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NWSL Week In Review: Did Sofia Huerta Need To Be Traded?

Christine Nairn, center, was Ray's Player of the Match for the Pride (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

It seemed somewhat inevitable that Christen Press was coming back to the NWSL after her stint in Sweden ended, it was just a matter of when and where. Press had made it known that Utah was one of her destinations of choice, at least until California gets a team, so the fact that Laura Harvey and her general aversion to draft picks allowed Press to join this season isn’t a huge shocker.

The fact that Sofia Huerta went from Chicago to Houston in what turned out to be a three-team deal? Now that is a head-turner.

PODCAST: Dan and Chelsey on NWSL Week 13 and yes, more opinions on the latest mega trade

Or was it? Huerta was probably the league’s MVP through the first couple months of the season, helping to keep Chicago above water through a rash of injuries that threatened to sink the Red Stars’ season before it truly began, including winning NWSL Player of the Month in April. But since the likes of Julie Ertz returned (and Sam Kerr arrived), Huerta has been very quiet.

She also had a somewhat public run-in with head coach Rory Dames back in April after Lindsey Horan scored against Chicago and Dames called out the player who was supposed to be marking her, which film showed clearly was Huerta. Both downplayed the incident, however it never seemed that things were quite perfect between the two.

After the trade, another angle was revealed with both sides attributing the trade to Huerta’s desire to play more outside back at club level, a spot she thinks is her best chance to break into the U.S. national team lineup. There’s a lot to unpack here, and only so much space (and your time), so let’s focus on the last part for now.

We’ve talked extensively about the relationship between club and country, and how the financial structure of the NWSL as it relates to the USWNT skews that in comparsion to any other soccer league in the world. To get allocated is the golden ticket many players chase from a young age, an opportunity to not only represent one of the top teams in the world on the biggest stage, but a financial windfall that can at least lead to being a full-time professional soccer player for a while and be able to afford an apartment.

So it should not be surprising, even in the midst of an NWSL playoff race, that Huerta has at least half an eye on next year’s World Cup in France. In a culture of tremendous sacrifices to reach the ultimate goal, Huerta understands how much it takes more than most. After all, she could be starring for Mexico (her dad is Mexican) currently, but five years ago, after appearing for Mexico five times (all friendlies), she made a decision to make it USWNT or bust, with bust getting pretty good odds at the time.

Huerta has persevered and now her name is expected to be called every time Jill Ellis has a camp. But even for an NWSL star, the USWNT midfield is crowded and whether implicitly or explicitly, Huerta has been made to understand that her best chance to become a regular is probably right back.

Alas, Dames would have been silly to play her there regularly. First, he has Casey Short and Arin Gilliland. Second and perhaps more importantly, she was an MVP candidate in the midfield where she creates goals.

Dames’ job is to win games, not to help Ellis and the USWNT. But many of his players are paid by the USWNT, which – while extremely frustrating – is part of the job, I guess. It’s why Dames and other NWSL coaches largely stay silent during what seem like excessive in-season national team camps or when their players get injured while on national team duty.

However, if indeed Huerta was dealt because she wanted to play outside back, it’s hard to lay much blame toward Dames and Chicago. Moving players to their desired USWNT positions sets a dangerous precedent and speaks toward the competitive integrity of the league, and that’s what we hope brings in fans long-term to the NWSL.

Huerta scored just 12 minutes into her Houston debut Friday, which is pretty amazing for an outside back, and that’s because she wasn’t. Vera Pauw immediately inserted her new addition into what I think is her best spot: attacking midfield. Taylor Comeau, also acquired by Houston from Chicago, started at right back instead, which was curious.

Is it possible there were some internal struggles in Chicago that went beyond positioning? Sam Johnson was also dealt in the mega-trade from the Red Stars, which means Julie Ertz or Casey Short will likely have to be moved to center back (not either of their current USWNT preferred positions). Chicago did get plenty of draft picks for the future, but Johnson’s immediate reaction on being traded, “I was trying not to smile so much when my coach told me,” is interesting, even if Johnson later explained she always wanted to play for Laura Harvey and for an environment like there is in Utah.

In the end, only time may tell the real reasons for these deals, just as time will bear out whether the Red Stars will make good use of the slew of picks (including the top pick in next year’s draft) they now have at their disposal, as well as whether Huerta made the right move for her career in asking to be traded.

And I guess that’s kind of fun, right?

What did we learn in Week 13 of the NWSL season, where the post-Huerta era in Chicago started off rather well for the Red Stars?

FRIDAY (recap)

Houston 1:3 Portland

What Went Down: The Dash didn’t get any points and likely won’t make the playoffs, but it’s fairly clear that they are not going to finish dead last where we all thought they were. Adding Sofia Huerta and Clare Polkinghorne helps, but so does the form of Kyah Simon, Linda Motlhalo, and Rachel Daly (although she cooled off a bit in this one). Ironically, the defense – which hasn’t been a huge problem – struggled a bit, especially at outside back, where Huerta did not play. They do have a tough run of games coming up (and more time off).

