Last week we looked at seven questions facing the league on the other side of the last major international tournament for awhile. This week, it’s six on-field issues for what promises to be a frantic finish to the league’s fourth season.
The Crystal Dunn factor
It has been a fascinating 2016 for Crystal Dunn. Having ascended to her rightful place as a national team regular the former No. 1 overall pick has 11 goals including one in the Olympics and five against Puerto Rico to tie the program’s single-game record. But in league play the 2015 MVP and golden boot winner has played the entirety of nine matches and somehow has not scored a goal for the Washington Spirit.
The dearth of goals has heretofore not been that big of a deal since she has four assists and contributes in a variety of other ways. Additionally the club was 5-2-2 when she went out of the lineup to join the U.S. (the Spirit are 4-1-0 in Dunn’s absence.) But two factors make Dunn’s return a critical element in the Spirit’s quest for a trophy.
One is that it did seem Dunn was starting to press a bit around the goal in the final few matches before she departed. More importantly, Estafania Banini is having knee surgery this week and depending on what doctors find once they get inside, she could be out for the season. After a tepid start to the season, Banini enjoyed a five-match stretch in which she scored four goals and had an assist. The stretch helped led her to being NWSL Player of the Month for July. Also injured now is Francisca Ordega.
Dunn will be thrust back into a front line that includes two rookies and the so far inconsistent Katie Stengel. As good as the Spirit are it seems unlikely they can go the rest of the way without some contribution from Dunn on the scoresheet. Of all the players returning from Brazil she could have the brightest spotlight on her.
Overcrowding in Western New York?
The evolution of the Western New York Flash this season has been nothing short of remarkable. But when the full group finally gets together there will be some personnel issues to address. One of them is in midfield where Sam Mewis and Lianne Sanderson have yet to be on the field together. They could create a dynamic duo playing on top of Abby Erceg or Alanna Kennedy which would leave McCall Zerboni to come off the bench.
There is also overcrowding at goalkeeper where Katelyn Rowland was brought in after Sabrina D’Angelo broke her wrist. D’Angelo returned and got into a game for Canada so she figures to be good to go for the Flash. Having two strong keepers is hardly an issue unless you’re the one backing up, but what are they to do with Britt Eckerstrom. The rookie won three starts after the D’Angelo injury posting shutouts in her first two. Of the three Eckerstrom is likely the odd woman out but she is likely also too good to survive being waived without another team grabbing her.
Playing time for rookie Michaela Hahn and newly-signed international Janice Cayman could also be sparse. One of Paul Riley’s strengths in Philadelphia was how well he used his roster. That skill will be put to good use as the Flash attempt to finish off what would be one of the less probable playoff berths to this point in NWSL’s history.
Will Kelley O’Hara return an attacker?
There has been no more hot-button issue in NWSL than the whereabouts of Kelley O’Hara when she takes the field for Sky Blue. Is she best suited to the outside back position the national team converted her to? Or is Sky Blue better off using O’Hara in the attacking role that won her the Hermann Trophy at Stanford?
I’ll spare you the full history but this season it seemed Christy Holly made the prudent move by using O’Hara as an outside back since half of his starting back four were rookies as was the goalkeeper. But a funny thing happened in the moments leading up to the June 25 match in Washington. Kelley Conheeney was a late scratch and Holly decided to replace her by moving O’Hara into the attack and slotting Erin Simon in back.
Sky Blue won that match which was O’Hara’s last before she left to join Olympic camp. But the re-jiggered back line of Erica Skroski-Kristin Grubka-Christine Rampone-Simon has been together ever since and the team is 4-2-0 including a win on June 25. Add in that O’Hara is no longer preparing to play outside back at a major tournament and it could be time to let her have a go at trying to score goals.
The best portions of Sky Blue’s 2015 season happened when O’Hara and Sam Kerr returned from the World and became a formidable partnership up top. If that happens again it could push a pesky Sky Blue team over the top and into the playoffs—a scenario considered far less plausible than the Flash’s at the start of the season. But it likely comes down to whether Holly is comfortable with his current back line or would prefer O’Hara add some veteran stability and try to do her attacking from the rear.
Will the real Reign please stand up?
