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NWSL Week 14 Preview

With the international break looming, every team is ready for rest. Some, such as FCKC, may want to use this time to hit the reset button, going back to the drawing board in an attempt to salvage a season that’s skewing out of control. Others, such as Chicago and North Carolina, would like to enter this break secure in their playoff spots and prepare to hunt for the Shield when they return. Sky Blue and Washington face defensive issues, while Orlando’s and Houston’s attacks are finding their bites. It’s a race for the finish after they return, but first they have to battle in NWSL Week 14.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Nairn scored the first of six goals last weekend to help Seattle in their rout of the Washing Spirit by a score of 6-2 (Photo Credit: Jane Gershovich)

Christine Nairn leads Seattle’s midfield in Jess Fishlock’s absence. (Photo Credit: Jane Gershovich)

Sky Blue FC (7-6-2) at Seattle Reign FC (5-3-6)

Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: tied, 3-3-5
In Seattle: Sky Blue lead, 2-1-3
Last meeting: April 15, 2017; 1-1 draw

If you’ll notice above, Sky Blue is winning the series in Seattle. In fact, they’re the only visiting team with a winning record in Seattle. Memorial has been a fortress for the Reign, but Sky Blue is their kryptonite, dealing them their first ever defeat at home last season and fighting for a draw in this season’s opener, a game which was decided by a pair of penalty kicks and an incredible performance from Haley Kopmeyer. The goalkeeper should be ready to do so again, for Sky Blue’s offense has plenty of bite thanks to Sam Kerr, who leads the Golden Boot race (without a penalty kick to her name). In second place is Megan Rapinoe, who Boston proved last week can be shut down, and when she’s quiet, particularly for a team without Jess Fishlock, the rest of the team is, too. However, they still have Nahomi Kawasumi, who may not be as flashy but can be just as deadly, and perennially underrated Beverly Yanez, who has found herself benched a few times this season in favor of the more aggressive Merritt Mathias. Seattle wants a little bit more from its midfield, particularly Christine Nairn, to avoid all play being forced to the flanks.

Kerr provides the heroics week after week for Sky Blue after they went down two goals to Chicago but may be tiring of doing so, and at some point it won’t be enough. They’re second in the league in goals for (after Seattle) but tied for the most goals against. Seattle at their best is capable of pinning Sky Blue inside their half, but midfielders Raquel Rodriguez and Daphne Corboz can change that tune, and a quick transition game can be effective against the Reign. Keep an eye on the Kelley O’Hara-Rapinoe matchup, with the potential to be both entertaining and card-worthy. Speaking of cards, Nikki Stanton is on four yellows and probably lucky not to be suspended after last week.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Rumi Utsugi

The midfielder is probably the best out of the current midfield trio, and an excellent game from her can render Kerr ineffective. Much like her Japanese teammate Kawasumi, Utsugi doesn’t grab the headlines, but she’s a big part of the reason Seattle is tied for the best goal differential in the league.

Erica Skroski

If Sky Blue doesn’t make the playoffs, all fingers will be pointed at their defense. The second-year player has had her name in the national team conversation, but she’ll need to step up to keep it there, especially alongside struggling rookie Kayla Mills and Christie Pearce who, it must be said, has lost a step.

Keep an eye on:
• Kristen McNabb, who can compete for Rookie of the Year with more consistent minutes
• Sam Kerr’s goal celebrations
***

Moving Julie Ertz to the midfield has really made a difference for the Red Stars. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Moving Julie Ertz to the midfield has really made a difference for the Red Stars. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Orlando Pride (5-5-4) at Chicago Red Stars (7-3-4)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 3-0-0
In Chicago: Red Stars lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: July 1, 2017; 1-0 Red Stars

It took a penalty kick for Chicago to take all three points in what otherwise should have been a scoreless draw in Orlando last time these two teams met, the only match this season in which Rory Dames felt his team was outplayed. In that game, the Red Stars were mostly held to shots from distance, and a lack of finishing let them down when they did get their chances. The same lack of finishing dogged them last week in New Jersey, where a few better placed shots would have given them a victory they should have taken anyway after going up 2-0 early. The Red Stars clearly took their foot off the gas last week, and should they do the same, Marta and Alex Morgan are as capable of making them pay as Sam Kerr did. Chicago likes to attack down the spine, but they’d do well in this game to find some width by pulling Casey Short and Arin Gilliland up high. Christen Press was marked fairly closely by Ali Krieger in their last meeting, so watch for Sofia Huerta to be the difference maker.

Orlando is flying high after running rampant over FC Kansas City last week, but they face an entirely different test in Chicago, a team against which they’ve never scored but have only conceded one goal in all three of their meetings. The Red Stars also have yet to lose at home this year, only giving up two draws in seven games. Of particular importance will be Camila, who got into attack at will in her first game for Orlando at right back (replacing the ineffectual Kristen Edmonds, who subbed on and promptly scored). However, she wasn’t tested defensively at all, and in the one FCKC goal when Krieger made a mistake and left the flank open, Camila wasn’t in sight. Offensively, things are looking up for the Pride, as Morgan was dynamic against Kansas City. In order to find success in Chicago, the ones the Pride will really be looking to are Dani Weatherholt and Alanna Kennedy in midfield to keep Press isolated and switch the point of attack.

