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NWSL Week In Review: Tough Decisions For League In Pugh Case

Debinha, doing her thing for the Courage in their home opener (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Debinha, doing her thing for the Courage in their home opener (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

If you’re a diehard NWSL fan and couldn’t tell me what a USI is or what it is does, don’t feel bad.

The idea of an Unattached Subsidized Individual (USI) was pretty much conjured out of thin air last January on the eve of the 2016 draft by the league in order to get then -17-year-old Mallory Pugh to Portland. Pugh, perhaps the best teenager in the world it must be said, didn’t want to go through the draft lottery, and for about 15,000 reasons per game, wanted to play in the best atmosphere for professional women’s soccer. On this planet anyway.

Makes sense, and even if poor Boston got strong-armed a bit, it did get the No. 3 overall pick in 2016 (Christen Westphal) in addition to No. 2 (expansion Orlando was first; the Breakers had already traded the No. 2 pick) for just being in last place. Pugh would add plenty to the league and was worth bending and molding a few rules for.

Except Pugh and her family backed out of the deal a week later, choosing to attend UCLA instead, which – because the USI rule was concocted just for Pugh – meant Portland (Willy Wonka voice) got nothing, good day to them. Fifteen months later, no player has come under the auspices of the USI and by league rule, the order reverts back to the previous year’s standings, so hellooo Boston. Only Boston seemed more than happy to include the useless top USI spot in a trade with Washington last November. Who would ever use it?

Enter Mallory Pugh. Again.

With a new USWNT collective bargaining agreement and the near certainty of making very good money by foregoing college eligibility, Pugh and her family have apparently made the sensible decision to go pro. Amazingly, Pugh wouldn’t be done at UCLA until 2021 and in that time, it’s reasonable to think that Pugh would be passing up about (rough estimate) $1 million (possibly much more). With a rash of ACL tears invading soccer and other perils that could interrupt (we certainly hope not, obviously) a career, very few find the decision implausible.

But for the NWSL (and to some extent, USSF) the timing is hideous. First, having attended UCLA for a semester and played in some spring games, Pugh is technically supposed to wait until the 2021 draft. Now, that’s largely comical, but skipping the draft does potentially set a precedent, when you have players like Jessie Fleming, Ashley Sanchez, and a trio of high school players (Brianna Pinto, Jaelin Howell, and Sophia Smith) that have been called into full national team camp this spring. If one of them (Fleming is Canadian, so obviously some different dynamics at play there) decides to follow a similar path to Pugh’s down the road, can they be stopped?

Which leads to the Europe thing. USSF/NWSL do not want Pugh going to Europe, and Pugh’s timing does not lend itself to a European adventure. In the current market, France is probably the only place that can truly afford what she wants (although there are individual owners in places like England and China that can make it happen), and their season ends soon, meaning she would have to wait until August to get meaningful club action.

Back in America, the season is in the early stages, but it has begun, meaning teams are pretty reluctant to break up what they have built. While it’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to play for the dysfunctional (on many levels) Spirit at the moment, it again puts NWSL/USSF in a bind. Portland already gave up the No. 3 pick in the draft last season for Pugh, and while they certainly want her, reports of giving up two more USWNT players (Emily Sonnett and Meghan Klingenberg were among those rumored) for her have to give them pause. And for Washington, if they trade Pugh away for cheap, how can they compete long-term in the NWSL if they can never have a star USWNT player (putting aside their self-inflicted wounds for a second)? If all the stars end up in two or three markets, will the NWSL be viable a decade hence?

For a league that has enough trouble signing a commissioner (Amanda Duffy soon, hopefully), this is a big moment that could have repercussions well into its future. And the answer is nuanced with Pugh potentially being a marketable star for a decade or more, but with other potential game-changers behind her that will likely play by whatever rules are developed in the coming days and weeks.

So at this point, your guess is as good as mine how this will play out.

What else did we learn from an NWSL weekend which had some pretty cringe-worthy attendance numbers?

