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The Lowdown: The good, the bad, and a suggestion for all nine NWSL teams

Believe it or not we’re into the middle third of this sixth NWSL season. In my opinion we don’t know much about most of the teams. Many of them are still waiting on injured players while others are just waiting on consistency. Still others have been a shadow of what we though. Whatever the case it seemed like a good time to go team by team to see what’s good, what’s bad, and what we suggest going forward.

North Carolina Courage (8-0-2, 26 pts)

The Good: Obviously opening the season with eight wins and two draws is nothing but a good thing. The Shield holders have shown zero scar tissue from losing a tough NWSL Championship to the Thorns last fall and with the possible exception of certain stretches against the Utah Royals, have been legitimately superior to their opponents almost all the time. If they can clean up a few loose ends this Courage team could well go into the conversation for best WoSoPro team we’ve ever seen.

The Bad: The lack of finishing efficiency is more than just an unlucky game or extended slump spreading around the locker room. It could be on the verge of epidemic status, and if it happens in a playoff game they are more likely than not to be burned by it. Their last game, a 4-3 win over the Pride, featured a few hustle goals so perhaps that will help them turn the corner. But until this gets rectified it is something that will hang over their chances of becoming the first team to win the double.

The Suggestion: What do you suggest for a side that is 8-0-2 and 24-7-3 in the regular season since 2017? If anything it would be simple squad rotation especially once Julie King and Yuri Kawamura are ready to contribute. That probably starts on the weekend when I would expect Cari Roccaro to get some time.

Seattle Reign FC (5-2-2, 17 pts)

The Good: In two words, Megan Rapinoe. She has been the most unstoppable force in the league this season even while missing time with a minor injury. Rapinoe has kept the attack flowing and more importantly scoring while Jess Fishlock gets healthy, Jodie Taylor works out her finishing issues, and Allie Long figures out her best role within the side. More importantly for the Reign though, they are going to continue to get better.

The Bad: Losses like the one in Houston last Wednesday are somewhat symptomatic of Vlatko Andonovski’s stint with FC Kansas City. Many of those sides were good enough to overcome it, but too often they dropped points late in matches they controlled the majority of. One game like that does not make a trend, but the better the league gets the harder it will be to overcome late lapses for long-term success.

The Suggestion: Ride Lydia Williams as far as she’ll take you as the top choice goalkeeper. I know there was consternation about Williams jumping back in for Michelle Betos after Williams missed the start of the season on international duty. I’m as big a Betos fan as there is but Williams is the better keeper.

Orlando Pride (4-3-3, 15 pts)

The Good: Without having played anything resembling their best the Pride have played 10 games with more wins than losses to a position inside the top four. Saturday’s win in Chicago was particularly heartening as it came on the heels of a soul-sucking, home loss to the Courage and even within the course of that match the Pride saw an early 2-0 lead evaporate before exploding for three goals. That Sydney Leroux scored her first two as a Pride is also a very important piece of good.

The Bad: It looks like Ali Krieger will be out for a few weeks after falling awkwardly on her foot in Chicago. From what I’m told it’s the best case scenario based on what happened, but that won’t keep opposing attackers out the 18. There is also at least some cause for concern over Marta who is clearly having her minutes managed this season, but let’s hold off on jumping to too many conclusions here.

The Suggestion: Find out if Chioma Ubogagu can play on the right and give her a trial run at right fullback. She was decent in the same position on the left in 2017 and could be a good stop-gap with Krieger set to miss some time. Ubogagu has been the unsung hero on this team in the early going and this would be a move to keep the best players on the field even if slightly out of position.

Portland Thorns FC (4-3-3, 15 pts)

The Good: The defense is incomplete and leaky, Adrianna Franch has been out for a month, the teams has endured stretches of downright lousy soccer, and here they are on 15 points, trending in the right direction, and overall doing just fine. Throw in that Christine Sinclair, approaching her 35th birthday, continues to dazzle with her all around game, and the Thorns are almost where they want to be, which is contending for the title.