Keep an eye on:
• All four outside backs to spend time forward
***

{Related: The Lowdown: It’s Interesting How We Evaluate the Players}

Megan Oyster has started and played in 13 games for the Breakers this season, logging 1,170 minutes on the backline. (Credit: ISI Photos/Mike Gridley)

Megan Oyster has started and played in 13 games for the Breakers this season, logging 1,170 minutes on the backline. (Credit: ISI Photos/Mike Gridley)

Boston Breakers (3-6-5) at Houston Dash (5-7-2)

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series: Dash lead, 5-2-1
In Houston: Dash lead, 3-0-1
Last meeting: June 28, 2017; 0-0 draw

Last time these two teams met, they ended with a scoreless draw that neither team was likely pleased with. It was a chippy game in which the Dash couldn’t finish to save their lives and Boston was still struggling to move forward without Rose Lavelle. The Dash come to this game in a better place, with Carli Lloyd settling in as the engine of the attack and setting up her teammates left and right. They scraped together a win against the Spirit without Lloyd last week, in which Nichelle Prince continued to demonstrate an impressive workrate, and this five-match unbeaten streak ties their club record. But although the Dash defense has settled and found some consistency, they still lack shape and have a frustrating tendency to give up dangerous fouls late in games. They’ll want to watch getting stretched in wide areas and try to keep up a high press, although that requires more possession than the Dash normally have.

Boston’s in a slightly better place these days as well. In fact, these two teams have the longest undefeated streaks in the league currently, although they’re ranked 7th and 8th. The Breakers put together a scrappy performance at Seattle last week, holding the league’s most productive offense to just one goal at home. The goal they gave up was the result of an Abby Smith error, which makes the selection of Smith over Sammy Jo Prudhomme after the latter set Boston’s record for most minutes without a goal conceded a bit suspect in hindsight. Look for Angela Salem to pay close attention to Lloyd, while offensively they have to figure out a way to keep Natasha Dowie high without stranding her on an island. They’ll also need to overcome their road woes, which haven’t given them a win this year and have only made for five road wins in the four-plus NWSL seasons.

Keep an eye on:
• Morgan Brian, who really needs time on the bench to properly heal
• Christen Westphal, settling in more and more at right back
***

Christina Gibbons is one of four NWSL players nominated for the 2017 NCAA Woman of the Year. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Christina Gibbons seeks further success in central midfield. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

North Carolina Courage (9-5-0) at FC Kansas City (3-7-4)

Saturday, 9:00 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: tied, 4-4-3
In Kansas City: Kansas City lead, 2-1-2
Last meeting: June 3, 2017; 2-0 Courage

I talked at length earlier this week about FCKC’s struggles, but to put it succinctly: there are a lot of them. Whether it’s Sydney Leroux unable to create chances, or the defense that’s given up 19 goals in eight games after only giving up three in its first six games, at the end of the day, they’re on a seven-game winless/four-game losing streak, both their worst ever. They want to play possession-based soccer by playing out of the back, but that appears to be more and more of a stretch each passing week. Unfortunately for them, there’s no reprieve as they host first-place North Carolina. Putting Lo’eau LaBonta back in the lineup alongside Desiree Scott may suffice to relieve pressure on the backline, and FCKC’s best chance for success may be trying to unleash Leroux or Shea Groom’s speed with a ball over the top.

If we learned anything from North Carolina’s loss at Portland last week, it was that if Sam Mewis isn’t having a good game, the team isn’t having a good game. Mewis’ lack of impact plus the push of McCall Zerboni out wide denied much quality service to Lynn Williams or Ashley Hatch, and the team ended the day with a shocking two shots on goal. Hatch and Williams are also still figuring out their roles together, and it may be worth returning Jess McDonald to the starting lineup as she and Williams are notably better together. Look for them to run a high press against Kansas City and wear them down with their relentless pace.

Keep an eye on:
• Groom and Zerboni – no two players in the league get under the skin of others more
• FCKC’s backline — Yael Averbuch, Brittany Taylor, and Sauerbrunn are all on the injury report as probable
***

{Related: Run of Play: Struggle in Kansas City}

The North Carolina Courage once again face off against the Thorns, this time in Portland. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Portland has done just enough to keep them in the playoff picture. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Washington Spirit (3-7-3) at Portland Thorns FC (6-4-4)

Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 5-2-4
In Portland: Thorns lead, 3-0-2
Last meeting: June 24, 2017; 1-0 Spirit

Portland took a hard-fought win from the Courage last week off a header from Hayley Raso. The Australian’s workrate exceeded her output for the first half of this season, her drives too often ending in nothing, but she’s started to convert them into chances and goals. Her Canberra teammate Ashleigh Sykes had her best outing for the Thorns yet, putting in a good shift defensively to keep Jaelene Hinkle from being a factor. The Spirit like to break on the counter, so look for Emily Menges to stay at home in preparation and Adrianna Franch to be quick off her line. The Thorns need to play a faster game than they often do as Washington is good at jumping on players who hold the ball for too long. Portland also wants to redeem themselves from a listless loss at Washington last month.

For the Spirit, it quickly became clear in Houston how much they’re going to miss Francisca Ordega. While Estefania Banini and Mallory Pugh continue to show signs of a good partnership and got the ball down the field, they lacked the person to send it home. Cheyna Williams isn’t there yet, and Cali Farquharson isn’t likely to return for a few more weeks. The Spirit at their best are agitators, forcing turnovers and catching teams in transition. However, they’re equally susceptible to that, asking Stephanie Labbé to cover a significant amount of space. Portland is not as likely to do that as some, but if allowed time on the ball, will build out of midfield. Washington also wants to avoid giving up set pieces. And the kicker – the Spirit are the only other team besides Boston who hasn’t won on the road this year.

Keep an eye on:
• Katherine Reynolds to make her much-desired 2017 debut
• Pugh to switch sides at will, probing for an opening she can beat with her speed

{Read More: Allison’s Friday Favorites: Sky Blue Leads NWSL to Century Mark}

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