It seems like NWSL just can’t get this re-entry thing down pat. Last year, with interest in the sport at a fevered pitch, every member of the World Cup winning U.S. team sat out NWSL matches even though it has been said repeatedly that some wanted to suit up and play. This year’s reintegration after the Olympics went far smoother with the conspicuous exceptions of Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo. Their situations could not be any more different, yet their names have dominated women’s soccer discussions over the last week for reasons much different than their respective Golden Ball and Golden Glove awards garnered in Canada.
While Lloyd and Solo have dominated the discussion, all 10 teams were in action over the weekend, leaving just four games left for all but the Dash and Breakers, who will get there once they meet Wednesday night in Boston. Some fascinating talking points emerged including but not limited to – what happened to Megan Oyster? Are the Reign back? Was Stephanie McCaffrey the missing piece in Chicago? And can the Flash remain above the red line without a home match the rest of the way?
Here is a quick spin around the league:
Carli Lloyd is back with the Dash and is expected to be available on Wednesday night in Boston. End of story, right? For the most part, yes.
As it turned out, Lloyd booked a personal matter for the weekend following the Olympic medal matches, believing the United States would be playing for one and that she and her teammates would then get a week off. This is problematic in itself but as I mentioned last week, is not worth rehashing again, especially with no big tournaments the next two years.
The biggest issue in this case appeared to be communication. Dash coach Randy Waldrum fanned the flames after the August 18 makeup match when he was asked about the players returning and expressed frustration about not knowing the answer. Lloyd staying quiet did not help either. The Dash finally acknowledged earlier this week that they knew Lloyd had a personal commitment that would conflict with last weekend’s trip to Western New York. However, according to a source, the front office may have neglected to communicate this information to Waldrum before his August 18 rant helped blow up the story.
Here are my final thoughts: I have said all along that Lloyd should have been with the club and stand by that as a general sentiment. There are of course exceptions to this, but by and large we expect our athletes to be there when the schedule calls for it. Being an athlete—especially a decorated one like Carli Lloyd—comes with great privileges. It also comes with added scrutiny. When she finally did return to training she told a local reporter the personal commitment was “none of anyone’s business.” Fair enough, but the answer invites questions. Lloyd was later questioned about a book signing scheduled for the week between the regular season ending and the playoffs. She deferred those questions to her agent. That answer as well, did more to invite questions than offer answers.
To repeat, Lloyd or anyone else is entitled to privacy and a personal life. But Dash and NWSL fans are entitled to expect her at games and to question when she is not. And if not for the way last year went down I suspect this would be a fraction of the big deal it has turned into. At the moment, Lloyd and the Dash are moving on. I’d like to do the same.
Hope is not back and won’t be
The Hope Solo case is entirely different. If you’re reading this, you already know about it. The cliff notes are that she called Sweden “cowards” after the Olympic quarterfinals, was suspended six months and had her contract terminated by U.S. Soccer last Wednesday, took a personal leave from the Reign on Saturday, and announced Tuesday that she would not play again this season. Oh, and that same day a video was leaked catching a portion of her reaction after getting the bad news from U.S. Soccer (the cameras were there filming her for a documentary).
This is an NWSL column so we’ll keep the focus there. Reign coach Laura Harvey seemed to have her finger on the pulse if it when she said, “This is life changing for her. We’re all mindful of that.” The decision to sit out of the season really should not be surprising not only because of her admission of being devastated but because the contract is through U.S. Soccer, the very organization that just slapped her with one of the most disproportionate suspensions imaginable.
The question pivots to whether Solo will ever play in the league again. No one can possibly know the answer at this point. The rules and regulations about federation players have never been all that clear, but the list is usually solidified by early January and Solo’s suspension does not expire until the end of February. Does that rule out the chance U.S. Soccer would bring her back as a league player? And does either party want any part of that? The only way that’s a yes for U.S. Soccer is if they are open to having her play in France at the next World Cup in 2019.
[LAULETTA: Thoughts on Hope Solo’s punishment]
Beyond that, Solo could sign a standard player contract which would represent a major pay cut. Others have taken the dip from being subsidized to being standard contracted players but none of Solo’s stature. In the short term, when and if she is ready to play again, an overseas option might be best.
