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NWSL Week in Review: Back to ESPN we go

Carli Lloyd and Sky Blue are down and out at 0-9-2 (copyright Hannah di Lorenzo for The Equalizer)

The NWSL signing a television deal with the Lifetime network was met with much fanfare last February and rightly so. While slightly out of the box, not only did the agreement include a live game in the same Saturday time slot every week, but A+E Networks – parent company of Lifetime – also purchased a stake in the league itself, a massive move toward stability. If you’ve followed professional women’s soccer in this country for any length of time, you can understand why stability may be a desired commodity.

There have been many positives to the deal: the quality of the broadcasts have been great, the on-air talent generally cares about the league and the players enough to spend time learning about them, and real pregame and postgame shows have allowed Lifetime to tell the stories of NWSL players and their lives off the field.

TRADE PODCASTS:  Before the storm  |  After the storm

But there have been some drawbacks as well: Lifetime (while it did previously broadcast the WNBA) is not somewhere people naturally turn for sports and therefore made it tough to promote and the 3:30-6 p.m. Eastern time for games was not ideal for anyone, really, particularly the teams and players as the weather got warmer. Most infamously, Houston’s Rachel Daly had a terrifying collapse at the end of match due to heat exhaustion, but it was also tough on teams who would most times much rather sell night games.

Still, with a three-year contract in place, it was surprising a couple of weeks ago to see the NWSL was shifting many of its Saturday Lifetime games to ESPN and later kickoff times. Another look shows that because there are very few big media companies left that Disney does hold a stake in A+E and ESPN, so it was more natural than you would think. And Nancy Dubuc, the woman who helped push the deal through in the first place, left A+E in April to go to Vice (now games on that network would be interesting), so Lifetime isn’t all that displeased to go back to its movies.

For now, the games that have moved will air on ESPNews, which is not ideal, but they will be at night. Mostly at least, Lifetime will still broadcast four more matches, three of them in the afternoon – two of them in Orlando – so we’ll have to see how that goes.

The first ESPN broadcast was Saturday between Chicago and Portland, and you probably wouldn’t be shocked to know that it looked a lot like a Lifetime broadcast with a good pregame show (available only online) and quality production. Combined with the ESPN platform (and the better start time), it seems like a win for the league.

However, where the broadcast quality really needs to be addressed are the games not on Lifetime. Since last year, they have been taken away from club control (and YouTube) and pushed to Go90, which shows the matches produced by Vista WorldLink. Every game is broadcast from Florida. As you probably already know, this has resulted in streams that don’t work, broadcasters who don’t know players’ names, a lack of replays, and just generally not a viewing experience worthy of a professional league.

(It should be noted that Go90 has shown improvement recently. There have been very few problems with the streams, they have put in a replay feature – although spotty, and the quality has been a little better.)

So what does the ESPN deal mean for the Go90 broadcasts? In the short-term, nothing. However, you may have noticed that ESPN – faced with a massive reduction in revenue – debuted ESPN+, a strictly online venture that charges customers for games that were previously free online.

Because of that, ESPN has been gobbling up the rights to any kind of live sporting events it can from college sports of all kinds to e-sports to rugby to local cornhole tournaments (not kidding) in the hopes that the audiences for those are passionate enough to find them. So far so good for ESPN. Their subscriber numbers have been large enough to buy more properties.

Which, of course, leads us to the NWSL. Might ESPN+ be willing to buy out whatever contract the league has with Go90 starting in 2019? It might be easier if ESPN had the World Cup rights (and most of us wish they did), but it still seems logical for all parties. Logical doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen, unfortunately.

There was one thing that bothered me about ESPN’s broadcast Saturday night. It may seem petty, but if you watched the scroll along the bottom of the screen (Bottom Line), you saw lots of scores and news from around the world. But you did not see any NWSL updates. You may shrug, but the small signs of respect for the league go a long way. And a potential long-term deal with ESPN might help NWSL with that.

What did we learn in Week 12 of the NWSL season (Week 11 had just one game), where we got to see rain delays coupled with the lack of national team players?

SATURDAY (recaps)

Washington 0:0 Seattle

What Went Down: It’s likely Mallory Pugh is just about done for the season, but again the Spirit seem to have better players than their performance shows, and they were pretty fortunate to escape with a point. But, hey, a clean sheet is a clean sheet, even if your goalkeeper had to save a penalty and a couple other tough ones to get it. Perhaps we underestimated the learning curve that players like Andi Sullivan and Rebecca Quinn would have coming into the league.

The Reign showed just how much they depend on Megan Rapinoe. While she didn’t play poorly, she did not finish and therefore Seattle didn’t score. They will certainly hope Lauren Barnes doesn’t miss too much time after leaving with a head injury.

Player of the Game: Aubrey Bledsoe – She had been quietly playing well, but there was nothing quiet about this performance, saving a Rapinoe penalty and then robbing her late in the game on a ball that was by her before she pushed it past the post. The Spirit have conceded 17 goals this season, but that’s two straight shutouts.

