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NWSL Week In Review: Upgrading NWSL is the way to go

Kelli Hubly, in her first NWSL start, chases former MVP Crystal Dunn (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Three years ago, I went to Boston’s Jordan Field to cover an NWSL game as I did a few times per year, the Breakers being the closest league franchise to my home in Connecticut.

Having previously played in cavernous and ancient Harvard Stadium in WPS and Boston University’s Nickerson Field in WUSA (they also played for two years at local high school venue in Dilboy Stadium), Jordan Field was much more intimate, which was good for reducing overhead and atmosphere, but not necessarily for optics as a professional league in the United States.

Jordan Field had a painful capacity of 4,500, as in it wasn’t made to hold nearly that many. Its off-field amenities were the best they could do under the circumstances, but compared to modern MLS facilities (not to mention other pro leagues), they were antiquated. Media press conferences took place in the adjacent indoor track with poor acoustics. The easiest way to use the bathroom was a cadre of portable lavatories just outside one of the entrance.

Jordan Field expanded after this picture was taken, but it never grew to more than a capacity of 4,500.

The press box was not built to hold many folk and the bottom part was not only often full of team staff, but was tough to see the entire field anyway. So as was normal that August, I made my way up the ladder to the roof to watch the game. But 20 minutes in, a driving rain started and to protect my computer, I tried to make my way back down the ladder, which turned out to be a veritable disaster, taking a good few minutes and ending with a bruise on my rear end.

This is not to denigrate anyone involved with the Boston Breakers. Ryan Wood was one of the most professional people I’ve ever dealt with in sports PR and everyone involved with the franchise tried their best. And my clumsiness is nearly world renowned at this point. But it is one of many examples of a venue and franchise that wasn’t quite ready for where the league was headed, and where it frankly needs to go.

While we will never know what may have happened had the Breakers not been dreadful on the field (and never really have a marketable star except perhaps Rose Lavelle last season), the NWSL is not going to thrive with teams playing in venues like Jordan Field. I know some people hate that MLS backing is starting to take over the league and like the fact that women’s sports can support standalone franchises, even if it means a little less as far as amenities, but those are the facts. They become less and less disputable which each passing season.

So the Breakers died in January, just a week after the draft. It was sad and sudden. Its timing left a lot to be desired and plenty of questions to be asked, like why would you let a team draft players and then announce a week later the team wouldn’t exist? And couldn’t the team have been moved in the early part of the winter and therefore keep a 10-team NWSL for 2018 (a 9-team schedule is a real nightmare as we’ll find out I’m afraid as the season moves on)?

But for the NWSL to grow, it’s not the worst thing in the world for franchises like the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City to perish. MLS partnerships will not solve all the world’s problems (see: Houston) and perhaps someday we can have an NWSL that is completely separate in names and venues and color schemes and everything. For now, Washington, North Carolina (although paired with a men’s team), and Seattle are healthy enough to exist (Sky Blue is intentionally excluded in this, but hopefully it will prove me wrong in the next couple of seasons).

It’s likely that NWSL will have at least 10 teams next season, perhaps as many as 12. While giving more players a chance to participate is important, making the league truly professional has to be a higher priority. On that front, the minimum salary (while still odiously paltry) is up, we’ve gotten rid of unpaid amateur players, and conditions are slowly but surely improving for all (not just the USWNT allocated).

Yes, we would love the league to be respected enough so international dates weren’t squeezed in at every opportunity (have you seen the injury list already?) and major outlets would run the scores and standings as well as actually cover a game or do a feature on a player.

For now, though, NWSL has to improve where it can, and if franchises have to move or cease to exist so that it can find other places where it can thrive, that’s the way it is.

And with that out of the way, what did we learn from a pretty interesting opening NWSL weekend?

SATURDAY (quick recaps)

North Carolina 1:0 Portland (Analysis)

What Went Down: The most disturbing part about this one if you’re a Thorns fan is not the defeat, but the manner in which it happened. Portland was dominated, outshot 20-3 (as is the Courage’s custom, they only put four of those on goal) and it didn’t look for most of the game like it was because they played poorly, it was because they were outclassed. There is help coming eventually, including the underrated Emily Menges in defense. But fast enough and in big enough numbers? It remains to be seen. As of now, it’s really hard to see how they will score (they did look better with Margaret Purce up top in the second half), and if it weren’t for Emily Sonnett (and a little of Adrianna Franch, the scoreline would have been much worse.

The Courage got three points without Sam Mewis, which is impressive enough, but it looks like they still have plenty to improve on, which is a good thing early in the season. Crystal Dunn may need a little time to acclimate to the squad, but will obviously bring another weapon to join with Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald. Through one game, the Courage are who we thought they were.

Player of the Game: Debinha – You may remember Debinha missed last year’s NWSL Championship due to injury, and she might have been able to bring some much needed quality to the proceedings. She scored the winning goal, but she also bridged the gap between McCall Zerboni and the forwards, even if it wasn’t against a full-strength Portland midfield.

Under the Radar: Emily Sonnett – In a 3-back, Sonnett was everywhere Saturday (even maybe one extra place when a bad tackle got her a yellow card), seemingly thwarting North Carolina scoring attempts at almost every turn. Alas, there were way too many.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of players on the bench for Portland in the season opener, two less than the limit. That’s never a good sign this early in the season with more international dates looming.

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

Orlando 1:1 Utah

What Went Down: It was an eventful opener for the Royals, scoring just three minutes in through Icelandic import Gunnhildur Jonsdottir, but the major talking point (perhaps of the weekend) came in the 19th minute. You really have to watch it, but I’ll try to describe it quickly:

On a cross, Dani Weatherholt (who was burned at the other end on the Utah goal) got to the ball first and hit a hard volley toward the Royals’ goal. Becky Sauerbrunn was getting across, was about a yard (at most) away from Weatherholt when she made contact, and the ball ricocheted quickly off Sauerbrunn’s face and out of bounds. Those are the facts.

