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NWSL Week In Review: Flash show they are near top to stay

Breakers keper Jami Kranich guessed right but couldn't quite get to Sarah Killion's penalty (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Breakers keper Jami Kranich guessed right but couldn’t quite get to Sarah Killion’s penalty (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Everything seemed ripe for a Western New York comeuppance Saturday night as they traveled cross-country to take on reigning NWSL Shield holders Seattle.

The Flash were not only coming off a highly controversial victory over the Reign the week before, but had been playing – at least according to the projections of people like me – over their heads for much of the season, riding a wave of set pieces, speed, and good defense to second in the NWSL table.

But most of their points (18 of 24) had come on the road and Seattle was an impenetrable fortress for most of the last two seasons. The Reign were on the other side of the coin in 2016, a team that had under performed its lofty expectations, fighting to get itself back into the playoff chase and were desperate for three points after last week’s fiasco.

Unlike most teams, Seattle was barely touched by Olympic call-ups and had recently added Japanese internationals Nahomi Kawasumi and Rumi Utsugi to ensure its third straight playoff appearance, a quest that had to begin against the Flash, with the campaign quickly running out of games and only a couple more chances to feast on opponents without their stars before the impending break.

Just four minutes in, Seattle (who was also almost completely healthy) was ahead when Manon Melis took advantage of a mistake in the back and everyone waited for the predictable floodgates to open and the Reign to announce their presence back in the 2016 title chase.

But it never happened.

And 86 minutes later, the team on the the field that looked more like an NWSL title contender was not the hosts, but upstart Western New York, who – without suspended coach Paul Riley – had by far the better of the play and had to “settle” for a 1-1 draw that keeps them eight points clear of the Reign with seven matches to play.

Even beyond the standings, however, the Flash passed the “eye test” Saturday. Yes, their style is bit direct and set pieces (including long throws) are a big portion of their arsenal, but for most of the second half, Seattle’s ultra-talented midfield that had shredded many an NWSL team the last couple of seasons, particularly at Memorial Field, couldn’t get out of its own end and was left to frustratingly defend in their own half for the majority of the game.

We don’t have time for a full tactical analysis here, but it may not be necessary, there wasn’t much to the gameplan for the Flash: pressure everything and use their speed to make Seattle’s life miserable, which they most surely did.

Can they do it all the way to an NWSL title in three months? The odds look a lot better than they did at this time last week.

What else did we learn in a week where many playoff contenders outside Seattle took a step forward?

SATURDAY

Kansas City 2:3 Washington (recap)

What Went Down: It wasn’t perfect, but it was another big three points for the Spirit who quietly may have the easiest path to capturing the NWSL Shield, which would be a remarkable and organic rise for a team that hasn’t exactly gone out and signed any big names the last couple of years. FCKC had been playing much better, but had a couple of uncharacteristic defensive lapses, including from goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart (only one save in the contest), who could be in the running for Goalkeeper of the Year despite FCKC’s struggles.

FCKC attempted 14 shots in the second half and certainly didn’t quit, coming close to an equalizer after Shea Groom cut the lead to 3-2 in the 90th minute. While another playoff berth is almost certainly out of the question, they could play spoiler (they are at Western New York on Saturday), which makes this a big road win in Washington’s only trip to Kansas City.

Player of the Game: Estefania Banini – Banini is now up to four goals on the season, including the probable NWSL Goal of the Week here. It’s easy to forget she missed most of last season with an injury, but she and Francisca Ordega deserve plenty of credit the last few weeks for keeping the Spirit atop the standings.

Under the Radar: Frances Silva – Silva has been on the fringes of the FCKC lineup for a couple of seasons now and occasionally has shown potential to rise above that, including Saturday, where she was excellent in the midfield, eventually getting a goal for her troubles. It will be interesting to see if they can incorporate her when the full team returns.

Inside the Numbers: 15 – Number of fouls Estafania Banini has drawn this season, which isn’t all that remarkable until you look at the number of fouls she’s committed, which is one.

Up next: Kansas City – at Western New York (Sat.); Washington – at Sky Blue (Sat.)

Orlando 0:1 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: Like the Spirit, the Red Stars had some flaws in their performance, but the bottom line is a massive three points on the road through oppressive heat and lightning delays to stay in a playoff spot. A gorgeous team goal that was finally finished off by a Taylor Comeau header was the difference and despite dominating in shots, Chicago had all kinds of trouble dealing with Jasmyne Spencer and were a little fortunate to post a clean sheet.

Comeau’s goal seemed to lift Chicago, particularly in the midfield, as they had possession not seen in the past couple of weeks and could have had a couple more goals. Sofia Huerta did not score, but was excellent and ended up assisting on the winning goal.

Player of the Game: Vanessa DiBernardo – It seems like it’s been hit or miss for DiBernardo of late, but she was outstanding in the middle, especially when Chicago took control midway through the first half and early in the second. Her stats (three assists) don’t leap off the page, but she is a major key to how far Chicago can go.

