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NWSL Week In Review: Safety First? Or Maybe Not?

Christie Pearce tries to block a ball from Lynn Williams during a match between the NC Courage and Sky Blue FC in Cary, NC in Week 7 of the 2017 NWSL season. )Photo by Lewis Gettier.)

Christie Pearce tries to block a ball from Lynn Williams during a match between the NC Courage and Sky Blue FC in Cary, NC in Week 7 of the 2017 NWSL season. )Photo by Lewis Gettier.)

Across town from BBVA Compass Stadium at Minute Maid Park, the retractable roof was closed for Saturday night’s Houston Astros game with Baltimore, and with good reason. Who the heck wants to sit out in 90-degree heat for a few hours? In fact, the roof is rarely given a break in anything resembling the summer, having opened in August once last season for the first time in a decade on an unseasonably cool (for Texas at least) evening.

It doesn’t make everyone happy, of course, but safety first for both the players and spectators.

Most of you reading this saw the extremely scary scene involving the Dash’s Rachel Daly at the end of the national Lifetime broadcast Saturday, with Daly collapsing due to what turned out to be heat exhaustion (Daly was released from the hospital Sunday, and is expected to be fine). The temperature at BBVA Compass Stadium – which obviously has no roof – was announced as 92 degrees at kickoff, with the heat index well into triple digits.

It’s also fairly common knowledge why kickoff was slated for 3 p.m. local time, which just so happens to be the hottest time of the day. Lifetime Network gave the NWSL a weekly time slot on Saturday afternoons, and it was an offer they couldn’t refuse. To be fair, while I immediately pointed out that Houston and Orlando are two places where they would broadcast and both are oppressive in the summer, I didn’t make it a huge issue, and the league paid at least a cursory nod to the possibility: the Dash will not host another Lifetime contest until late September (although Orlando has games on June 24 and August 12).

When it comes to the dangers of heat and soccer, we learn from the past but very slowly, possibly because no one has been seriously injured, at least in a professional game. But the death of Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Korey Stringer in 2001 changed everything in athletics, with new protocols being put in at almost every level of every sport, from youth leagues all the way up (which doesn’t mean, of course, that the problem is solved, but awareness is much, much higher than it was 15 years ago).

However, soccer – particularly at high levels – presents its own problems for playing in extreme heat. Teams are allowed only three substitutions per game, and throwing in hydration breaks can only do so much. MLS has faced the same problems NWSL has with sub-optimal kickoff times, and has reluctantly played games on hot summer afternoons for television purposes or crowds. In 2003, just two years after Stringer’s death, Jimmy Conrad had to be stretchered off like Daly because of heat exhaustion in a mid-day kickoff. The next year, MLS dropped overtime in regular season matches.

In 2012, the Red Bulls scheduled an afternoon mid-week game in July to allow camps to bring kids to Red Bull Arena, which led to a big crowd, but 102-degree temperatures in the second half. Of course, safety comes first, but the account of that match indicates another huge problem with playing in the heat: the quality of the product stinks, many times leading to a slow, plodding match like a national audience saw between Seattle and Houston Saturday. Because trying to push yourself too hard could lead to a trip to the hospital in the postgame.

So what are the solutions for NWSL? They may not be as easy as they look. As you may have noticed, the MLS examples come from New York, which is not in the south, but still can get oppressive in the summer. Some of the biggest problems in the past with NWSL heat have come from Kansas City, and – although there is less chance in places like Seattle and Portland – any site with an afternoon kickoff in July or August could see similar conditions.

And although soccer features strenuous activity, other sports haven’t completely solved their heat problems, either, with baseball umpires, tennis players, and golfers, among others, having suffered heat exhaustion in the summer sun and humidity recently.

As they have in the past, the NWSL did come out with a statement on the matter, saying: “We will immediately review these measures to prevent this situation from occurring in the future.” What will that entail? Good question. They already have hydration breaks, and any schedule changes will likely have to wait until next season.

While MLS has learned slowly, it has made improvements. For instance, the Dash’s partner, the Houston Dynamo, do not play an afternoon home game from April to September this season. But if you watch enough MLS this season, you will see a game on television somewhere in oppressive conditions. And I guess we just have to hope safety prevails.

The NWSL will try to do the same, however the schedule is a bit cringeworthy at the moment. Consider Sat., July 1 when Boston, North Carolina, and Orlando are all home, with the latest kickoff of the three coming at 5 p.m. In fact, just about every weekend features another afternoon game in the potential afternoon heat in addition to the Lifetime match. That may be a small thing that NWSL can certainly address in 2018.

