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NWSL Week In Review: What draws a crowd in mid-week?

As Captain Obvious would surely tell you, most people in the entertainment business would much rather sell an event on the weekend than a weeknight because the folks attending generally don’t have to worry about getting up early the next day.

There are, of course, events and games that are going to do well no matter what the time and place, such as the local showing of Hamilton that you still can’t afford to attend (if you can, give me a ring, will you?). But for something like the NWSL, which is no longer fledgling but still not exactly flying on its own, the more games it can put on Saturday nights to keep things consistent are probably better.

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However, necessity and international dates are the proud parents of creative scheduling and that was always going to mean more mid-week fixtures in 2018 than there were last season on the NWSL calendar. In a cruel way, however, it is a good test of just how the league is doing in its sixth campaign, if you dare to look.

And so, even if it was a Wednesday night, the announced crowd of 3,104 in Orlando for its game against North Carolina was disturbing on a few fronts. First and foremost, the Pride entered NWSL with a crowd of 23,403 for its inaugural game just two seasons ago, and there was the dream that – even if they couldn’t compete with Portland – Orlando could draw consistently, especially after opening beautiful Orlando City Stadium last year.

Second, there were no international players missing last Wednesday, with both Alex Morgan and Marta getting the start for the Pride. That won’t be the case next week or (as I talked about last week) for a decent portion of the next couple seasons, so if they can’t draw with them…..

In addition, the Pride – now basically at full-strength – have a host of exciting players for a team that is playing very good soccer at the moment. Wednesday night’s lineup included Alanna Kennedy, Emily van Egmond, Chioma Ubogagu, Ali Krieger, and Ashlyn Harris for a team who currently sits in third in the league table and seems like a good bet to be in the playoffs by the end of the summer.

However, while all those reasons are troublesome, there was one other mitigating factor that was not discussed as much that still bothers me as I’m writing this: Orlando’s opponent.

It was defending NWSL Shield winner North Carolina, of course, and as you probably know it turned out to be one of the games of the season with the Courage eventually pulling it out 4-3. With all due respect to Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis, North Carolina doesn’t have world-wide household names like Alex Morgan or Marta, but the Courage came into Wednesday undefeated and with the potential to be one of the best professional women’s teams in history, at least in this hemisphere.

To me, I think people coming out on the road to see a team like North Carolina will be a big sign that the NWSL has turned a corner and is headed for more consistent success at the gate (and on television). The Courage’s style may not be entertaining in the traditional soccer sense, but it is fascinating, and most importantly, right now no one can stop them.

As it turned out, Orlando did their darnedest to stop them, but it wasn’t quite enough as North Carolina picked up three more hard-earned points to add to their seemingly insurmountable lead at the top of the NWSL table. It was the type of night that should draw the attention of the local community, but instead ended up with 3,104 fans in attendance.

I try not to be too negative in this space and so I’ll leave it there and point out that Utah recently had a mid-week crowd of over 7,000 and Chicago went over 5,000 this weekend even with a struggling team. And even if we as WoSo supporters sometimes feel like Gatsby believing in that green light that continues to elude us.

What else did we learn in Week 9 of the NWSL season, where Chicago appears to be in some playoff trouble as it nears the halfway point of its campaign?

WEDNESDAY (recaps)

 Orlando 3:4 North Carolina (Lauletta)

What Went Down: The thing about the Courage is even on a night they looked vulnerable and needed heroics and some interesting defending and goalkeeping on the part of their opponents, they still end up outshooting the Pride 26-7. On the road against perhaps the second best team in the league at the moment. There are enough data points just from North Carolina to show that shots can be overrated, but while going undefeated will be difficult, it’s hard to see the Courage losing many games.

Down 3-1 and given up for dead, the Pride were still pushing at 3-3 before Jess McDonald’s winner, so they shouldn’t too upset at the performance, even if the defense (forced into Ali Krieger playing centrally with Monica and Toni Pressley both out) left a lot to be desired.

Player of the Game: Jess McDonald – In a league without much depth to speak of, North Carolina seems to always have players (like Denise O’Sullivan last season) who step in and do a great job when others go down. McDonald has had a wonderful NWSL career, but wasn’t getting many minutes until Lynn Williams got hurt, and ended up with two goals including the game-winner.

