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NWSL Week In Review: What to do during Olympic break?

Caprice Dydsco's switch to right back was a help for the Spirit who beat Sky Blue in a Sunday morning match that was postponed from the night before. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Caprice Dydsco’s switch to right back was a help for the Spirit who beat Sky Blue in a Sunday morning match that was postponed from the night before. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Unless you’re Houston or Washington, who will have a makeup game on Aug. 18, your NWSL team now has four weeks off as we head into the Olympic break. It’s not an ideal situation for the teams or the league or really anyone, to be honest, but pragmatism (and history) tells us it’s most certainly the correct thing to do.

But what exactly do you do with four weeks off? And what does it mean for the rest of the season when we resume?

The first thing is rest, of course. While the NWSL slate is not the most grueling schedule in the world, there are still plenty of nicks and nagging injuries that would love to take some time to heal. A quick survey of the teams shows that almost everyone is taking this week completely off and reconvening sometime next week at various levels of training.

“This group has worked very hard the last four and a half weeks, physically and mentally,” Chicago coach Rory Dames said after Saturday’s game. “I forget what the tape is called (Casey Short quickly helped him by telling him it’s kinesio tape), but we have a lot of people being held together by that right now. So they need to physically and mentally get away and take a break and come back for the homestretch.”

With the Red Stars trying to fight off Sky Blue, Western New York, and possibly Seattle for one of the final playoff berths, an underrated feature in the final lap toward the regular season finish line might be the health and motivation of the national team players returning from Brazil. While players like Kelley O’Hara, Sam Mewis (although she’s only an alternate), and Hope Solo are certainly key to their teams, of the squads on the playoff bubble, the Red Stars are not only playoff, but title contenders with an in-form Christen Press, Julie Johnston, and Alyssa Naeher.

In an ideal world, the USWNT would be in perfect shape physically and mentally when regularly scheduled NWSL play resumes on August 26. But it’s just eight days after the gold medal match, which would be a fairly major surprise if it doesn’t include the United States. There are medal ceremonies, media availabilities in various parts of the country, not to mention the decompressing from being in another continent at the biggest sporting event in the world for a month. Oh, and the inevitable celebration parties, too.

Dames, for one, is not naive about the circumstances, but still has confidence his players will come back ready for the final regular season push. For Chicago’s sake, they’d better. The Red Stars resume play on August 27 with a massive game at Sky Blue and then host Seattle on Sept. 4.

“We’ve talked about how those last five games after the Olympics are going to be the difference,” Dames said. “Whichever team’s players come back the most interested, that will be really important because the Olympics are going to be draining on those players, so I think our three will come back pretty engaged. In my opinion, Alyssa is the best goalie in the league, Christen is the best goal scorer in the league, and I’ll say Julie and Becky (Sauerbrunn) – because I don’t want to upset the Becky crowd – are the best two center backs in the league.”

So while NWSL coaches will be enjoying the Olympics like the rest of us, they’ll likely have one eye on the calendar and just how many days they will get to truly prepare for the playoff run.

What else did we learn as we get ready for action from Brazil starting Wednesday?

SATURDAY

Chicago 1:0 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: The Red Stars were not dominant, but got the job done in an extremely key victory heading into the break. Although Chicago had more of the ball, FCKC had the better chances in the first half, the best coming when Erika Tymrak made a brilliant run and played in Tiffany McCarty, who got around Michelle Dalton, but missed the open goal. Stephanie McCaffrey didn’t have a stellar game overall, but was in the right place at the right time to finally beat Nicole Barnhart after she stopped Sofia Huerta twice. Maybe it’s a goal that will get McCaffrey going.

{HALLORAN: Red Stars honor Chalupny, retire her #17}

This match kind of sums up FCKC this season, just not able to score enough goals to get the job done despite a fairly solid defensive performance and a shorthanded midfield. Vlatko Andonovski went out of his way to praise Shea Groom after the match, which was interesting. I cannot deny that I might have been one of the ones who raised an eyebrow when he gave the first statement here. Groom is third in the NWSL in goals this season and has gotten little help.

Player of the Game: Casey Short – Getting to watch her in person, she belongs on any NWSL Best XI squads you’re making this season, and (although she’d have to battle Jaelene Hinkle) certainly seems to me to be among the top candidates for a USWNT call-up in the next few months. Short, who missed two whole seasons with knee problems, is one of the best stories of 2016, in my mind.

Under the Radar: Lo’eau LaBonta – With the Olympians (and Desiree Scott) returning, it remains to be seen how much LaBonta will start for FCKC, but definitely a shout out in order for LaBonta and the other players who work their butt off for the opportunity just to make the NWSL for whatever they’re getting paid (not much). For most of the match, LaBonta was able to hold Chicago at bay.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of saves Michelle Dalton posted in her clean sheet, perhaps the last time she’ll be on the field for a while. She had several family members in attendance for the contest.

Up next: Chicago – at Sky Blue (Aug. 27); Kansas City – vs. Boston (Aug. 28)

Houston 3:3 Western New York (recap)

What Went Down: An offensive explosion, which shouldn’t have been completely surprising, I guess, given that the Flash are the most prolific offense in the league and the Dash have all kinds of offensive talent (that somehow got shut out in six straight games earlier in the season). Western New York got a typical goal for them just two minutes in with a ball played into the box, a knockdown, and Lianne Sanderson finishing it.

