GAME OF THE WEEK
Seattle Reign FC (6-5-5) at Chicago Red Stars (8-4-4)
Sunday, 7:00 PM EDT, Toyota Park (watch live)
All Time Series: Red Stars lead, 4-3-3
Last Meeting: May 22, 2016; 2-1, Chicago
Can Laura Harvey do it again, or is it too little too late? After struggling all season to shake a lethargy that left the team looking sluggish and lost on the pitch, the Reign finally looked to be having fun again as they ran over their Cascadia rivals last week. Harvey changed things up, moving to an ambitious 3-5-2 and pulling forward Merritt Mathias to fullback. The move raised some eyebrows prior to the match, but ninety minutes later, it was Harvey who had the last laugh. The Reign were energetic and creative both on and off the ball, and with momentum on their side and the playoffs still in reach, Chicago is in their sights.
However, the Reign weren’t the only ones who turned a corner last week. The Red Stars, so strong defensively for most of the season, might have found the chemistry up top they’ve been seeking for some time, as not one, not two, but three strikers scored against Sky Blue. Christen Press and Sofia Huerta have silenced their critics, while Stephanie McCaffrey has clearly shaken whatever plagued her in Boston. Already boasting one of the best goalkeepers, some of the best outside backs, and the best midfield, Chicago has found their missing piece of the puzzle. If Haley Kopmeyer’s backline slips into the shoddy play that marked the first half of their season, there’s no doubt Chicago will be there to take advantage.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Along with Kim Little, Fishlock is the barometer of the Reign. It’s no coincidence the Reign’s best game of the season was also Fishlock’s best since her early return from injury. The Welsh midfielder ran box to box against Portland, and if she can do so against Chicago, Danielle Colaprico will be pressed into more defensive work than any midfielder would like. Fishlock can and will score, but it’s the opportunities she creates that make her so dangerous.
Fishlock. Little. Bev Yanez. Manon Melis. Megan Rapinoe. Nahomi Kawasumi. All scorers and all gunning for Chicago’s brick wall. Naeher remains tied for the league lead in clean sheets despite missing games with the national team, all but standing on her head in New Jersey last week trying to get another one. With Seattle looking resurgent, she might have to do it again. Not only will the goalkeeper need to own her net, she’ll also need to keep her defense organized and alert. Thankfully for Chicago, it’s a task she is more than capable of tackling.
Western New York Flash (8-5-3) at Washington Spirit (11-3-2)
Saturday, 7:00 PM EDT, Maureen Hendricks Field (watch live)
All Time Series: Flash lead, 5-3-2
Last Meeting: April 29, 2016; 3-0, Washington
After spending a solid stretch of the season scoring goals at will and apparently solidifying a playoff spot, the Flash have slipped to fourth on the table. They haven’t won in their last four games, falling to Kansas City and having to come from behind to draw on three separate occasions. With Sky Blue and Seattle nipping at their heels, the Flash enter this game looking to regain momentum and prove to everyone why the upstarts belong in the playoff race. Sabrina D’Angelo’s defense will have to keep a close watch on Crystal Dunn, who is still hunting her first goal of 2016, but doing so may allow Diana Matheson or Cheyna Williams to slip inside. Lianne Sanderson and Sam Mewis are still working out where both fit in the midfield and need to do so quickly to lead this team to victory.
They’ll have to do so against a team that has consistently proven why they’re at the top of the table. Nothing epitomizes this year’s Spirit more than the uninterrupted, 15-pass series that led to a Christine Nairn goal against Orlando last week, a stretch of possession that included every field player. The Spirit will want to replicate that and dominate possession against Western New York with crisp passing to avoid giving away chances to a Flash team that pounces on the opportunity for transition attack. Washington’s outside backs will need every bit of pace to keep up with speedy players like Lynn Williams on the flanks, while Stephanie Labbe will want to keep her box organized on set pieces. A draw here will be enough to officially punch the Spirit’s ticket to the playoffs.
