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Week 16 Preview: NWSL playoff drive begins

Julie Johnston's return should make a stingy Red Stars' defense even tougher for the final playoff push.

Julie Johnston’s return should make a stingy Red Stars’ defense even tougher for the final playoff push.

The USWNT makes an early return to the NWSL as the teams gird themselves for the final four weeks of regular season play and one last push for the playoffs. The top three teams look to continue to distance themselves, while the fourth spot is highly contested, and at least one team is already looking at 2017. It feels like it’s been much longer than a month, but NWSL finally returns with Week 16.


Sky Blue FC (6-5-4) at Chicago Red Stars (7-4-4)
Saturday, 7:00 PM EDT, Yurcak Field (watch live)
All Time Series: Red Stars lead, 3-0-6
Last Meeting: May 29, 2016; 1-1 Draw

The past three games have seen the coveted fourth playoff spot switch back and forth between Chicago and Sky Blue, and a Sky Blue win could see them regain the position once more. A Red Stars win, however, would go a long way toward separating them from not only Sky Blue but the rest of the table as well.

Sky Blue picked up momentum during July, led by Leah Galton, who hasn’t met a fullback she doesn’t beat. They split the series with rival and top of the table Washington and look to continue that momentum past the one team standing between them and the playoffs. Raquel Rodriguez and Sarah Killion will need to be on their game to wrest control of the midfield, where Chicago boasts some of the best. Defensively, the Sky Blue back line looks to hold strong, but Christie Rampone will want to draw on years of playing with Christen Press on the National Team in order to prevent the striker from getting any looks on goal.

Chicago’s defense gets a huge boost with the return of their two anchors in Alyssa Naeher and Julie Johnston. On the flanks, Casey Short and Arin Gilliland will have their hands full with Galton (assuming she isn’t out with the same injury that scratched her from her first call up for England) and Kelley O’Hara, and those battles promise to be some of the best of the weekend. For Chicago to win, they also depend on Danielle Colaprico and Vanessa DiBernardo to set the tone for the game, playing the calm, possession-based soccer at which they excel.

Players to Watch:

Kelley O’Hara

Much has been said already about where O’Hara will play upon her return from Rio. She spent most of the season at outside back, mirroring her national team position, but did briefly push into an attacking position before departing, where she shone. An attack consisting of O’Hara, Sam Kerr, and Galton would be quick and deadly, something needed to overwhelm a defense that returns their starting centerback and goalkeeper. Erika Skroski performed admirably at fullback in O’Hara’s place, so Christy Holly may feel comfortable retaining his most recent back line and unleashing O’Hara on offense, where many believe she fulfills her true potential.

Stephanie McCaffrey

For the past two years, Christen Press has been the focal point of Chicago’s offense, often to the extent that she was Chicago’s offense. During her absence, Chicago signed McCaffrey from Boston, who didn’t take long to end her 2016 goal-scoring drought. After Press struggled to form effective partnerships with Sofia Huerta or Jen Hoy, it’s clear Rory Dames hopes McCaffrey is the answer to that problem. If these two can strike up chemistry, it could bring another level to a Red Stars offense that too often depended on a Press magic strike. McCaffrey is also looking to regain form and return to the national team after spending the majority of this season floundering under Matt Beard’s Breakers.

Washington Spirit (10-3-2) at Orlando Pride (6-9-0)
Friday, 7:30 PM EDT, Camping World Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Spirit lead, 1-0-0
Last Meeting: June 18, 2016; 2-0, Washington