But Houston showed what it perhaps should have been all season, albeit against a Flash team that was sorely missing Alanna Kennedy and Abby Erceg. Houston’s attendance has taken a bit of a hit with the team’s struggles, but even though the playoffs are all but out of reach, they should be capable of a few more entertaining matches like this before the end of 2016.

Player of the Game: Kealia Ohai – It’s a fine line between a forward known for their athleticism and hustle and a world-class striker, and with a few more games like this, Ohai could find herself in the latter category. Ohai has always been right on the edge, but without the goals to show for it, it’s hard to rate her that high. But it was certainly a world-class performance (and likely Player of the Week) in this one.

Under the Radar: Rachel Daly – If you think I’m putting her here just to show you this ridiculous goal, you might be correct.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of combined saves between the two goalkeepers in this match. Last week, the Flash lost when Nicole Barnhart posted 14 saves, so quite the difference.

Up next: Houston – vs. Washington (Aug. 18); Western New York – vs. Houston (Aug. 27)

Portland 1:0 Seattle (recap)

What Went Down: The Reign had the better of the play for much of the game, but unfortunately, this turned into a microcosm of much of the season for them, although they did have 10 goals in their previous four games prior to Saturday. Full credit to the Thorns (and obviously their fans), who scratched and clawed for everything and were eventually rewarded with Nadia Nadim’s game winner (with a nice assist from Mana Shim). While Portland still has lots of work left to do to win the NWSL Shield, they look pretty secure for a playoff berth.

Seattle, obviously, does not. There’s still a shot, with them five points in back of Chicago who has a brutal schedule the rest of the way. But whatever margin of error it had is now gone and the Reign might have to get 13 of the remaining 15 points to have a shot at postseason.

Player of the Game: Michelle Betos – Betos seems to have a knack for playing at her best when her team needs her to, and under plenty of pressure for a lot of the match, Betos stood tall for another clean sheet. It appears Mark Parsons is going to stick with Betos the rest of the way, which is a gutsy decision, but hard to argue with at the moment.

Under the Radar: Nadia Nadim – As of a month or so ago, Nadim was not having a great season, unable to find goals with talented players like Tobin Heath around her. She now leads the team with five goals and if she can continue that form when the Olympians return could make the Thorns even more of a favorite to win the title.

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Number of shots on goal for Portland in this game, so they weren’t exactly peppering the Seattle goal for 90 minutes. But it only takes one, as they say.

Up next: Portland – at Seattle (Aug. 27); Portland – vs. Seattle (Aug. 27)

SUNDAY

Washington 3:1 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: The game started oddly, with lightning at the Maryland SoccerPlex forcing the game to be moved from Saturday night to Sunday morning. It seemed the extra day had the defenses out of whack as both teams committed pretty big mistakes to gift opponents’ goals. In the end, it was a deserved three points from the Spirit, who were back to controlling the midfield the way they have for most of the season, and keeping Leah Galton from being heard from, except for a few select occasions.

Sky Blue is most certainly ahead of expectations this season, but are now three points out of a playoff spot, and if they can’t beat Chicago in the first game out of the break may be in big trouble on that front. But a win would draw them level and win them the season tiebreaker.

Player of the Game: Katie Stengel – There were high hopes for Stengel when she was signed, and like Nadia Nadim, they may have been a little too high. But she played a key part in this match, running down a few balls, including one that led to Estefania Banini’s opening goal that set the tone for the game.

Under the Radar: Tasha Kai – I was as skeptical as anyone when Kai’s return was announced after five years away, but she’s become a valuable cog for Sky Blue, scoring their lone goal Sunday and able to be a target in the box that other NWSL teams don’t really have.

Inside the Numbers: 10 – Number of corner kicks Washington had, and they seemed to have a different routine for each of them. Alas, they never scored off one.

Up next: Washington – at Houston (Aug. 18); Sky Blue – vs. Chicago (Aug. 27)

Boston 1:0 Orlando

What Went Down: For all their troubles, the Breakers have been decent at home the last couple of seasons, so this result shouldn’t be completely surprising against a depleted Pride squad. Full credit to Boston, though, who seemed to be inspired throughout, even with everything they’ve been through this season. It probably won’t get them out of the cellar this season, but could bode well for 2017. We’ve said that before, of course.

Orlando will get its players back from the Olympics, but – like Portland last season – were burned by not being prepared enough for the games without their internationals. But that’s probably a chance they had to take as an expansion team. It will be interesting to see how motivated they are after the Olympic break.

Player of the Game: Natasha Dowie – Not a bad debut as Dowie looked at least semi-comfortable up top for the Breakers, becoming the seventh different player to score for Boston this season and at the same time tying for the team lead in goals. The transition from England to NWSL hasn’t been so smooth for many, but it’s worth a shot for Matt Beard to see how she’ll do on a consistent basis.

Under the Radar: Angela Salem – Salem has quietly been there all season in the middle and it hasn’t always been easy for her going against the best NWSL has to offer, but she was excellent in this game, as Orlando did not record a single shot on goal.

Inside the Numbers: 4,379 – Attendance at Jordan Field Sunday, a sellout for an almost historically poor team without its national team players. Attendance has been a bit shaky in some places of late, but this was certainly a welcome number heading into the Olympic break.

Up next: Boston – at Kansas City (Aug. 28); Orlando – vs. Washington (Aug. 26)

 

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