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NWSL week 14 (again) preview: all eyes on Seattle-Portland

Let’s be real, some games are simply more appealing than others. They may not always turn out as expected, but there are simply some matchups with more promise than others. Seattle-Portland is always one of those, especially after their last game earlier this season was one of the all-time NWSL classics. Elsewhere, Orlando needs to solve problems in the box, Sky Blue tries to avoid another dubious record, Chicago tries to prove themselves, and Houston takes a break. Three games in, four to go: it’s time to finish NWSL Week 14.

Does Orlando have finishing problems?

North Carolina Courage (10-1-3) at Orlando Pride (6-4-4)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium (Lifetime)
All-time series:  tied, 3-3-0

At the beginning of the season, we talked about North Carolina’s finishing problems. They take so many shots that it clearly hasn’t hindered their progress, but the lack of efficiency in front of net was astonishing at times. That issue hasn’t exactly disappeared, but in their 4-1 win over Seattle last week, 14 of their 25 shots were on target, which is a much better percentage than the last few months and looks to be part of an upward trend. That’s not great news for the rest of the league as an even deadlier North Carolina is both an exciting and terrifying prospect.

  • Courage injuries: OUT — Elizabeth Eddy, Julie King; QUE — Abby Dahlkemper, Jaelene Hinkle, Samantha Mewis
  • Pride injuries: OUT — none; QUE — Monica

Ironically, the Courage aren’t the ones who are the more likely to struggle in front of net in this matchup. Instead it’s the Pride who, despite a wealth of talent, haven’t found the back of the net much in the last couple of games. An Alanna Kennedy wonder goal gave them victory in Washington, while an Alex Morgan goal that was not without controversy wasn’t enough to win at home against Houston on Wednesday. Only six of their 21 shots against Houston were on target, and one of their leading scorers, Rachel Hill, is more often a substitute than a starter. No one gets many chances against North Carolina, so to get a result and maintain second place, they are going to have to be more clinical in front of net.

Will we see a repeat of a classic?

Megan Rapinoe against Sky Blue. (photo copyright Nicole Rossi for The Equalizer)

Portland Thorns FC (5-4-5) at Seattle Reign FC (5-3-5)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series:  tied, 7-7-3

The last Portland-Seattle matchup was one for the ages, with Seattle stunning the Thorns 3-2 in Portland. Both teams have had middling results since, and both are coming off unsatisfying draws. Seattle, once looking so promising behind a Megan Rapinoe run for Golden Boot, has only scored once in their last four games, and that match was the one loss in their four-game winless streak. They were pulled out of shape by Utah but did just enough to keep a very eager Christen Press and company off the scoresheet, but they weren’t really able to return the favor on the other end. A Seattle win this weekend would put them in the lead in this matchup’s all-time head to head – a position they’ve never held.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT — Caitlin Foord, Emily Menges; QUE — Tobin Heath, Midge Purce
  • Reign injuries: OUT — Yael Averbuch, Kiersten Dallstream, Jessica Fishlock, Jaycie Johnson

Meanwhile Portland has the third-most goals against in the league, although Christine Sinclair and Lindsey Horan are scoring enough to keep their goal differential at plus one. They can’t seem to get their preferred backline and goalkeeper all healthy at once, but the rest of the group is talented enough that that shouldn’t make such a difference from last season. I’ve said enough about the absence of Amandine Henry, but one wonders if Mark Parsons might try shuffling his midfield to find a solution that doesn’t involve pulling Horan away from the net.

Can Sky Blue avoid setting another record?

Carli Lloyd is unable to get the ball through the Houston defense in Sky Blue’s 2-3 loss to the Dash. (photo copyright Nicole Rossi for The Equalizer)

Sky Blue FC (0-9-3) at Utah Royals FC (4-3-6)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Rio Tinto Stadium
All-time series:  Royals lead, 1-0-0

A Carli Lloyd penalty kick rescued a point for Sky Blue in Portland, but it didn’t rescue them from the fate of setting the new league record for a winless streak to begin a season, at 12. One more loss or draw, and they’ll tie another league record, for all-time winless streak, at 13. And for what feels like several weeks in a row, Sky Blue feels on the verge of finally breaking through, but can’t quite do it. Shea Groom nearly had a late winner on Wednesday, and they did keep the Thorns from scoring from the run of play, but being on the verge is not the same as doing it. It’s all well and good to keep a team from scoring in the run of play, but neither did Sky Blue score in the run of play themselves, and if you don’t mark properly on a set piece, you still give up a goal.

  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT — Jen Hoy, Katie Johnson, Amandine Pierre-Louis, Rebekah Stott; QUE — McKenzie Meehan
  • Royals injuries: OUT — Alex Arlitt, Mandy Laddish, Kelley O’Hara

To win against Utah, they are going to have to be willing to absorb pressure. Christen Press very clearly wants that first goal for the Royals, and she appears as on the verge of it as Sky Blue does a win. There’s no doubt that Press, as well as Amy Rodriguez and Diana Matheson, will create opportunities. What they don’t want to do is lose their defensive shape, as Seattle did, and make those opportunities easy ones. If they can stay disciplined, the Royals could be vulnerable to a counter attack. Their central defense lacks for pace and Abby Smith likes to stray from her line, two things Groom’s speed or Lloyd’s prowess from distance can exploit.

Is Chicago turning things around?

(photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Washington Spirit (2-8-4) at Chicago Red Stars (4-3-7)
Sunday, 6:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series:  Spirit lead, 6-5-3 (plus 1-0-0 playoffs)

Chicago silenced all critics of their recent trade (myself included) by showing up in a big way in the second half of their last match. As the Red Stars have been wont to do for several years, it was a slow start, but they kept the first half scoreless despite playing fairly badly, and then they completely dominated the second 45 minutes, cruising to a 2-0 victory that likely would have been more lopsided if anyone but Becky Sauerbrunn was marking Sam Kerr. Speaking of the Aussie, she looks more and more at home with the team every game, but she didn’t score in their last match. Why is this good news? Because as we learned last year, Kerr will score a lot, but she can’t do it all on their own and as a general rule, the more goal scorers you have the better.

  • Spirit injuries: OUT — Cali Farquharson, Mallory Pugh, Arielle Ship; QUE — Estefania Banini, Mallory Eubanks, Rose Lavelle, Havana Solaun
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT — Stephanie McCaffrey; QUE — Rosie White

The bigger question is if this game was a one-off or a return to form. They won’t have the advantage of rest, as Washington did not play a midweek match either, but they will be at home, their last in a three-match home stand which has netted them 4 points thus far. Their last away match was at Washington, a 2-0 victory for the Red Stars a week after getting embarrassed at home by Orlando. The biggest difference in last week’s Red Stars compared to previous weeks, in my opinion? Vanessa DiBernardo, who did score but is probably more valuable as a playmaker. She’s the best 10 on their roster and a creative force much needed without Sofia Huerta.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Kealia Ohai: Even in a game that wasn’t her best, Ohai scored on a shross and drew the game-winning PK.
Lindsey Horan on set pieces: Stop me if you’ve heard this before – everyone knows Horan is a target on set pieces yet few can stop her.

Not

Not playing to the whistle: Houston’s entire backline stopped play and gave up a goal because of it.
Broadcast errors: Diana Matheson miraculously played in Utah a mere hour after scoring in Orlando, apparently.

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