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NWSL Week 11 Preview: It’s All About Depth

With eight teams coming off midweek games, squad rotation is the name of the game. North Carolina will retain their grip on first place once again, but Chicago is right behind them, and any one of four teams could jump into the last two playoff spots. Fifteen points already separate the first and last place teams, so we could see some separation on the table as we head toward the halfway point. Depth (or a lack thereof) could make or break some teams as we wrap up Week 11.

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GAME OF THE WEEK

Portland Thorns FC (5-3-3) at Seattle Reign FC (4-2-5)

Saturday, 10:30 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: Thorns lead, 6-5-3
In Seattle: Reign lead, 3-2-1
Last meeting: May 6, 2017; 2-2 draw

This one is always a no-brainer. The Cascadia showdowns are perennial highlights of the NWSL, especially when both teams are playing well, and their May draw likely left both teams dissatisfied. Seattle is undefeated at Memorial this year, although it took a pair of penalty kicks to erase a deficit against Chicago Wednesday. With a midfield not as strong as they’re used to despite the tireless Jess Fishlock running amok, their flanks have become more important than ever, and Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi have risen to the task. They’re likely to find both space behind and success against Portland’s outside backs, so look for much of their attack to begin there. The Reign will also be pleased to have Lauren Barnes return from suspension to anchor the defense.

Portland struggles on the road, with only one win away so far this year, and there’s no better evidence of that than the difference in their recent performances against Washington and Kansas City. They were a different team in Providence Park, but they don’t have that advantage on Saturday. It will be a huge boon if Christine Sinclair has indeed unlocked whatever funk was plaguing her for the first ten weeks. Unlike the Reign, Portland will want to move the ball up the middle of the park, especially as they’ll be without Nadia Nadim, although Ashleigh Sykes is working her way in as a replacement.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Rebekah Stott

Stott slotted centrally while Barnes was out but should move back to right back on her return. The New Zealander is a strong defender who doesn’t often get caught up the field. She’ll likely be tasked with shutting down the energetic Hayley Raso, with whom she’s familiar from the W-League.

Adrianna Franch

As solid a shot stopper as ever, the Thorns’ netminder has improved her rightfully criticized distribution, although she still has a tendency to be hurried into poor decisions, something a player like Rapinoe can exploit.

Keep an eye on:

  • Seattle’s midfield formation
  • Portland’s right back

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Two Matildas (Steph Catley and Sam Kerr) take to the air in attempts of winning the header. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Sam Kerr is on fire. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Sky Blue FC (5-6-1) at North Carolina Courage (8-3-0)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Courage lead, 8-3-1 (plus 1-0-0 playoffs)
In North Carolina: Courage lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: May 24, 2017; 2-0 Courage

North Carolina is one of the lucky two teams that didn’t have a midweek game, and they get a home game this weekend to boot. They’ve already demonstrated their depth in the face of injuries, and Ashley Hatch in particular is making it harder and harder for Paul Riley to consider returning her to the bench. On the other end, Katelyn Rowland appears to have supplanted Sabrina D’Angelo without skipping a beat. She’ll need to corral the Abbys, both Dalhkemper and Erceg, in front of her in order to avoid giving up an inch of space to Sam Kerr.

Speaking of Kerr, her good form continues to lead Sky Blue’s attack, but it wasn’t enough against Orlando despite scoring the goal of the year. A mess in defense helped Orlando come from behind to take three points in New Jersey, and with the Courage’s rested firepower up next, it’s not going to get any easier. They’re desperately missing Erica Skroski, but until she returns, Christie Pearce is going to have to find a way to get tighter play out of Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills. Sky Blue also wants to clear up the midfield turnovers that plagued them against Orlando, especially when facing the formidable McCall Zerboni. Both teams have plenty of speed, so look for a fast-paced game with plenty of counterattacks.

Keep an eye on:

  • The return of Lynn Williams
  • Sam Kerr’s goal celebrations

{Related: Q&A with Daphne Corboz}

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Francesca Ordega fires off the shot that would lift the Washington Spirit over the Portland Thorns. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Francesca Ordega is the Spirit’s leading goalscorer. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit (3-5-2) at Boston Breakers (2-6-3)

Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Breakers lead, 4-2-5
In Boston: Breakers lead, 3-1-2
Last meeting: June 10, 2016; 1-1 draw

They may have been robbed of three points in Houston, but regardless, Boston enters this match on a six-game winless streak. Unfortunately for them, they’re hosting a rested Spirit who is coming off a win over Portland. Squad rotation due to the midweek match may mean more minutes for Adriana Leon, and that’s for the best, as her relentless work rate on the wing will be necessary against the Spirit backline. She can also provide service to Natasha Dowie, who is in desperate need of something besides a ball over the top. Also key will be Angela Salem tucking in on top of the Boston defense in order to prevent the breakaways that have brought Washington success.

