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NWSL Week In Review: Rules are rules for all

Debinha doing work against Sky Blue, but should she have even been allowed to play in that one? (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

We are a nation of laws, we’re told, and while some may have their doubts about that at the moment, there is no mistaking that sports leagues, from your local co-ed volleyball to the professional ranks, need clear and consistent rules to exist fairly for all involved.

In the world of international soccer (see what I did there?), that means FIFA sets the tone because someone has to and they’re at the top of the list. FIFA therefore has protocol in place for when clubs have to release players to international duty. The short version is that for official matches and tournaments in predetermined FIFA windows, players must be released from their clubs two weeks prior. There is not much wiggle room in that for obvious reasons, and if one exception is made, you have a precedent which can ultimately lead to everyone questioning who gets favors from whom.

On April 5, Brazil began play in the Copa America Femenina, the tournament which South America uses as its World Cup (and Olympic) qualifier. So it raised a few eyebrows when Debinha suited up for North Carolina five days before in a 1-0 win over Sky Blue. On the Go90 broadcast, we were told it was Debinha’s decision, presumably taking into account that Brazil was a virtual lock to get through the group stages.

Debinha did come off the bench and score to seal a fairly difficult 3-1 win in Brazil’s Copa America opener against rival Argentina. Brazil rolled through the rest of the group stages (the final round begins Monday) and should qualify easily for France. So no harm, no foul?

Not exactly. Brazil knows the rules and understands that individual players should not be able to decide (to paraphrase a classic movie) which orders to follow and which not to. And FIFA rules say fairly clearly “any agreement between a player and a club to the contrary is prohibited”.

It looks especially bad in the NWSL’s case because Debinha was the only Brazilian international players to stay behind for that week’s games. Everyone else (Marta included) missed their club game to prepare for the Copa America.

So what is the NWSL to do? Those rules seem pretty simple on the matter. Because she was supposed to have been with Brazil, Debinha should be declared ineligible for the match and it should go down as a forfeit to Sky Blue. Obviously, that’s pretty extreme, but is there any way around that if the NWSL wants to be seen as a serious professional league? Not really.

It’s the same reason – while I agree that Christen Press should not be forced to play somewhere she doesn’t want to – I was glad she wasn’t just given to Portland at well below market rate. There has to be some kind of law to guide the NWSL as it looks to grab some staying power and continue to get stronger.

Less encouraging is the seemingly haphazard manner that the mysterious NWSL Disciplinary Committee operates. Sometimes, like with Merritt Mathias last year, three-game suspensions are handed out. Other times, as in last week’s Desiree Scott’s tackle on Kristie Mewis? Nothing. She wasn’t reprimanded by the game official, which in Scott’s case is a little hard to believe. I’ll grant that it wasn’t malicious and there was a slight slip, but it’s a two-footed tackle with studs up that caught Mewis in the leg. Thankfully, she wasn’t injured, but certainly could have been and that challenge is a red card in any league in the world.

But Scott played Saturday in Utah’s home opener, and we have no idea whether the foul in question was even reviewed (it’s probably better at this point if it wasn’t). And now we’ll never know.

Add in the Professional Soccer Referees Association condemning the league, not only for reducing Mark Parsons’s suspension for allegedly putting grass into an official’s hand on a handshake but for other past malfeasance that have gone unpunished (such as a coach running into the officials’ room to argue a call at halftime), and you’ve got a rough week for the NWSL when it comes to the rule of law.

We know that the NWSL does not operate on a big budget, and that means making due with less personnel in the front office than is ideal. It’s been more than a year since the league has had a commissioner, for crying out loud (although we hope Kathy Carter may end that soon). But if we want the league to be treated seriously on the field (and 19,000+ in Utah sends a nice message on that front), then it must rise to the occasion off the pitch as well.

And if that means North Carolina has to forfeit a game for not following the rules, so be it.

What else did we learn in Week 3 of the NWSL season, where the home teams had a bit of trouble?

SATURDAY (recaps)

Utah 0:1 Chicago (Theivam  |  Lauletta)

What Went Down: I still don’t think Rory Dames was correct for publicly criticizing Sofia Huerta, but his team certainly responded Saturday with a tremendous defensive effort, holding the Royals to just one shot on goal, helping Alyssa Naeher’s confidence and getting a key three points. They did all this without Sam Kerr, Julie Ertz, and Casey Short (and others), and the performance was a far cry from their opener, where they looked like they could be in a lot of trouble.

Meanwhile, the Royals struggled in several facets. Their lineup, with Elise Thorsnes, Diana Matheson, and Lo’eau LaBonta up top, had no speed to threaten Chicago’s backline, while Huerta and Danielle Colaprico dominated the middle of the field, which had to be be especially frustrating for Laura Harvey, who did that every game with Kim Little, Jessica Fishlock, and Keelin Winters just a couple of years ago. Amy Rodriguez’s return will help the speed thing eventually, but as far as controlling the middle of the field? Not sure where the answer to that is going to come. But don’t doubt Harvey finding a solution.

Player of the Game: Danielle Colaprico – Colaprico had to play much of last season out wide, which is not really a strength for her. Saturday, she showed how effective she can be in a slightly advanced position, as she not only got the game’s only goal (and a great one), but ran the show, particularly when the Red Stars were dominating in the first half.

