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NWSL Week In Review: What has happened to the goalkeeping?

Sabrina D'Angelo (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

We probably don’t need to get into the biological differences between men and women on a website devoted to women’s soccer, but – with women on average about five inches shorter and soccer goals the same size – it stands to reason that something like goalkeeping would be a little more difficult just in terms of covering the 17.86 meters of area the goal entails.

However, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been stellar goalkeeping in women’s soccer, and the deepest pool of them have hailed from the United States, going all the way back to Mary Harvey in the 1991 World Cup, through Brianna Scurry, and to Hope Solo who – despite her off-field shenanigans – has to go down as perhaps the best ever to play the position.

PODCAST: Richard and Dan discuss the most exciting weekend in NWSL this season

With good reason, the United States also features the best goalkeeping depth in the world, which was never on full display until there were professional leagues to showcase them. One of the biggest fallouts from the Boston Breakers folding before the 2018 campaign was one less starting goalkeeping position and two less roster spots, meaning more talented players out of work (Nicole Barnhart, who in my opinion was the best goalkeeper in NWSL two years ago, hasn’t seen the field this year behind Abby Smith in Utah).

But a strange thing has happened to the goalkeeping in NWSL this season. It seems to have a collective case of the yips, with the affliction seeming to grow worse every week. It probably began before this, but it was actually on full display first at the national team level, where Alyssa Naeher (who struggled in the first couple weeks of the NWSL campaign) allowed a howler on April 5 against Mexico, even though the USWNT won easily.

That was surely part of the reason Jill Ellis gave Jane Campbell a start three days later, and the result (although the U.S. won easily again in the end) was a mess, and a somewhat perplexing one. After some early struggles, Campbell had been one of the best goalkeepers in NWSL the season before in Houston, but got nowhere near not one, but two Mexican corner kicks.

From there, things calmed down a bit for a couple of weeks and it looked like the attempted quarantine had worked. Naeher’s defense gave her a couple of games where she had to make only one save. Campbell wasn’t quite as lucky, however, as botched clearances and being out of position kept her struggling.

Of course, not all goalkeeping mistakes result in goals conceded, which probably lulled us into a false sense of security as Abby Smith (who plays aggressively anyway), Kailen Sheridan, Britt Eckerstrom (filling in for an injured Adrianna Franch), and Aubrey Bledsoe all had their moments. Paul Riley decided to put Katelyn Rowland in for a spot start in place of Sabrina D’Angelo, and it went about as well as Campbell’s for the USWNT, with a couple of questionable goals in a 2-2 draw.

And then there appeared nothing we could do to stop it Saturday. Seattle knocked off Portland 3-2 to open things, and you could argue four of the five goals were errors, with Eckerstrom and Michelle Betos trading them. In the end, Betos made a couple of huge saves to at least begin to atone for her errors and got her team three points.

But the night’s (and season’s) worst gaffe came from Sheridan as Houston eventually beat Sky Blue 3-2. Rachel Daly floated what was supposed to be a cross toward Sheridan that Sheridan should have just caught. But she instead tried to push it over the bar, but instead shoved it right into her own net.

The goal illustrates what’s so baffling behind the recent epidemic. For my money (despite giving up a ton of goals in back of a porous defense) Sheridan was the best goalkeeper in NWSL last season, full of several remarkable stops and not many egregious errors to go with them. Yet she was clearly rattled Saturday. While she probably couldn’t have stopped the Dash’s winning goal minutes later, Sheridan attacked the ball with her feet, a technique a goalkeeping coach at U-12 would be quick to correct.

It also creates a dilemma for coaches, who see goalkeepers in training every day and have evaluated them over the long haul. All keepers in NWSL have made it through layers and layers of vetting to even make it into the league, even as a backup, so clearly they are good enough to not make some of the mistakes we saw this week. With the exception of Eckerstom and Rowland, everyone listed previously has earned a starting spot by being one of the top in their field in the world.

And goalkeepers can snap out of slumps as easily as they can get in them, as Naeher proved Sunday in the week’s finale, posting one of the best goalkeeping performances in NWSL history with 14 saves in a 1-1 draw at North Carolina, which saw her quick off her line and extremely confident, two assets that were not on display a month ago against Mexico.

