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NWSL Week In Review: How Many Games Will USWNT Miss?

One day before the sixth NWSL season commenced back in March, U.S. Soccer announced a pair of friendlies against China which would take place June 7 and 12 in Salt Lake City (Sandy) and Cleveland, respectively.

These did not come as a surprise to anyone. They are FIFA dates and the NWSL scheduled accordingly (as best it could), placing only one game (Washington at Sky Blue) between June 3 and 16 with both teams agreeing to play during the window. These international windows are always annoying for club coaches, but particularly so in a league such as the NWSL where depth is non-existent by financial design.

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Does the USWNT need these friendlies, the first of which comes exactly a year before the World Cup opens in France? China is not Germany, but is ranked No. 17 in the world and should offer at least a little resistance, but maybe, just maybe we can just let the NWSL stay together without interruption for a couple of months? As most readers of this know, that ship sailed away at high speed long ago so I’m probably not winning that argument.

I’d come to terms with that, but this week U.S. Soccer rubbed a little salt in the wound, as our esteemed colleague Dan Lauletta first reported that anyone called into USWNT camp would not be available for the games of June 2 and 3 (he followed up by saying the NWSL teams have known for a while), the first of which would have featured Mallory Pugh and Andi Sullivan of Washington against Julie Ertz and Sofia Huerta of Chicago, the last having Megan Rapinoe (Seattle) taking on Alex Morgan (Orlando). All four of those teams seem like they need three points badly, and as I’ve pointed out before, with just a 24-game schedule, each game takes on more meaning.

The injuries have piled up recently to USWNT players, so you can understand the need to limit minutes a bit for some (like Rose Lavelle, who is expected to return this week), and it’s hard to say that the USSF doesn’t care about a league which it bankrolls, but they do make it difficult on us who care deeply about the NWSL sometimes, don’t they?

First, you worry about the games of June 16, in which Chicago hosts Portland. Will the Red Stars be able to play Julie Ertz 90 minutes? Will the Thorns likewise have a full-strength Tobin Heath? How frustrating is it to even have to ask these questions? (It should be noted that Europe has World Cup qualifiers in this international break, so European players will likely be dealing will the same issues.)

To me, though, the biggest problem here is precedent. If USSF is going to pull this for a couple of friendlies against China a year out from the World Cup, how are they going to treat the three-game Tournament of Nations next month? It stands to reason that the games of July 20-21 will also be missing national team players with the tournament (which the U.S. did not win last season) opening on July 26.

We are already cramming mid-week games (some of them sparsely attended) in to end the 2018 campaign before CONCACAF World Cup qualifying begins on Oct. 4, but what will that mean for 2019? With the World Cup opening on June 7 in France, will USWNT players get pulled a month before to prepare? The final is exactly a month later, which the United States obviously expects to be playing in. With its stars potentially missing from early May to mid-July (not including a possible victory tour later in the summer and fall), how can the NWSL schedule around the World Cup and still put together a season with integrity and competitive balance? If USWNT players are missing, how many other countries will do the same with their World Cup-bound international players? And then what happens in 2020 with the Olympics (in Japan)?

Despite some attendance and other (like the lack of a commissioner) worries this season, there is little reason to think the NWSL – unlike its predecessors – is in danger of collapsing. It’s more likely than not that there will be expansion, although surely the league will also take a hard look at struggling markets to see if they can be moved as well.

Again, things are better and relatively stable in the women’s professional soccer landscape here in this country, and we should be somewhat grateful for that. However, even if it is just the impression that the NWSL is only there to give USWNT players a chance to train and play, it’s not a good look and not the way to build momentum going forward.

And it’s hard to argue that the NWSL couldn’t use a little momentum right now.

What else did we learn in Week 8 of the NWSL season, where North Carolina’s lead at the top only got bigger?

SATURDAY (recaps)

Utah 1:0 Houston

What Went Down: The Royals did their best North Carolina impersonation, only with more possession (63.6%). As a youth coach and from an artistic standpoint, it was actually very fun to watch Utah knock the ball around and Houston chase them all over the field. Alas, you don’t get any points for that under current soccer rules, so they were only one mistake from the Dash stealing a draw and dropping two points, so they would like to find a way to be more prolific offensively. They did not concede a shot on goal, though.

For the Dash, Vera Pauw has done well to organize things, and even with poor Amber Brooks getting another questionable penalty called against her, Utah – although it had many chances – managed just the single goal. It remains to be seen what the ceiling is for this team, though. It looks like they will get off the bottom of the table, but the playoffs still look well in the distance.

Player of the Game: Desiree Scott – Scott hasn’t been able to recapture the form that made her one of the most valuable players of the league’s early days, but she has played very well the last couple of weeks and dominated the Houston midfield at every turn Saturday until she basically wore them out.

Under the Radar: Erika Tymrak – Speaking of blasts from the past, the 2013 NWSL Rookie of the Year showed a little of the form that got her there, including the winner. Tymrak is an entertaining, fun player to watch, and is definitely someone you can root for and that Laura Harvey may need to score goals.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Number of shots on goal for the Dash in this game, which isn’t the first time that’s happened this season.

