The national understanding of soccer here in the United States has clearly grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades, but there are still some holes.
For instance, as a high school coach a couple of years ago, a week-long rain left the schedule backed up and the athletic director scheduled three games in three days. When I mentioned that soccer is much more taxing physically than most sports and that wasn’t fair or safe for the players, the reply was, “They’re kids. They’ll be fine.”
Thankfully, there were no serious injuries to speak of, but there was a 3-0 loss in the third game to a team we had handled fairly easily earlier in the campaign.
The fact that the Boston Breakers folded on Jan. 25, just two months before the 2018 season, had ripple effects, some seen clearly (like less spots for players in the league), and some a little more subtle, like scheduling. One of the biggest complaints of the preseason was the lack of a schedule, but speaking honestly, what a nightmare: an odd number of teams, plenty of international dates, and not a whole lot of time to get this done.
What we’re left with is a cadre of unavoidable midweek games, which aren’t good for attendance (neither is snow and Chicago had both last Wednesday) and competitive balance. The Red Stars, already with an all-star squad of injured players, won 1-0 at Utah on April 14, then put on an impressive display four days later by overwhelming Houston early en route to a 3-0 win. By the second half Saturday, however, they were out of gas, and dropped two points in a 1-1 draw to Sky Blue.
North Carolina has been NWSL’s best team in the early season and ran over Washington 4-2 on Apr. 14 before dominating Seattle 1-0 four days later. But even in that game, Paul Riley – not a huge fan of squad rotation in general – changed only one starter, and there were some signs of fatigue in the final minutes. Saturday, now (like Chicago) playing three games in seven days, the Courage just could not sustain its pressing style for 90 minutes and would have lost if it weren’t for a fluke goal to salvage a 2-2 draw (to be fair, it wasn’t the only fluke goal of the afternoon).
Fixture congestion is not unique to the NWSL or women’s soccer. Toronto FC, which dominated MLS last season on its way to a record number of points and the title, currently sits in dead last in the Eastern Conference, partly because of numerous Concacaf Champions League matches that have taken priority and brought tired legs. In England, Chelsea won the 2016-17 English Premier League title after finishing 10th the prior season, buoyed by the lack of midweek Champions League matches to take a toll.
FT: One to forget
— Toronto FC (@torontofc) April 21, 2018
Of course, Chelsea and even Toronto in MLS have a much larger roster which allows them to rotate almost entire teams if they wish. Neither Riley nor (Red Stars coach) Rory Dames have that luxury and therefore just had to manage as best they could, and the result was that neither was able to hold onto a lead this weekend.
Just because it’s a necessary part of the 2018 schedule doesn’t mean fatigue won’t be a big factor. The next team to face such a dilemma will be …. Chicago again? There are no mid-week matches this week (thankfully), but Chicago is at Washington on April 28, hosts Orlando on May 2, and then travels to North Carolina on May 6. The Courage, who play at Houston on Lifetime Saturday, will have eight-days rest in between. Dames should have Sam Kerr (who was in attendance Saturday) and there are reports of an imminent Julie Ertz return, but – judging from past history – that might not end well for the Red Stars.
Will things even out? Possibly. After that North Carolina match, Chicago gets a week off and hosts Houston, who will be playing its third match (in three different places) in seven days. But, for better or for worse, it’s definitely something to look at for coaches and anyone trying to ascertain just how significant an individual result might be.
And we can only hope it doesn’t lead to any injuries. Go knock on some wood for me, will you?
What else did we learn in a busy Week 4 of the NWSL season, which was full of draws?
North Carolina 1:0 Seattle (Lauletta)
What Went Down: It was slightly more difficult than some of their other statistical beatdowns, especially in the second half where the Reign had a couple of dangerous moments. And we’re left to wonder how many more of them they might have had with Megan Rapinoe on the field. What’s amazing about watching the Courage sometimes is how difficult it is for opponents to even get the ball to their end of the field. Forwards (Jodie Taylor in this case) often look hopeless to even touch the ball, let alone get a scoring chance. And Seattle had Jess Fishlock and Allie Long in the middle as well.
