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The Lowdown: Injuries, odd preseason make for uneven start for NWSL

Sam Mewis poses with a fan Saturday, but an injury kept her from playing in the Courage home opener (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Last weekend brought the first ever NWSL regular season matches played in March. The earlier start to the season, moved up to accommodate World Cup qualifying in October, came with an earlier start to preseason. All the same, right? Guess again.

As it turns out—and I overlooked this until hearing colleagues report back findings after the Portland tournament—the main residual from the earlier start was that it created a cram session to integrate the international players following the SheBelieves Cup and other tournaments in Europe. Speaking to coaches ahead of the openers and seeing their postmatch quotes from the weekend, the central theme was often the limited time the teams have been together.

Consider some of these snippets from the weekend.

Tom Sermanni: “…when you consider we virtually, like most teams, had no preseason…” And Jim Gabarra: “We have players forming key partnerships like Whitney Church and Taylor Smith who haven’t played more than a game and a half together, and a couple of training sessions.”

There are more, but they’re mostly the same. And they are fair. On one hand, players can be replaced on camp rosters if they are on international duty so having SheBelieves during preseason allows coaches to get a look at more players. And it’s not like the national teamers are just loafing around. They’re all in environments that are probably more intense than their club scenes.

But are we making too much of the short preseason? And how much did injuries play a role in what was often disjointed play during Week 1?

Let’s look at the Reign. They have a new coach, a severely overturned roster (though key pieces on all three lines remain) and were missing several key players through injury and international duty. And what did they do? They opened up the season with a scorching half during which they scored two goals and looked like a finely oiled machine. As part of that, a midfield of Jessica Fishlock, Allie Long, and Bev Yanez bossed the match. That by itself should not be a surprise, but Long is new to the team and was at SheBelieves and Yanez was playing out of position—or at least in a position she has not played much, if at all, in NWSL.

Injuries also played a major role in teams being disjointed. The Red Stars made major changes by shipping Christen Press and Jen Hoy for Sam Kerr and Nikki Stanton. And they knew Kerr had qualifying duty into April, but they were not banking on opening the season without Julie Ertz, Casey Short, or Vanessa DiBernardo either. They are all injured. The Thorns’ roster was so depleted they only had a five-woman bench—a practice that was supposed to stop in 2017—and started Kelli Hubly who didn’t even make the team but was recalled as a national team replacement player.

NWSL, and women’s soccer in general, are at a nexus in terms of balancing fixture congestion with getting enough quality matches in. If anything, the league season in the U.S. needs to be longer both in terms of the calendar and the number of games played. But national team commitments are unrelenting, and the casualty rate among those doing double duty is higher than it should be–especially for a program that takes so much pride in its fitness methods.

Additionally, qualifying needs to evolve into a marathon instead of the sprint that has made October entirely unusable for NWSL, or the ones pulling Asian and South American players away for standalone events in the coming weeks.

“In one way we respect Christen’s decision to go overseas, and perhaps that’s even a better thing because right now we’re trying to build a culture, a culture that hasn’t existed. That culture is going to require a hundred percent of the players to want to be here. And I’m glad that we have that right now.”

– Dash president Chris Canetti

To repeat, there were some bright moments. I mentioned the Reign but not Megan Rapinoe, who hit a gorgeous free kick goal and looked in midseason form. Debinha also scored a dazzler. Becky Sauerbrunn looked every bit the best central defender on the planet and nothing like a player who missed two national team camps and much of preseason nursing a foot injury. And the Dash, who started a front seven that included only six total seasons of pro experience from two players, were as organized and protective of the ball as any team on the weekend.

There won’t be any easy fixes for the abbreviated preseason and international disruptions through March. And if 2015 is a guide, the USWNT players could be away for large swaths during the early part of next season. But when a season opens with every team missing key pieces and every coach lamenting the amount of type of available preparation, it is something worth diving into.

Dash wrapping up Press saga—for now

The Christen Press saga did not end Monday, but it seemed to have found a track it will stay on for some time. Press signed in Sweden, meaning a return to NWSL in the short-term won’t be happening. The Dash released their obligatory statement, but in reality it was a good day for the club. They did not land Press, but her move to Sweden will tone down the trade discussions and allow the Dash, and the rest of us, to focus on soccer.

Vera Pauw has the Dash organized and believing. And they are moving on without Christen Press.

“From that perspective I think we’re glad that we can put this behind us and move forward with the season ahead,” Dash president Chris Canetti told me Monday.

Canetti said the Dash have worked on moving Press to an NWSL team on her wish list, but that to this point no deal has made sense.

“We had discussions with the teams that Christen was interested in,” he said. “Unfortunately, we never got to the point where there was a deal on the table that made any sense to the Houston Dash.”

Those discussions will likely continue, and Canetti said he is not ruling out Press one day suiting up in orange to play in the Lone Star State. But the reality of the trade market is that her value is slim to none for the time being, and any deal is not likely until the offseason. And even then it will be likely only if she expresses a desire to return to the league.

As for those who are in Houston, Canetti is pleased with the squad one game into the Vera Pauw era. “I feel good about our team. I think anybody who follows the league closely can see early that this is a different Dash team. It’s a team that is well coached and well organized on the field and building something. The players are very happy to be in a professional environment. Vera has them together as a unit, and we like what we’re building right now.

“It’s very important that 100 percent of the players are bought into being here. In one way we respect Christen’s decision to go overseas, and perhaps that’s even a better thing because right now we’re trying to build a culture, a culture that hasn’t existed. That culture is going to require a hundred percent of the players to want to be here. And I’m glad that we have that right now.”

