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NWSL Week In Review: Being Positive But Honest

Jaelene Hinkle played a key role in the Courage's second win (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

At approximately 1:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time Saturday afternoon, Swedish megastar Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his long anticipated MLS debut, taking the field in the second half for the Los Angeles Galaxy against cross-town rival and expansion squad LAFC.

The optics couldn’t have been better for the league. With a sell-out crowd of 27,068 at the StubHub Center, LAFC’s Mexican star Carlos Vela (who also came over from Europe before the season) scored twice and gave his team a 3-0 lead before the Galaxy got two back to make it 3-2. Ibrahimovic entered and amazingly scored a 35-yard goal on his first MLS shot to tie it before winning the game in stoppage time. Oh, and all this happened on network television for the country to see (FOX).

With good reason, the eyes of the soccer world were on MLS and its amazing finish involving a player who was once among the top in the world, having played at Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, and Manchester United. USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn is one of the most recognizable names in women’s soccer, and is a connoisseur of all soccer everywhere, so it’s not surprising she was watching Ibrahimovic’s debut. And like most of those watching, she was amazed.

It just so happened that at the same exact time, there was another U.S. professional soccer league on television, as Washington and Orlando battled in an NWSL game on Lifetime. In the middle of the second half, the game remained scoreless with few chances on either side, and while Ibrahimovic’s game-winner was the 16th MLS goal Saturday in three games, 210 minutes of action had been played in Week 2 of the NWSL (including 90 between Sauerbrunn’s Utah and Houston Friday night) and there had yet to be a goal.

Some will extrapolate further, of course, and say that the NWSL will never survive or women’s sports are boring in general (they obviously didn’t watch the NCAA basketball games Friday night). This is ridiculous on its face, but it’s important to be honest about what is transpiring at the moment. At the time Ibrahimovic was doing his thing, it was a boring weekend in NWSL. Utah-Houston featured little action and few chances, North Carolina couldn’t break Sky Blue down, while Washington and Orlando were playing mostly a game in the midfield.

There are good reasons behind it. Sky Blue and Houston both played some extremely entertaining soccer last season, but much of it was because their own defenses were porous. With new coaches (Vera Pauw in Houston and Denise Reddy with Sky Blue), at the top of the list of turning things around was to sure up the defensive end, and both seem to have done so. But that doesn’t exactly translate into entertaining soccer for casual viewers.

Meanwhile, many of the best players are absent. With World Cup qualifiers in South America (Marta and the rest of the Brazilians) and Asia (Sam Kerr and Australia) as well as a slew of injuries to USWNT caliber talent (Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz, Kelley O’Hara, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Casey Short, Tobin Heath to start), it takes a toll on the product on the field. This is not to disrespect the players who did play last week, but it takes cognitive dissonance to not see that having some of the best players in the world absent from the festivities isn’t good for the overall product.

Eventually, things got rolling Saturday for those who stayed. Mallory Pugh, whose career development will be fascinating to watch, used her world-class ability to excite the viewing public and give Washington a lead, while budding young star Ashley Hatch added a second to seal the three points for the Spirit, who – especially when fully healthy – should not lack for entertainment value this season.

The most exciting game of the week was the final one between Chicago and Portland, but that doesn’t mean it was the best played. On a windy, cold night, the Thorns took advantage of a couple of catastrophic mistakes from the Red Stars to get a much-needed 3-2 road victory that had plenty of chances at both ends.

And therein lies the dilemma. There is not a direct correlation between goals and great soccer, but it is important to be intellectually honest about what is transpiring in front of us at a given time. I have no doubt that as the season progresses and teams get more comfortable with each other (although we head to another international break), things will open up and pick up, as they did for Pugh and the Spirit.

