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The Lowdown: Team talking points for the break

Laura Harvey, Seattle Reign FC

Laura Harvey, Seattle Reign FC

Laura Harvey and the Reign have endured a disappointing 2016 season. (Photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

A fascinating Week 15 likely left NWSL fans clamoring for the rest of the season, something they will have to wait for as the league steps aside for the Olympic tournament.  The Spirit and Dash will play a makeup game on August 18, but otherwise there will be no league activity until August 26, exactly one week after the medal matches.

Once the makeup match goes in the books every team will have five games left with the exception of the Dash and Breakers who will slip in a Wednesday night match on August 31.  That won’t be ideal for either team, but it should be noted that the Breakers are already mathematically eliminated from reaching the playoffs while the Dash have next to no margin for error.

So as players scatter for some downtime before training kicks back into gear, what should each team carry with them through the break? And what should each team be looking to figure out for the final push?

Portland Thorns FC

There is a lot to like about this uber-talented club that gelled very quickly and carried an undefeated mark through the departure of the U.S. players for Olympic camp.  That took pressure off the squad that attempted to carry the torch through July and although they lost twice, a come-from-behind win over Sky Blue and a look-what-I-found win over the Reign kept the Thorns atop the table, and in turn will ease the pressure on the glut of Olympians when they return to the Rose City.  The toughness the Thorns have shown has been extraordinary—including the U.S. internationals’ last game when they rallied late to beat the Pride in brutal conditions in Orlando—and if they maintain that mentality the rest of the season it will be extremely difficult to beat them when it really matters.

If there is an area of development it is probably the physicality which nearly cost them against the Reign who had myriad dangerous set pieces in the late stages of Saturday night’s match.  Lindsay Horan will return facing a suspension for one more yellow card (save for the final match of the season as there are no accumulation suspensions in the playoffs) but you get the sense that if the Thorns are going to lose a big match it will be due to conceding a set piece where they shouldn’t and/or losing a key player to an ejection/suspension.

Washington Spirit

The answers to both questions here are tied into a similar theme.  The recent emergence of Estafania Banini has highlighted the club’s depth and recent attacking diversity.  It also begs the question as to whether the other strikers were too deferential to Crystal Dunn, even though Dunn left for Rio without a single goal in NWSL this season.

That means the Spirit will want to maintain the variety in their attack while successfully working Dunn back into the mix.  The Dunn scored in both of the U.S.’s recent friendlies will mean she won’t be sitting on a five-month goal drought next time she puts on a Spirit kit, but a goal or three in Brazil could help her transition back to the league.

The Spirit will also be hoping veteran midfielder Joanna Lohman holds her incredible form through the break and that they can get Megan Oyster going.  Lohman is enjoying a fantastic season but Oyster has been slumping after agreat start.  They can also use the time to figure out the best role for Line Sigvardsen who was available last weekend but did not get in for what would have been her NWSL debut.

{GORDON: Banini’s hot form has Spirit in Shield race}

Western New York Flash

The Flash have been fun to watch since they figured out how to use their speed to massacre opposing defenses.  Their players are not likely to get any slower over the break so they should be in good shape in terms of getting the ball forward and securing quality chances—which Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams have been finishing with reckless abandon.

There are still a few personnel issue though as the roster has continued evolving through the season.  Since Sam Mewis last played for the club, Lianne Sanderson and Janice Cayman have joined the midfield so Paul Riley will have to figure out a balance with a surplus of attackers.  Could impressive rookie Makenzy Doniak wind up being the odd woman out?

On the defensive end, Abby Erceg began the season in central defense while Alanna Kennedy played in midfield.  But Kennedy was excellent dropping back to fill in when Erceg was suspended and at the end it seemed like Riley was leaning toward keeping Kennedy in back and using Erceg to sit on top of the back four.

And then there is the goalkeeper position where a healthy Sabrina D’Angelo would make three a crowd with Katelyn Rowland and Britt Eckerstrom having given quality contributions since the Canadian international broke a bone in her wrist.

{CURREN: NWSL Week 15 in review}

Chicago Red Stars

The Red Stars are an extremely difficult team to break down which has almost singlehandedly kept them above the red line having scored 14 goals in 15 games.  The outside back tandem of Arin Gilliland and Casey Short combined with Danielle Colaprico as holding midfielder make the Red Stars formidable against any opponent.  If those three can close out the season the way they have performed to this point the Red Stars will be a favorite to reach the playoffs and a mighty difficult out once they get there.