Up next: Utah – at Portland (Fri.); Houston – vs. Seattle (Wed.)

Washington 0:1 Portland

What Went Down: Empirical data in the age of analytics may be tough to quantify such, but this seems like the type of game that the Thorns have won in the past and that the Spirit have not. It was basically dead even on the stat sheet, and Washington was able to generate a few chances, but the Thorns’ still-makeshift defense (although Emily Menges went 90 minutes) stood tall, which has to be frustrating to Washington fans, as Mallory Pugh had a another relatively quiet evening, except for an interesting spat with Meghan Klingenberg.

The Thorns still have some improving to do and the roster is becoming less of an excuse, especially with Ellie Carpenter (who became the youngest goal scorer in NWSL history with the game-winner) now in the fold. Is the 3-5-2 the way Mark Parsons wants to proceed long-term? Does he need another holding midfielder (other than Lindsey Horan) in there if he wants to do that? It’s always better to answer questions like that after three points than zero.

Player of the Game: Emily Menges – She is huge to what the Thorns want to accomplish and it’s not coincidental that her coming back into form gave Portland its first clean sheet of the season.

Under the Radar: Caprice Dydasco – She’ll wonder if she couldn’t do more to prevent the goal, but Dydasco was very active in both the defense and the attack. She was involved in a couple of the chances the Spirit did get, even if they did not score.

Inside the Numbers: 26 – Number of minutes played by Ellie Carpenter. She replaced Margaret Purce, who has been one of Portland’s best players so far this season, so we shall see how Parsons shuffles his lineup with a full-strength roster (until they get called out for international duty).

Up next: Washington – vs. Sky Blue (Wed.); Portland – vs. Utah (Fri.).

Sky Blue 1:2 North Carolina

What Went Down: Paul Riley spent much of postgame berating his team, presumably for their less-than-stellar second half performance that could have cost them a couple of points, but it illustrates just how far apart these two are. If that doesn’t do it, of course, you could just look at the standings, where the Courage has 23 points and Sky Blue has a lonely 1. In the first half, North Carolina did what they do, win balls and attack, and there was no way Sky Blue’s defense was going to hold up to that kind of pressure.

What can Denise Reddy do? Who knows? Sky Blue played deeper to keep North Carolina in front of them, but eventually you’re going to make a mistake and one resulted in Crystal Dunn finishing a great pass from Jess McDonald. Soon after it was two when Sam Mewis was handed a gift when Sky Blue couldn’t sort out a ball near its own goal. And while Savannah McCaskill and Carli Lloyd provided some offense toward the end, will that be enough to get off the bottom of the table? Wouldn’t bet on it at the moment.

Player of the Game: Katelyn Rowland – She didn’t end up with the clean sheet, but not only saved a penalty, but robbed Raquel Rodriguez on the rebound, looking much more confident, which is good for the Courage, who do not know how long Sabrina D’Angelo will be out.

Under the Radar: Carli Lloyd – It will be interesting to see how motivated Lloyd will be if Sky Blue stays at the bottom of the table, but Lloyd played well in this match, including scoring and winning a penalty from McCall Zerboni (which likely prevented her from being mentioned here). Lloyd should form a good tandem with McCaskill, but that won’t help their defense long-term.

Inside the Numbers: 44 – Combined minutes from Raquel Rodriguez and Janine Beckie, which also happened to be to best of the match from Sky Blue. Neither has played well this season, but they might be needed for the team to have a chance to win.

Up next: Sky Blue – at Washington (Wed.); North Carolina – at Orlando (May 23)

Seattle 0:0 Chicago (Bush)

What Went Down: Scoreless games can be tedious, but this was not, a fascinating individual battle between Megan Rapinoe and Alyssa Naeher that Naeher won on this night. It’s technically two dropped points from the Reign and that’s how Vlatko Andonovski treated it afterward, but they didn’t play poorly and created chances. Chicago also played better, but now has six draws in 10 matches and points just don’t add up quickly that way.

There is some concern about Jodie Taylor and Sam Kerr, but differently. Taylor missed a breakaway in the early stages and has had trouble finishing of late, which is not consistent with her career. Meanwhile, Kerr can’t get a sniff at goal, going another 90 minutes without a shot. Both could snap out of it next week and no one would be surprised, but they are key players to get going for their respective teams.

Player of the Game: Lauren Barnes – Barnes has been one of the most underrated players in the league so far this season and one of the biggest reasons the Reign have conceded just six times in seven matches despite some relative inexperience around her.

Under the Radar: Samantha Johnson – Another underrated center back who always seems to be there in the nick of time to prevent opposing scoring opportunities. While Rapinoe got loose a few times, it could have been (and has been for other Seattle opponents) much worse.

Inside the Numbers: 11 – Combined draws between Chicago (6) and Utah (5). If they finish out of the playoffs, they may look back on a few of these and wonder if they could have gotten three instead of one point.

Up next: Seattle – at Houston (Wed.); Chicago – vs. Orlando (Sat.)

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