But largely because everyone was concerned about Sauerbrunn’s health, no one noticed referee Danielle Chesky had immediately pointed to the penalty spot, alleging that Sauerbrunn had deliberately made contact with her elbow which was in an unnatural position (we know this because the NWSL Media Association in conjunction with the league now can ask questions of the center referee through a pool reporter).

I have been perhaps the officials’ staunchest supporter over the past couple of seasons, and ironically Chesky in particular, who I still think is a solid referee, but there were many troubling things about this call that probably should lead to Chesky getting a week or two off from NWSL contests.

First, when you call a penalty kick and the massive consequences that come with them, you must be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that you are correct. And there’s no way she could have been where she was standing.

Second, and more importantly, common sense should prevail. As was previously mentioned, Sauerbrunn was moving and a yard away from a ball that was struck at top speed. To say she deliberately handled a ball in that situation defies logic, even if she wanted to.

That doesn’t even take into account that the call was wrong on its face. The ball didn’t come within a foot of her arm and struck her squarely in the face, leaving a pretty clear mark. No Orlando player even appealed for a penalty and most (Weatherholt included) looked bewildered when they finally figured out they were getting one.

Anyway, there was a game played as well, and the Pride controlled much of it, although they lost Alex Morgan to a probable concussion after she and Abby Smith collided on a play that was offside anyway. So lick your wounds and move on to the next one for both teams, I guess.

Player of the Game: Carson Pickett – Pickett had a very tough rookie season two years ago, but looked very solid against her former coach Saturday, including getting into the attack several times. Having a lot of the ball helped, but she looks much more comfortable than she did as a rookie.

Under the Radar: Diana Matheson – At soon to be 34 and coming off an ACL injury, Matheson looked excellent in her first game, especially in the first half. Laura Harvey will need her to be effective this season.

Inside the Numbers: 49 – Streak of regular season starts for Nicole Barnhart, which ended Saturday as Abby Smith played. Barnhart might be the most visible odd person out due to league contraction (Boston folding), which is a shame, because two seasons ago, she was probably the most in-form keeper in the league.

Up next: Orlando – Washington (Sat.); Utah – at Houston (Fri.)

Seattle 2:1 Washington

What Went Down: It’s interesting to compare Megan Rapinoe and Mallory Pugh, who have different skill sets, but both are potentially dominant players at this level. Rapinoe, in the twilight of her career, has found a way (like Sam Kerr) to make herself a factor in almost every game the Reign plays. Obviously scoring outrageous free kicks helps the cause, but – despite what opponents do – Rapinoe seems to find a way to get on the ball and subsequently make things happen near the opponents’ goal.

Meanwhile, we see flashes of such from Pugh, when she’s blowing by defenders or creating chances out of virtually nothing. But the next step for Pugh will be to make things happen more often and consistently. The youth of the Spirit (Andi Sullivan and Rose Lavelle most prominently) should help her along in this process. Or Johanna Lohman, who scored in her first game back from an ACL tear in last year’s season opener, could help a lot more than you would think.

Player of the Game: Megan Rapinoe – We’ll never know how close to the MVP she would have come had she not been hurt last season, but she picked up where she left off here. She makes something happen every game and that’s good entertainment in addition to helping her team win.

Under the Radar: Allie Long – Regardless of what you think of her USWNT career, Long has been one of the most consistent NWSL players of the past few seasons, and the Reign picking her up probably should have been played up more. She had a solid performance here, and should do well teaming with Rapinoe.

Inside the Numbers: 41 – Number of combined shots from the two teams (Seattle 24, Washington 17) as it was the most open and probably most entertaining game of the opening weekend. Rapinoe had 11 shots herself and it wouldn’t be surprising to see these two teams near the top of the goals scored leaders at season’s end.

Up next: Seattle – at Sky Blue (Apr. 15); Washington – vs. Orlando (Sat.)

SUNDAY (quick recap)

Houston 1:1 Chicago

What Went Down: The Dash were extremely unlucky not to get three points which leaves us wondering if Houston is much better than we thought or Chicago much worse. As with most cases, the reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Certainly it was an encouraging performance from Houston, who was playing with a few names even die hard NWSL names would have some trouble recognizing, including Kimberly Keever, the No. 12 pick in the 2018 draft out of Washington, who scored in her NWSL debut. Despite the roster being unknown on paper, there have been plenty of good things said about Vera Pauw, and this was a very good debut. At the very least, they should be more organized.

Like Portland, the Red Stars need someone to step up and lead in the absence of injured players, and it just didn’t really happen here, at least until the very end. The problem with Chicago’s absences is that is doesn’t look like any of their key missing players (Sam Kerr, Julie Ertz, Casey Short, Vanessa DiBernardo) are going to be back anytime soon, and they could be in a pretty big hole by then.

Player of the Game: Mana Shim – Shim is a veteran, but she’s only 26 and may finally have a spot where she can start every game in the same position. She has always seen the field very well, and with all the young strikers around her, she may be able to run the middle of the park effectively for Pauw.

Under the Radar: Kristie Mewis/Rachel Daly – Both were very good at outside back and even defended well in spots. Like Shim, they both may have something to prove this season and with a new coach, may turn out to be a very good combination in the defense.

Inside the Numbers: 58.9 – Official percentage of possession for Chicago in this match, which may be the most misleading statistic of the opening weekend.

Up next: Houston – vs. Utah (Fri.); Chicago – vs. Portland (Sat.)

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