Nadia Nadim – Nadim’s game is a lot like Groom’s (she has 16 fouls on the season), but this was probably her best game of the season, even if her only goal was from the penalty spot. First of all, she should have drawn a penalty in the first 20 seconds of the match, but I think it was so early, the referee was confused. She also hit a crossbar in the second half and was a general nuisance in the Sky Blue final third, exactly what you want an attacker to be.

Under the Radar: Celeste Boureille – Portland’s run at the NWSL Shield may depend on its amateurs, and Boureille may not have been flashy in her 90 minutes, but she held her own and showed she belonged, which is all Mark Parsons wants her to do at the moment. .

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of assists for Taylor Lytle this season (including one in this match), tied for second in the NWSL, and just one behind Tobin Heath’s league lead.

Up next: Portland – vs. Kansas City (Sat.); Sky Blue – vs. Houston (Sat.)

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