On the other side, Stephanie McCaffrey was brought in to help the sputtering offense and scored the lone goal in the 1-0 win over FC Kansas City on the weekend.  Rory Dames now has a few weeks to get McCaffrey more practice time with her teammates and to try and figure out combinations with Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy struggling to score.  But Christen Press—a magnificent striker who can be tricky to partner with—won’t be part of many if any of those sessions.

Sky Blue FC

This might sound corny, but Sky Blue will want to take the positive vibes picked up since the start of the season and embrace them all the way into the final playoff push.  They will emerge from the break with a home match against Chicago and a result is a virtual must if their story is to end with a playoff berth.  Last week Christy Holly said he was not satisfied with fourth (they now sit fifth) but the bigger picture is that even if Sky Blue fall short in 2016, the foundation has been laid on and off the field for bigger and better things going forward.

After beating the Spirit two weeks ago Holly joked that he told the players he wanted to enjoy the final few minutes of a match for once instead of sweating out his team defending a slim lead.  A bit more killer instinct to pounce on teams when they have them down will be part of Sky Blue’s development into the future.  Their May 7 home loss to the Flash from a winning position could have turned out differently had they produced more than a single goal from a lengthy stretch of being the superior side—and a win that night would have the table looking quite a bit differently right now.

Seattle Reign FC

Being honest there is not much for the Reign to like about how their season has gone to this point.  From dropping their home opener to a young Sky Blue whose two goals came from players five and three years removed from competitive soccer respectively to failing to register a goal against the Thorns second-string for the second time this season, the Reign sitting in sixth place defies explanation.  Yes they lost Steph Cox, whose retirement has not gotten enough attention, but the inability of their midfield to boss games has been stunning as have the defensive breakdowns.

The Reign might want to spend the downtime polishing their two Shelds and trying to harness the vibes from the past two seasons.  They should also be comfortable in having won seven consecutive games in 2014 and six in a row last year.  If they can win the final five after the break, a playoff berth is likely.  But nothing they have done to this point indicates they have that sort of consistency in them, and the three-games-in-eight-day stretch to open September further complicates the task.

Orlando Pride

One of the main goals for a first-year expansion club should be to establish a proper culture to take them forward once they can spent more time and resources on personnel.  The Pride appear to have done that.  They play with the cool, calm personality of their coach Tom Sermanni who appears to be flexible enough to deploy tactics that play tot the strength of his players.  Working around the Reign midfield with direct play in May was a prime example.

Unfortunately the Pride were never going to fair well once international absences took their toll and they were not as good as the Thorns to get themselves insulated enough to withstand them.  That means the Pride probably need to win four of five on the other side to have a chance.  The midfield remains a work in progress and figures to be Sermanni’s biggest target area not only for post-Olympic play but into 2017.

FC Kansas City

When the dust settles, 2016 will be remembered as a down season for FC Kansas City.  Whether it goes as a blip or the start of the fall remains to be seen, but if there is a positive to emerge so far it is that the club has mostly continues to play the same type of soccer as their first three years when they always reached the playoffs and won two titles.  They remain very difficult to break down and at times still execute beautiful possession soccer.

The downfall of the club has been an inability to convert that possession into goals.  Shea Groom has evolved as a legitimate goal scorer but carrying the load by herself has proven to be a bit much.  With Erika Tymrak back in form, the return of Heather O’Reilly will again give the Blues a dynamic presence on both wings, but they’ll need more secondary scoring from the midfield to string together results.  It may just be that it has to wait until they can get their pregnant players back next season or otherwise tinker with the roster.

Houston Dash

The Dash scored three goals against the Flash on Saturday and they were all quite different.  It marked the second time in three games and third overall the Dash have scored three goals this season.  It is what Randy Waldrum had in his mind when he used 1st round picks on Rachel Daly and Janine Beckie and brought in Denise O’Sullivan and Andressa.  It has not been consistent enough but after a mind numbing run of six straight 1-0 losses the Dash are at least clicking in the attack.

But even scoring goals it has not all been smooth sailing.  All three goals the Dash conceded against Western New York were imminently preventable through a little defensive organization.  They are also woefully in the negative when it comes to production on set pieces as opposed to being deficient in trying to defend them.  Any sort of late run is dependent on tightening things up in back.  And without top 30 pick in 2017 they will have to use the international or trade market to do their offseason upgrading.

Boston Breakers

Natasha Dowie celebrates her first NWSL goal. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

Natasha Dowie celebrates her first NWSL goal. (photo copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

It has not been a good season for the Breakers.  But at least they got to go into the Olympics riding the crest of a win keyed by Natasha Dowie who scored 10 minutes into her debut.  That aside, the Breakers are mostly starting anew with an eye on 2017.  That might be an all-too-familiar refrain for the club’s loyal fan base, but the only way to look is forward and Dowie appears to be a good start.