Is it time to acknowledge that this year’s version of the Seattle Reign is just not going to fire? Or should be expect the team to make furious run over the final five games and return to the playoffs for third straight run as the elusive NWSL Championship? At this point, handicapping their chances of a bit of a headscratcher.First the math. The Reign are 5-5-5 for 20 points. That puts them five points off the pace with two teams to leapfrog. (Those teams, the Red Stars and Sky Blue, square off on Saturday.) That is more of a hill than a mountain especially with a game left against the Red Stars. The Reign already know they cannot win tiebreakers against Sky Blue or the Flash who are six points ahead but went to the break winless in three straight. The math looks good. If they Reign get results down the stretch they should be fine.
Now for the reality. The 2016 version of the Reign has been a pale shadow of the club that won two straight Shields in dominant fashion. The retirement of Steph Cox has left a hole at left back that has gone mostly overlooked, but the Reign issues run deeper than the revolving door at left back. The midfield trio of Keelin Winters-Jessica Fishlock-Kim Little has not been its dynamic self to the point that Laura Harvey has tinkered with the shape. Fishlock may or may not be operating at optimal condition after breaking a bone in her leg in April, and Kim Little has had fewer flashes of the magic that made her the 2014 MVP and deserving candidate in 2015.
The Reign are also getting atypically poor seasons from Lauren Banes and Hope Solo—even as the U.S. starter played the last 314 minutes before the Olympic break without conceding a goal.
When Sky Blue stunned the Reign on opening weekend to snap Seattle’s two-year unbeaten streak at Memorial Stadium, most saw it as an anomaly. But four months later the Reign are still swimming upstream and sit behind Sky Blue by two points—the difference being that fateful opener. Beyond that their inability to score in two matchups against the watered-down version of the Thorns represents the five point gap (one ended 0-0) separating them from the red line.
If you’re going to pick one team to focus on the rest of the way, I would recommend it be the Reign. They have what should be entertaining matches against the Thorns, Red Stars, and Spirit (twice) before finishing in Houston against a Dash side that has never taken a point off them. The question is will that trip the Houston—which is the absolutely last game of the season—matter in the playoff race?
Can Thorns recover form and fight?
The talent on the Thorns’ roster is beyond dispute and the rapidness in which they gelled to produce great soccer was impressive. But perhaps the most admirable part of the 2016 Thorns is their tenacity. Whether it be their regulars fighting from behind in Orlando temperatures pushing triple digits when half the team was heading to Olympic camp the next day, or their backups refusing to surrender a goal in two matches against the Reign, the Thorns have displayed unnatural toughness throughout the season.
The soccer talent is coming back and the Thorns are the favorites to win the league. But can they slot back into place as quickly as they did at the start of the season? And with so many regular players having been through deeply emotional experiences at the Olympics, will motivations be different on the other side? Sure every team has at least one player returning from the Olympics, and pretty much everyone in NWSL who went to Brazil fell short of expectations (with the possible exception of Canada). With so many Olympians in the Thorns first XI it is fair to ask what the residual impact of the Olympics will be on the club. All players react differently. Some take disappointment and harness it into brilliance. Others wallow in it for awhile.
The Thorns return to action this weekend against a desperate Seattle Reign side and will need to be sharp out of the chute to continue their remarkable season.
The Breakers search for an identity
For all the misery the Breakers have endured this season, they at least went to the break on a high note when the beat the Pride on the shoulders of Natasha Dowie scoring nine minutes into her NWSL debut. Even still the club is mathematically eliminated from reaching the playoffs which will keep alive their dubious record of having never been there as an NWSL side. Even before it was official, coach Matt Beard was speaking of improvements with an eye on 2017.
Even in defeating the Pride though the Breakers did not do all that much in terms of attacking and they scored their goal off an ill-advised touch by a left back playing out of position. The best thing the Breakers can do through the end of September to develop an attacking identity. That will help Beard identify which players should be back in 2017 and will help Beard and perspective players get a better sense as to whether the Breakers would be a good fit.
Kristie Mewis has not played since June 18 and getting her back on the field will help to determine if Beard thinks she can be a central midfielder in a top side.
Breaker fans are tired of planning for the future, but at the very least they are the one team already in full 2017 mode.
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