Under the Radar: Marta – It was a slow start to the season after returning from international duty and Marta’s role has changed a bit, but she’s still brilliant. She had two assists and both showed great vision and accuracy.

Inside the Numbers: 17 – Minutes played by North Carolina’s bench, which Paul Riley could do because the Courage had a bye this weekend.

Up next: Orlando – Played again; North Carolina – at Portland (Wed.)

Washington 1:0 Sky Blue (Rose Lavelle returns)

What Went Down: Sky Blue cleaned up the back, but it seemed to make the front rather toothless as they generated little offense in yet another defeat. In the end SBFC had 10 shots, seven (?!?) from Carli Lloyd, but one was from beyond midfield and another was close to it. Savannah McCaskill started the game on the bench and never really got involved. That’s the place Denise Reddy has to look at the moment.

The Spirit got three points, but it wasn’t a terribly inspiring performance. Mallory Pugh continues to under perform, and only Ashley Hatch taking advantage of questionable marking on a set piece got Washington through at home. The Spirit have too many weapons for this kind of performance.

Player of the Game: Caprice Dydasco – Dydasco continues to have a really good season at outside back for the Spirit, enough to get a look in a USWNT camp soon? It’s not exactly a deep position as we know.

Under the Radar: Taylor Smith – On the other side, Smith took some criticism for her from at the beginning of the season, and – while it’s not last season’s – it has improved as Washington’s defense looked good, even if it was against Sky Blue.

Inside the Numbers: 16 – Number of minutes played by Rose Lavelle, her first of the season. If she can get to 100 percent soon, it should help Washington look less sluggish.

Up next: Washington – Played again; Sky Blue – Played again.

Houston 2:1 Seattle

What Went Down: The Dash were a little fortunate to get three points, but the fact they are in a position like that in almost all their games is a credit to everyone on the roster. The bench, led by Veronica Latsko and Thembi Kgatlana, was particularly impressive for Houston, which is a novel concept for most NWSL squads, let alone those expected to be at the bottom of the table.

A match like this shows how dominant North Carolina is. Seattle rested Megan Rapinoe for a half and didn’t play badly, but had a couple of breaks go against them and ended up with nothing. Yes, there were mistakes made and Jodie Taylor is still having trouble finishing, but it’s the type of result that you see, even from good teams, over the course of a season.

Player of the Game: Rachel Daly – Daly’s workrate makes it very difficult on opposing defenses, and it seems like once a game it pays off for a goal from her team. And one goal per game is big in the NWSL.

Under the Radar: Kyah Simon – Simon has found herself in a more withdrawn role underneath Daly and has done well there. As a veteran, Simon can read the game well and has been surprisingly good distributing to Daly as well.

Inside the Numbers: 2,376 – Attendance in Houston. The Orlando number got more press, but that’s not good either, especially for a team playing better soccer of late.

Up next: Houston – Played again; Seattle – Played again.

FRIDAY (recap)

Portland 2:0 Utah (Watkins)

What Went Down: The Royals seemed to want to test an Emily Sonnett-less Portland backline from the opening kickoff, but after Christine Sinclair scored a great team opener (with a Tobin Heath assist) 18 minutes in, they really didn’t generate much and the Thorns were able to grab three points fairly easily. Without Sonnett, Portland switched to a 4-3-3ish formation, and it took them (especially Margaret Purce) a while to adjust, but when they did, they looked good. This game looked a lot like many of Portland’s wins last season: not terribly exciting to watch, but very effective.

Meanwhile, Utah still needs to figure out how to score, as they’ve managed just seven goals in nine matches, which puts them in seventh place, despite conceding just seven goals as well. It’s up to Laura Harvey to figure it out quickly or any chance at the playoffs may slip away.

Player of the Game: Meghan Klingenberg – She’s been a bit feisty of late, but the four-back seemed to suit her well and her excellent performance included an assist on Lindsey Horan’s goal. Utah didn’t have anyone that could threaten her.

Under the Radar: Emily Menges – Since her return, Menges has shown just how important she is to the Thorns, as they posted another clean sheet.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of yellow cards for Horan this season, meaning one more gets her a one-game suspension (the NWSL has no in-season amnesty for cards). Does Mark Parsons strategically get one when he wants to give Horan some rest? Stay tuned.

