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NWSL Week 8 preview: Sky Blue look for first win vs undefeated Courage

Sky Blue still seeks their first win, while Orlando’s hot streak is temporarily cooled for a bye. Questions remain about many teams, but the biggest one is if anyone can slow down Megan Rapinoe. Oh and once again, first place is still out of reach. There’s a full slate of games this Saturday as we take on NWSL Week 8.

Can Houston keep scoring?

Houston Dash (1-3-3) at Utah Royals (1-1-5)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Rio Tinto Stadium (Lifetime)
All-time series:  tied, 0-0-1

After one goal in their first five games, the Dash have scored six in their last three, taking five points. Once Kealia Ohai gets her groove back, they ought to threaten opponents even more, but until then, Rachel Daly and Nichelle Prince are doing a pretty good job of running the fast-break offense, with Kyah Simon and Kristie Mewis acting as facilitators, and the Dash bench seems to be good for a late goal when needed.

  • Dash injuries: QUE — Linda Motlhalo
  • Royals injuries: OUT — Alex Arlitt, Mandy Laddish, Kelley O’Hara, Elise Thorsnes

Something similar can be said for Utah, but the real difference between the teams is in their ability to keep their opponent from doing the same. Houston has given up more than twice the goals as the Royals, and that’s the reason they sit one point behind Utah in the standings despite scoring more goals and playing more games. Few, if any, can match Becky Sauerbrunn at her best, but there are a few ways the Dash can break down the Royals’ strong defensive organization. One is to use Ohai’s speed to expose the space often left behind Brooke Elby. Another is to try to lure Abby Smith off her line and take advantage. 

Will stability help Portland’s defense?

The Emilys — Sonnett, left, and Menges have finally reunited in Portland. (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Portland Thorns FC (2-3-3) at Washington Spirit (1-4-2)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m., Maryland SoccerPlex
All-time series: Thorns lead, 7-2-5

Emily Menges made her 2018 debut last week. Her time on the pitch coincided with Orlando’s two goals, neither of which were her fault, but they were also missing Meghan Klingenberg, who had an excused absence from the match. With both Klingenberg and Menges back, the Portland backline will finally return to the personnel that made it so stingy last year, with Midge Purce taking the role of Ashleigh Sykes. Although they still miss Adrianna Franch in net, a more experienced defense should help out Britt Eckerstrom. Menges in particular is a boon; although Emily Sonnett has been playing very well, she’s not the anchor that Menges is. Like Becky Sauerbrunn, Menges is a calmer, less flashy defender that reads the game two steps ahead of everyone else and makes her teammates better.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT — Adrianna Franch, Bella Geist, Meg Morris, Hayley Raso
  • Spirit injuries: OUT — Cali Farquharson, Rose Lavelle, Arielle Ship; QUE — Estelle Johnson

If Washington can get their midfield going, their attack could give Portland’s defense a workout. Francisca Ordega is in fine form, and with each successive game, Ashley Hatch and Mallory Pugh take one step closer toward a dangerous partnership. However, like Portland, their issue more often than not is defense. They (also like Portland) are among the four teams with a negative goal differential. A more decisive performance from Andi Sullivan in midfield would help, as she has a habit of not making decisions quickly enough. Rebecca Quinn helped the defense out somewhat when she dropped back to center back last week, although they still gave up a goal to North Carolina. 

Will Sky Blue’s midfield pull it together?

Carli Lloyd. (Photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

North Carolina Courage (5-0-2) at Sky Blue FC (0-4-1)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series: Courage lead, 9-4-2 (plus 1-0-0 playoffs)

It’s been a rough start for Sky Blue, with four goals and one point out of five games. Savannah McCaskill and Katie Johnson have started scoring, and while their defense has their own struggles, particularly at outside back, it’s at least improved from last year. (writer’s note — the injury report lists Christina Gibbons out and Rebekah Stott questionable) Getting more from their midfield is essential not only to Denise Reddy’s game plan but also to help out both sides of the pitch. Sarah Killion has had a very quiet start to the season, as has Raquel Rodriguez, who is in and out of the lineup. Janine Beckie continues to prove she’s not really a midfielder. Carli Lloyd has her moments but tries to do too much on her own, particularly toward the end of games. With Daphne Corboz still in France, there isn’t really an answer on the bench, so the midfield needs to get itself on the same page soon.

  • Courage injuries: OUT — Sabrina D’Angelo, Yuki Kawamura, Julie King, Lynn Williams
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT — Christina Gibbons; QUE — Rebekah Stott

Disrupting their attempts will be McCall Zerboni and company. She leads the Courage midfielders in duels, touches, and passes by a large margin, and is also fourth in the league in fouls conceded. If there’s one way to describe Zerboni, it’s that she’s always involved, and Sky Blue can count on her presence to disrupt every pass or dribble. If each team lines up in their typical formations, Sky Blue will also be outnumbered in midfield, so it would behoove them to consider playing much quicker and a little bit more direct.

Can anyone stop Megan Rapinoe?

Megan Rapinoe is back with a bang. (photo courtesy Seattle Reign FC)

Chicago Red Stars (2-2-5) at Seattle Reign FC (4-1-1)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series: tied, 5-5-4

What injury? After missing a few weeks with a hamstring strain, Rapinoe picked up where she left off, scoring two goals against Sky Blue and was named Player of the Week. She has scored in every game she’s played so far this season, helping Seattle to second place despite playing fewer games than any team besides Sky Blue. Rapinoe has proven for over a decade that when she’s at her best, she’s nearly unplayable, and although she’s beginning to be injury-prone, she’s played some of her best and most consistent soccer since a rough, post-ACL tear 2016. Thus far, NWSL defenses haven’t had an answer.

  • Red Stars injuries: OUT — Vanessa DiBernardo, Stephanie McCaffrey, Casey Short
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT — Yael Averbuch, Jaycie Johnson; QUE — Megan Oyster

Will Chicago be the one to stymie Rapinoe’s advance? They could be, but they’ll need to step it up a notch. Although one would think differently while watching an average game, they’re tied for second-most goals against in the league. Sarah Gorden has done an admirable job filling in for Casey Short on the left, but it’s Taylor Comeau–who may have found herself a permanent starting spot on the right with Arin Gilliland up top now–who will be tasked with shutting down Rapinoe. Comeau has had some very good games but hasn’t consistently been able to lock down her flank. Fortunately for the Red Stars backline, Alyssa Naeher has proven that when her defense lets her down, she can step up.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

The Houston Dash set piece: Rarely do you see a set piece translate from training ground to live game, but the Dash’s free kick in Chicago that ended in a Kristie Mewis goal is a perfect example of one going exactly to plan.

Savannah McCaskill: It’s taken the rookie a bit to settle in, but she increasingly looks like Sky Blue’s best scoring threat.

Not

Sofia Huerta: She converted Chicago’s (dubiously awarded) penalty kick, but Huerta hasn’t done much besides that since being awarded Player of the Month in April.
Britt Eckerstrom: She suffers by comparison to the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, but it seems like each week, she gives up a goal Franch could have saved.
Penalty decisions: From the previously mentioned penalty call against Amber Brooks, which appears like Brooks wasn’t even in the box at the time, to a missed call in Portland where Emily Sonnett didn’t get any of the ball in her tackle, it wasn’t a great week for officiating.

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