Under the Radar: Jasmyne Spencer – It seems when Alex Morgan returns, that’s a duo that can score some goals and wreak havoc, but will there be enough time for the Pride to get back into a playoff spot with the games remaining by then?

Inside the Numbers: 18 – Number of times Jasmyne Spencer has been fouled this season, tops on the team and sixth in the NWSL (Tobin Heath, Allie Long, Sarah Killion, Raquel Rodriguez, Crystal Dunn).

Up next: Orlando – at Seattle (Sat.); Chicago – vs. Houston (Sat.)

Houston 3:0 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: It wasn’t shocking that a completely makeshift Thorns team lost, but it was a little surprising at the ease that the Dash – who hadn’t scored in six games – tore through them. Rachel Daly scored early and it could have been 3 or 4-0 at the half before Houston finally put the game away in the second half. Portland got only six shots off, just one on goal for the easiest night the Dash defense has had in a while.

The Dash’s drought is really quite baffling when you look at the talent they can throw on the field, but living in the past never really got anyone anywhere, so (like FCKC) Houston looks to play spoiler and set a good foundation for 2017 the rest of the way. Fortunately for the Thorns, who also played without Dagny Brynjarsdottir (family commitment), they have only one game left until the Olympic break. It’s likely they won’t be in first (or maybe even second) by then.

Player of the Game: Kealia Ohai – Ohai is always going to work hard, but she has not been able to find the finished product the last couple of seasons. She did Saturday, scoring and adding an assist. Portland had no answer for her with the defense it had on hand.

Under the Radar: Rachel Daly – Not too far under the radar here, but still felt Daly had a performance worth recognizing. Like Ohai, she got a goal and really was a mismatch against whomever the Thorns had in front of her. Can the duo continue to find the goal the rest of the season?

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of goals Houston had in its last nine games before Saturday (not scoring in six straight). They matched that in one night and could have had a few more.

Up next: Houston – at Chicago (Sat.); Portland – vs. Seattle (July 30)

Seattle 1:1 Western New York (recap)

What Went Down: You would have thought that lining up in a 4-4-2 at Memorial Field against Seattle would have been suicidal, but – somewhat ironically – many of the tactics that worked on the tiny field the week before continued to do so on the road against one of the best home teams in NWSL history. Full credit goes to players like Abby Erceg (who will now leave for New Zealand), Abby Dahlkemper, and really everyone on the field who worked so hard to pinch the middle and pressure Seattle at every turn.

Is there enough time for Seattle to get into a playoff spot? Well, yes, of course, but it would behoove them to win the next two (vs. Orlando and Portland) because they close the campaign with three of four on the road, including a home-and-home with Washington. So it’s a little tricky.

Player of the Game: Jessica McDonald – She stands one goal behind teammate Lynn Williams (7) for the league goals lead, but she likely has to be mentioned in the NWSL MVP race as well. McDonald scored again and was able to record six shots in the contest.

Under the Radar: Abby Dahlkemper – Dahlkemper has been able to control her area of the field without being overly physical (just six fouls), and always seems to be in the correct position when opponents try to break against the Flash.

Inside the Numbers: 13 – Number of shots Western New York attempted in the second half (Seattle had just 4), which – as we started this article – is pretty amazing when you look at it historically.

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

SUNDAY

Boston 2:3 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: The Breakers not only had a lead, but were pretty much completely dominant in the game’s first 20 minutes before Leah Galton did what she’s done pretty much every game – blow by an outside defender – resulting in a penalty that seemed to turn the tide of the match. Much has been made of Boston “quitting” in the 7-1 loss to Western New York, but they’ve shown tremendous heart the last couple of weeks, but if we’ve learned nothing else this season, heart can only get you so far.

Meanwhile, if it weren’t for Paul Riley, Christy Holly may be atop the Coach of the Year list at the moment as Sky Blue finds itself just two points out of a playoff spot (go see them in a big game this weekend, New Jersey). In the end, Sky Blue had a good response to the Boston early flurry and just fed Galton early and often.

Player of the Game: Leah Galton – Even missing the beginning of the campaign, Galton is emerging as the favorite for Rookie of the Year as Christen Westphal had a really tough night trying to keep up with her, including pulling her down for a penalty. But judging by the last couple months, Westphal won’t be the last.

Under the Radar: Mollie Pathman – Pathman’s short professional career came to an end Sunday as she prepares to return to school, a tough reality for the NWSL, which has seen more than a few non-national team players make the same decision of late. And given the economic realities, it’s tough to blame them.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of minutes Pathman was off the field last season for Boston. She was fourth this season in minutes played and started 12 of their 13 games in 2016.

Up next: Boston – vs. Orlando (July 31); Sky Blue – vs. Washington (Sat.)

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