NWSL Attendance Watch

Week 1 Attendances
Orlando: 9,017
Houston: 5,846
North Carolina: 4,210
Seattle: 3,561

2018 NWSL Attendance Chart
Games AVG 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 +/-
2017
+/-
all-time
Pride 1 9,017 6,186 8,785 +45.8% +21.2%
Dash 1 5,846 4,578 5,696 6,413 4,650 +27.7% +10.7%
Courage 1 4,210 4,389 -4.0% -3.8%
Reign 1 3,561 4,037 4,599 4,060 3,666 2,306 -11.8% -4.0%
Red Stars 0 3,198 3,005 4,210 2,949 1,711
Thorns 0 17,653 16,945 15,639 13,362 13,320
Sky Blue 0 2,613 2,162 2,189 1,656 1,666
Royals 0
Spirit 0 3,490 4,188 4,087 3,335 3,625
TOTALS 4 5,659 5,083 5,589 5,046 4,139 4,271 +11.3% +16.9%


Notes

-The Pride attendance was the lowest of their three home openers but with less buzz and more even promotion this one somehow felt more organic. It is also higher than every other home match except the two home openers as well as October’s NWSL Championship.

-If you take all 10 team’s home openers in 2017 the average was 5,786. With Portland yet to open and Utah expecting a big crowd for the Rio Tinto opener it is a fairly safe bet this year’s openers will come in significantly higher.

-Note that this table is just hard numbers. There are nuances everywhere which will be addressed throughout the season, but the weekly table will just feature the hard numbers.

Free Kicks

-A couple of player updates. Alex Morgan is still listed as day-to-day due to concussion protocol. More on that below. Rebecca Quinn missed the Spirit opener due to visa delays. The club is hopeful to have her available for this weekend’s home opener.

-It was nice to see Joanna Lohman and Diana Matheson not only back on the field following ACL surgeries, but both looking good. Matheson started and assisted on the Royals first goal, and Lohman came off the bench and scored the Spirit goal. At 33 and 35 respectively, Matheson and Lohman are closer to the end of their careers than the start, but Week 1 proved that both still have plenty left to offer.

Here’s what Lohman told me via email on Monday: “My first game back was one I will never forget for many reasons. First, the Seattle Reign players and coaches went out of their way to welcome me back, and that in itself was an incredible gesture. Second, just getting on the field because that wasn’t necessarily something I expected. Third, to score a goal. I traveled to Seattle with the singular focus to contribute to the team; I didn’t know what capacity that would be. We didn’t get the result we wanted, but I was proud of the way we battled and the small part I played in that.”

-On the flipside, Nicole Barnhart’s offseason surgery had her relegated to the bench on Saturday, snapping her streak of 49 consecutive regular season starts. That is a record for NWSL goalkeepers.

-Abby Dahlkemper’s league-record streak is intact and rolling at 5,670 consecutive minutes. She has also started all 65 regular season matches since entering the league. That is six shy of Jen Buczkowski’s league record, which ended with her retirement.

-Tori Huster made her 100th regular season appearance on Saturday, all for the Spirit. Huster is one of seven players in the Sixes Club—players still on the rosters they started with when the league launched in 2013. The others are: Alyssa Mautz (Red Stars); Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock, and Megan Rapinoe (Reign); Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair (Thorns).

-Rapinoe was not on the Reign’s opening day roster in 2013 and joined the club in June after finishing her commitments in France. But she was allocated to the team in January of that year.

-Nicole Barnhart, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Erika Tymrak were all on FC Kansas City all five seasons and were transferred to Utah.

-Debinha is the only player to score in a North Carolina home opener. In two straight years, her goal lifted the Courage to a 1-0 win over the Thorns.

-Speaking of the Thorns, they are 0-1 for the first time in club history. (The 1-0 loss in the Courage home opener was not their opening game.)

Michelle Betos played seven matches for the Reign in 2013. Five years later she has her first win for the club.. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

-Due to the odd number of teams and upcoming FIFA week, the Reign will play their second match 22 days after their first. That’s like a second preseason for a side that already looks sharp.

-Someone should have told the Pride center backs when kickoff was. Where in the world were they when Dani Weatherholt wound up marking Gunnhildur Jonsdottir on her third-minute goal?

-The Thorns were shorthanded and lost some key pieces over the winter, but don’t sleep on the job the Courage did at thwarting the Thorns’ wingbacks in the first half, or the fact Merritt Mathias neutralized Meghan Klingenberg for almost the entire match.

-Five years later Michelle Betos finally won a match for the Reign. The first keeper in club history, filling in for injured Hope Solo at the time, Betos put up an 0-6-1 mark before Solo returned. She was eventually traded and spent three seasons in Portland—earning Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2015—and then last year in Norway.

-Finally, there has been much hand-wringing over the handball called on Becky Sauerbrunn, but I’d like to focus on the play that has Alex Morgan in concussion protocol. First, there needs to be an earlier whistle for offside. I realize Morgan is not offside until she plays the ball, but in this case she is literally the only Pride player within 30 yards of the ball. The only alternative to raising the flag and blowing the whistle is a collision, and that’s exactly what happened.

At the same time, Abby Smith needs to be more careful there and if the play were onside, Smith’s night may have been over. But maybe an earlier whistle would have kept Alex Morgan on the field instead of concussion protocol.

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