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The Lowdown: Playoff, Shield, Boot races down to wire

The Flash have not won since the July 9 Fiasco at Frontier, but one point in Boston on Saturday will put them in the playoffs (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

The Flash have not won since the July Fiasco at Frontier, but one point in Boston on Saturday will put them in the playoffs (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

An interesting Week 18 that saw all 10 teams play twice settled a number of scenarios but not everything in terms of the NWSL table. What we know is that the Spirit and Thorns will be the semifinal hosts and that one of them will play the Red Stars. We also know the Breakers will finish last and that Sky Blue, Kansas City, Houston, and Orlando are also out of the playoffs.

There is no NWSL action this week due to the FIFA break. Things will conclude September 24-25 with the Spirit and Thorns deciding the Shield and the Flash trying to hold off the Reign for the final playoff spot. There is also a hot race for the Golden Boot. Here is what each team is playing for looking ahead to the season finales.

Washington Spirit

12-4-3, 39 pts
clinched home semifinal
Last game: Saturday, September 24 @ Chicago Red Stars

Looking at the lineup Jim Gabarra ran out in Seattle on Sunday night, you could surmise that finishing first and winning the Shield is not of paramount importance to the Spirit. Crystal Dunn never left the bench though that could have been a change of plans after she began Wednesday’s affair as a sub but was pressed into action early when Cali Farquharson was injured. Either way the Spirit knew the worst-case scenario was to be a point clear of the Thorns heading into the final weekend, and that’s exactly where they are. So if they beat the Red Stars in Chicago on Saturday night, the Shield is theirs. Otherwise they will have to sweat out the Thorns game at Sky Blue the next night. A tie will not do them any good since the Thorns hold the tiebreaker.

The Boot: Dunn won the Golden Boot last season but has only one goal this season and none of her teammates are in range of the leaders. Stephanie Labbe is one shutout behind the league leaders but it appears that Kelsey Wys has taken a stranglehold on the job.

Portland Thorns FC

11-4-5, 38 pts
clinched home semifinal
Last game: Sunday, September 25 @ Sky Blue FC

If you caught Mark Parsons’s reaction at the final whistle Sunday night, it means the world to him to finally bring playoff soccer to the Rose City that actually involves the Thorns. The club assembled something of a super team during the winter and with Parsons as the new coach, gelled quicker than anyone could have imagined and have stayed the course through mass international absences. By the time they get to Yurcak Field on Sunday they will know if they are playing for a trophy or just to stay sharp ahead of their playoff game. In short if the Spirit win, it’s irrelevant; if the Spirit draw, the Thorns take the Shield with a win; if the Spirit lose, a win or draw will do it. Of interest the club has never won at Yurcak Field.

The Boot: The Thorns acquired Nadia Nadim from Sky Blue the morning of the draft and she returns to New Jersey with a chance to lead the league in scoring. With 9 goals she sits one behind Kealia Ohai and Lynn Williams. Ohai’s game is last though which will give her a chance to counter anyone that pulls ahead. Meanwhile Tobin Heath’s 9 assists are two clear of Jessica McDonald, and a 10th would make her the first NWSL player ever to reach double digits in a season.

Chicago Red Stars

8-5-6, 30 pts
clinched playoff berth
Last game: Saturday, September 24 vs Washington Spirit

The scoreless draw in Kansas City clinched a playoff berth for Rory Dames’s side while at the same time taking them out of contention to host. This weekend will be a chance to say good bye to the home fans for the season and maybe throw a wrench in the Spirit’s plans to celebrate a trophy. It would not be the first time. In 2013, Jen Hoy scored in stoppage time in the last game of the season against FC Kansas City to cost their Midwest rivals the Shield and hand it to the Flash. That goal also secured a .500 record for the Red Stars and three years later they are the only team never to finish worse than that. They will clinch third with a win but with three other games impacting the final order there are many factors at play to determine whether they will be in Washington or Portland for the semifinal.

The Boot: Christen Press is a dark horse to steal a portion of the Boot as she enters the match with 7 goals. That is three behind Ohai and Williams and certainly not out of reach. Vanessa DiBernardo is in a similar boat with 6 assists to trail Heath by three. With the club nursing numerous injuries and neither a particularly likely scenario, don’t look for either to push for these marks. Alyssa Naeher is tied for the league lead in shutouts with 6.

