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The Lowdown: NWSL Week 12 was pure chaos

Frontier Field

Frontier Field

Sunday’s Pride-Breakers match brought to a close a chaotic weekend for NWSL, one that few hope to relive but also one that will live on for some time. The league is conducting an “exhaustive review” of the circumstances which led the Flash and Reign to play on a 100×58 pitch Saturday night at Frontier Field that drew the ire of just about everyone involved with the Reign and many usually silent national team players who had played a friendly against South Africa earlier in the day. More on that in a bit.

As for what happened in Orlando, the teams waited out a weather delay of nearly an hour before embarking on their first-ever match against each other. The Breakers, without a road win since July 26, 2014, went ahead in the 5th minute when new Pride keeper Kaitlyn Savage made a mess of an easy grab and Mollie Pathman finished in an open goal. It was the first Breakers lead away from home in 14 months and they carried it all the way to the final minute. That’s where it all fell apart.

First Kristen Edmonds won a ball in midfield, then won a foul near the penalty area, and then converted the free kick to complete one of the great individual efforts of the season. Brooke Elby was handed her second yellow card of the match for the foul leaving the Breakers to finish with 10. And they wilted, giving up three quality chances before failing to get to a 50/50 ball in midfield and losing 2-1 when Edmonds chipped Jami Kranich at the death.

So what in the world happened?

The initial foul: It is easy to pin this one on what may have been a phantom foul call on Elby. And after watching the play a few thousand times or so I’m inclined to agree that Edmonds initiated the contact and that it was a very soft call against Elby. But let’s take a deeper look at the play.

Breakers follies

Here is Elby making the pass that went to Edmonds for the counterattack. By this point her body is already squared up to make the pass in the direction on the Pride defenders, but she has a teammate open to her left for a safer play. Beyond that the Breakers have their two center backs behind the ball but why in the world is their entire midfield ahead of the play when they are defending for their lives to see out a win?

“I felt like we were in their end the entire time I was on the field. I felt we had a lot of momentum,” Leah Fortune, who had an important role later in the story and played the last 11 minutes plus stoppage time, said on Monday. Fortune’s was a solid description of the last 20 minutes or so. The Breakers were on their heels.

A further issue is that there are two players bunched together behind the Pride players, shielding themselves from being good options for Elby, and no one goes wide to give her a clear path to play the ball safely. The result was a turnover to Edmonds on a play that looked like the team with the lead was the one chasing the game.

Yes the foul was a soft call, but in defense of Jon Freemon, it looked like a foul watching it live and it was a reasonable call to make in real time. The Breakers can and probably do feel hard done (through a team spokesperson, head coach Matt Beard said he had no comment on the match), but they also put themselves in a vulnerable situation that allowed luck to rear its ugly head.

The 10-v.-11 factor: Playing a woman down is never ideal but it shouldn’t be a death sentence either especially when you’re mere minutes from earning a draw. If the foul call on Elby was harsh then so was the yellow card which was effectively a red. But a team should be able to hold on for three minutes even while conceding the advantage in manpower.

During stoppage time, almost every Breaker touch went to a Pride player, they twice let Jasmyne Spencer get behind the defense, and when Kranich came up with a nice save there were no Breakers anywhere near the rebound and Spencer came inches from scoring at the far post. And then…

Leah Fortune had the game-winning assist in her NWSL debut (photo courtesy: Orlando Pride)

Leah Fortune had the game-winning assist in her NWSL debut (photo courtesy: Orlando Pride)

The Fortune factor: The forgotten play in the match will be the one made by Fortune who was making her first appearance in an NWSL match. After Spencer almost got to the cross at the far post Kranich took a goal kick with mere seconds left on the clock. Fortune zigzagged through the midfield and volleyed it back toward the Boston goal.

“I was feeling it,” Fortune said. “I wasn’t going to let anything get past me. When it’s the final minutes you just have to have the ball in the attacking third. There is no other option. I knew I had fresh legs and a lot of energy. When I saw the space and an opportunity you don’t really think about it you just play.”

Fortune may have been feeling it, and she made a spectacular play, but take a look at the goal kick getting ready to land in midfield. Where are all the Breakers? (also note that Fortune is the second closest Pride player to the ball in this picture but she hustled every step until she got to it.)

Breakers GK follies

Fortune of course made the most of it turning her volley into a perfect ball over the top that Edmonds was able to finish by chipping Kranich before getting clobbered by the oncoming keeper.

“It’s something that you just have to be aware of,” Fortune said about the perfect placement of her one-time ball. “It happens actually pretty often when we scrimmage. Placement of the ball and technique is really important.

“I was glad Kristen was able to get to it and sacrificed herself.”