Up next: Portland – vs. North Carolina (Wed.); Utah – at Sky Blue (Sat.)

SATURDAY (recaps)

Chicago 2:5 Orlando

What Went Down: The Red Stars have had some wretched starts this season and they were made to play by Marta and company with two early goals. Sam Kerr and Yuki Nagasato led a fight back, but then Sydney Leroux came off the bench to change things and show just how many talented offensive players the Pride has. Orlando’s defense (with Monica returning) still looked vulnerable, but if you score five goals, you’ll take it.

Meanwhile, the Red Stars look in trouble. Rory Dames seemed to make a panic substitution at halftime, pulling a slumping Dani Colaprico for Sarah Gorden, who was subsequently beaten for both Leroux goals. Julie Ertz has not looked healthy since returning from her injury and Sofia Huerta is struggling, so their midfield is pretty much a mess. Alas, we’ve written Chicago out before and they’ve still made the playoffs, so we’ll see.

Player of the Game: Sydney Leroux – It’s hard to give this to someone who only played 38 minutes, but when you score two goals in two minutes to win the game, it’s good enough. With everyone currently in form, the Pride may become the clear favorite to finish second behind North Carolina.

Under the Radar: Yuki Nagasato – She assisted on both Chicago goals and could have had a couple more assists as her passing was nearly perfect, particularly unleashing Kerr.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of saves from Alyssa Naeher in the contest, which about sums up the type of day it was for Chicago.

Up next: Chicago – at Washington (Sat.); Orlando – at Seattle (Sun.)

Sky Blue 0:1 Seattle

What Went Down: Sky Blue was actually a bit unlucky not to have the lead at halftime, and even Denise Reddy probably knew they were in some trouble at that point. Seattle slowly took over the proceedings in the second half and Megan Rapinoe is not going to miss the chance she got on a pass from Christen Westphal in her form. The Reign might have been lucky to get three points against a winless team, but they’ll take it.

Sky Blue can take solace in a pretty solid performance, but it doesn’t give them any more points in the standings. Reddy has succeeded in making the defense more stout, but now Sky Blue has managed just five goals all season, and it seems like they have the talent to do better. Although they will likely be without Savannah McCaskill and Carli Lloyd, maybe a couple of games without national team players will help.

Player of the Game: Megan Rapinoe – Rapinoe appears to be running away with the MVP award at this point providing her team can stay in the top half of the table. She got to run at Christina Gibbons for much of the contest, which was a great matchup for her.

Under the Radar: Rebekah Stott – As I pointed out in the preseason, it’s hard to call a 24-year-old a veteran, but Stott has extensive international experience and has been a calming influence on a defense that had little of it last season for Sky Blue.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Points gained from four home games for Sky Blue thus far, which – needless to say – is not great.

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Utah (Sat.); Seattle – vs. Orlando (Sun.)

SUNDAY (recap)

Houston 3:2 Washington

What Went Down: Before the season, this would have been a fairly shocking result, but not where we stand now. The Dash were dangerous from the opening kickoff, and while their defense allowed plenty of chances (and Jane Campbell saved another penalty kick), they deserved this three points. The euphoria will be tempered a bit by what looked like a serious injury to Kristie Mewis, but six points has jumped Houston just two points out of a playoff spot.

Jim Gabarra decided to rest Mallory Pugh and she lasted only 30 minutes or so before leaving with what looked like another significant muscle injury (officially she went 45, but that was because Rose Lavelle was the Spirit’s final sub before that), one she might have been fighting for a couple of months now. So long-term things don’t look great right now for Gabarra or the Spirit, but getting Lavelle back healthy should help.

Player of the Game: Rachel Daly – Daly continues to be on a tear with two more goals and wreaking havoc at every turn against a defense that is lacking in a bit of confidence at the moment. She got to walk in the second goal as Whitney Church chased fruitlessly.

Under the Radar: Linda Motlhalo – She doesn’t turn 20 for another month, but Motlhalo has fit right in for Houston and in the NWSL. She is extremely athletic, but also is extremely composed for a young player and has made very few mistakes in a position that can’t afford them.

Inside the Numbers: 394 – Days between NWSL goals for Kealia Ohai, who scored a beauty early in the second half, curling it around Aubrey Bledsoe from 20 yards out. You could see how much that meant to her and the team.

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

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