Under the Radar: Arin Gilliland – Utah eventually adjusted, but Gilliland spent most of the first half running at a clearly not 100% Kelley O’Hara and causing all kind of problems. She also played her defensive position well, which has tended to be a problem for her against top competition.

Inside the Numbers: 19,203 – The sell-out crowd at Rio Tinto was a little less than 3,000 short of what Kansas City drew in the entire season in 2017 (12 home dates).

Up next: Utah – at North Carolina (Sat.); Chicago – vs Houston (Wed.)

Washington 2:4 North Carolina

What Went Down: I guess the odds were with the Courage finishing some of their chances eventually, by laws of probability if nothing else. This was a relatively good tactical battle. Jim Gabarra started Mallory Pugh in more of a withdrawn position to get her the ball and it paid off with a 3rd minute goal that was pretty much all Pugh running at people. But then Paul Riley adjusted and Pugh couldn’t get the ball as easily. As I’ve said before, she’s going to see that every week and adjusting will be the next step in her development. Having Rose Lavelle next to her will certainly help. In the end, Pugh left injured again, so hopefully it’s nothing serious.

Aubrey Bledsoe did not have a good game, but the Courage could have had six or seven goals by the end, as may happen if you let Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, and Jess McDonald get behind you all night. Again, speed isn’t everything, but as you saw this week with Utah and North Carolina, it is something.

Player of the Game: McCall Zerboni – It bears repeating that Zerboni is still a bit out of position until Sam Mewis returns (hopefully next week), but she still managed to get two goals, including a ridiculous free kick (even though it didn’t look like Bledsoe had her wall properly set up). Even with Andi Sullivan, Washington could not get control of the midfield, and a lot of that was Zerboni’s doing.

Under the Radar: Crystal Dunn – This game is a good example of why Riley would want a player like Dunn so badly. When she is able to run at defenses with the ball, she has a little more skill than a Williams or McDonald, and should be able to finish at a little higher rate than them when she gets chances. At full strength, the three together are a big problem for opponents.

Inside the Numbers: 3,458 – The Utah number will get all the press this week, but there’s still work to be done elsewhere when it comes to attendance, especially with midweek matches coming up.

Up next: Washington – at Portland (Fri.); North Carolina – vs. Seattle (Wed.)

SUNDAY (recaps)

Sky Blue 0:1 Seattle (Kronick)

What Went Down: The Reign would have been much happier if Megan Rapinoe didn’t go down with a hamstring injury, but they’ll take the three road points and generally deserved them, even if their only goal was via penalty (and they missed another one). Perhaps most impressive for Seattle was the defensive performance, allowing just three shots in total (and one on goal). Lauren Barnes is the veteran who has been in Seattle before, but Megan Oyster, Christen Westphal, and Theresa Nielsen were all elsewhere last season, so give Vlatko Andonovski credit for making them look so organized early in the season.

On the other side, Sky Blue has not scored and has just six shots total this season, so that is a problem that will have to be fixed and Sam Kerr is not going to return to help them. Kerr hasn’t played a game yet for the Red Stars and that looks like a lopsided trade for Sky Blue. On the plus side, the defense has been fairly solid, especially Sarah Killion, who has had a couple of good outings in a row.

Player of the Game: Jess Fishlock – Fishlock was her usual be everyone at once self, with perhaps her best effort of the evening being an amazing tackle at the top of her own box. She was relegated to more of a defensive role without Rapinoe in the second half, but she continues to be underrated in general.

Under the Radar: Sarah Killion – Just as in the opener, credit for the improved Sky Blue defense has to be shared, but Killion has been impressive in her holding midfield spot, so we’ll put her in this spot again.

Inside the Numbers: 30 – Windchill at kickoff, which was a shame, because Saturday was a beautiful day in New Jersey before miserable weather came through for this match. It’s soon to be late April, the cold weather has to be over by now, right?

Up next: Sky Blue – at Chicago (Sat.); Seattle – at North Carolina (Wed.)

Portland 2:1 Orlando

What Went Down: It looked like Orlando was going to have plenty of opportunities and score plenty of goals after having a few chances and finally finishing one through Chioma Ubogagu midway through the first half. Instead, it was Portland who grabbed control and probably could have won by a more lopsided margin in the end. The Pride failed to close Lindsey Horan down for one goal and didn’t bother to mark Christine Sinclair on the other as the Thorns’ stars made their mark on the match.

As with Utah, and as they had trouble with last season, Orlando is going to need its midfield to support what is potentially a lethal front three with Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, and Marta. But after playing two very good international matches, Morgan was not a huge factor in this one. The Pride is also going to have its problems in the back (Ashlyn Harris had a couple of big saves to hold things at two goals for the Thorns) that need fixing. So Tom Sermanni has some work to do.

Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – It’s hard to say she was dominant the way Fishlock was for the Reign, but Horan had a brilliant goal and an equally brilliant ball to set up the second goal, so it’s safe to say she was a big factor in the match. And she was healthy after being injured on USWNT duty.

Under the Radar: Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic – She has an impossible name to spell, but Crnogorcevic looks like she will boost the Thorns’ attack, as she was very active in her 30 minutes off the bench. Her entrance allowed Sinclair to play a more withdrawn role comfortably, which is what the Thorns would probably like long-term.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of shots on goal for Orlando and also the number of shots from Alex Morgan, both indicative of a very solid Portland defensive effort.

Up next: Portland – vs. Washington (Fri.); Orlando – vs. Houston (Wed.)

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