Are the Reign back?
With Haley Kopmeyer in goal, the Reign posted their best win of the season on Saturday, 3-1 over the Thorns. Let’s get the keeper issue out of the way first. Kopmeyer is not Hope Solo, but she has proven to be a more than capable backup over the last three years. Getting a chance to play figures to accelerate her toward getting a look to be Solo’s replacement with the national team as well as the Reign.
No, the bigger issue for the Reign has been their inability to attack with the voracity that carried them to consecutive Shields and to string together quality performances. There was a lot to like about the win over the Thorns including the return of Megan Rapinoe and a strong game from Jess Fishlock. A three-time NWSL Best XI selection, Fishlock looked the best she has since breaking a bone in her leg in April.
Laura Harvey also made another tactical change, keeping Elli Reed on the bench and dropping Merritt Mathias into what amounted to a right back role. The back line has been in flux this season as the club has attempted to find Stephanie Cox’s replacement at left back and later overcome the injury to Rachel Corsie.
Despite the win, the Reign sit four points behind the Flash with four matches to play. And consistency has been an issue this season. Their next three are against teams currently above them—a trip to Chicago this weekend followed by a Wednesday-Saturday back-to-back against the Spirit. That is tough sledding, but far from impossible.
Spirit keep flaunting depth
After being in the starting lineup and playing all but 10 minutes in her first 34 NWSL matches, Megan Oyster has found herself as an unused sub in each of the last two Spirit matches. Her benching has been the cause of much consternation among Spirit fans even as the club has collected wins in both matches with Whitney Church stepping in to central defense. A Spirit source told The Equalizer this week that Oyster being dropped from the lineup was nothing more than a dip in form and that Church and Estelle Johnson have been working well together.
Oyster’s situation bears watching. Earlier in the season she was among the top center backs in the league. A poor showing in the Spirit’s lopsided loss in Portland seemed to throw her season off kilter and she had another rough day in the final match before the Olympic break (also a Spirit win). If she remains on the bench, the Spirit can expect calls from many teams to see about her offseason availability.
The Church-Johnson pairing is especially interesting because neither of them was a starter when the season began. Oyster was in central defense with Shelina Zadorsky, who is due back in time for the weekend after helping Canada win the bronze medal. Will Zadorsky be able to unseat Church or Johnson? Johnson in particular has been excellent of late in a revival of her 2013 form when she helped the Flash win the Shield.
Spirit coach Jim Gabarra will have other decisions this weekend. Will Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbe return to the 18-yard box or does he ride with Kelsey Wys, who is 6-1-1 this season with a goals against exactly the same as Labbe (0.88)? And where exactly does Diana Matheson play? The midfield triumvirate of Tori Huster-Christine Nairn-Joanna Lohman has been strong, which could put Matheson up top.
These are good problems to have and with three games in eight days don’t be surprised if the answers are not immediately set in stone.
Mccaffrey keeps on scoring
Stephanie McCaffrey has now scored in both of her starts with the Red Stars, both of which have been wins to give the club a bit of breathing room inside the playoff bubble. Was McCaffrey the missing piece on a team that too often relied of Christen Press magic to score?
That seems like a stretch, but there are two reasons to keep being excited about McCaffrey being on the Red Stars. One is that she adds needed depth with Jen Hoy battling a foot issue. Two is that she is a good bet to thrive on a team where so many of the opposing team’s resources are directed at stopping Press.
“You can’t let Christen Press shoot,” McCaffrey said over the weekend. “There are times when you have to keep someone on her and you have to swarm her while she’s dribbling. You have to send numbers and that frees me in wide spaces where I think I’m best.”
With Vanessa DiBernardo and Danielle Colaprico playing well in midfield the Red Stars could be getting ready to peak at the right time.
Flash winless run at four
The Flash continue to be a good story but they had to rally twice at home against the Dash to earn a draw and they have slipped to fourth place with a four-point lead over the Seattle Reign against whom they hold the tiebreaker. The Flash have not won since beating the Reign in the Fiasco at Frontier on July 9. Three of those matches have been draws though and they drew high praise for the 1-1 result in Seattle a week after beating them and on a night when the Reign scored after three minutes. But since then the Flash have only two of a possible nine points against the teams currently sitting 8th and 9th.