Orlando Pride (6-10-0) at Houston Dash (4-8-4)
Saturday, 8:30 EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Pride lead, 3-0-0
Last Meeting: June 23, 2016; 1-0, Orlando
Houston stands to gain two things by winning this match: a little bit of pride in avoiding a complete Orlando sweep of the four-game series, and a jump up to seventh place. They could do so on the backs of Kealia Ohai, who is in the best form of her career, and Carli Lloyd, who made a solid return to the Dash with a goal and an assist. Offensively, the Dash look strong coming into the game, and they’ll need to be as the majority of Ashlyn Harris’ regular backline returns. But it’s defense where the Dash struggle, having posted only two shutouts this season. Sitting on top of the centerbacks, it’s likely Amber Brooks will be tasked with preventing Alex Morgan from getting near the ball.
The type of goals the Dash have given up recently, particularly in the two Western New York games, are precisely the type of goals that are Morgan’s bread and butter: splitting defenders and carving space for herself. Ellie Brush and Cari Roccaro, in central defense, will certainly be looking to avoid that situation. The problem for Orlando lies in getting the ball to Morgan. The Pride midfield has struggled against nearly every team to move the ball down the field, often resorting to long balls over the top that are too easily disrupted. To win against a Dash team looking their best, they’ll need to be more creative with their ball movement. Houston will be at a slight disadvantage, since there will be some tired legs coming off a midweek game. The Dash will also be without Rachel Daly who is tending to a personal matter back home.
Sky Blue FC (6-6-4) at FC Kansas City (4-8-4)
Sunday, 6:00 PM EDT, Swope Soccer Village (watch live)
All Time Series: Kansas City lead, 4-2-3
Last Meeting: June 11, 2016; 1-1 Draw
FCKC’s struggles continued last week as they fell to last-place Boston for the second time this season. While Heather O’Reilly was a force to be reckoned with, it wasn’t enough, and too many missed chances left Kansas City scoreless. Luck wasn’t with Sky Blue either, as they were almost certainly denied a goal that went over the line. However, Sky Blue remains in the playoff hunt, unlike Kansas City, who has yet to be mathematically eliminated but slipped to ninth on the table.
This game will likely be battled in the midfield. Both teams boast a former or current USWNT captain anchoring their defense, speedy wing players, and a forward who is not afraid to sacrifice her entire body to score (so don’t expect the match to lack entertainment). But in center midfield, with Raquel Rodriguez and Sarah Killion holding court, Sky Blue has the advantage against Mandy Laddish and Erika Tymrak. Laddish puts in solid work but isn’t a replacement for Lauren Holiday, who was the glue that held FCKC together. But there is one person who may stand in Sky Blue’s way – Desiree Scott. The returning Olympic bronze medalist is a powerful defensive midfielder and could prove disruptive to Rodriguez’s plans.
Boston Breakers (3-12-1) at Portland Thorns (8-3-5)
Sunday, 7:00 PM EDT, Providence Park (watch live)
All Time Series: tied, 5-5-0
Last Meeting: May 1, 2016; 1-0, Portland
Both teams enter the game looking to rebound from losses, but they do so at the opposite ends of the table. The Breakers had the best game of their season against Kansas City but followed it up with a lackadaisical loss at home to Houston. Meanwhile, Portland returned their starting lineup from the Olympics, but they appeared to have left their chemistry in Rio, never really finding their form against Seattle. Although solidly in playoff position, a surging Chicago could push the Thorns out of the all-important semifinal at home.
Portland will get a big boost this week with the return of Christine Sinclair. Captain in both name and play, Sinclair is the spark to the Thorns’ kindling, whether she is scoring goals or creating the opportunity. With her presence back on the pitch, it could open up the dynamic play the Thorns have demonstrated all season. Boston has a spark of their own in Natasha Dowie, whose effect has made Breakers fans wish she could have been there from day one, but she can’t do it alone, so look for Kristie Mewis and Ghoutia Karchouni to step up. Emily Menges would do well to pay attention to how Dowie made Houston pay the one time they dropped her mark. Further down the pitch, Whitney Engen and Jami Kranich could face a long 90 minutes against Lindsey Horan and Dagny Brynjarsdottir. When the Thorns are in form, they have an offensive arsenal that can overwhelm the best of defenses. Like Houston, Boston will also be tired after playing games both last Sunday and Wednesday.
note: streams are subject to change up to the last minute; you are advised to consult nwslsoccer.com for the most up-to-date information
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