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NWSL Week 4 Preview: Breakers can go top of table

The Boston Breakers celebrate Natasha Dowie's first half strike against Sky Blue FC. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

Hard to believe, but we’re already heading into the second month of season 5. One team remains undefeated, while two still seek their first victory. A rivalry is resumed, a few teams search for their identity, and we’re treated to an early top of the table clash as NWSL Week 4 kicks off.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Boston Breakers celebrate Natasha Dowie's first half strike against Sky Blue FC. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

The Boston Breakers celebrate Natasha Dowie’s first half strike against Sky Blue FC. (LINEHAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Equalizer Soccer)

North Carolina Courage (3-0-0) at Boston Breakers (2-1-0)

Sunday, 6 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Courage lead, 8-2-3
In Boston: Courage, 3-0-3
Last meeting: September 24, 2016, 4-0 Flash

Last year, this was by far the most lopsided regional rivalry as the Western New York Flash took 10 of a possible 12 points against the Boston Breakers in four games with a combined score of 17-3. Now the two teams stand at the top of the table. Boston is not only looking to defend their home winning streak, they’d like to win three games in a row for the first time ever. Yes, ever. They’ll do so behind midfielder Rose Lavelle, who was the first rookie to ever take home Player of the Month honors in her first month of play. Megan Oyster and Christen Westphal have looked stronger in central defense with each week, and they face their strongest challenge yet against the pure athleticism of the Courage. Boston’s best chance will be to use Angela Salem at holding mid to slow the game down and allow the Breakers to defend in numbers.

The only team to start a season with a 4-0-0 record is the 2014 Seattle Reign, for whom Kim Little ran rampant as the team demolished the regular season to grab the Shield only to fall in the championship to FC Kansas City. The Courage are poised to start the same, but an unlikely foe in Boston stands in their way. Central midfield enforcers Sam Mewis and McCall Zerboni will be essential in stifling the possession of Lavelle and Rosie White and would do well to do so before the ball can be played in to Natasha Dowie or Adrianna Leon, who carved up Seattle last week. Look for them to run at the Boston defense and play the ball to the feet of Lynn Williams, who will test an increasingly impressive Abby Smith with her sheer number of shots, even if she tends to go for quantity over quality as of yet.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Allysha Chapman

While much of the attention goes to Williams and Jess McDonald, Makenzy Doniak is proving to be underrated and has kept every left back busy. Chapman has fit right in in her new home in Boston so far, but while it’s her offensive efforts that have drawn the most praise, she may have her hands full keeping Doniak at bay.

Abby Erceg

Sabrina D’Angelo has only had to make 5 saves so far this year, and much of that rests on the shoulders of Erceg, who has been essential in holding together a new defensive formation. The Breakers sit third in the league for shots on goal and have demonstrated their tenacity in stretching defenses. Erceg needs to help the defense maintain shape to keep command of this game.

Keep an eye on:
• The referee – these teams also lead the league in yellow cards

***

Houston Dash (2-1-0) at Chicago Red Stars (1-2-0)

Saturday, 4 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 3-2-4
In Chicago: Red Stars, 1-0-3
Last meeting: April 15, 2017; 2-0 Dash

Rachel Daly's goal celebration with Kealia Ohai was quite the hit. (photo courtesy Houston Dash)

Rachel Daly has scored every time she’s played Chicago.
(photo courtesy Houston Dash)

Thanks to the NWSL’s unique world of scheduling, we’ve already reached the first rematch of the 2017 season. On opening weekend, Chicago looked the better team for much of the game but couldn’t find the back of the net and ultimately left Houston without points. Since then, they’ve moved Julie Ertz to midfield and Christen Press back to striker, but results have been mixed. However, look for Rory Dames to continue with this lineup in hopes that Press returns to the form that has terrorized NWSL defenses off and on since 2014. Houston continues to tweak the backline, so Press and Jen Hoy would do well to focus on the flanks and stretch out a defense that may not have played together as a unit yet.

The last matchup between these two teams produced a wealth of turnovers in a highly physical midfield battle before the heat took its toll on the visitors, allowing Rachel Daly to let loose with a highlight reel-worthy goal. That shouldn’t be a factor this time around, and the Dash are going to need to find their most consistent performance of the season yet to take home points. If Andressa doesn’t return to the lineup, the Dash are unlikely to win the midfield battle and should focus on keeping numbers behind the ball and unleashing the speed of Daly and Kealia Ohai at choice moments.

