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NWSL Week In Review: Amidst The Noise, Great Night For Women’s Soccer

Tobin Heath and the Thorns outlasted the Flash is an entertaining, nationally televised match and will host a semifinal for the first time. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

Tobin Heath and the Thorns outlasted the Flash is an entertaining, nationally televised match and will host a semifinal for the first time. (Photo Copyright Meg Linehan for The Equalizer)

For better or worse, the last few months in the women’s soccer world has involved more publicity about incidents off the field than on, starting with Hope Solo’s antics and comments at the Olympics and continuing into Megan Rapinoe’s national anthem protests in the last 10 days or so. Sensing a hot button issue, media came in from all around and as far from the women’s soccer world as humanly possible to give their opinions, predictably followed by largely anonymous takedowns of women’s sports (and by proxy women).

It can be tough for those of us trying to fight the good fight and actually tell the many stories the NWSL has to offer each and every week and the people making them.

The world at large may little note nor long remember an NWSL regular season game between Portland and Western New York at Providence Park Sunday night, and the publicity involved may not reach one-thousandth of national anthem protests or the suspension of a goalkeeper. But if you turned on your television and forgot about the history and the haters and just watched, you would have seen something quite amazing.

Before a sellout crowd of 21,144, the Thorns raced to a three-goal lead, but had to hang on 3-2 in a match that clinched the first home playoff game in franchise history. It was broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1 as the back end of a doubleheader with MLS. It was an enthralling game that included as good a team goal as you’ll see at any level to put the Thorns up 3-0 midway through the second half. It had differing styles and strategies, a Flash coach returning (somewhat triumphantly, at least until kickoff) to the place where things had gone pretty wrong for him just a year ago.

It didn’t need a gimmick, a catch, tight uniforms, whatever people (hi, Sepp) have said women’s sports would need to be a success. The game and the teams spoke for themselves. The haters will continue to exist, of course, and it’s not likely that the game made a dent in the Nielsen ratings on a night where Miss America (some irony there, no?) and the NFL opener (more irony) were direct competitors.

But it was a night to celebrate nonetheless for women’s soccer supporters not just in America, but around the world. Despite the inertia set in place that has already contributed to the death of two professional women’s soccer leagues, there is still hope that a night like Sunday may become the norm rather than an aberration. Yeah, it still may be a ways off, but we’re pretty sure NWSL – now four years in – isn’t going anywhere soon. And MLS teams like LAFC and Real Salt Lake have taken notice and appear ready to join the fun and commit (at least a little) resources that were not available just five years ago. Once USSF gets disentangled from its current MLS television contract, it stands to reason that more games will end up visible to all as well.

So it’s been a rough stretch, diehard WoSo fans, but if you can see through the forest to the other side, there might be some good times ahead.

What else did we learn as we head into yet another international break?

SATURDAY

Orlando 1:2 Sky Blue

What Went Down: It’s hard to tell because of injuries, lack of a true Australia breakthrough, and the fact that she just turned 23 over the weekend, but I’m not sure how far you get in ranking the world’s best players at the moment before you get to Sam Kerr. Some of you may laugh at that, but if she can stay healthy, I might install her as an MVP favorite in 2017. Granted, Orlando’s defense has not been and was not stellar in this one, but Kerr eviscerated them on the goal she scored and seems to be improving every time she steps on the field.

Sky Blue really looks like a possible 2017 contender, but the yearly question of whether it will stay at Rutgers took an interesting turn when Barcelona kind of announced they were interested in buying into the NWSL (sort of?) because women’s soccer could give them more bang for their buck here. But that move, presumably to New York City, could be blocked by Sky Blue due to territorial rights. My advice, Sky Blue is right here.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – Overkill here, but who else was I going to pick after that hype? Sky Blue also got another solid effort from its originally makeshift defense and a big goal from Maya Hayes, who scored about a thousand (estimated) of them in college.

Under the Radar: Kristen Edmonds – Edmonds scored another goal from distance, this time on a free kick that seemed way too far to find goal, but she found a way. It hasn’t been a great season for the Pride, but it certainly has for Edmonds.

Inside The Numbers: 2 – Shots on goal for Orlando on nine attempts. Going to be tough to score too many times that way. Alex Morgan was held without a single shot.

Up next: Orlando – vs. Kansas City (Sept. 24); Sky Blue – vs. Portland (Sept. 25)

SUNDAY

Kansas City 0:0 Chicago

What Went Down: The Red Stars got the point they needed to wrap up a playoff berth, but the already eliminated champs made it far from easy, nearly scoring a couple of times at the end, denied of course by Alyssa Naeher. Chicago lost Arin Gilliland and Stephanie McCaffrey to injury in the first half (which could be big come playoff time) and did not attempt a shot at goal in the second half, so it wasn’t exactly a performance that is going to put too much fear into Washington or Portland, but they will get their postseason shot in a couple of weeks.

Player of the Game: Alyssa Naeher – In a season devoid of a clear MVP, there are probably worse choices than Naeher, whose stats are not exactly eye-catching, but her spectacular saves on a weekly basis certainly are. This was another match where she was probably worth two points, and it looks like it’s going to be a small margin between making the playoffs and not.

