It always seems like international breaks have been longer than they actually were, and this is no exception. Perhaps it’s because the last two weeks were chock full of really great women’s soccer. But the NWSL is back, and all eyes are on the playoff spots as we head into the last two months of play. Between injuries and international duty, coaches may have to get creative with their lineups, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what we’ll see in NWSL Week 15.
Note: Tournament of Nations players are expected to be available for selection for the Saturday games.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Seattle Reign FC (6-3-6) at North Carolina Courage (9-5-0)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 5-3-4
In North Carolina: Courage lead, 1-0-0
Last meeting: July 8, 2017; 2-0 Courage
North Carolina has finally fallen from the top spot, although they were denied a chance to reclaim it when their game at Kansas City was postponed due to severe weather. However, they’re still only a point behind Chicago. While we normally talk about the Courage’s explosive offense, they’ve strengthened underneath Katelyn Rowland and are tied for the stingiest defense in the league. While they may be without Abby Dahlkemper and Taylor Smith due to the minutes those two played in the Tournament of Nations, Stephanie Ochs can step in at right back, and Abby Erceg is capable of steadying any partner next to her. Harder to replace will be Sam Mewis, whose partnership in midfield with McCall Zerboni cannot be understated in its importance to this team’s success. With the pressure Seattle likes to bring, Zerboni could have her hands full trying to support the backline.
The biggest question for Seattle is can they do it without Megan Rapinoe? So much of their offense is powered through her, and as a result she attracts attention that frees up Beverly Yanez and Nahomi Kawasumi. Someone like Merritt Mathias, who is an entirely different player, will have to step in. A rest for Rapinoe will compound the loss of the injured Jess Fishlock, removing Seattle’s two most inimitable players. While Kawasumi can provide some of the creativity and Yanez some of the scoring, Christine Nairn really needs to have a good game in order to wrest control of the midfield. The Reign’s outside backs will likely be called on to provide extra width to the attack but will be in danger of getting caught out by the Courage’s strong flank attack.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Last season’s Golden Boot winner isn’t even the leading scorer on her own team now due to games missed with injury. Ashley Hatch has stepped up, but look for Williams to try to reclaim the title in order to find her form again as well as improve her national team stock.
As mentioned previously, Yanez will shoulder more of the scoring burden if Rapinoe is out. An underrated and technically gifted striker, Yanez has a great hold up game and can play provider to her teammates on the wings.
Keep an eye on:
• Aggressive play from all fullbacks
FC Kansas City (3-7-4) at Boston Breakers (3-7-5)
Friday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Jordan Field
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 8-4-0
In Boston: Breakers lead, 3-2-0
Last meeting: April 16, 2017; 2-0 Kansas City
Boston is in eighth place, but they’ve only lost one of their last five games, and of their last six, neither team has scored more than one goal apiece. Defensively, the Breakers have it fairly well sorted out, and although starting goalkeeper Abby Smith will be out due to national team duty, Sammy Jo Prudhomme, who currently holds Breakers records for both clean sheets and consecutive minutes without giving up a goal, is more than capable of stepping in again. However, both Christen Westphal and Brooke Elby, Westphal’s likely replacement on the backline, are out. Regardless, their biggest problem remains the other end of the field – they can’t score. The Breakers have scored the lowest number of goals in the league, and such has been the struggle that Natasha Dowie, who was a game changer for them last year, was benched against Houston. That game may have gone the other way if not for a few outstanding saves by Jane Campbell and a few inches to the other side of the crossbar, but those moments were not frequent enough to tip the scale. They have to figure out how to get the ball to their forwards while those players are in scoring positions, and so far, dropping Natasha Dowie back or playing Margaret Purce in the midfield hasn’t been the answer.
In what may surprise some, FC Kansas City has scored more than Boston this year, but they’ve also given up significantly more, earning the worst goal differential in the league. They’re also on a seven-game winless streak, with four straight losses, and quite frankly, they’re at a must win point. However, they must pull their defense together, a group who has given up 17 goals since their last win, and they’re likely to do so without anchor Becky Sauerbrunn. Look for Yael Averbuch to step up and lead the backline. Another missing key player could be Sydney Leroux, but as she’s struggled to fit into their system, might this open things up for Shea Groom?