Keep an eye on:
• Who can score if Press doesn’t
• Jane Campbell to get another rotation in goal

{Related: Run of Play: Penalty Kickin’ It}

***

Sky Blue FC (1-1-1) at Washington Spirit (0-2-1)

Saturday, 7 p.m. EDT, Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 7-4-2
In Washington: Sky Blue, 3-2-2
Last meeting: July 31, 2016; 3-1 Spirit

Taylor Lytle and Sky Blue FC kick off NWSL play in Seattle on Saturday, April 15 (photo courtesy of ISI Photos and Sky Blue)

Taylor Lytle and Sky Blue FC hope to create a winning streak. (photo courtesy of ISI Photos and Sky Blue)

While much of Washington’s recent press has been caught up in the Mallory Pugh saga, the team has slowly been figuring itself out. After a disappointing opening match, they nearly took home three points in Orlando and were certainly the better second half team last week against Houston. The problem remains an inability to score. Injuries have decimated their forwards, and although new signings such as Crystal Thomas and Lindsay Agnew have shown promise, that hasn’t translated to goals. Their best chance last week came off a Shelina Zadorsky header on a set piece. This week they face a very young defense that although came up with a clean sheet at home last week, still has its weaknesses. For both mentality and points, the Spirit need to find the back of the net. On the other end, the defense is in good hands behind Estelle Johnson and Stephanie Labbe, both recently named to the inaugural NWSL Team of the Month.

Similarly, Sky Blue took a few weeks to find themselves, but last week they opened their home season with a deserved three points. Daphne Corboz, in her first start, combined well with Kelley O’Hara and helped Raquel Rodriguez deny FCKC the midfield battle, but both Corboz and Rodriguez are out this week with excused absences.  It’s a big blow for Sky Blue in the center of the park, and with O’Hara likely to drop into the midfield and work with Taylor Lytle to take on Tori Huster, they want more than ever for Sam Kerr to find her form. What was beginning to look like a surefire attack has dropped a few notches and may give Washington an opening.

Keep an eye on:

• The dueling supporters’ groups, as this is one of the shortest distances fans have to travel

***

Seattle Reign FC (1-1-1) at Portland Thorns FC (2-1-0)

Saturday, 10 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 6-5-2
In Portland: Thorns, 4-2-1
Last meeting: August 27, 2016, 3-1 Reign

The Thorns won the NWSL Shield in 2016, but Mark Parsons believes the best is yet to come. (Photo Courtesy Portland Thorns FC)

The Cascadia rivalry resumes in Portland (Photo Courtesy Portland Thorns FC)

No matter what form the teams are in, this is always one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the year. The only pure rivalry in the NWSL, they split last year’s series with a win apiece alongside two draws despite finishing the season four spots apart on the table. Only two points separate them at the moment, but bragging rights as much as anything else are up for grabs. Continuing to be dogged by injuries, most notably Tobin Heath, Portland has struggled for creativity in its offense. Two of their three goals have come from penalty kicks. Mark Parsons inserted Hayley Raso in place of Mallory Weber last week, and although she lacks Heath’s skill on the ball, her pure energy could wreak havoc against a backline that simply couldn’t keep up with a similar attack from Boston.

With a series of up and down performances, Seattle seeks consistency, though they’re unlikely to be given much of an opportunity to find it at Providence Park. Haley Kopmeyer has to keep her defense organized against the likes of Christine Sinclair, who is adept at splitting centerbacks, while her outside backs need to find their balance between contributing to the attack without leaving too much space behind them. Seattle’s best chance for success lies on the shoulders of Jess Fishlock, whose unbelievable work rate exemplifies the box-to-box midfielder but may not prove enough if her teammates can’t pick up some of the burden.

Keep an eye on:
• Allie Long, whose club success has been slightly quieter than normal due to playing a deeper role
• Laura Harvey to try something new in her lineup

***

Orlando Pride (0-2-1) at FC Kansas City (1-2-0)

Sunday, 6 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 2-0-0
In Kansas City: Kansas City, 1-0-0
Last meeting: September 24, 2016; 2-1 Kansas City

Becky Sauerbrunn is on the Best XI again and is the only player to appear on all four. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Can Becky Sauerbrunn stop the slide? (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

One team will likely break a streak in this game. On the one hand, FCKC has never been shut out for three games in a row and have never lost three games in a row in the same season. The problem is, they also haven’t scored since Amy Rodriguez did in the season opener. Although they still have Sydney Leroux, who continues to return to form and match fitness, she showed last week in the absence of Shea Groom that she struggles as a lone striker. Brittany Ratcliffe might be the answer, as she was a pest in Kailen Sheridan’s side all night last week. Luckily, they’re facing an Orlando defense that has yet to keep a clean sheet. On the other end of the field, FCKC’s defense remains mostly stout, although Christina Gibbons is still trying to shed a few rookie moments.

Orlando has never beaten FCKC in their short history, and they also haven’t won a game yet this year. For all the noise about their signings in Marta and Ali Krieger, neither has quite lived up to immediate promise. Although Tom Sermanni’s backline has some good individual moments, they lack communication, and a player like Leroux will be quick to pounce on that. As for Marta, she can’t carry an offense herself. She’s handed Jasmyne Spencer a few goals on a platter, but her fellow striker has been unable to put them away. What both teams share are struggles in the middle of the park, putting too much pressure on their defenses while being unable to create plays in the final third. This game could go either way.

Keep an eye on:
• FCKC’s attendance in their first ever Pride night
• Monica, whose elusive success at DM will be key to Orlando’s success as a whole

{Related: Harris sounds off on Orlando’s troubles}

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