The Bad: To this point the Thorns have not been able to replace the midfield bite left behind when Amandine Henry and Allie Long left for Europe and Seattle respectively. Tobin Heath rounding into health but not offering the sort of width yet that she did during her remarkable, 2016 campaign.

The Suggestion: Find a way back to the standard, and very good, four-back of Katherine Reynolds-Emily Sonnett-Emily Menges-Meghan Klingenberg, put Tobin Heath out wide and start playing the beautiful game. Sinclair and Lindsey Horan are still capable of being bruisers (have there ever been teammates as good in the air in club soccer around here?) but this team is too talented to play as they do.

Houston Dash (3-4-4, 13 pts)

The Good: The Vera Pauw vision is slowly working. After a conservative start to the season she has slowly opened things up, starting by pulling Rachel Daly and Kristie Mewis (now out for the season with a torn ACL) off the back line. Two straight wins does not a team make, but considering how wreched the Dash looked against the Courage a month ago, the fact they are now competing and capable of getting results represents several giant strides forward. Furthermore, Hayley Hanson and Veronica Latsko are both squarely in the mix for Rookie of the Year.

The Bad: Mewis tore her ACL during Sunday’s win over the Spirit, and the Dash roster does not appear to have enough depth to overcome too much. And Mewis, whose teams have finished no higher than 8th since 2014, was enjoying her best season since 2013. Also considered here, two wins don’t make a season, and they don’t make a culture. The club has work to do if good players are going to find it desirable.

The Suggestion: Work on getting Kealia Ohai isolated on opposing right backs. She got her first goal against the Spirit on a blistering shot from well outside the area, but when Ohai drives as defenders and gets the ball in the box either by crossing or dribbling, good things tend to happen. Granted she is still only a few weeks removed from returning from ACL so she is still working back to this level, but it should be something the club works at finding.

Chicago Red Stars (2-3-6, 12 pts)

The Good: Sam Kerr just had her best game as a Red Star and if her scoring boots heat up, her team can win any game no matter the other circumstances. The team has also received solid performances from an array of different defenders playing in different spots, Saturday’s 5-2 smashing by the Pride notwithstanding.

Danielle Colaprico, right battling Jessica McDonald. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

The Bad: The early season dominance of Sofia Huerta and Danielle Colaprico seems long gone. More concerning is Colaprico who has not looked great since Julie Ertz has returned to the midfield. It’s tough to think any midfield was meant for both of them to successfully coexist in. For Ertz’s part she has not looked great since getting back on the field and is now heading in with the national team.

The Suggestion: I’d like to see the Red Stars consider returning Ertz to central defense and allowing the attack to function as it did earlier in the season. If not, could it be time to put Colaprico on the market while she still holds some value?

Utah Royals FC (2-2-5, 11 pts)

The Good: The Royals are beating ACL recoveries with Amy Rodriguez slowly becoming her old, dangerous self, and Diana Matheson has been dynamic in her return. In the back, Becky Sauerbrunn is back near the level that saw her dominate the 2015 World Cup, and the Royals have been generally organized as they work into playing under Laura Harvey.

The Bad: Kelley O’Hara hurt her hamstring a few weeks back which is bad because O’Hara is a tremendous player but also because it exposes some depth issues in the club. They’re most evident up top where the preseason question about who would score if not Amy Rodriguez is one that has yet to be answered.

The Suggestion: The Royals are in a unique position in that their franchise purchase included the rights to the No. 1 overall pick next year. They should consider offering it to the Courage for Lynn Williams.

Washington Spirit (2-6-2, 8 pts)

The Good: Not much to go on here. The best thing going for the Spirit right now is that they’re loaded with talented players.

The Bad: Those talented players are not getting it done, particularly in midfield where the Spirit are getting lapped on a regular basis. Andi Sullivan has been decidedly average and is not on the recently released national team roster. Mallory Pugh left Sunday’s game injured and could be out for a spell. The Spirit are 7-21-6 since coming within seconds of the 2016 NWSL Championship.