It should be remembered that safety needs to be first and foremost in all aspects of the game. I once attended an MLS game at Giants Stadium in miserable conditions on an April afternoon in 2007. The Red Bulls goalkeeper was overcome and had to be helped to the locker room at halftime and removed from the match.

Heat exhaustion? Nope. Hypothermia.

What else did we learn this weekend which featured six matches and no draws?

WEDNESDAY

North Carolina 2:0 Sky Blue (recap)

What Went Down: I’m kind of torn on Christy Holly resting Sam Kerr (and Raquel Rodriguez) for a mid-week game in May. Kerr has had some injuries in the past, but she’s only 23 and there are only 24 games in the NWSL regular season. Playing without Kerr (who did come on in the second half) meant that Sky Blue was likely not going to generate much offense and it didn’t.

Then again, maybe resting her was the right idea because it wouldn’t have mattered. The Courage were dominant from the opening kickoff, outshooting the visitors 21-2 on a wet night and forcing Kailen Sheridan into 11 saves, many of them difficult ones. Paul Riley rotated a little, including in goal (Katelyn Rowland got the clean sheet, although she didn’t have to do much), but the stars all played.

Player of the Game: Kailen Sheridan – I know, putting losing goalkeepers here has become old already this season, but Sheridan was spectacular on Wednesday night as her team gave her little help. .

Under the Radar: Sam Mewis – Mewis got a goal on one of the longest scrambles off a corner kick you’ll see, but also got into an attacking position more in this match, which might have been due to the nature of the contest, but something the Courage could stand to see more often.

Inside the Numbers: 8 – Shot machine Lynn Williams got eight more Wednesday, including one from distance that beat Sheridan. As you probably know by now, Williams was left off the latest USWNT roster, however.

Up next: North Carolina – at Chicago (Sat.); Sky Blue – vs. Orlando (Sat.)

SATURDAY

Houston 0:2 Seattle (recap)

What Went Down: We’ve talked about the heat already, but the Dash really had the better of play and were able to create a few chances, but their finishing was beyond dreadful, with Kealia Ohai and the struggling Janine Beckie getting themselves into dangerous positions multiple times, only to flub their lines (as they would say across the pond).

Then at the other end, their defense just hasn’t been good enough, and although they were a bit unlucky on the first goal, Katie Johnson made them look silly on the second, and that seems to happen every game. And so their woes continue, even if they won the shots on goal battle 8-3.

Player of the Game: Katie Johnson – I don’t know how long she’ll be able to continue this, but Johnson is just lethal when she gets the ball anywhere near the penalty box. She showed more than that Saturday as well (replacing an injured Beverly Yanez, who got a nasty leg gash). Her first NWSL start should be coming soon.

Under the Radar: Andressinha (Andressa) – She makes the Dash much better going forward and created a few scoring chances for her team that they unfortunately couldn’t finish.

Inside the Numbers: -8 – Goal differential for Houston, which is the worst in NWSL currently.

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

Chicago 3:2 North Carolina (recap)

What Went Down: The Red Stars have finally broken out of their scoring slump and are now unsurprisingly headed toward the top of the table. There were plenty of concerns about the North Carolina (then Western New York) defense last season, and they have showed some weakness against good teams, like two weeks in a row against Chicago. But the quality of the Red Stars players also have a lot to do it, especially Vanessa DiBernardo on the third goal.

The Courage still generated a pair of set piece goals and won’t be overly concerned with this result. But Chicago has looked like the best team in NWSL the last two weeks.

Player of the Game: Christen Press – I did not vote Press for NWSL Player of the Week last week, and actually thought she might be better in this match, even though she didn’t score. You saw her play with confidence, especially in the second half, and we know how difficult she is to deal with while in form.

Under the Radar: Debinha – Unfortunately, Debinha entered because of an injury to Yuri Kawamura, which could be a problem for the Courage going forward, but she was excellent and gave Chicago’s defense fits, even before her wonderful free kick goal.

Inside the Numbers: 9 – Total shots on goal in the contest, which means it might not have been as open a game as you’d think.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Seattle (Sun.); North Carolina – vs. Kansas City (Sat.)

