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NWSL week 7 preview, round 2: And then there was one

Here’s a stat that may surprise you: four NWSL teams are currently on a four-game winless streak, and two of those teams sit in a playoff spot. In fact, with draws peppering the table – nearly half of the 29 games played have been a tie – no team is currently on a winning streak, and Seattle is the only team who could emerge on Saturday with two wins in a row. Despite that, the first and last place teams will remain so regardless of results, so it’s the middle of the table – and Sky Blue still seeking that first win of the year – drawing our attention as we round out NWSL Week 7.

Will the Pride succeed without their best players?

Orlando Pride (2-2-3) at Portland Thorns FC (2-2-3)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Providence Park (Lifetime)
All-time series: Thorns lead, 4-0-1 (plus 1-0-0 playoffs)

If you looked at the Pride’s roster on paper and were asked to name the three best players, Marta, Alex Morgan, and Alanna Kennedy should jump to the top of the list. However, only one of the three has been playing up to her potential. Marta has been decidedly average, even if her average is better than most, and Morgan has been a non-factor on the pitch. Unfortunately, it’s also beginning to appear like it could be another injury-prone year for her. Despite that, the Pride are on a four-game undefeated streak and are only one point out of second place. For all that the Marta-Morgan combo did for the team last year, it could be that with a stronger midfield and Monica anchoring the defense, the team isn’t as dependent on their star power, although the caveat here is that the Pride haven’t been scoring frequently.

  • Pride injuries: OUT — Camila; QUE — Monica, Alex Morgan
  • Thorns injuries: OUT — Adrianna Franch, Bella Geist, Meghan Klingenberg, Meg Morris, Hayley Raso; QUE — Emily Menges

In a rather opposite situation, Portland got one of their biggest names back in Tobin Heath, alongside the not-insignificant talents of Andressinha, but for all that the two of them can do on one end of the pitch, it’s the other side that’s lacking. Last year’s stingiest defense is now tied for the most goals against in the league, and as I’ve said previously, some of that has to go back to the absence of Emily Menges and Adrianna Franch. The good news for the Thorns is that the Pride haven’t been a huge offensive threat, so if they can avoid a counter attack, their weakened defense should be able to withstand whatever the Pride can throw at them.

Can Andi Sullivan live up to billing?

Washington Spirit (1-3-2) at North Carolina Courage (5-0-2)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Courage lead, 9-3-3 (plus 0-0-1 playoffs)

The biggest single commonality that stands out from the Spirit roster is their youth, and results have been as inconsistent as you’d expect from a young group. That said, they have some big names, including the first player to skip college for the NWSL, last year’s rookie of the year, an Olympic bronze medal winner and 2018 No. 3 overall draft pick, and the 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick. It’s the last, Andi Sullivan, who has been concerning. Although it always takes time for college players to adjust to the week in, week out grind of professional soccer, Sullivan has proven with the USWNT that she can perform at a high level, something she’s shown flashes of with the Spirit, but only flashes. It’s been almost two months, and it’s time for Sullivan to make the draft pick worthwhile.

  • Spirit injuries: OUT — Rose Lavelle, Arielle Ship; QUE — Estelle Johnson
  • Courage injuries: OUT — Sabrina D’Angelo, Yuki Kawamura, Julie King

If it’s a matter of rising to the occasion, no time like the present. Sullivan faces the challenge of slowing down Paul Riley’s box midfield, possibly the best midfield in the league. That’s where this game will be decided, for if Sullivan and company can’t stop McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis from moving the ball up the pitch, the Courage’s speed is likely to pull the slower Spirit backline apart. If so, Washington does have a slight glimpse of hope in that Aubrey Bledsoe is in rare form, and the Courage’s finishing seems like it gets worse every match, but as Alyssa Naeher can attest, you can only keep them out for so long.

When will Jane Campbell regain her form?

(photo by Lewis Gettier)

Houston Dash (1-3-3) at Chicago Red Stars (1-3-3)
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Dash lead, 6-2-5

The goal Houston gave up on Wednesday was more on the Dash defenders than Jane Campbell, but the fact remains that ever since her disappointing first start for the USWNT, the goalkeeper hasn’t returned to the strong level at which she began the season. Maybe she’s in her head, or maybe she’s just in a slump, but either way, her backline isn’t strong enough to make up for her shortcomings. A great shot stopper who can push a ball over the crossbar as good as anyone, Campbell punches rather than catches and isn’t strong on corners – criticisms that have followed her since college, but ones that she needs to shed not only to keep her USWNT spot, but to help the Dash climb out of the basement.

  • Dash injuries: OUT — Linda Motlhalo
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT — Vanessa DiBernardo, Stephanie McCaffrey, Casey Short

Unfortunately for Campbell, Houston is facing Chicago, whose four goals scored on her this year account for nearly half of the Dash goals against. Part of this is because they’ve already played Chicago twice; this game will conclude the Houston-Chicago series, while Houston has yet to play Washington or Seattle. Possibly even more unfortunately for Campbell, Houston is facing Chicago with Sam Kerr for the first time. Kerr scored her first goal in a Red Stars uniform, helping to rescue a point for Chicago, and although it still doesn’t look like the team has fully jelled with her, she’s still Sam Kerr.

Related: Dash acquire Allysha Chapman

Can Katie Johnson find Sky Blue’s first win in her return to Seattle?

Katie Johnson rounds goalkeeper Jane Campbell for an attempt on goal in the Dash’s 3-2 road win in New Jersey. (photo copyright Nicole Rossi for The Equalizer)

Sky Blue FC (0-3-1) at Seattle Reign FC (3-1-1)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: Reign lead, 5-4-5

Whether scoring or assisting, Johnson has played a role in every Sky Blue goal so far this year and came very close to her first career hat trick against Houston last weekend. Formerly Seattle’s super sub, she’s become crucial to what offense Sky Blue can mount. After a toothless first half, she led Sky Blue to a second half comeback for the team’s first multi-goal game this year, although Houston found a late game winner. If Sky Blue is to find their first win of the season, Johnson has to come up big against her old team.

  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT — Amandine Pierre-Louis
  • Reign injuries: OUT — Yael Averbuch, Keirsten Dallstream, Jaycie Johnson

Allie Long and Jess Fishlock may have something to say about that. They’ve formed a solid partnership in Seattle’s midfield with Long playing her best soccer since 2016. Her role as a holding midfielder has helped Seattle to tie for the least amount of goals against in the league, as has a strong performance from Michelle Betos, who has held on to the starting spot over Lydia Williams thus far.

Related: Up close with Morgan Andrews

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Monica: The Brazilian has proved a stabilizing presence for a defense that really needed one.
Katie Johnson: Her two goals against Houston nearly stole the game for Sky Blue.

Not

Christine Nairn: The midfielder has her moments, but the last time she played a consistently solid game might be two teams ago.
Orlando’s attack: So lauded prior to the season, they only put two shots on target against Utah.

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