SATURDAY

Orlando 1:1 Washington (recap)

What Went Down: The Spirit came out in a 3-5-2 and it appeared to baffle the Pride. Or Orlando just doesn’t have a whole lot of quality in their team at the moment. The midfield was a struggle last season, but they front three of Jasmyne Spencer, Chioma Ubogagu, and Camila did very little against a three-back at home, which is not a great sign going forward.

The Pride finally sprung to life when Marta and Danica Evans were brought on, although you could see Marta – even in a jet-lagged 35 minutes – getting a tad frustrated that her teammates couldn’t help her a bit more. In all, while an entertaining encounter on national television, both teams will need to improve significantly if they want to be anywhere near the top half of the table.

Player of the Game: Tori Huster – Orlando fans will probably point out that she could have been sent off, but Huster was very solid in her defensive midfield role, and she will have to be if the Spirit are going to be competitive. She is now in her fifth season with Washington, and – especially with Joanna Lohman out – the rightful on-field leader of the team, a role she has earned.

Under the Radar: Danica Evans – Obviously scoring the goal puts her on the radar, but she might not have been before the game started. She was very good and – especially with how the game played out – should be starting alongside Marta next week. She also (at pick No. 22) becomes the first player selected in the 2017 draft to score in NWSL.

Inside the Numbers: 14,452 – Attendance Saturday, obviously a solid figure, but when the Pride spent weeks promoting “Fill the Bowl” and it’s not even two-thirds full, even with Marta making her debut, you can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in it.

Up next: Orlando – at North Carolina (Sat.); Washington – vs. Houston (Sat.)

Chicago 1:0 Kansas City (recap)

What Went Down: Rory Dames fooled us all by not switching to a 3-5-2, but moving Julie Ertz up into midfield for the first time as a professional. Even beyond scoring the winning goal, Ertz was phenomenal, and although Sofia Huerta and Vanessa DiBernardo are never going to be natural wide players in a 4-4-2, it does probably put the best 11 players on the field for the Red Stars, who were largely dominant even though it ended 1-0.

Life without Amy Rodriguez for FCKC did not get off to a promising start, as they created little offensively, and we have no idea where future answers will come from. They did try to plan for such a contingency in the draft, but Toni Payne (Europe) and Stephanie Ribiero (torn ACL) aren’t with them. While Jane Campbell eventually topped her, Christina Gibbons set an early bar for rookie initiation, getting worked by Sofia Huerta repeatedly and conceding a penalty. It’s early, though.

Player of the Game: Julie Ertz – She will probably get my Player of the Week vote with a solid, hard-working performance that saw the Red Stars able to control the middle. Ertz was extremely dangerous going forward and instrumental in the amount of scoring chances being created by Chicago.

Under the Radar: Katie Naughton – Part of being able to move Ertz forward is having faith in Naughton, who played well in Ertz’s Olympic absence last season, and now has a year of professional experience under her belt. Can she do it all season? We might find out.

Inside the Numbers: 2,153 – Attendance Saturday at Toyota Park, a number that might be tough for even the current White House to spin positively.

Up next: Chicago – at Portland (Sat.); Kansas City – at Sky Blue (Sun.)

North Carolina 1:0 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: There is some irony in North Carolina playing a bit like the UNC Anson Dorrance squads of old (minus the constant substitutions, of course) in that they just try to wear you down with constant pressure and physical play. From the opening kickoff, McCall Zerboni put in a challenge on Allie Long which wasn’t overly malicious, but a bit late, just to send a message. And although Portland has its moments, by the end, they looked mentally fatigued and beaten, as many other NWSL squads have looked in the past couple seasons.

Paul Riley moved to a 3-5-2 to give Jaelene Hinkle more freedom and move Zerboni central, and it seemed to work fairly well, even if the Thorns put up much more resistance than they saw last week. North Carolina likely won’t win any possession stats, but it really shouldn’t matter in the end.