The Reign will hope to get Rapinoe back next week, but an early injury to Christen Westphal could be costly as well. She had played very well since coming off from Boston.
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 19, 2018
Player of the Game: Abby Erceg – With Abby Dahlkemper’s streak of 5,850 consecutive minutes played ending due to an excused absence, Erceg stepped up and played an extremely solid game, rarely allowing Seattle and Taylor any hope of having the ball in the final third.
Under the Radar: Kaleigh Kurtz – It’s been a tough year for rookies, but Kurtz is a pretty good story, having gone to Sweden last season after going undrafted out of South Carolina. She earned a roster spot with North Carolina and was called on with Dahlkemper’s absence, going 90 minutes and being part of a shutout.
Inside the Numbers: 22.7 – Percentage of shots on goal for Courage (5 of 22), which was actually above their season average to that point.
Up next: North Carolina – Played again; Seattle – at Orlando (Sat.)
Chicago 3:0 Houston
What Went Down: On short rest and in the snow, the Red Stars jumped on the Dash early and by the time they started to tire, they were able to sit back and hold on. It was 2-0 inside 11 minutes, and the Dash had plenty of the ball in the final 60 minutes, but did little with it and shorthanded Chicago had a relatively easy victory, and three more points that may look huge at the end of the campaign.
The Dash are starting to look a lot like Boston did under Matt Beard a couple years ago: very organized and tough to break down, but not much of a threat at the other end. So when you have a night where you make a couple of mistakes and concede two early goals, you might as well forget it. But they could probably stand to at least get a shot on goal.
We got all the ❄️ highlights. pic.twitter.com/tfmOE253kK
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 19, 2018
Player of the Game: Sofia Huerta – Huerta is probably the early-season MVP for my money, helping to carry the Red Stars through this stretch and stepping up when her team truly needs it. She has added field vision and world-class playmaker to her NWSL arsenal and that might get some notice from Jill Ellis.
Under the Radar: Danielle Colaprico – Colaprico has also stepped up her game with so many players absent and you just have to see her assist on Chicago’s third goal to see a great example of how. Then you can watch it over and over like I just did.
Inside the Numbers: 0 – Shots on goal for Houston in this one, which didn’t test Alyssa Naeher, and obviously makes it tough to win.
Up next: Chicago – Played again; Houston – Played again
Portland 1:1 Washington
What Went Down: Despite one of the ugliest goals you’ll ever see to give them the lead, it was well deserved for the Spirit, who started a front six (Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Francisca Ordega, Meggie Dougherty Howard, Andi Sullivan, Tori Huster) that really should be formidable in NWSL, and will hopefully add Rose Lavelle to the equation soon.
Meanwhile, Portland had few recognizable names, one fewer than usual with Adrianna Franch out injured (Britt Eckerstrom took her place), and yet found a way to dominate the second half, and would have had three points if Aubrey Bledsoe didn’t save Lindsey Horan’s late penalty. So the Thorns will be a bit disappointed to not win, but with Tobin Heath and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic soon ready to go for entire games (both played Friday), things are not as bleak as they could be.
Late night highlights, right here. pic.twitter.com/wOqTf2Cdnr
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 21, 2018
Player of the Game: Margaret Purce – Not many former Boston players have found starting jobs as of yet, but Purce is already a key cog in the Thorns’ 3-5-2 formation, being able to get forward when needed and doing a little better with her defensive responsibilities (it should be noted Purce was off the field for the crazy Washington goal).
Under the Radar: Celeste Boureille – Boureille also looks much more comfortable a month into the season and was able to hold her own with Dougherty Howard and Huster, which is something not every regular starting midfielder was able to say last season.
Inside the Numbers: 30 – Minutes Tobin Heath played Friday night. A healthy Heath might be the difference between the playoffs or not for the Thorns this season.
Up next: Portland – at Utah (Sat.); Washington – vs. Chicago (Sat.)