Keep an eye on:
• If Purce returns to the backline
• The position of Christina Gibbons
Washington Spirit (3-8-3) at Sky Blue FC (7-7-2)
Friday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series: Sky Blue lead, 7-5-2
In New Jersey: Sky Blue lead, 4-2-0
Last meeting: May 6, 2017; 4-3 Spirit
A lot of the talk around Sky Blue recently has been centered around their amazing, Sam Kerr-led comebacks, and not to take anything away from those, as they’re quite impressive, but what needs to be addressed is why a comeback is necessary in the first place. In order to get back into a playoff position and stay there, Kerr has to take control of a game from the beginning and be able to count on her defense not to squander her efforts. However, a potentially even bigger problem awaits them against Washington – both Kerr and Kelley O’Hara, with whom she’s developed quite the partnership, are coming off a tournament of three games within a week, so even if they are available, they’re likely to be worn out and in desperate need of a rest. Look for the attack to run through Maya Hayes, while Sarah Killion, who will hopefully be on top of the backline rather than in it, needs to be on her game to cut out the Spirit counter.
For as many bright spots as we can point out in Washington’s XI, and there are several, from Stephanie Labbé to Mallory Pugh, the fact remains they’re in last place and didn’t win a game in July. Shelina Zadorsky and Whitney Church need to play tighter, and the high line they prefer, leaving large swathes of ground for Labbé to cover, is just asking to be exposed by a team with Sky Blue’s speed. Look for the Spirit to try to control the midfield and play down the spine, especially if Pugh is rested. The return of Caprice Dydasco has been a big boost on both ends of the pitch, and by all appearances she hasn’t lost a step since injury. The Spirit would do well to bring a high press against Sky Blue’s makeshift defense but only if they can avoid getting punished in transition.
Keep an eye on:
• Christie Pearce, who has had a few uncharacteristically poor moments as of late
• Dydasco to get into the attack
Houston Dash (6-7-2) at Portland Thorns FC (7-4-4)
Saturday, 2:00 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 4-2-2
In Portland: Thorns lead, 2-1-0
Last meeting: July 8, 2017; 1-1 draw
The Dash are on a six-game undefeated streak, the best in team history, but only one of the teams they faced during that time was in the top half of the standings: Portland. They came within minutes of taking all three points, but an ill-advised foul allowed Lindsey Horan to equalize on a free kick (and set the stage for a Carli Lloyd red card). They’ll be hoping to rectify that in the unforgiving atmosphere of Providence Park by taking advantage of the Thorns’ international absences. Houston’s midfield is the biggest question mark, as Morgan Brian can’t seem to get fully healthy, and both Lloyd and Andressinha are coming off significant minutes with their respective national teams. Look for Rachel Daly to use her pace to exploit space on the right flank, but better finishing is needed from her and Nichelle Prince to get past Adrianna Franch.
Recent wins have gotten the Thorns back into playoff position, but two weeks ago it took a come from behind rally at home against last-place Washington to do so. Last season’s dominance is a thing of the past, and in their place is a team who remains highly talented but not always convincing. Key is Christine Sinclair, whose form appears to be the flashpoint for the Thorns. If she turns on, they can dominate this Houston side. Possession is likely to be an indication of success as well. They get a boost with the return of Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who could fuel EURO disappointment into club success. They also want to watch the space between Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett, as other clubs have found luck splitting them.
Keep an eye on:
• The thermometer – this game was moved up in response to a heat wave
Chicago Red Stars (7-3-4) at Orlando Pride (5-6-4)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 4-0-0
In Orlando: Red Stars lead, 2-0-0
Last meeting: July 22, 2017; 2-1 Red Stars
In what is essentially a home and home series, despite the international break in the middle, Chicago returns to Orlando for their third meeting this year. The Pride have yet to defeat the Red Stars in their short history, coming closest in the last trip Chicago made to Orlando, when the Pride restrained Christen Press for the majority of the match before giving up a late penalty kick. However, in their last match, Press beat the defense twice with two balls over the top. The real story in this match is who ends up on the field. While Ali Krieger saw no time on the field despite being in camp, Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, Camila, Marta, Monica, and Alex Morgan all saw significant minutes. That leaves gaps all over the field that while Orlando has the players to fill them, quality is going to drop off, and the chemistry of a makeshift lineup is a concern.
That said, Chicago is going to have to dig in as well, because Christen Press, Julie Ertz, and Casey Short all played as well (as did Alyssa Naeher, but she’s still likely to start). Press has also played every minute for the Red Stars since the Olympics. Chicago probably has the better depth and even without Ertz, can still put together one of the best midfields in the league. Players like Taylor Comeau and Sofia Huerta will lead the charge, and expect the Red Stars to look to play in behind Orlando’s high back line as they did in the previous match.
Keep an eye on:
• Ali Krieger, who has something to prove more than ever
• Danielle Colaprico to return to holding mid
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