Player of the Game: Abby Erceg – It was certainly a team effort, but Erceg led the way for a more than solid effort from the Courage defense, which allowed the Thorns very few clear-cut chances, especially after they settled into the 3-5-2 look 20 or so minutes in.

Under the Radar: Makenzy Doniak – Doniak slid down the draft board last year, but has grown into an invaluable part of the culture that North Carolina has built in NWSL. As usual Saturday, she battled up and down the right side, alternately frustrating Portland and getting herself into some dangerous areas.

Inside the Numbers: 77 – Minute of first sub by Paul Riley, which – at the pace that they play – is either a little late or his team is extremely fit. Might be the latter.

Up next: North Carolina – vs. Orlando (Sat.); Portland – vs. Chicago (Sat.)

Seattle 5:1 Houston (recap)

What Went Down: Not much good for the Dash, that’s for sure. There seemed to be a lot of blame toward Jane Campbell, which isn’t quite fair to the rookie, even if her debut was one to forget. No, this was a team-wide, miserable performance starting from the coaching staff on down. Heck, you could include the front office, who cut Bianca Henninger, in the mix as well. It’s only one game, but some big decisions to make for Randy Waldrum, ones that could affect his job if he doesn’t get them correct. But again, they still have 3 points through 2 games.

It’s only one match for the Reign as well, but it was nice to see them look their their ruthless selves in Seattle even with the new look team out there. Some old stalwarts–Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe, Beverly Yanez–had great matches and Kristen McNabb–who was around at 37th in the NWSL Draft–looks like she may be starting for a while.

Player of the Game: Jess Fishlock – Fishlock had a tough time at the end of last season, be it fatigue, the broken leg that kept her out at the beginning of the campaign not completely healing, or just a rough patch that every player goes through at one point or another. But she had a great winter in Australia (as player-coach for much), winning a title, and appears to be ready to continue it in NWSL this season.

Under the Radar: Rumi Utsugi – When silly prognosticators (like me) pick Seattle in the bottom half of the table, sometimes the experience of someone like Utsugi – who has 78 caps for Japan – can be overlooked. She didn’t stand out on too many occasions last season, but she was excellent in this match, and she and Naho Kawasumi will be needed if they are to return to the playoffs.

Inside the Numbers: 8 – Number of NWSL matches these teams have played against each other, all Seattle wins. And the Dash have been outscored 14-3 in the five games in Seattle.

Up next: Seattle – at Boston (Sat.); Houston – at Washington (Sat.)

SUNDAY

Boston 1:0 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: Despite their struggles, the Breakers were actually decent at home last season, so the result isn’t all that surprising. However, most of the time their wins involved grabbing a goal and watching their opponents threaten for most of the second half, and there was very little threat from Sky Blue at all in this match, the better chances coming at the other end. It still remains to be seen how much better the Breakers will be, but they will be better.

Meanwhile, Sky Blue is very young and it showed in this match. They did have a bright start, but there weren’t a whole lot of positives after that. The back four was completely disorganized on the Boston goal and an ineffective Raquel Rodriguez was subbed off early in the second half. Leah Galton left injured (she was able to walk off the field at least), while Sam Kerr was very quiet after a couple of early chances. It just wasn’t good enough and sets up a pretty big game next Sunday against Kansas City at home.

Player of the Game: Christen Westphal –  Mostly because of her high draft position (3rd last year), Westphal has found herself under a little more scrutiny than most, and was also forced to play through tough spells in a very difficult 2016 Boston season. But this was an excellent performance, keeping Sky Blue at bay for the final 60 minutes.

Under the Radar: Abby Smith – She wasn’t called on much after halftime, but she made a couple of big early stops, and it seems like she will stay Boston’s No. 1 goalkeeper even when Libby Stout returns from injury. But we shall see.

Inside the Numbers: 2,329 – Attendance in Boston, finishing up a terrible weekend at the box office for NWSL, one we might try to delve into next week.

Up next: Boston – vs. Seattle (Sat.); Sky Blue – vs. Kansas City (Sun.)

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