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NWSL Week 19 Preview: Hitting the Home Stretch

One playoff spot has been claimed, but three remain, while Sky Blue and Seattle are still in the hunt. Last-minute roster moves have teams jostling to give themselves the edge in the final month of regular season play. We hit the home stretch in Week 19.


North Carolina Courage (14-5-0) at Chicago Red Stars (9-6-5)

Sunday, 6:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 6-4-3
In Chicago: Red Stars lead, 4-0-3
Last meeting: May 27, 2017; 3-2Red Stars

In a season where North Carolina was the first – and so far only – team to clinch a playoff spot, where they’re still five points clear of the second place team with a game in hand, they’ve really only hit one stumbling block along the way: Chicago. The Red Stars have defeated the Courage in both meetings this year, scoring three goals in each game, which are the only times the Red Stars have scored more than two goals in one match this year. Chicago got the losing-streak monkey off their back last week at Washington thanks to a late Christen Press goal, and they’d like nothing more than to reassert their dominance at home (their final home match of the year). They really need three points, as they are tied with Orlando and are in danger of slipping into fourth place with Sky Blue on their heels. Chicago will need to be physically dominant in this match, which worked well for them previously, but most of all, they have to solve their finishing problems. They did better against Washington, but the Courage possess a much sharper defense. A late bit of Press magic can only carry a team so far.

North Carolina is riding high after punching a ticket to the playoffs, the first step in defending their title. The home stretch offers the opportunity for both another important step – hosting a semifinal – and the hardware that was out of their reach last season – the Shield. Expect Paul Riley to rotate his lineup after the midweek game. At the beginning of the season, no one would have expected Jess McDonald to be a bench player, but she’s adapted to the role well. However, she made a bold assertion to reclaim her spot earlier this week, when she scored a brace in five minutes to give the Courage a win at Washington. Having either McDonald or Ashley Hatch as an option off the bench is a weapon any team perhaps save Portland would give much to have. Look for Lynn Williams to continue to be the focal point of their offense and McCall Zerboni to take on Julie Ertz.

Players to Watch

Arin Gilliland and Casey Short

Both of these teams have the best fullback pairs in the league. Short and Gilliland haven’t been in form for the last few weeks, but they will be required to perform for Chicago to win, especially on the defensive end.

Jaelene Hinkle and Taylor Smith

Where Chicago’s fullbacks excel defensively, it’s all about the offense for this Courage pair. Both are very fast and provide excellent service into the box.

Keep an eye on:
• Morgan Brian to see her first minutes in a Red Stars jersey
• Denise O’Sullivan, another former Dash player who has found a new home this season

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

Washington Spirit (4-12-4) at Portland Thorns FC (11-5-4)

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 6-2-4
In Portland: Thorns lead, 4-0-2
Last meeting: July 22, 2017; 2-1 Thorns

Portland became the first NWSL team to collect 50 wins with their 2-0 victory at Seattle last week. They also managed to shake the torpor that often accompanied them to Memorial Stadium and were more dominant in that match than the scoreline indicates. With Lindsey Horan doing some of the dirty work, Christine Sinclair pulling strings, and Amandine Henry there to clean up any messes, the Thorns’ midfield has become one of the best in the league. Hayley Raso has become a frequent recipient of their (and her own) hard work and is now tied with Sinclair as the team’s leading scorer. They had to come from behind last time they hosted Washington but appear to be on a more solid footing now. Look for Horan or Henry to win the ball in what will likely be a tough midfield battle before spraying it out wide. The Thorns want to keep an eye on any potential Spirit breakaways as they will likely lose the speed battle.

Washington simply cannot catch a break. Unless someone comes off the injury report, they may not even have enough field players to utilize all three substitutions. They are also coming off a midweek match and traveling across the country, so the Spirit probably couldn’t be at more of a disadvantage in this match. They put up a good fight against the Courage on Wednesday, but it was the story that has plagued them in so many games – while they can score, they can’t stop the other team from doing so. Losing Estelle Johnson is a huge blow to this as she’s been their best defender this season. Depending on Mallory Pugh’s consistency – she delivered both an absolutely fantastic free kick and an absolutely terrible one in their loss to Chicago last weekend – they can be dangerous on set pieces. They may also be able to find success with a high press if they can keep possession. Meggie Dougherty Howard needs to have a big game.

