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NWSL Week 4 preview (part 2): All about that depth

Gameday got off to an early start this week, with Chicago dominating Houston and North Carolina handing Seattle their first loss of the season. Seattle has a bye this weekend, but the other three will have to exercise their depth, playing their second or third game in a week. Four teams remain winless while only one is undefeated as we finish out NWSL Week 4.

Can Washington’s defense find its footing?

Washington Spirit (1-2-0) at Portland Thorns FC (2-1-0)
Friday, 10:30 p.m. EDT, Providence Park
All-time series: Thorns lead, 7-2-4

It’s too early to start labeling anything as the worst in the league, but statistically speaking, Washington is the frontrunner when it comes to their defense, giving up more goals than anyone else so far. Now, four of those six goals came in one game, but the Spirit backline hasn’t looked particularly solid in any match so far, even in their lone win over lackluster Orlando. Rebecca Quinn could have helped shore up the defense, but she played in midfield in her one appearance so far and remains out with a muscle strain. Washington looks improved from the midfield up, but if their defense can’t get the job done, it’s all for naught.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Emily Menges, Meg Morris, Angela Salem; INT – Andressinha, Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso
  • Spirit injuries: OUT – Rose Lavelle, Cheyna Matthews, Rebecca Quinn, Arielle Ship; INT – Yanara Aedo, Estefania Banini

It’s a tall order to expect a backline to get their act together against Portland in current form. Only North Carolina has kept them out of the back of the net, and last week’s team looked nothing like that of Week 1. Most notable this week is the expected return of Tobin Heath (per Jamie Goldberg of The Oregonian), although she’s been away from consistent minutes of competitive soccer for so long, there’s no telling what form or fitness she is in.

(photo copyright Patti Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Is Rodriguez the missing piece in Utah?

Utah Royals FC (0-1-2) at North Carolina Courage (4-0-0)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium (Lifetime)
All-time series: first meeting

The Utah Royals have been fairly stout defensively, giving up one goal from the run of play and one penalty kick, but they haven’t scored since the third minute of their very first match. With Amy Rodriguez finally back after tearing her ACL last year, all eyes are on her to bring the pace and lethality the Royals have been missing. Rodriguez isn’t the league’s top scorer but she does have the highest rate of goals scored per minutes played. Particularly of note will be if she and Gunny Jonsdottir can form a partnership. The Icelandic international looks to be the best new import this season, and the combination of her creativity and Rodriguez’ finishing could finally unlock the Utah offense.

  • Courage injuries: OUT — Makenzy Doniak (left knee ACL tear – SEI), Yuri Kawamura (right knee ACL repair – D45), Julie King (left ankle repair); QUESTIONABLE — Allysha Chapman (left hamstring strain), Samantha Mewis (right knee strain); INT — Debinha
  • Royals injuries: OUT — Alex Arlitt (left knee strain – D45), Brooke Elby (right knee strain), Mandy Laddish (right hip contusion – SEI); QUESTIONABLE — Becca Morros (left calf strain); INT — Katrina Gory

However, they may have their hands full on the other end of the pitch. Whether they are putting one shot on target for every 20 they take, as they did on Wednesday, or they seem to find the back of the net on every opportunity, as they did in Washington, North Carolina looks bent on repeating last year’s run at the top of the table. They’re the last remaining undefeated team, and they just got Sam Mewis back. That should scare any team.

{Related: Up close with Lynn Williams}

The Red Stars celebrating their goal against the Royals that spoiled opening day at the RioT (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Will Chicago keep rolling?

Sky Blue FC (0-2-0) at Chicago Red Stars (2-1-1)
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 5-0-7

One look at Chicago’s injury report, and you wouldn’t be blamed for being surprised at the seven points they’ve earned over four games. Big names are missing, and their new star forward has yet to arrive, but the Red Stars have been rolling lately. Regular bench players Sarah Gorden and Taylor Comeau have stepped up to the task on defense, while Danielle Colaprico leads the midfield. They’d like a little more consistency from Arin Gilliland, who is shuffling positions around the park, and Alyssa Naeher, still a hit or miss in goal, but that hasn’t stopped the Red Stars from climbing to second place. However, all their points have come from the Houston Dash and Utah Royals, neither of whom offered much resistance. Their biggest challenge was Portland, to whom they gave up three goals despite scoring two of their own.

  • Red Stars injuries: OUT — Vanessa DiBernardo (stress fracture pelvis – D45), Julie Ertz (right knee sprain), Stephanie McCaffrey (illness), Casey Short (right ankle sprain – D45), Rosie White (right and left navicular fracture – D45); INT — Sam Kerr
  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT — Amandine Pierre-Louis (right tibia/fibula contusion), Domi Richardson (illness), Erin Simon (left foot hardware removal – D45); INT — Thaisa Moreno

Two things are on the Red Stars’ side. One is history – Sky Blue has never beaten Chicago in the NWSL (the only matchup among the eight NWSL originals in which that is the case (including those teams no longer in existence.) The second is, well, Sky Blue themselves. They haven’t earned a point, haven’t scored a goal, and only one of their four total shots has been on target. It’s clearly still a work in progress for Denise Reddy, who needs to find the best combination to replace Sam Kerr while also getting Carli Lloyd more involved.

{Related: McCaffrey working her way back to full health}

Pride defender Ali Krieger (photo by Patti Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Who can stem the tide?

Houston Dash (0-1-2) at Orlando Pride (0-2-1)
Sunday, 5:00 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Pride lead, 4-2-0

Orlando is one of two teams on a losing streak, while Houston is one of four without a win. It’s not a great start for the expansion sides. What can Orlando do to reverse the trend? Get Alex Morgan involved, for one. For all her amazing form she’s demonstrated recently with the USWNT, Morgan was all but invisible in Portland. She dropped back at times to try to get something going but was otherwise a non-factor. They also need significantly more from their midfield. Christine Nairn had a great assist for Chioma Ubogagu but didn’t produce much else worth writing home about.

  • Dash injuries: INT — Kyah Simon
  • Pride injuries: INT — Alanna Kennedy, Marta, Monica, Poliana, Emily van Egmond

After two organized if unexciting performances, Houston kind of fell apart in Chicago. The only bright moment was when Lindsey Agnew subbed in, taking Rachel Daly’s place at right back while Daly pushed higher up the pitch. That move generated some offense and with better finishing could have penetrated Chicago’s backline. Given the Dash’s lack of attacking prowess recently, it’s a move worth exploring further, especially if Jane Campbell can get her backline back in shape (and do some work on her own form while she’s at it).

{Related: Ohai about to return}

HOT … OR NOT

Hot

Danielle Colaprico: The midfielder looks closer and closer to her 2016 form after dominating – and playing a direct role in two goals – in two successive games.

Abby Erceg: She looks every bit the calm, experienced veteran she is and made rookie Kaleigh Kurtz’s debut easier.

Portland’s offense: Both Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair are on fire, and in Ana-Maria Crnogorčević’s brief first appearance, it was clear her first NWSL goal will be sooner rather than later.

Not

Houston Dash: The team struggled to do much of anything against Chicago earlier in the week, allowing the Red Stars plenty of space in which to work and never threatening Alyssa Naeher.

Erica Skroski: She gave up two penalties, including one of the most bizarre and blatant handballs you’ll see.

Lauren Barnes: She may have come on earlier than expected after Christen Westphal signaled for an early first-half sub, but Barnes never looked like she belonged on the field at all.

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