You don’t have to go back all that far in NWSL history to find a comeback like Ibrahimovic finished Saturday, and it involved one of the world’s best players. In her prime, no less. On August 19, 2017, Sky Blue trailed Seattle 3-0 in the second half before Sam Kerr went on one of the most amazing rampages in women’s professional soccer history, scoring four times, including once in stoppage time, as Sky Blue won 5-4 in one of the most remarkable games you’ll ever see.

It did make SportsCenter. Briefly. And then was largely forgotten, except for maybe you and me. Will it be more in the future? How do we get it there?

Sauerbrunn, while usually on point, is not a prolific Twitter user, and this is not meant as impugning her role as a leader in women’s soccer both on and off the field, but in a day where there were three NWSL games, including a nationally televised contest on another network, she sent three tweets. All of them were about Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy-LAFC match.

Maybe someday when a 36-year old Mallory Pugh or Sam Kerr joins a new NWSL team and scores a ridiculous goal, the U.S. men’s captain will have the same reaction on whatever Twitter has transformed into by 2035.

As long as I have my flying car by then.

What else did we learn in Week 2 of the NWSL season as we have two weeks before we return?

FRIDAY (recaps)

Houston 0:0 Utah

What Went Down: Again the Dash stood tall on the defensive end, which is not something we could say too many times over the last couple of years. It’s already clear that Vera Pauw will put a hard-working, organized team on the field and that should help get them more points, especially with Jane Campbell in good form. However, it’s important to remember that Matt Beard did the same in Boston a couple of years ago, and it didn’t result in anything close to a playoff berth. Beard didn’t have someone like Kealia Ohai, and it remains to be seen whether Pauw can succeed where Beard did not and find people to score goals from her roster.

Erika Tymrak changed the game when she entered and looked a lot like the 2013 version when she started a move that could have been the game-winner. But Campbell stopped Gunnhildur Jonsdottir on a breakaway and Tymrak had plenty of goal to shoot at on the rebound, but couldn’t finish. Brooke Elby and Tymrak (both substitutes) had their way down Utah’s left and we’ll see how Laura Harvey tries to take advantage of that in the future. And, yes, Desiree Scott probably should have seen a red card for this tackle. At least something.

Player of the Game: Becky Sauerbrunn – Her form dropped a bit last year, but it appears her pairing with Rachel Corsie in the back looks like it will be a good one. She even got forward a couple of times toward the end of the match as well.

Under the Radar: Linda Motlhalo – African players coming to NWSL have had limited success so Motlhalo’s signing was met with some skepticism, especially given her age, but the 19-year-old has shown already that she can certainly cover plenty of ground and that will give opponents trouble, particularly on the counter. If she can get that final touch down, look out.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of shots on goal for the Dash in this game, which – despite the point – is obviously not the most encouraging statistic of the night.

Up next: Houston – at Chicago (Apr. 18); Utah – vs Chicago (Apr. 15)

SATURDAY (recaps)

North Carolina 1:0 Sky Blue (Bush: Sky Blue improving but not there yet)

What Went Down: The Courage again outshot an opponent by a wide margin, but again had all kinds of trouble finishing, this time finally breaking through in second half stoppage time when Jess McDonald got behind the Sky Blue defense for the game-winner. Denise Reddy will be beside herself that her team held out that long and then lost the match on a goal like that, but it’s hard to deny that North Carolina deserved the three points.

North Carolina has dominated two opponents and has six points in two matches without Sam Mewis (and two clean sheets), but will be a bit concerned about its finishing. But when you’ve outshot other teams 43-6 and did not allow a shot on goal in your last game, it could be worse, especially with the lack of consistency going on in the rest of the league.

Player of the Game: Jaelene Hinkle – Hinkle has been involved in USWNT controversy off the field, but you can’t overlook how important she is to the Courage in a position where many other teams lack consistency. She capped another solid performance with a brilliant assist on McDonald’s winning goal and leads with her work ethic on North Carolina’s left side.