It’s past time to admit the Spirit have assembled a team better than anyone anticipated, and although improvements need to be made in order to compete for a playoff spot, their confidence and momentum should be high right now. They’re at their best in transition, which Boston has struggled to defend against at times, so they would be wise to play to their speed, unleashing Francisca Ordega and Cheyna Williams rather than relying on patient build up. Sammy Jo Prudhomme, in goal for Abby Smith, also hasn’t appeared confident at times in set pieces, so that is something to watch for.

Keep an eye on:

  • Leon to return to the starting XI
  • Ordega’s fouling – she’s second in the league for fouls conceded

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Five-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta and 2016 NWSL Rookie of the Year Raquel Rodriguez battle for possession. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Marta is the focal point of Orlando’s offense. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Chicago Red Stars (6-3-2) at Orlando Pride (4-4-3)

Saturday, 5:00 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 2-0-0
In Orlando: Red Stars lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: July 16, 2016; 1-0 Red Stars

Orlando is riding high after their comeback against Sky Blue, but their defeat in their last home game is still fresh in their minds. Look for further rotation up top from Tom Sermanni, who may also continue to tinker with Alanna Kennedy’s partner in central midfield. His defense appears to be set, and while Kristen Edmonds did well to get forward against Sky Blue, she left a lot of space for Ali Krieger to cover, who appeared at times to be back in her natural spot at right back. While Krieger is likely to be hovering on the shoulder of Christen Press trying to stop her from turning, both Edmonds and Steph Catley want to keep an eye on Sofia Huerta. Key for Orlando is Marta – the more she’s involved the better. The Brazilian is second in the Golden Boot race already and is involved in nearly every single Pride goal.

Chicago comes off a rough game in Seattle that saw them lose to penalty kicks, and it doesn’t get easier as they have to immediately fly across the country in a brutal scheduling move. Their depth is about to be tested, though Danielle Colaprico is probable and could return after missing Wednesday with a sprained ankle. While they have the better midfield, Orlando’s is slowly improving and is capable of clogging it up centrally, so Casey Short and Arin Gilliland will be called upon to provide much-needed width. Look for Julie Ertz to be tasked with frustrating Marta to break up any Orlando attacks before they start. Both teams will resort to balls over the top if necessary and might have to, as I expect this game to be battled in midfield.

Keep an eye on:

  • The return of Alex Morgan
  • Orlando’s high backline to catch Press offside

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Carli Lloyd returned to the Dash after spending the spring with Manchester City. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Carli Lloyd will be involved in most Dash attacks. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Houston Dash (3-7-1) at FC Kansas City (3-4-4)

Sunday, 8:00 p.m EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 4-2-2
In Kansas City: Dash lead, 1-0-2
Last meeting: June 19, 2016; 1-0 Kansas City

For as much as we talk about how good FCKC’s defense is, they gave up eight goals in the month of June and haven’t won since May 27. With an attack capable but as yet inconsistent, the game plan was supposed to consist of the defense holding down the fort while the offense found its way. Should their defensive stumbles–such as giving up three goals in Portland–continue, they could be in trouble. Much of this centers around the reality that Becky Sauerbrunn can’t do everything, much as we’d like her to, and she’s not quick, which leaves her exposed when there’s too much space around her.

The good news for Kansas City is that Houston’s offense, for all its potential on paper, doesn’t appear to be clicking anytime soon. They began with good buildup against Boston but it was all for naught, sputtering out in the final third. The Dash will have to be quicker with their decision-making in order to make anything happen. The continued preference for Janine Beckie in midfield over Denise O’Sullivan could be another problem, as she struggles with possession and is ripe for someone like Desiree Scott to jump all over. One bright spot for Houston is Jane Campbell, who has earned two successive clean sheets. However, the Dash have never had three successive clean sheets, just as they’ve never lost in Kansas City.

Keep an eye on:

  • Passing between Sauerbrunn and Yael Averbuch – they lead the league in passes
  • Amber Brooks at centerback

{Read More: USWNT to Play Canada | Herdman Eyes Top Ranking}

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