The game marked the third straight Pride match in which the winning goal was scored in the final minute or stoppage time. They beat the Dash 1-0 via Spencer two Thursdays ago and three days later succumbed to the Thorns on Lindsay Horan’s late strike. Including the Edmonds game-winner those three are the only matches in the league this season in which a goal in the 90th minute or stoppage time flipped the result. And it marked the first time in league history that two goals in that time frame changed a result.

“It was exciting to be a part of,” Fortune said.

The Pride are now 6-6-0 and outside the playoff bubble only on a tiebreaker with the Red Stars who they play this weekend. The Breakers meanwhile are 1-10-1, are on their third goalkeeper, played without Kristie Mewis again, and lost Christen Westphal to injury in the first half Sunday. Only something less likely than a miracle will get the Breakers into the playoffs which will mark four NWSL seasons without playing beyond the regular season.

The Breakers have had a bit of bad luck thrown at them this season, but a more composed finish could have yielded them a win in Orlando.

note: Edmonds has been cleared to play this weekend but was having trouble speaking immediately following the match and politely declined a Monday interview request.

and then there was Rochester

I won’t go through the details about what happened Saturday, but you can read some of them plus some player reaction here. NWSL and both clubs have implemented a full media blackout on the issue pending conclusion of an “exhaustive review.” A league spokesperson said there is no timetable on completing the review. Commissioner Jeff Plush issued an apology late Saturday (at bottom of above link) but the league elected not to make him available to the media on Monday.

Here are the three issues and what we know about them:

The field: For whatever reason the match at Frontier Field was played without utilizing the infield which would have made for more humane and aesthetically pleasing dimensions. The final layout was a paltry 100 x 58, well short of league standards but approved solely for this match.

Reign coach Laura Harvey was audibly furious after the match and that much was evident in a Twitter post that has made the rounds. In the Tweet she makes mention of the field being deemed unsuitable Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and suitable at 5 p.m. even though no changes were made. Multiple sources confirmed to The Equalizer on Monday that every issue laid out at 1:30 was fully address by 5:00 and that none of them involved the size of the playing field or the safety of the surface.

The Kopmeyer injury: The key soccer moment of the match was in the 38th minute when Reign goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer injured her left foot or ankle coming off her line to defend a throw-in that served as a quasi-corner kick on the tight pitch. Kopmeyer stayed down for an extended period, tried to walk off with assistance, but made it only just over the end line before going back to the ground. Eventually a stretcher was brought out and Kopmeyer went to the hospital. An unfortunate injury for sure, but also a part of sports.

Harvey fanned the flames about the injury blaming the surface and accusing the Flash of refusing to send Kopmeyer to the hospital.

“What happened with Haley Kopmeyer is an absolute disgrace,” Harvey said in audio inserted into the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle recap video. “I was told the game was being played because players were going to be safe. Was that safe? (And then) putting her on a truck, they wouldn’t even take her to the hospital. We had to take her to the hospital because the Flash refused.”

I can’t address the field except to say that the most pristine stretches of grass in the world have claimed their share of knees and ankles over the years and will continue to do so. I have no reason to believe the Frontier Field pitch was the cause of Kopmeyer’s injury.

Regarding claims the Flash refused to take Kopmeyer to the hospital, the club (while declining comment on all other aspects of the match) forcefully denied the claim. A third party not affiliated with either club corroborated that the Flash properly handled their part in the Kopmeyer injury.

The goal counted: When Kopmeyer went down trying to get to the throw-in it left an open goal for Abby Erceg to score. But the goal was initially waved off before a discussion between referee Karen Abt and assistant Rachel Smith convinced Abt to allow it.

Harvey was none-to-pleased with the decision (which was clearly correct) because she thought Smith glanced up at the replay board before speaking to Abt. “The referee was poor. She lost the game. You can’t go off replay to change a decision whether it was right or wrong. That’s what happens in the game.”

The Professional Referees Organization (PRO) clarified that the goal was originally waved off by Abt on the premise that Kopmeyer was fouled. Smith stepped in and correctly told Abt that Kopmeyer made contact with a teammate and not anyone from the Flash and the goal was allowed. PRO also said firmly that Smith did not use any in-stadium replays to aid her decision.

In fairness to Harvey the Flash broadcast team also suggested that Smith looked up at the replay before talking with Abt.

My thoughts: Yes the field was too small and we don’t need to see that again. It made for poor optics and brought some national scrutiny to a league that spends much of its existence planted firmly under the radar. Hopefully the review is concluded in short order and we can hear more of Harvey’s side of the story, preferably when she is a bit calmer than she was after the match. The Flash, who are taking some daggers, also have a side to present if they wish.

What baffles me most is why the league went silent on Monday. They could have collected information from both sides and sent Plush onto a media call which would not have been the highlight of his summer, but likely could have done enough damage control to get a hold of the story. The announcement of the U.S. Olympic roster on Tuesday could have pushed it overboard. Instead we are left to wonder and speculate and write stories like this one with facts pieced together through anonymous sources rather than having the commissioner or anyone else on record.