Under the Radar: Sarah Killion – Killion was one of the biggest reasons Sky Blue was able to hold North Carolina off as long as they did, and will play a big role in whatever Sky Blue can do this season. It appears she will be in a true holding role this season, at least how it was set up on Saturday surrounded by the likes of Carli Lloyd, Janine Beckie, and Savannah McCaskill. But it’s only one match.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of saves Sabrina D’Angelo has had to make to record two clean sheets to start the season. D’Angelo did have an injury scare after coming up limping while attempting to take a goal kick, but continued on, barely needed on this day.

Up next: North Carolina – at Washington (Apr. 14); Sky Blue – vs. Seattle (Apr. 15)

Washington 2:0 Orlando (Lauletta: Pugh shows she can take over when it matters)

What Went Down: I’m sure Jim Gabarra is well aware, but there aren’t many players in the world that are going to be able to stop Mallory Pugh running at them 1v1. Pugh seems to be slowly figuring that out as well, and that could make the Spirit especially dangerous if they ever get back to full-strength (see: Rose Lavelle returning). They didn’t give up any goals, but there are some questions still in the back which will probably be answered with North Carolina up next.

Meanwhile, Sydney Leroux looked a lot like she did at FCKC without Marta or Alex Morgan playing. Chioma Ubogagu and Rachel Hill had their moments, but the trio couldn’t quite get together to put enough pressure on the Washington defense. Orlando held the Spirit off for 80 minutes and the defense looked slightly improved, but there are some concerns there, too.

Player of the Game: Mallory Pugh – Pugh was fairly invisible for her most of the afternoon, which makes it hard to put her here, but again, she played a massive part in both goals, so here we are. It’s going to be fun to watch Pugh week in and week out, and you can see why Lifetime believes the same.

Under the Radar: Andi Sullivan – Pugh’s housemate covered all kinds of ground in this one, controlling the midfield from side to side. Like Pugh, she has plenty to learn at this level, but she has the ability to do what Sam Mewis has done for North Carolina.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of saves from Ashlyn Harris, who – like Alyssa Naeher – is not in tremendous form at the moment, which should make Jill Ellis’ USWNT decisions in goal interesting this week.

Up next: Washington – vs. North Carolina (Apr. 14); Orlando – at Portland (Apr. 15)

Chicago 2:3 Portland

What Went Down: The Red Stars are missing basically half a team, but if they miss the playoffs by a couple of points, they may look back at this match, where they basically handed the Thorns two goals and got nothing to show for it. Alyssa Naeher had the first major error, which was a poor starting position on a backpass that led to a Christine Sinclair goal. A late reaction didn’t help matters, either. Then Dani Colaprico inexplicably batted the ball with her hand near her goal, which led to a penalty kick and the winning goal.

The game was so bizarre that by the end, Chicago and Rory Dames had moved Alyssa Mautz to a slightly deeper position despite the fact she had both Chicago goals, while Portland had moved its original outside back – Margaret Purce – forward despite holding a late lead. Both made sense in context, but just the way the game went. Let’s hope both teams get healthy.

Player of the Game: Christine Sinclair – Both Chicago mistakes resulted in Sinclair goals, which is no coincidence. Sinclair has always been a step ahead of the competition mentally and it’s an underrated part of her game that makes her one of the best players the world has ever seen. And it got Portland three big points.

Under the Radar: Sofia Huerta – Huerta took over in the second half when her team needed her and nearly tied the game in stoppage time with an Ibrahimovic-like, 35-yard strike that beat Adrianna Franch, but hit the crossbar. Summer Green actually had some really good moments as well and the Red Stars will need both in the attack even when everyone returns. Alas, those things didn’t stop Rory Dames from calling out Huerta for not marking Lindsey Horan properly on her goal. So maybe her own coach would not have put Huerta here.

Inside the Numbers: 13,678 – Official attendance, which obviously comes with a big asterisk as it was the second half of an MLS-NWSL doubleheader.

Up next: Chicago – at Utah (Apr. 14); Portland – vs. Orlando (Apr. 15)

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