Western New York Flash

8-6-5, 29 pts
Last game: Saturday, September 24 @ Boston Breakers

It has been more than two months since the Flash infuriated the Reign by hosting a match on a substandard pitch at Frontier Field, a match the Flash won 3-2. Now as we enter the final turn of the season the Flash have not won a match since and find themselves needing a result in Boston to hold off—the Seattle Reign for the league’s final playoff berth. The Flash have already played the Breakers three times this season and scored 13 goals and may not see Whitney Engen this time as she sat out the weekend with an injury. To their credit the Flash have five draws during their seven-match winless streak and need only another draw to book the playoffs. If they lose they’ll need the Reign to drop points in Houston, something that has never happened since the Dash entered the league.

The Boot: The Lynn Williams-Jessica McDonald combination has been a sight to behold this season. They each scored during a frantic rally that fell just short in Portland on Sunday and now have 10 and 9 goals respectively. That leaves Williams tied with Ohai for the Golden Boot and McDonald one back. If McDonald scored they will be the first teammates with 10 goals in an NWSL season and she will join Kim Little as the only players with multiple seasons reaching double digits (Christen Press can do it with a hat trick.)

Seattle Reign FC

7-6-6, 27 pts
Last game: Sunday, September 25 @ Houston Dash

For the second straight year the Reign finished their regular season schedule at Memorial Stadium on a high note. In 2015, Jessica Fishlock scored a stoppage time equalizer in the rain against Sky Blue to keep alive what was then an unbeaten record at the downtown stadium. They then received their Shield (which was already clinched.) This time they got a late goal from Keelin Winters a day after announcing her retirement from soccer, and the 2-0 win kept hope alive for a playoff berth. To finish it off they’ll need the last-place Breakers to beat the Flash on Saturday. If that happens then a win in Houston in the final match of the season will give the Reign a spot in the playoffs. They have played the Dash six times and won all six.

The Boot: There are no Reign in sight of the league lead in goals or assists.

Sky Blue FC

7-7-5, 26 pts
eliminated from playoff contention
Last game: Sunday, September 25 vs Portland Thorns FC

Despite some recent stumbles, Sky Blue should be pleased with a season that saw them sit above the red line as late as mid July and set a course for what could be some successful seasons going forward. The vibe for this one will be determined by what the Spirit do the night before. If they win, the Thorns are just trying to get through the match, but if not the Thorns are playing for the Shield, and you can bet Christy Holly would love to deny them celebrating that on his home pitch. A win also gives them a winning record while a draw leaves them at .500.

The Boot: No contenders, but Christie Rampone, the oldest player in the league, is 90 minutes away from a full season without coming off the field. Only five other players—Nicole Barnhart, Abby Dahlkemper, Kassey Kallman, Emily Menges, and Brittany Taylor—can say the same.

FC Kansas City

6-8-5, 23 pts
eliminated from playoff contention
Last game: Saturday, September 24 @ Orlando City SC

For the first time, FC Kansas City will go home after the regular season. So has the season been a failure? Only if you view it directly through the prism of results. The Blues lost two defenders who played every minute last season, were a revolving door at left back, and enter the last game having conceded 19 goals in 19 games. They also saw Shea Groom mature into a striker that can occasionally carry a team. They just lost too many pieces and never found an answer in attacking central midfield or a partner to take some of the onus off of Groom. They have work to do, but I don’t think all was lost in Kansas City this season.

The Boot: Groom has 8 goals, two behind the leaders. The Pride defense has been porous of late and with both teams playing out the string it would not be surprising to see FCKC feed balls into Groom all night in an attempt to get her to double digits and a potential Golden Boot. On the other end, Nicole Barnhart has led the league in shutouts all three seasons and enters this one tied with Alyssa Naeher to do it again.

Houston Dash

6-9-4, 22 pts
eliminated from playoff contention
Last game: Sunday, September 25 vs Seattle Reign FC

The best of the 2016 Dash would have put them in the realm of playoff contention, but some dodgy results early followed by a hellacious, six-match streak of 1-0 losses torpedoed their season. If the Flash lose in Boston on Saturday, the Dash can finish up the season by denying the Reign a playoff spot with a draw or better. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than the Dash have ever done against the Reign. In six games the Dash are 0-6-0 with an aggregate goals against of 16-3 (it was 10-2 after three meetings in 2014.)