Does a coach look at alternatives until this affliction passes? Or do they just hope things will pass? Most have gone the latter route, which is probably the way to go. As I previously pointed out, you don’t get to this level without being strong mentally and physically, and the former will be tested in the coming weeks, but I suspect most will get through it.

In the meantime, it makes for some exciting games anyway.

What else did we learn in Week 6 of the NWSL season, where there was plenty to talk about?


Chicago 0:2 Orlando

What Went Down: This result is less surprising if you just look at the overall talent on the field and not what the teams had done previously this season. The Pride’s midfield of Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, and Dani Weatherholt featured two Australians that have been key in their national team’s rise and one of the most underrated players in the NWSL last season. They should be formidable, particularly with the forwards Orlando has (Alex Morgan did not play in this game).

But where the Pride really shined was on defense, where they held a Sam Kerr-led team to just one shot on goal. That is where they will have to continue to excel if they want to be a legitimate title contender, and they certainly could be. You may have noticed that one goalkeeper not mentioned above was Ashlyn Harris, who may be the most in form NWSL keeper at the moment. We’ll see if Jill Ellis thinks so soon.

Player of the Game: Monica – She provided a calming influence to the proceedings and was the leader (along with the midfield) in keeping Chicago from getting anything going defensively. She seems to pair better with Shelina Zadorsky in a back four if that’s where Tom Sermanni wants to continue this season.

Under the Radar: Ali Krieger – Krieger was most visible by starting Orlando’s second goal, but has had a solid run in the last few weeks back at her natural outside back spot. We’ll see if it continues, but Krieger has looked solid.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of Alex Morgan, Marta, and Sydney Leroux that were on the field when the Pride scored their second goal. Morgan didn’t play, while Rachel Hill (the eventual goal scorer) took Leroux’s place and Marta was taken off for Kristen Edmonds by the time Hill scored in the 81st minute.

Up next: Chicago – Played again; Orlando – at Utah (Wed.)

SATURDAY (recaps)

Portland 2:3 Seattle (Watkins)

What Went Down: While watching this, I couldn’t help thinking that the Thorns might be a bit overrated, and then you ask is it the injuries or might they be in trouble for a playoff spot in the long run? Some of that was answered in the second half when Tobin Heath and Andressinha came in and changed the game, but alas Portland’s defense – largely held together with Emily Sonnett’s willpower – finally collapsed and the Reign picked up a great three points.

Both Seattle second half goals were preventable, but give Seattle, Vlatko Andonovski and crew credit for coming up with a great game plan without Megan Rapinoe and really battling when things got difficult. Allie Long, Rumi Utsugi, and Jess Fishlock are all veterans who aren’t going to be intimidated by much and that could count for a lot if Seattle can score goals as they did Saturday.

Player of the Game: Allie Long – She has her detractors, and I’m not truly sure where she fits into the USWNT fold at the moment, but she has been and is among the best midfielders in NWSL. She didn’t get on the scoresheet, but was fouled five times and helped control the middle of the field when her team needed it most.

Under the Radar: Lindsey Horan – It didn’t help her team get a result, but Horan was extremely active in this one, something she hasn’t always been in NWSL. She tallied a Lynn Williams-like 10 shots, scored a goal, and won a bunch of balls in the middle to set up scoring chances. On another day, it might be a Player of the Week worthy performance.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of times Seattle was offside, meaning that Allie Long was also offside zero times.

Up next: Portland – at Houston (Wed.); Seattle – vs. Sky Blue (Sat.)

Sky Blue 2:3 Houston

What Went Down: The match will probably be remembered for the Sheridan error, but there was plenty wrong with Sky Blue before that happened. Raquel Rodriguez, Rookie of the Year just two years ago, was so poor in the first half that she was replaced at halftime (by Shea Groom, who had been poor previously, but played well Saturday). The Dash, who couldn’t get out of their own way the last couple of games, especially on offense, dominated the first half with plenty of chances.

So it was good from Houston, which appeared to be in disarray (with assistant Lisa Cole leaving), but had its best performance of the season to date. What it means going forward we’ll have to see, but there is hope with hard-working players like Rachel Daly, Amber Brooks, and the other youngsters on the field. For Sky Blue, there are lots of questions, including their defense (where Christina Gibbons struggled at outside back again) and why Adriana Leon was not even on their game day roster.