Under the Radar: Rose Lavelle – This was the first time I can say that Lavelle looked like herself since last spring as she was by far Washington’s biggest threat going forward. And then she was removed at halftime, so who knows?

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of consecutive scoreless draws in the NWSL after this one, dating back to the last game of Week 10 (Seattle-Orlando), the only game of Week 11 (Sky Blue-Washington), and then this match.

Up next: Washington – vs. Orlando (Sat.); Seattle – vs. North Carolina (Sat.)

North Carolina 0:1 Utah

What Went Down: While the Courage still had some chances, they didn’t have as many as they usually did, and most of that is thanks to Becky Sauerbrunn and the Utah defense. They would not let North Carolina behind them (not having to face Lynn Williams helped), and it’s the type of game that Sauerbrunn thrives in where organization and reading the game is key. As we’ve talked about before, a result like this shows just how difficult staying undefeated can be.

Of course, the Royals still had to score and there was some irony that Laura Harvey’s subs appeared to concede that a road point would be great. Then Brittany Ratcliffe scored what has to be a Goal of the Year candidate given the situation. And extra points for the uniqueness of it, a sliding tackle and ridiculous shot almost in one motion. If Utah can get one or two of those a match, they are title contenders with their defense.

Player of the Game: Becky Sauerbrunn – I’ll be voting Sauerbrunn Player of the Week because I thought this was an amazing performance by her (it will be tough for her to win with Bledsoe and Sydney Leroux’s games) and emblematic of how great a player she is and has been. Hopefully, that will be recognized at the end of her career.

Under the Radar: Denise O’Sullivan – She didn’t start after playing for Ireland in the international break, but made an immediate impact after coming on. O’Sullivan did have relatively fresh legs, but it is amazing how important she has become to this team considering where she was last year.

Inside the Numbers: 55.7% – Possession for North Carolina, which actually sometimes works against what they’re trying to do.

Up next: North Carolina – at Seattle (Sat.); Utah – at Chicago (Sat.)

Orlando 3:2 Sky Blue

What Went Down: It’s easy to pick on Sky Blue and just point people toward the standings, but to be fair, they have not played as poorly as previous iterations of Boston and Washington have been (and eight one-goal losses indicate that as well). Sky Blue was dangerous pretty much throughout, had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, and probably had the better chances for most of the second half before Orlando won it. But as a former legendary coach in New Jersey once said, “You are what your record says you are.” And there are still plenty of holes to fill (moving Christina Gibbons back to the midfield maybe?).

Orlando will be a little worried about that defense, but with Sydney Leroux now in form and a midfield that can hold its own (or do better), they might be the most lethal offense in the league currently. And while defense wins championships, it might be the offense that can separate the Pride from other contenders in a very crowded playoff race.

Player of the Game: Sydney Leroux – She has her detractors (like me at times), but she is going to do what she does: work hard and be annoying to any and all defenders. Her second goal was a very tough chance, getting enough on a header while moving away from goal is extremely difficult. If you don’t think so, give it a shot.

Under the Radar: Katie Johnson – It was Johnson who had the goal disallowed, and she was dangerous all night. If Sky Blue can get her and Savannah McCaskill to work together consistently, they should be able to score goals as they did in this one.

Inside the Numbers: 17 – Minutes played by Marta, who is still battling a leg injury. But she looked good in those minutes, especially on the winning goal, where she dribbled through what seemed like the entire Sky Blue defense.

Up next: Orlando – at Washington (Sat.); Sky Blue – at Portland (June 27)

Chicago 1:1 Portland

What Went Down: The big story, of course, is who wasn’t there for the Red Stars: Sofia Huerta, Samantha Johnson, and Taylor Comeau were not on the game roster because of an “impending trade” (trade details | Halloran analysis) The Red Stars played well considering, but couldn’t the trade have waited until Sunday? Julie Ertz moved back to center defense and looked rusty a bit, although I’m sure she’ll figure it out if that’s the plan long-term.

With Huerta not in the lineup for this one, it was ironic that Lindsey Horan equalized on a set piece. You may remember the last time these teams played, Rory Dames called out an unnamed player for not doing her job and allowing Horan to score on a set piece. Because we have this thing called video, it was easy to see it was Huerta marking Horan, and that appears to be the final straw in a rocky relationship between the two. Huerta was an MVP candidate for the first couple months of the season, so a change of scenery could see her flourish. But we shall see.

Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – Sometimes it’s hard to gauge Horan’s influence on a game because of the position she plays, but she was excellent here, even without the goal. On a night where the Thorns did not get a great game out of some of their players (and didn’t have Emily Sonnett), they still got a road point. Of course, Horan will be suspended for Friday night’s game with Houston after picking up her fifth yellow card of the season, but such is life.

Under the Radar: Sam Kerr – She needs to finish more, but you’re starting to see the Kerr we saw last year. And the Red Stars are going to need every point they can scrounge up if they’re going to make the playoffs.

Inside the Numbers: 12 – Number of combined shots by Kerr and Yuki Nagasato, more than Portland had as a team. So they were dangerous, but left with only one goal and one point to show for it.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Utah (Sat.); Portland – at. Houston (Fri.)

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