North Carolina 2:2 Utah (Lauletta)
What Went Down: A combination of tired players and goalkeeping errors made this the most entertaining game of the weekend and had both teams wondering how they didn’t get three points. Ironically, the game started like all the previous Courage games had, with them completely dominating territory (but not possession, which is an interesting paradox in North Carolina’s system). Then Merritt Mathias scored what might be the Goal of the Year and the Courage had their goal for three points, right?
But fatigue set in, Laura Harvey made some changes, Abby Dahlkemper had a moment with Katelyn Rowland, Rowland had another moment (Brittany Ratcliffe had to make a tough finish on the second), and Utah should have had three points if it weren’t for a whiff by Abby Smith and a cruel bounce that allowed Crystal Dunn to get the equalizer. It will be interesting to see if Paul Riley goes with more squad rotation (he’ll have a couple more players back soon) in the future.
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 21, 2018
Player of the Game: Merritt Mathias – I once covered a Mathias hat trick in the 2012 WPSL Elite opener (for Paul Riley and the New York Fury), and after the game she talked about contemplating retirement when WPS collapsed, but she didn’t want to quite give soccer up yet. Six years later, she’s scoring ridiculous goals, so that has to be a win for all of us, no?
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 21, 2018
Under the Radar: Katie Bowen – Bowen had a rough start for the season, but had a very good game here, especially as North Carolina tired. Bowen played well in Kansas City, so probably wise for Laura Harvey to stick with her through the transition.
Inside the Numbers: 11 – Number of shots for North Carolina, a season low, which some of the credit given to fatigue, but some to the Utah defense as well.
Up next: North Carolina – at Houston (Sat.); Utah – vs. Portland (Sat.)
Chicago 1:1 Sky Blue
What Went Down: In the end, the Red Stars still probably deserved three points, despite having nothing left to give at the end and having a starting center back (Sam Johnson) get injured in warm-ups. But they could not get a second goal and eventually Savannah McCaskill took advantage for an equalizer, Sky Blue’s first goal of the season.
Like Houston, there is little returning from international duty for Sky Blue in the near future, so they are going to have to find some semblance of an offense. There is the talent, led by McCaskill, to do it, but we’ll have to see how they progress in the coming months.
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 22, 2018
Player of the Game: Savannah McCaskill – The fact that she fell to them when Boston collapsed may end up being the most fortunate thing any team experienced this season, unless Lavelle comes back to full-speed sometime soon.
Under the Radar: Sarah Gorden – The former DePaul defender didn’t play much in the middle in New Jersey (or ever), but did an admirable job for only finding out she was doing so 15 minutes before kickoff, as has done an admirable job in general as her team has needed her in the season’s first month.
Inside the Numbers: 20 – Number of shots on goal for Chicago in this match, so it wasn’t for lack of shooting that they didn’t score more.
Up next: Chicago – at Washington (Sat.); Sky Blue – vs. Houston (May 5)
Orlando 1:0 Houston
What Went Down: It was not a great performance from the Pride, and Houston had a couple of chances to take a lead and get a result. Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux were both virtual non-factors for the first 60 minutes or so, and that’s a little concerning, but reinforcements should be on the way soon from South America and Asia and that should help Tom Sermanni have a midfield that can connect to his talented forwards.
Houston did get Kealia Ohai back and that will help their cause and should get Kyah Simon soon, but they will not get the players back that other teams will. They did manage two shots on goal at least in this one.
— NWSL (@NWSL) April 23, 2018
Player of the Game: Chioma Ubogagu – It stands to reason that Ubogagu will make her way to the bench when Marta returns, but she was the most active of the three forwards Sunday and eventually got the winning goal.
Under the Radar: Ashlyn Harris – Harris made only two saves, but looked confident where some others did not in NWSL this week. With Alyssa Naeher’s struggles (she played better this week), names like Adrianna Franch and Jane Campbell were mentioned, but Harris largely was not.
Inside the Numbers: 3,890 – Attendance at Orlando City Stadium Sunday, which is obviously a very concerning number for a franchise that came into NWSL thinking about competing with Portland.
Up Next: Orlando – vs. Seattle (Sat.); Houston – vs. North Carolina (Sat.)