The Suggestion: Put Rebecca Quinn at central defense and see what she can do. Give more time to Meggie Dougherty Howard. And consider going to a 4-4-2 with Sullivan or Joanna Lohman at holding mid. Or perhaps some formation that gets them on the field in tandem.

Jim Gabarra and the Spirit have struggled to turn talent into team.. (Photo Courtesy Sky Blue FC)

Sky Blue FC (0-7-1, 1 pts)

The Good: Rebekah Stott and Kailen Sheridan were very good in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Reign. Carli Lloyd is invested even if not always effective.

The Bad: Eight games in and not only has the team yet to win, they have yet to be in front. Only three different players have scored. Adriana Leon is buried so deep she’s not even making the bench. The team plays at the league’s most barebone facility and are almost certain now to be facing a fifth straight season without reaching the playoffs.

The Suggestion: Figure out how to use Shea Groom’s energy to be part of your starting lineup, and see about that Danielle Colaprico availability. Beyond that keep plugging away and figure out how to get some goals and some momentum.

NWSL Attendance Watch

2018 NWSL Attendance Chart

Games
AVG 2017 2016 2015 2014
2013
+/-
2017
+/-
all-time
Thorns 5 15,847 17,653 16,945 15,639 13,362 13,320 -10.2% +2.9%
Royals 5 10,132
Pride 4 5,267 6,186 8,785 -14.9% -25.2%
Red Stars 6 4,644 3,198 3,005 4,210 2,949 1,711 +45.2% +47.1%
Courage 6 4,199 4,389 -4.3% -2.9%
Dash 6 3,660 4,578 5,696 6,413 4,650 -20.1+ -20.9%
Reign 4 3,588 4,037 4,599 4,060 3,666 2,306 -11.1% -3.3%
Spirit 5 3,522 3,490 4,188 4,087 3,335 3,625 +0.9% -4.9%
Sky Blue 4 2,179 2,613 2,162 2,189 1,656 1,666 -16.6% +5.6%
TOTALS 44 5,979 5,083 5,589 5,046 4,139 4,271 +17.6% +21.4%

Free Kicks

-Good weekend for attendance with the Red Stars attracting their second highest standalone crowd in their NWSL existence and Sky Blue topping last season’s average in a game for the first time in 2018. Midweek was a different story when the Dash drew their lowest BBVA Compass Stadium crowd and the Pride hitting another new franchise low.

-Tough news about Kristie Mewis who tore her ACL on Sunday. The Dash’s #19 tweeted that she will double down on that number by making a triumphant return to NWSL in 2019.

-Emily Sonnett missed Friday night’s game for the Thorns which left Ali Krieger as the active leader for consecutive minutes. Krieger then got injured the next day for the Pride, and so the new leader is Amber Brooks. The Dash defender has now played 3,153 straight minutes dating to an appearance off the bench in the final game of the 2016 season.

-Cari Roccaro could well make her Courage debut this weekend…against the Dash who waived her before the start of this season.

-The Reign are waiting on Jess Fishlock to get fully fit and healthy, but is it fair to ponder whether those days are gone for good?

-No one is talking about Mallory Pugh’s injury that saw her exit Sunday’s game late though she was still credited with 90 minutes since the Spirit were out of subs. When no one talks, the news is usually less than ideal. Pugh is only 20, but when is the last time has enjoyed an extended run with no bumps or bruises.

-Just before publish time the Pride announced that Ali Krieger will miss 4-6 weeks. One of those is next weekend’s FIFA window.

-It will be nice to see Nicole Barnhart back in goal for the Royals just as it was nice to see their regular starter Abby Smith called back in with the national team. Barnhart holds nearly every compiled keeper record in NWSL and had played 49 straight matches at the end of last season. She was the winning keeper in the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Championships and went 1-1 in WPS finals.

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