Keep an eye on:
• The thermometer – this game was moved up slightly due to hot temperatures

(photo by Mark Thor, ISI Photo/courtesy of Orlando Pride)

Boston Breakers (3-10-7) at Orlando Pride (9-6-5)

Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Pride lead, 3-1-0
In Orlando: Pride lead, 2-0-0
Last meeting: August 19, 2017; 2-1 Pride

They met some bumps on the road, but the Pride held on to go undefeated in the month of August and build a four-game winning streak. Some uncharacteristically poor defending by Steph Catley last week let FC Kansas City tie the game, but Alex Morgan once again came up with late game magic to take all three points. All streaks must come to an end, but neither the Pride nor Morgan look to be stopping. They host a Boston side that hasn’t won on the road in a year, and these are the games where the Pride must pick up points in order to stay in playoff contention, especially considering the points that were wasted early in the season. They need to move the ball a little quicker than they did in Kansas City and be more aggressive with their runs into the box.

Boston has won less games than any other team this year, and only a few draws instead of losses has them tied with the Spirit for points, the head-to-head tiebreaker keeping them out of last place. Rose Lavelle is back on the bench, and the sooner she comes off of it, the better. A strong partnership with Morgan Andrews could bode well for the future, but Andrews is out this week on an excused absence as she finishes her final semester at USC. And until Natasha Dowie can consistently return to her scoring ways or another striker can step up, their offensive woes will continue. They put on a strong performance against Sky Blue, but Abby Smith’s otherwise solid game was outweighed by her massive blunder that gifted Sam Kerr the lone goal. In Orlando, they would do well to take a page out of FCKC’s playbook and disrupt possession and win second balls, as the Pride seemed lost when pushed on their heels.

Keep an eye on:
• The referee – Orlando got away with a few missed calls in Kansas City

Kelley O’Hara pushing forward against FC Kansas City (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Sky Blue FC (9-9-2) at FC Kansas City (6-9-5)

Sunday, 6:00 p.m. EDT, Swope Soccer Village
All-time series: Kansas City lead, 5-4-3
In Kansas City: tied, 2-2-1
Last meeting: April 30, 2017; 1-0 Sky Blue

All good things must come to an end, and for FC Kansas City, that was their three-game winning streak. They tied it up once, but they ran out of time after a late Alex Morgan goal despite pummeling the Orlando net for nearly the entire seven minutes of stoppage time. However, it was still a good performance, led by Sydney Leroux who has finally found her form and was consistently dangerous. Vlatko Andonovski has worked some magic this season, bringing the best out of lesser-known players like Megan Kelly, Brittany Ratcliffe, and Lo’eau LaBonta, and now that their defense has shaken off their July voodoo (near Becky Sauerbrunn own goal aside), they’re still in the game. Sauerbrunn and Yael Averbuch will have to keep Sam Kerr subdued lest she serve a second helping of the dish she served in their last match, when FCKC was up by two and Kerr scored a hat trick in 12 minutes. Easier said than done. Look for Desiree Scott to provide help here.

Sky Blue not only won last week, but they kept a clean sheet in doing so, no small task for team that has given up a league-worst 41 goals in 20 games. They may not have looked completely dominant against Boston in doing so, but they did just enough. They are still only three points behind Orlando and, should their patchwork defense hold, are the most likely to ruin the Pride’s fun. Having Kelley O’Hara back should help if she can work in more minutes, but they also want more from their midfield, especially on the defensive side of things. They need to involve their fullbacks in the attack and make the most of the advantage they have in pace.

Keep an eye on:
•Leroux’s work off the ball
•Kailen Sheridan

Lydia Williams is headed to Seattle. (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Seattle Reign FC (7-7-6) at Houston Dash (7-10-2)

Sunday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 9-0-0
In Dallas: first meeting
Last meeting: May 27, 2017; 2-0 Reign

The Dash haven’t played in two weeks, and what an eventful two weeks those have been. First Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey, leading to the postponement of the Dash’s last game and the relocation of this game to FC Dallas’ stadium in Frisco, Texas. In a series of moves, they also signed former Portland defender Meghan Cox, acquired journeywoman Kristie Mewis, and traded both Lydia Williams and Morgan Brian. Neither Williams nor Brian had featured much for the Dash this year, so it’s not a huge loss at this moment in time (key words), but whether or not Cox and Mewis can help the Dash out of their permanent mediocrity is another story. They still haven’t ever beaten the Reign, nor are they on their home turf, but there is something about adversity such as Hurricane Harvey that has a way of giving people that extra boost.

The Reign only won one game in August, but that was on the road, which is only the second time that has happened all year. The first? A 2-0 victory at Houston back in May. Losing the offensive firepower of Megan Rapinoe and the strange collapse of Haley Kopmeyer’s defense has left the Reign on the outside looking in for the playoffs, but a chance remains. These are must-have points. With Jess Fishlock missing her form, the bulk of the midfield work has fallen on Rumi Utsugi, who has stepped up well but needs support. Success in this match is likely to come to the one who can successfully press the other, as each team is vulnerable.

Keep an eye on:
• Lydia Williams

{Read More: The Lowdown: The playoff push is on}


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