Sky Blue 2:1 Orlando (recap  |  Krieger on USWNT  |  D’Avanzo)

What Went Down: Again, the Pride were a little bit unlucky, while Sky Blue was fortunate to get three points, but you make your own luck in some way, especially in a short season such as NWSL has. Like they did Wednesday, Sky Blue was severely outplayed in the first 20-25 minutes, but this time Sam Kerr was around and she took advantage of a nice pass from Daphne Corboz to equalize before Maya Hayes got behind the Orlando defense late for the game-winner.

The Sky Blue defense sometimes looks disorganized, as it did on Orlando’s goal (which was pretty from Marta to Camila to Jasmyne Spencer), but has not broken completely, largely due to the play of Sheridan. But if you’re the Pride, you leave wondering how a Marta-led team scores only once against that lineup.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – Again, she did appear in the North Carolina game in mid-week late, but you can see the difference in the Sky Blue attack with and without Kerr. Something to keep in mind as we approach an international break (for rest purposes).

Under the Radar: Camila – Camila had one of the prettiest assists you’ll see on Jasmyne Spencer’s goal and continues to be a shining light on the Pride season, despite some results not going their way. There is still time to turn it around.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of times Raquel Rodriguez was fouled, as she had another strong game in the middle for Sky Blue.

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Portland (Sat.); Orlando – vs. Boston (Sat.)

Kansas City 3:2 Washington (recap)

What Went Down: Well, we didn’t expect to see five goals in this one, did we? FCKC came out with a bit of an attitude, especially after falling behind early and were able to grab three more points from Washington. Mallory Pugh had her moments, but did little in between those moments playing in a wide position, which is something Jim Gabarra will likely have to contemplate before this week’s game.

FCKC was very aggressive and it led to a feisty contest and them being down to 10 players midway through the second half when last week’s hero, Alexa Newfield, got her second yellow card of the evening. But that aggression also forced a couple of Washington mistakes that led to Kansas City goals, so I think Vlatko Andonovski will take the latter. Minutes after a delay because Becky Sauerbrunn lost a contact lens, she scored a wonderful headed goal in traffic, so there was that, too.

Player of the Game: Sydney Leroux – Leroux got a mandated call-up to the USWNT this week, although Ellis hasn’t seen her up close in more than a year and probably wants to assess her. Leroux has been largely ineffective since Amy Rodriguez got injured, but showed her opportunistic side Saturday, pouncing on two first-half chances and burying them both, which is how she got to the USWNT in the first place.

Under the Radar: Shea Groom – The record will show that Groom fouled Pugh just a minute into the contest, but – like Leroux – Groom is at her best when close to the edge. Groom almost solely conjured Leroux’s second goal out of nothing, stealing the ball in the Washington back and leaving it for Leroux to do the rest. Most definitely an encouraging evening for the pair..

Inside the Numbers: 1,728 – Attendance for Mallory Pugh’s first NWSL start, which is not an encouraging sign going forward, but we shall see.

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

Portland 2:0 Boston (recap)

What Went Down: Remember when we were talking about the Thorns’ international players and showing what they’ve done with the national team? Well, this was it, especially in the first half as Portland just took it straight to Boston and basically finished the game off in the first five minutes, scoring both goals. The Thorns largely shut it down from there, as Adrianna Franch had to make just one save to record another clean sheet.

Boston can be encouraged by the fact it likely would have lost this contest 6-1 or so in past seasons and played even in the second half, even bossing possession at times. But their fate on Saturday was sealed before then. Portland got physical with Rose Lavelle, which is something she will likely have to deal with going forward, while Allysha Chapman was sent off late in the second half for an exposed cleat. According to the stats, it was Chapman’s only foul of the evening.

Player of the Game: Amandine Henry – Maybe it’s taken this much time for Henry to get acclimated to NWSL, but she has shown her quality the last few games, having a hand in both goals and doing a fantastic job of controlling the midfield for most of the contest as well. With Tobin Heath back soon, a Thorns team playing like this is obviously dangerous.

Under the Radar: Celeste Boureille – As perhaps the least known of the starting Thorns, Boureille has been picked on by opponents at times this season, but she more than held her own Saturday, with a combination of Emelie Haavi, Lavelle, and Natasha Dowie coming at her.

Inside the Numbers: 9 – Unbeaten streak at Providence Park (in the regular season) for the Thorns, with eight of them being victories. With 18,367 in attendance on Saturday, Portland would love to get a home game in the postseason again.

Up next: Portland – at Sky Blue (Sat.); Boston – at Orlando (Sat.)

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