Part of the building process will be figuring out how to attack.  There has been an occasional spot of bad luck but seven goals in 14 games is a trend, and a troubling one at that.  The Breakers also need to figure out where Kristie Mewis fits into the equation as she has missed the last several weeks with an ankle sprain.  The Breakers are literally already playing for next season though and have five of the first 15 picks in the draft (as the standings sit today and assuming no expansion).  For a team desperately in search of any edge they can get, a head start on next year could be a decent start.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 15 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

SATURDAY
Chicago Red Stars – 2,550
Houston Dash – 4,329
Portland Thorns FC – 19,231

SUNDAY
Washington Spirit – 2,930
Boston Breakers – 4,379 (NWSL era club record)

WEEK 14 TOTAL: 33,419
WEEK 14 AVERAGE: 6,684

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,772 (7 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 7 games: 14,823

2. Orlando Pride — 9,508 (7 games)

3. Houston Dash – 5,562 (6 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 6 games: 5,852

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,424 (8 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 8 games: 3,921

5. Boston Breakers – 3,783 (7 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 7 games: 2,395

6. Washington Spirit – 3,781 (8 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 8 games – 3,882

7. Western New York Flash – 3,581 (9 games)
2015 average: 2,860
2015 thru 9 games: 2,717

8. FC Kansas City – 3,529 (7 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 7 games: 3,262

9. Chicago Red Stars – 2,987 (7 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 7 games: 4,425 (includes doubleheader with Fire with announced attendance of 16,017)

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,811 (7 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 7 games: 1,653

Free Kicks

Direct

-The Breakers have been officially eliminated from playoff contention meaning they will be outsiders for the fourth time in four seasons.  They can still hit 25 points and tie the Red Stars, but there are no possible tiebreaker scenarios that would get them in no matter how many other teams finish on 25.

The Breakers have still not won a playoff game in any iteration.  The old Breakers finished top of WUSA in 2003 but lost on penalties to the Washington Freedom in their only playoff appearance in that league.  The reborn club lost the 2010 WPS Supersemifinal to the Philadelphia Independence and their 2011 playoff game to magicJack.  They finished top of WPSL Elite in 2012 but lost the semifinal to the Red Stars.

-The Golden Boot race is shaping up to be fun.  Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald assisted each other on goals Saturday night leaving Williams with an 8-7 edge on her Flash teammate.  Behind them Shea Groom has 6 while Estafania Banini and Nadia Nadim each have 5.  Christen Press has 4 and is more than capable of ripping off a goal per game once she gets back on the field for the Red Stars.

-Lianne Sanderson is the first player to score against the same team wearing two different jerseys in the same season.  She tallied against the Dash as an Orlando Pride in April and again on Saturday playing for the Flash.  The only other player to score for two teams in the same NWSL season is Adriana Leon for the Breakers and Red Stars in 2013.

-Brooke Elby has had two exits against the Pride she would rather forget.  After being sent off in the Breakers’ first match against the Pride she left injured on the weekend.  X-Rays and an MRI came back clear.  Elby has some pinched nerves and bruising but is expected to be fine when the season resumes.

Indirect

-My Week 15 Player of the Week ballot:  1) Lynn Williams – a constant force in the box for the Flash and her night included a sleek assist to Jessica McDonald and a stoppage time finish to steal a point; only a shocking miss by McDonald cost her another assist; 2) Michelle Betos – some players defy scouting or explanation.  Michelle Betos is one of them.  All she does is get the job done.  She did that time and again while under siege at times from the Reign, and it came on  an night the Thorns were thin all over the pitch; 3) Kealia Ohai – two great goals for the Dash and she is starting to boss her flank again on both sides of the ball.

-The Player of the Month ballot looked like this:  1) Leah Galton; 2) Lynn Williams; 3) Kealia Ohai.  There were some fine choices though.  Apologies to Estafania Banini, Danielle Colaprico, Nadia Nadim and others who performed fabulously in July.

-I cannot stress enough how pleasing it is to see the Breakers fill the stands despite the club’s lousy record.  For more on the club’s plans going forward, check out these tidbits from Steph Yang on The Bent Musket.

-If you’re looking to expand your Twitter following of women’s soccer folks, be sure to give Chelsey Bush a follow @chelseywrites.  And I’m not just saying that because she writes our weekly NWSL previews now.

-Everyone enjoy the Olympics.  The Lowdown will continue to appear every week.

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