GAME OF THE WEEK
Washington Spirit (12-4-3) at Chicago Red Stars (8-5-6)
Saturday, 8:00 PM EDT, Toyota Park (watch live)
All Time Series: Spirit lead, 6-2-1
Last Meeting: July 9, 2016; 2-0, Washington
Washington enters the match needing three points far more than Chicago. While both teams have their playoff spots won, a victory would clinch the Shield for Washington. A draw or a loss, and they’ll depend on Portland to do the same in order for the Spirit to pick up the regular season trophy. Expect this game to play out from box to box, as two of the best midfields in the league face off. Both teams also boast a set of speedy outside backs, so look for lots of battles on the flanks as well.
The Spirit have demonstrated the depth of their bench in recent weeks, as Jim Gabarra has been tinkering with his lineup since the Olympic break. Both his backline and his corps of forwards have suffered recent injury, but the latter could be partially relieved by the early return of Estefania Banini. Expect Diana Matheson to play a larger role than she has since returning from Rio, helping provide a multi-pronged attack to poke holes in Chicago’s strong backline, which could be without the formidable Alyssa Naeher (doubtful with sprained wrist.) With Crystal Dunn possibly playing limited minutes due to an ankle injury, Matheson will need to provide the creativity and energy the Spirit lacked in their loss at Seattle two weeks ago.
The key for Chicago lies in stretching the defense. With Stephanie McCaffrey out, Sofia Huerta and Christen Press will work together to create space between Whitney Church and Estelle Johnson. Casey Short and Arin Gilliland will play a role in that as well, using their speed to get endline and provide service into the box. The Spirit have speed of their own up top, so Samantha Johnson will need to play tighter and coordinate with Julie Johnston to keep the box clean.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Still seeking that elusive first goal of the season, although not for lack of trying, the midfielder leads the team (and is third in the league) with six assists, doing what she does best – moving the ball down the field and finding her teammates in goal-scoring positions. The offense runs through DiBernardo, and she’ll want to avoid the disruptive nature of players like Joanna Lohman in order to play the quick, possession-based soccer at which the Red Stars excel.
The Spirit haven’t had a shutout in nine games, dating back to the last match between these teams. With Wys set in goal over Stephanie Labbe, she needs to prove she can carry this team through the playoffs. Wys is an excellent shot stopper but needs to work on organizing her defense, particularly on set pieces, given that Chicago has excellent service from the corner and on free kicks.
FC Kansas City (6-8-5) at Orlando Pride (6-12-1)
Saturday, 5:00 PM EDT, Camping World Stadium (watch live)
All Time Series: Kansas City lead, 1-0-0
Last Meeting: May 28, 2016; 2-0, Kansas City
Although this will be the last game of the season for both teams, disappointing in particular for the two-time defending champs, each still wants to end the season on a high note. Kansas City has finally found the grounds for a fast attack with Heather O’Reilly pulled into more of an attacking midfielder role with Shea Groom and Tiffany McCarty up top. Groom loves to agitate defenses and will be able to do so with an Orlando backline that’s been struck by injury.
Orlando hasn’t won a game since July 10 and would love to go into the offseason on a victory. All eyes will be on Lisa De Vanna, who made a noticeable difference from the moment she stepped on the field against Sky Blue two weeks ago. The Australian international was a force of nature and may be the piece Orlando needs to move the ball up the field. The speed of Alex Morgan and Jasmyne Spencer could prove a tough challenge for the Becky Sauerbrunn-led FCKC defense, providing the Pride midfield can get the ball to them. Orlando will also be saying goodbye to Becky Edwards, who is retiring from soccer.
Western New York Flash (8-6-5) at Boston Breakers (3-14-2)
Saturday, 7:00 PM EDT, Jordan Field (watch live)
All Time Series: Flash lead, 7-2-3
Last Meeting: September 7, 2016; 2-2 Draw
After suffering two sound defeats at the hands of the Flash earlier this season, the Breakers struck back for a draw three weeks ago. If they can win this one, they could foil Western New York’s plans for the playoffs. The key will be to slow down the Flash forwards and not get caught out on the counter attack. Brooke Elby stepped up big against Houston in the absence of Whitney Engen and Julie King, going toe to toe with Kealia Ohai, and with Engen and King both doubtful she will need to do so again, this time against Lynn Williams and Jaelene Hinkle. With all offensive focus on Natasha Dowie, Kristie Mewis and Kyah Simon need to provide support and take advantage of any defensive holes.
At this point, the Flash are desperate for a win. Once counted among those assured of a postseason, their winless streak now stretches back to the beginning of July. The Flash at times have been too eager on offense, wasting opportunities with off-target shots instead of building up an attack, but it’s their defense that has let them down recently. With Sabrina D’Angelo back in goal after injury and the Olympics, she needs to work with Abby Dahlkemper to keep the backline tight and organized. If Western New York misses the playoffs, they will have gone from underdog to sure thing to the outside looking in, all in one season. A draw gets them in. A loss and they wait on the Reign.
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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