Under the Radar: Heather O’Reilly – HAO is going to keep battling until the end, with now just one game remaining in her stellar international career from which she’ll get a send-off this week. A role model for many of the young women coming into the league (and at all levels), O’Reilly has always gave her best and it has never been about her.

Inside the Numbers: 16 – Number of goals by FCKC this season, just two ahead of Boston for worst in the league. It just hasn’t happened on the offensive end, something maybe a returning Sydney Leroux (who became a mom over the weekend) and Amy Rodriguez can fix.

Up next: Kansas City – at Orlando (Sept. 24.); Chicago – vs. Washington (Sept. 25.)

Houston 4:1 Boston

What Went Down: Again, we’re left to wonder what might have been for the Dash, although the Breakers did make things interesting in the second half before Carli Lloyd decided she’d had enough of that and Houston put the game away. It will be interesting to see what momentum the Dash can take into 2017 or what moves they make to shore up their backline (maybe trade an attacker?) But will Lloyd be around, and if she is might she want to play somewhere else next spring? The offseason could be interesting.

It should be newsworthy in Boston as well where they hope Kadeisha Buchanan will be starting in the middle of its defense to begin 2017.

Player of the Game: Carli Lloyd – I’m not sure about her taking a penalty in a game that was probably decided when teammate Kealia Ohai is chasing the NWSL Golden Boot, but Lloyd’s quality was obvious in this match when she was anywhere near the ball. There’s no reason she can’t be one of the league’s best for the next couple of seasons if she wants to be.

Under the Radar: Elise Krieghoff – It wasn’t as good as this goal she scored at Cal Poly, but for any soccer player, a professional goal is quite a career accomplishment and no one can take her goal here away from her.

Inside the Numbers: 40 – Number of combined shots in this one, with the Dash racking up 28 (?!?) of them in all. Lloyd alone had 11 (?!?), with six of them on frame. So, no, there wasn’t much defense to be had.

Up next: Houston – vs. Seattle (Sept. 25); Boston – vs. Western New York (Sept. 24)

Portland 3:2 Western New York

What Went Down: What a great advertisement for the league as I alluded to, with some controversy (a pretty phantom penalty against the Flash), wonderful goals (Portland’s third), and a wild comeback from the Flash that almost saw them steal a point and clinch a playoff berth. As it stands now, they still need a point, which they should be able to get in Boston in two weeks. But stranger things have happened, as they say.

This was a fascinating tactical battle as well, with Riley’s high pressure working at times, but also leaving holes in the back that Portland was able to exploit thanks to the skill of people like Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath. But it did work at times, and we can only hope we get this matchup again in the NWSL semifinals.

Player of the Game: Christine Sinclair – Sinclair has been so consistent this season, both with the Thorns and with Canada. She won’t win the league’s MVP with six goals in 10 games, and she likely won’t be in the discussion for the Ballon d’Or this winter, but maybe she should if the Thorns can find a way to win the NWSL title next month, having carried Canada to the bronze medal in the Olympics.

Under the Radar: Jess McDonald – While you can make a case for Alyssa Naeher for MVP, you wonder if McDonald had a different name (like pick a USWNT star), she might have it sewn up at the moment. Her nine goals is one off the league lead and one of the people in front of her (Lynn Williams) is there in some part due to her seven assists (second in NWSL). And the team will likely grab an unexpected playoff berth. That’s a good case.

Inside the Numbers: 30 – Number of fouls this season for Nadia Nadim, who trails Shea Groom by a single foul with one game remaining for those that care about those things.

Up next: Portland – at Sky Blue (Sept. 25); Western New York – at Boston (Sept. 24)

Seattle 2:0 Washington

What Went Down: The Reign kept their playoff hopes alive with a somewhat vintage performance, helped by the return of Megan Rapinoe to the starting lineup. Seattle must win at Houston and have Western New York lose at Boston in two weeks to grab an unlikely playoff berth (and a possible rematch of this game in the semifinals). It wasn’t quite a Houston barrage, but the Reign took 23 shots, putting 14 on goal against Washington.

The Spirit chose to rest some people in their second game of the week and the drop off of not having the likes of Crystal Dunn, Christine Nairn, and Diana Matheson (the last two came on as subs) was pretty obvious. Washington can still grab the NWSL Shield with a win in Chicago to finish the season, but it’s clearly not a huge priority. And maybe it shouldn’t be. We’ll see.

Player of the Game: Beverly Yanez – Yanez has had some trouble grabbing her career-best form of a year ago, but this was about as close as we’ve seen as she was active throughout and was rewarded with a goal in the end for her troubles. In what could be a crowded roster, it will be interesting to see what happens to her in 2017.

Under the Radar: Megan Rapinoe – With all the off-field stories about Rapinoe, it’s easy to forget that she’s still not 100 percent after ACL surgery in December. This was as close as she’s looked to it, however (in her first start of 2016), and her assist was vintage Rapinoe. At 31, she should have a few solid seasons left as well, even if Seattle is left out of the postseason.

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of Canadian Olympians on the bench for the Spirit to start the game (Shelina Zadorsky, Diana Matheson, Stephanie Labbe). Will they all be starting when the playoffs start?

Up next: Seattle – at Houston (Sept. 25); Washington – at Chicago (Sept. 24)

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