Player of the Game: Nichelle Prince – She got herself a goal and was the most dangerous offensive player on the field, which will keep her in the lineup, one would think. Prince, Kealia Ohai, and Rachel Daly (with Kyah Simon as well) has some promise to it going forward.

Under the Radar: Lindsay Agnew – They don’t give Assists of the Week or Year, but Agnew had an amazing one in the first half when it looked to most (and Sky Blue) like the ball was floating out of bounds, only to have Agnew knock it back to Prince for a deserved goal. Agnew was involved in a lesser trade (than the Christen Press one) from Spirit. The pick she was traded for ended up being fellow Canadian Rebecca Quinn, but if Agnew puts up performances like this, she will help.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of goals Rachel Daly was credited for Saturday, which started a bit of controversy whether her floated should have been an own goal or not. While Sheridan did push the ball into the goal, the ball was likely on frame before she did so, meaning I think it’s the right call.

Up next: Sky Blue – at Seattle (Sat.); Houston – vs. Portland (Wed.)

Utah 2:0 Washington

What Went Down: The Spirit had lots of road problems last season (well, finishing last means they had problems everywhere), but if they want to move up the standings, they need to have better performances than what they did Saturday. They were lucky not to be down more than 1-0 at the half and showed some life after the break, but eventually gave up a second with some careless play in the back and didn’t do enough to threaten Utah’s defense, which hadn’t been great earlier in the season.

In the end, Washington had one shot on goal, Mallory Pugh didn’t even attempt one, and the Spirit (with Pugh, Ashley Hatch, Francisca Ordega, and Estefania Banini) get blanked. For the Royals, it was obviously a much-needed three points, and such a strong defensive performance will allow Laura Harvey to keep Kelley O’Hara in an attacking role, where she was fantastic. Amy Rodriguez didn’t score, but had an amazing assist on the first goal, while you all saw Diana Matheson’s amazing play on the second goal.

Player of the Game: Kelley O’Hara – She just looked on a higher level than anyone else on the field. And hungrier as well, maybe because she finally got to start in an attacking position in front of the home crowd. Washington had little answer for her down the left side all night.

Under the Radar: Katrina Gorry – We saw what Matheson can do and I think we know Desiree Scott by now, and we wondered how Harvey would play Gorry, Matheson, and Scott together, none of them probably taller than 5-foot-1. But it was fine Saturday. Gorry is an excellent ball-winner and distributor, and probably an underrated pickup for Utah this season.

Inside the Numbers: 7,551 – Attendance at Rio Tinto, which is a really good number, but it’s not Portland if that’s who they’re trying to compete with in that regard.

Up next: Utah – vs. Orlando (Wed.); Washington – at North Carolina (Sat.)

SUNDAY (recap)

North Carolina 1:1 Chicago

What Went Down: The Courage’s lack of finishing finally caught up with them, but it did take a probable Player of the Week performance from Alyssa Naeher to do it (even though she conceded two goals on Wednesday). North Carolina had an outrageous 42 shots, 15 on them on frame, and managed only one goal thanks to Naeher’s heroics. Should North Carolina be worried long-term? As frustrating as this was, probably not. Sam Mewis looks like she’s still getting her legs, and they have enough depth that they should be fine. Although scoring more would obviously help.

Playing their eighth game of the season, the Red Stars were in a bind, and Rory Dames went cautious, resting Danielle Colaprico and several defenders, and was rewarded with at least a point thanks to Naeher and Sam Kerr scoring a goal that no one else in the world might have been able to. On another day, the Red Stars might have lost by three or four goals, but this wasn’t another day, and with no more mid-week games until Aug. 15, it’s a chance to finally get healthy and attack the rest of the season.

Player of the Game: Alyssa Naeher – As I said at the beginning, sometimes you have to stick with goalkeepers while they’re struggling, and it would appear that Naeher is through whatever was bothering her a month or so ago. One of the best goalkeeping performances in NWSL history.

Under the Radar: McCall Zerboni – She got the goal, but also continues to dominate in midfield, no matter what teams do to try to keep the ball. It took a while for the Courage to get going on a warm day (the first hydration breaks of the season), but Zerboni was everywhere in the second half. As she always is.

Inside the Numbers: 33.3 – Percentage through the regular season the Red Stars are already, having playing 8 of 24 games. Goes fast when you’re playing twice a week, I guess.

Up next: North Carolina – vs. Washington (Sat.); Chicago – vs. Houston (Sat.)


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