For the Thorns, they finally have almost a full squad they can go forward with. Their defense did look shaky at times as well, although Emily Sonnett and Adrianna Franch were returning from a decent spell out with injury. But we know the quality of Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair, and with Hayley Raso, Ana Crnogorcevic, Lindsey Horan, and Ellie Carpenter there to help, Portland should score goals.

Player of the Game: Ana Crnogorcevic – My favorite play of the weekend was Crnogorcevic’s dummy that led to Heath’s opening goal, but – while not terribly explosive – Crnogorcevic does all the things you want out of a central striker, which complements the rest of the talent on this team well.

Under the Radar: Celeste Boureille – To push Horan forward, Portland needs someone to hold the middle of the field, and that appears to be Boureille at the moment. She served that role excellently in this match, but it is a spot to watch going forward.

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Number of shots on goal for the Dash, although they took 17 of them. And one was obviously Huerta’s short-range goal early in the match. Something to work on for Vera Pauw.

Up next: Houston – at Orlando (Wed.); Portland – vs. Sky Blue (Wed.)

SATURDAY (recaps)

Seattle 1:4 North Carolina

What Went Down: We’ve seen this movie before from the Courage, but it doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. Unless you’re Seattle, of course. The Reign actually scored first after Lynn Williams missed a couple of glorious chances (one of which was a penalty that Lydia Williams saved), but North Carolina was doing its usual swarming of opponents (even without Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper) and there wasn’t much Seattle could do about it.

The Reign will be disappointed, but this match showed not only the gap between the Courage and everyone else, but just how tight it will be behind them for the other three playoff spots. Seattle did create plenty of chances and Adriana Leon looks like she could be a threat once she gets on the same page as Megan Rapinoe. They would like Jodie Taylor to get involved in the party at some point as well.

Player of the Game: Crystal Dunn – If you get her as many chances as she got in this match, she won’t miss all of them. And she had nine shots Saturday, which – if those trends continue – should be able to win the Golden Boot and possibly the MVP to go with it by the end of the campaign.

Under the Radar: Denise O’Sullivan – She didn’t do much offensively, but again put in the shift that Paul Riley and his system live for: working hard and not allowing opponents to breathe consistently for 90 minutes, and then starting the transition from defense to offense as quickly as possible.

Inside the Numbers: 14 – Number of shots on goal from North Carolina (out of 25 total). If they can have that kind of accuracy, they will be tough to stop.

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

Washington 0:1 Orlando (Stats don’t always tell the whole story)

What Went Down: Well, the Spirit were having trouble generating offense as it was, and now were without Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Estefania Banini (injured), so this result was probably predictable. And Ashley Hatch is left to wonder how much better she had it in North Carolina than she does now. She did still have Francisca Ordega with her and they did end up outshooting the Pride 17-7, but it never really looked like they were going to score.

Meanwhile, it was a pretty flat performance from Orlando, but it’s always better to do that and get three points at the same time. The only goal was Alanna Kennedy’s Carli Lloyd impersonation and the game might have gone differently had they needed it to, I guess. Any clean sheet is a good one for a defense that did not have Toni Pressley and Ali Krieger is a good one, however.

Player of the Game: Christine Nairn – Orlando chose to play fairly directly, and that plays to Nairn’s strengths as it did here. Nairn had plenty of space in midfield and was able to distribute balls over the top to the likes of Chioma Ubogagu, Sydney Leroux, and Alex Morgan. Alas, it didn’t result in more goals.

Under the Radar: Shelina Zadorsky – She has had her struggles in the NWSL, but is on a very good stretch of play and her team is benefiting from it.

Inside the Numbers: 11 – Points gap between Orlando and North Carolina, and the Pride have a game in hand. So maybe they can be caught? Possibly?

Up next: Washington – at Chicago (Sun.); Orlando – vs. Houston (Wed.)

Chicago 2:0 Utah

What Went Down: Any concerns that Chicago might be crumbling internally were answered here as the Red Stars put together an awesome second half to get three points they badly needed. While Utah had much of the ball and the game’s best chance (a Katrina Gorry header) in the first half, it was scoreless until Katie Naughton caught Abby Smith off her line and from there it was all Red Stars. Chicago played without Morgan Brian and Casey Short only went 45 minutes, so there is still some room for improvement.

The Royals did not have Christen Press yet, and it was obvious why she’s needed, with only 10 goals scored now in 12 games. Even with Press, it won’t be simple for Utah to make the postseason, and if they don’t, there will be questions asked as to why they sacrificed so much of their future for the present. But time will tell, I guess.

Player of the Game: Katie Naughton – The goal was a bit fortunate, but it was a solid overall performance from Naughton, who with Sam Johnson traded, may hold the key to just how far the Red Stars can go. A pairing of Naughton and Julie Ertz will lack for pace, but it’s done well before many times..

Under the Radar: Vanessa DiBernardo/Sarah Gorden – They both came on in the second half and brought different things to the Red Stars, but both were key in Chicago’s domination toward the end. DiBernardo’s return gets Chicago back to full strength, somewhere it hasn’t been all season.

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of teams tied for third on 19 points in the NWSL standings (Portland, Seattle, Chicago) with Utah two points behind them. So half of those four likely won’t make the playoffs. Your guess is as good as mine.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Washington (Sun.); Utah – vs. Seattle (Wed.)

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