It’s Week 5 in NWSL. Dan Lauletta and Allison Lee discuss what we should watch for over the next two days.
If you break the season down into six equal sections, this week signals the start of the second section. What are some of the most pressing on-field issues to be resolved?
DAN: It’s easy to say that it’s the Pride needing a win or FC Kansas City needing to find some offense, but I’m going to go to Portland and discuss their injuries for a moment. Tobin Heath has not played in two months due to a back injury and is out at least this weekend and next. The problem area is Heath’s back, and backs have torpedoed the careers of many athletes over the years. I’m not suggesting Heath’s injury is anywhere near that serious, but two months is a long time and her return date—at least publicly—continues to get pushed back. Moreover, the Thorns miss her presence on the flank and when neither Katherine Reynolds nor Meghan Klingenberg were there either, it left noticeable space for opponents to exploit. Klingenberg returned for a half last weekend and is presumably read for 90 against Kansas City, but as talented as they are the Thorns are missing Tobin Heath.
ALLISON: As Dan said, it’s easy to say the Pride need a win, and that’s because it’s very obvious that they are the team that’s struggling the most to find results at this point in the season. I don’t think it’s the personnel that’s the problem though; it’s Tom Sermanni needing to find the right combination on the field to be the most effective. They do have Marta, who has finally scored her first NWSL goal so that pressure is off, and the team does seem to be having a slightly easier time finding her the ball, but there’s still lots of room for improvement, on all parts of the field. Having Monica out this week with a bone bruise is going to hurt, as she has been pretty solid defensively for the Pride so far this season. Unfortunately, not only is she out, but they’re also playing the Courage this week. The way the Pride have been playing so far this season, I don’t see them being the first team to upset the Courage.
None of the five matchups this weekend jump off the page. Which one are you looking forward to?
ALLISON: This is kind of a meh weekend in the NWSL schedule. There’s no rivalries and none of the top teams are clashing. For me, I’m most interested in watching the Red Stars hosting Boston. I think this has the potential to be the most exciting of the matches and the teams are pretty evenly matched so far this season. Even though Rose Lavelle is attending her graduation from Wisconsin today, she will be available to play tomorrow for the Breakers, and her and Julie Ertz both in the midfield for their respective teams could be fun to watch.
DAN: Meh is an understatement. I like the Courage-Pride matchup because I find both teams interesting and Marta and Debinha may be my two favorite players in the league to watch. But for most intriguing I am leaning toward Reign-Spirit. We still don’t know what either team is, and they both sit right in the middle of the table at this point. I don’t see Laura Harvey going 3-4-3 for the long haul, but would she do it against a Spirit side that lacks pace and has been susceptible to turnovers? I think she might. As for the Spirit, they came alive last week but Player of the Week Francisca Ordega has yet to prove she can be a difference maker on a consistent basis. Beyond that I am curious to see if Jim Gabarra starts Meggie Dougherty-Howard and Lindsey Agnew again. Both did well against Sky Blue.
The number of players missing for “excused absences” is on the rise. Is this a concern?
DAN: Here’s a little secret. The reason this is front and center now is because the league is now listing non-injury absences on the Friday injury report. No specific reasons are given and it could be anything from attending college graduation to flying to Australia to be feted to a death in the family. Yes, I feel like there have been a lot—especially at Sky Blue—but I’m not concerned. Athletes that reach professional status sacrifice plenty to get there and you can bet on any given weekend that you are watching an NWSL player who is missing a significant even in their or their families’ lives.
ALLISON: I mentioned this last weekend, but this is something that has gone on every single season, we just didn’t see those players listed on the injury reports like we do this season. I like that the league and the teams are being more transparent with player absences this season, but I have a slightly different take on it than Dan does. While players do sacrifice a lot to get to where they are, their season is also six months long, and this is their job. It’s not always fun and it’s not always easy, but sometimes you have to miss events so that you can fulfill the responsibilities of your job. Especially when your presence on the field with your team could be the difference between your team getting three points or walking away empty-handed.
Which team most needs a result this weekend? Which team most needs a strong performance this weekend?
ALLISON: As I said earlier, Orlando is in desperate need of some points this weekend, but they’ll be incredibly lucky or their level of play will have to have improved since last weekend—of the Courage will just have to have an off game—to steal any away from North Carolina. I think Sky Blue also needs a strong performance this weekend. Christie Pearce is no longer listed on the injury report and if she does play for them, their defense will be much stronger. However, Kelley O’Hara didn’t travel with them to Houston since she’s out with an excused absence, so they’re once again not at full strength. Hopefully Sam Kerr, who will be shouldering the majority of the Sky Blue attack in O’Hara’s absence, will be able to get her first goal of the 2017 season and get her goal-scoring mojo flowing again.
DAN: Easily the Pride need to win. If they don’t, they tie the league record winless streak of 13 set by the 2013 Washington Spirit. And record or not, this sort of thing can become embedded into a team’s culture. But I’m looking at the Chicago Red Stars. I’m not worried about their place in the standings—they’re in a playoff position despite only Julie Ertz having scored—but I am starting to worry about their attack—only Julie Ertz has scored. Watching them, you can see great soccer waiting to happen, but then comes a quick moment of indecision or technical breakdown. At their best they should be able to tear apart the Breakers defense. But will it result in goals? It’s not time to worry yet, but it’s time to notice.