Kealia Ohai, left, has 10 goals in her last 9 games to co-lead the Golden Boot race into the last weekend. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kealia Ohai, left, has 10 goals in her last 9 games to co-lead the Golden Boot race into the last weekend. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

The Boot: Whether or not Kealia Ohai finishes on top in the Golden Boot race, her recent form has been something to behold. The night of July 9, after the Dash had dropped their sixth straight game and assured themselves the longest scoreless streak in league history, Ohai had more sideline snubs of her coach (1) than goals (0). She also spoke out that night about how the team had to win the next week. They did behind a goal and an assist from Ohai. Since that night she has 10 goals and 3 assists in 9 games. She enters the weekend tied for the league lead with Lynn Williams.

Orlando Pride

6-12-1, 19 pts
eliminated from playoff contention
Last game: Saturday, September 24 vs FC Kansas City

Last week for the Pride featured Ashlyn Harris calling out her defenders for standing around while Sky Blue pounced on a rebound, and three days later Tom Sermanni calling his club’s defending, among other things, brain dead and suicidal. Yes a once promising season for the expansion club is going out with a whimper. Their final home match, against FC Kansas City, has no playoff implications, but the Pride will want to collect a win, something they have not done since July 10.

The Boot: No contenders here

Boston Breakers

3-14-2, 11 pts
eliminated from playoff contention
Last game: Saturday, September 24 vs Western New York Flash

Scoring woes aside, the most remarkable element of the Breakers’ latest season of misery is that they are 16 goals in arrears of the second worst defensive club in NWSL. Can they possibly keep the speedy Flash at Bay this weekend and earn a win to throw the final playoff spot into uncertainty into the final Sunday? Not much has gone right for the Breakers in Matt Beard’s first season at the helm, but complicating the Flash’s playoff hopes would be a nice way to end it.

The Boot: The league leaders have 10 goals. The Breakers have 14. Enough said.

Miscellany

-My Player of the Week ballot: 1) Sam Kerr – scored two goals for Sky Blue and helped create two. They only scored three, you say? Wednesday night Kerr made a perfect pass to put Maya Hayes through and then scored when she followed up the play and finished the rebound. She did the same in Orlando only to see Hayes finish her own rebound; 2) Tobin Heath – a pair of assists on Wednesday and some game-killing trickery in midfield on Sunday for the Thorns’ engine; 3) Casey Short – solidifying herself as one of the top outside backs in all of NWSL

-As of midday Wednesday the Red Stars were still waiting for updates on Arin Gilliland and Stephanie McCaffrey who left Sunday’s match early with injuries. Samantha Johnson, who missed the match, has a bone bruise. The club is hopeful she will be ready for the semifinals.

-Hope Solo was in attendance for the Reign’s final home match and was on the field with her teammates afterward.

-The Spirit will host their semifinal Friday, September 30 at 8pm EDT. The Thorns will host Sunday, October 2 at pm EDT. Both matches will be broadcast live on FS1.

-I said my part about how the Spirit handled the national anthem last week in this column. Here is one final thought about how the Spirit could have handled it.

Monday – circulate an internal memo stating that all club personnel is required to stand and face the flag while the anthem plays

Tuesday – release a statement reinforcing the club’s opinion of the anthem (in maybe a bit softer terms than they wound up doing) as well as the club’s policy of having everyone stand. Close by respectfully requesting opposing teams follow suit.

Wednesday – enter Megan Rapinoe who has now been appropriately asked to comply.

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 18 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

WEDNESDAY
Boston Breakers – 1,435
Chicago Red Stars – 2,068
Sky Blue FC – 2,055
Portland Thorns FC – 13,752
Washington Spirit – 3,039

SATURDAY
Orlando Pride – 6,788

SUNDAY
Portland Thorns FC – 21,144
Seattle Reign FC – 4,711
FC Kansas City – 2,303
Houston Dash – 6,107

WEEK 18 TOTAL: 63,402
WEEK 18 AVERAGE: 6,340

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,945 (10 games)
2015 average: 15,639

2. Orlando Pride — 8,933 (9 games)

3. Houston Dash – 5,701 (9 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 9 games: 6,365

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,599 (10 games)
2015 average: 4,060

5. Western New York Flash – 3,868 (10 games)
2015 average: 2,860

6. Boston Breakers – 3,520 (9 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 9 games: 2,721

7. Washington Spirit – 3,782 (10 games)
2015 average: 4,087

8. FC Kansas City – 3,162 (10 games)
2015 average: 3,091

9. Chicago Red Stars – 2,926 (9 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 9 games: 4,053 (includes doubleheader with Fire with announced attendance of 16,017)

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,982 (9 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 9 games: 2,252

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