It’s clear that Orlando is far more in need of three points than Washington, but with the shield in sight and Portland snapping at their heels, the Spirit aren’t going to sit back and relax. Last time they met, outside events left their mark on the match and some of the players, although ultimately the Spirit had little trouble putting the game away. This time, with Orlando proven to be much stronger on their home field, the story could be different. However, Orlando still has to two big problems to overcome. The first is that it seems no matter who plays, the Pride midfield struggles to move the ball and too often resorts to long balls over the top, trying to find Alex Morgan. Conversely, the Spirit midfield of Joanna Lohman, Tori Huster, and Christine Nairn have strong chemistry and little trouble holding possession when on their game. Orlando’s second problem comes in the form of two huge losses to their defense with the injuries of Steph Catley and Laura Alleway. Ashlyn Harris’ return softens the blow, but she also hasn’t played in a game in two months. Washington’s attack may not be quite as potent, however, as July’s Player of the Month Estefania Banini is out until the playoffs, although Crystal Dunn will surely be in the hunt for her long-awaited first goal of the season. With two National Team strikers on the pitch, the crowd should be in for a good show.

Portland Thorns FC (8-2-5) at Seattle Reign FC (5-5-5)
Saturday, 5:00 PM EDT, Memorial Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Thorns lead, 6-4-2
Last Meeting: July 30, 2016; 1-0, Portland

Always a highly anticipated match, the Cascadia series doesn’t appear to have been hurt by meeting three times already this season. In fact, Seattle’s inability to win against Portland this year may have only fueled the fire. Portland sits comfortably in playoff position, although they’d like to reclaim first place from Washington, but Seattle is approaching a must-win situation, particularly if Chicago gains three points this weekend. As of yet, it’s unclear if Megan Rapinoe returns or if she’ll be more effective than she was in Brazil, so Seattle will continue to hope their regular players can find the spark eluding them all year long. Thus far, the team has a hard time getting good performances out of both its offense and defense on the same night, and it will have to in order to defeat a Portland team returning at least 6 regular starters. The key for Portland will be reintegrating those players back into the lineup. If the chemistry isn’t immediate, Seattle could jump on it and steal a win.

Houston Dash (3-8-3) at Western New York Flash (8-5-2)
Saturday, 7:00 PM EDT, Rhinos Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Dash lead, 4-1-1
Last Meeting: July 30, 2016; 3-3 Draw

Last time Houston and Western New York met, the Dash jumped to a 3-1 lead before giving up two late-game goals. Houston has a slight advantage this time, as their make up game against Washington last week allowed them to shake off some of the rust from the extended break. Both teams will be trying to reintegrate players, with Randy Waldrum still wondering what the best midfield is for the Dash, while Paul Riley has to find a place for both Lianne Sanderson and Sam Mewis, who haven’t yet played together for the Flash. Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams will want to keep the defense better organized in order to avoid their tendency to give up late goals. The Flash will look once again to stretch that defense and find opportunities to split the centerbacks. Both teams have tons of speed up top, and if the last game was anything to go by, expect a high-scoring match with plenty of counter attacks. Western New York should be eager for all three points in an attempt to take second place from Portland and secure a semifinal game at home.

Boston Breakers (2-11-1) at FC Kansas City (4-7-4)
Sunday, 6:00 PM EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All Time Series: Kansas City lead, 7-3-0
Last Meeting: May 22, 2016; 1-0, Boston

Playoffs hopes are rapidly fading for Kansas City and already gone for Boston. Regardless, this game still holds interest for fans outside of both teams for three reasons. One, it was against FCKC that Boston finally got its first win of the season. Two, the return of Olympians, most notably Heather O’Reilly, means Vlatko Andonovski has some lineup decisions to make, including the possible break up of a very promising partnership between Tiffany McCarty and Shea Groom. Three, the further unfolding of Boston’s recent international acquisitions and the implications they have for 2017. If Natasha Dowie’s game-winning goal just nine minutes into her NWSL debut, leading to Boston’s second win of the season, is any indication, they just might work out. However, Becky Sauerbrunn and Nicole Barnhart stand in their way, and that’s a formidable brick wall against any forward. Boston gets an upgrade as well, as the stabilizing force of Whitney Engen returns next to Kassey Kallman, as good a central defense pairing as any. While both teams have had disappointing seasons, don’t expect either to roll over.


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