It all made me think of the NFL’s deflategate scandal that has been on and off America’s back pages since January 2015. That issue could have been put to bed in two days. Instead the NFL invested millions of dollars and way too much time and a year-and-a-half later they are one step from the Supreme Court. The Fiasco at Frontier won’t get nearly that far, but the league going in the tank does more to arouse suspicion than it does reassure anyone about anything.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 12 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

SATURDAY
Washington Spirit – 3,631
Sky Blue FC – 1,732
Western New York Flash – 4,314 (Frontier Field)
Portland Thorns FC – 16,942

SUNDAY
Orlando Pride – 5,842

WEEK 12 TOTAL: 32,460
WEEK 12 AVERAGE: 6,492

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,362 (6 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 6 games: 13,769

2. Orlando Pride — 9.885 (6 games)

3. Houston Dash – 5,846 (4 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 4 games: 4,647

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,294 (6 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 6 games: 3,174

5. Washington Spirit – 3,903 (7 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 7 games – 3,663

6. FC Kansas City – 3,781 (6 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 6 games: 3,338

7. Boston Breakers – 3,672 (5 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 5 games: 2,445

8. Western New York Flash – 3,585 (8 games)
2015 average: 2,860
2015 thru 8 games: 2,616

9. Chicago Red Stars – 2,948 (5 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 5 games: 5,097 (includes doubleheader with Fire with announced attendance of 16,017)

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,854 (6 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 6 games: 1,584

Free Kicks

Direct

-Lynn Williams now leads the NWSL with seven goals. Teammate Jessica McDonals is second with five and her five assists are tied for the league lead with Tobin Heath.

-Before conceding what will be one of the most talked about goals of the season the Reign had pushed their shutout streak to an NWSL record 511 minutes. That streak included five shutouts, a standalone league record snapped on Saturday.

-The other side is the Dash. They are the first team ever to be shutout six straight times in the same season—the Breakers finished 2015 being blanked and then failed to score the first five games this season. Their string of minutes without a goal is at 570, one shy of the Breakers mark again accrued over two seasons. Soccer math dictates the Dash will tie that mark the moment Saturday’s match against the Thorns kicks off and break it if they cannot score in 60 seconds. Amazingly the Dash have lost all six games 1-0.

-The Thorns’ unbeaten run ended at 12 games, four shy of the 2014 record of 16 set by Seattle Reign FC. Two other teams reached double digits. FC Kansas City in 2014 and the Red Stars in 2014-2015 both went 10 straight matches without losing.

-Due to paperwork issues the Dash were without a backup goalkeeper on Saturday night.

-Jaelene Hinkle arrived in Western New York late Friday night and suited up for the Flash on Saturday. Presumably she had been cut from Jill Ellis’s Olympic side and hustled home to join her club team. Ellis’s full roster is due out Tuesday.

-Sam Kerr has left Sky Blue to join Australia. Because she was on the mend from foot surgery Sky Blue and the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) agreed to let her remain in New Jersey an extra week and get another match under her belt. Kerr went the full 90 on Saturday night.

-The Flash have signed Belgian Janice Cayman pending completion of the requisite international paperwork.

-At the stroke of this piece going live NWSL announced it was part of a partnership with both senior national teams to make Cutter the official insect repellent of the league.

Indirect

-My Week 12 Player of the Week ballot: 1) Kristen Edmonds – Solid, hardworking performance grew in stature when she equalized in the 90th minute and scored the game-winner in stoppage time. The equalizer was a free kick strike that came after she drew the foul which happened after she won the ball in midfield; 2) Taylor Lytle – Oft overlooked cog in Sky Blue’s midfield hit the only goal of the night on a rocket from outside the penalty area and kept the Dash off balance much of the night spraying the ball around the park. She could well have had a few early assists; 3) Tiffany McCarty – Played her best game in a Kansas City uniform and had a fine assist to Shea Groom for the second goal of the night.

-I try not to pick on referees, but how does Stephanie McCaffrey arm bar Sam Witteman and take her to the ground well after the play and not receive a yellow card? It’s not a soccer play so the “talking to” she received afterwards was absurd.

-That aside I thought McCaffrey had her best match of the season. That’s not saying much but the Breakers would certainly love to get her on track to being something resembling the player that flirted with being part of the Olympic team.

-FC Kansas City is playing some excellent soccer. They still have deficiencies in terms of scoring and they are not likely to be rectified this season, but they are back to playing like FCKC.

-Say what you want about the field but the Flash did a better job than the Reign at finding what little space there was. Still the turning point in the match was probably the Kopmeyer injury. Andi Tostanoski entered under very strange and somewhat adverse circumstances and made a near immediate mistake to concede another goal. She also made a mistake on the third Flash goal. At other times she looked poised and polished. Assuming she starts this weekend’s rematch at Memorial I would expect a much better performance.

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