The issues have been mostly defensive in nature. The Flash are vulnerable in back especially from wide positions. They are also now working out how to use Lianne Sanderson and Sam Mewis in the same midfield. Against the Dash on the weekend Mewis played deep and looked okay, but she also gets a partial pass having not played in a match in more than a month. And still to be worked back in is Alanna Kennedy who sat out with an injury.
And if the Flash are to finish off their season in the playoffs they will have to take points on the road heading to the finish line. Tough matches against the top two sides Washington and Portland are both followed by trips to last-place Boston. The Flash crushed the Breakers at home twice this season but the Breakers are much better at home and are playing their best soccer of the season.
Injuries and other miscellany
— Sky Blue FC continue to hold their breath over the status of Kelley O’Hara who went off injured in stoppage time when Alyssa Mautz clipped her from behind. The last word was she was having her lower leg looked at although there did not appear to be any broken bones.
— The Thorns also had an injury scare when Amandine Henry had to come out early against the Reign. The club has been quiet on Henry’s status ever since.
— My Player of the Week ballot looked like this: 1) Vanessa DiBernardo – bossed the midfield against Sky Blue FC and turned it up in the second half to help the Red Stars pull away; 2) Caprice Dydasco – excellent two-way performance for Spirit on Friday night to help league leaders stymie the Pride and expand their lead atop the table; 3) Heather O’Reilly – her hard work did not result in a win or even a goal for her team but O’Reilly was the most dangerous and hardest working player on the field in FC Kansas City’s loss to the Breakers on Sunday.
— Speaking of the Breakers, kudos to them for sticking with it and playing better soccer instead of packing it in for the season. They have folded within certain games but not on the season at large.
— Oyster’s streak of starts is over, but fellow 2015 draftees Abby Dahlkemper and Danielle Colaprico have both started all 36 matches since being drafted.
— Hope Solo’s season and possibly career in NWSL ended in the midst of a three-game, 314 minute shutout streak. Both are Seattle Reign records.
— In player news this week, the Flash transferred Adriana Leon to FC Zurich in Switzerland. Leon played only 326 minutes this season after being acquired from the Red Stars.
— The Thorns activated Kendall Johnson who had been on the not medically cleared list since the start of the season. To make room they waived McKenzie Berryhill.
— The Pride jumped in and claimed Berryhill of waivers to replace Steph Catley who went on the season-ending disabled list. The Pride also signed Lisa De Vanna who previously played for SKy Blue, the Breakers, and Spirit. De Vanna also played for the Washington Freedom in WPS.
— Condolences from The Equalizer family to Vlatko Andonovski. The FC Kansas City coach lost his father suddenly last week. He was not with the team over the weekend instead spending time with his family. Huw Williams coached the team in Andonovski’s absence.
Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 16 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 18
Houston Dash – 5,012
Orlando Pride – 7,052
Seattle Reign FC – 5,888
Sky Blue FC – 3,108
Western New York Flash – 6,449
FC Kansas City – 2,206
WEEK 16 TOTAL: 29,715
WEEK 16 AVERAGE: 4,953
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 — 9,201 (8 games)
3. Houston Dash – 5,484 (7 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 7 games: 5,934
4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,586 (9 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 9 games: 3,984
5. Western New York Flash – 3,868 (10 games)
2015 average: 2,860
End of Season: The Flash became the first team to wrap up their home season and they did it on strong fashion with a season-high 6,449. It was the fourth highest crowd in the NWSL era and the highest since the 2013 NWSL Championship. For the season the Flash ended up with a 35 percent gain over 2015.
“Saturday night was incredible and a great end to our regular game home season,” Flash general manager Rich Randall said. Randall said the club is already selling 2017 and that renewal numbers are strong so far. Sales of fresh season tickets are also ahead of the same time a year ago.
The Flash are two points out of second place and a possible home playoff date.
6. Boston Breakers – 3,783 (7 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 7 games: 2,395
7. Washington Spirit – 3,781 (8 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 8 games – 3,882
8. FC Kansas City – 3,363 (8 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 8 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 – 1,973 (8 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 8 games: 1,840
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