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NWSL Week 15 preview: Open season on playoff spots

With places second through sixth up for grabs, no one is taking a breather this weekend (except North Carolina, who is on a bye). Orlando looks to break a two-game losing streak at home, while Portland tries to get back to their winning ways and Utah aims upward. The middle of the table continues to be clustered as we finish out NWSL Week 15

Was Christen Press the missing piece?

Utah Royals FC (5-3-6) at Portland Thorns FC (5-5-5)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series:  Thorns lead, 1-0-1

Press was brought to Utah really to do one thing – score. And she delivered, notching a goal and assist in only her second game with the club. The Royals currently sit one point out of playoff contention but could jump all the way to second by the time the weekend is over. With Press doing what she does best and Katie Stengel coming off probably her best NWSL match ever, the Royals offense finally looks ready to keep up their end of the bargain with the league’s best defense. The next step will be to find a similar partnership between Press and Amy Rodriguez, which has the potential for a deadly combo given both players’ scoring history in this league. However, if they can’t match up, and Stengel continues her form, it could very well be that Rodriguez finds herself in the super sub role, which is an option off the bench many coaches would love to have.

  • Royals injuries: OUT – Alex Arlitt, Makenzy Doniak, Mandy Laddish, Kelley O’Hara
  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Andressinha, Caitlin Foord, Meg Morris, Katherine Reynolds

They won’t be testing themselves against the type of defense they would have found a year ago in Portland. The constantly mutating backline will once again be without Meghan Klingenberg (suspension) and Katherine Reynolds (excused absence). Expect Ellie Carpenter to drop back once again, as she did to average results last week, and probably Kelli Hubly on the opposite side. They’re also without Andressinha, so Celeste Boureille might get another start. Boureille has been reliable for the Thorns, but I can’t help but feel Angela Salem is not only being wasted on their bench but should be an obvious solution, or at least part of one, to their defensive issues. Whomever they play, the more they free up Lindsey Horan to push forward, the better.

Can Sky Blue take advantage of a tired Chicago?

Aubrey Bledsoe stuffs Katie Johnson during the Spirit’s 0-0 draw against Sky Blue FC (photo copyright Tom Salus for The Equalizer)

Chicago Red Stars (5-4-7) at Sky Blue FC (0-10-3)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series:  Red Stars lead, 5-0-8

Chicago will be playing their third game in a week, the latter two of which have been on the road. It’s a brutal stretch of schedule which saw Chicago dominate Washington and then get overrun by North Carolina just three days later. Sky Blue is not likely to find a better time to get their first win, especially considering their upcoming schedule. One key here is to make sure their outside backs get involved in the attack, pinning their Red Stars counterparts back and encouraging Chicago’s natural tendency to play narrow. However, they will have to be careful not to get caught up the pitch, as that leaves space for Sam Kerr to get in behind, which is something people are used to seeing at Yurcak Field but probably don’t want to this time around.

  • Red Stars injuries: OUT – Stephanie McCaffrey
  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT – Jen Hoy, Amandine Pierre-Louis, Raquel Rodriguez, Rebekah Stott; QUE – Michaela Abam, Katie Johnson, McKenzie Meehan

Getting Kerr in behind nearly worked in North Carolina, at least for the first 20 minutes or so. After that, however, she was left isolated, and only when Yuki Nagasato subbed on did they look anything like an offensive threat again. Indeed it was Nagasato who both drew and then scored the penalty kick. The pair, should their legs be up to significant minutes, can cause a headache for Sky Blue’s beleaguered defense, and to keep the ball away from them, Denise Reddy may look into a formation change, putting another player into her midfield.

Who will score for Washington?

(copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit (2-9-4) at Orlando Pride (6-5-4)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium (ESPNews)
All-time series:  Spirit lead, 3-2-2

We’ve seen a couple of records come and go this season, and the Spirit are on the verge of tying another dubious one – most consecutive games without scoring. They’ve not found the back of the net since Mallory Pugh went down in Houston on Memorial Day weekend, and are now tied for the league’s least productive offense. They’re also squarely in eighth place, seven points ahead of Sky Blue but seven points behind Houston (and have played more games than either). Ashley Hatch gets herself in the right place but can’t finish her chances, and Francisca Ordega’s once-promising form has dropped off. Even playing typical midfielders like Tori Huster and Joanna Lohman up top hasn’t produced anything. The problem week in and week out has been their underperforming midfield, which by now has seen just about every iteration available to Jim Gabarra.

  • Spirit injuries: OUT – Cali Farquharson, Mallory Pugh, Arielle Ship, Tiffany Weimer; QUE – Estefania Banini, Mallory Eubanks, Rose Lavelle
  • Pride injuries: OUT – Danica Evans; QUE – Alex Morgan

Washington could get lucky and get gifted a goal or two like Orlando’s defense did with North Carolina. Not to take anything away from the Courage, who are always ready to pounce on mistakes, but the Pride backline all but rolled over during that three-minute span in which they gave up three goals. Playing Ali Krieger against the league leaders in her first game from injury was probably not the best way to shake off her rust, but she should be better in this match with some fresh minutes under her belt. Orlando also wants better from Monica and Emily Van Egmond, who can be very good but didn’t show up against North Carolina. The Pride will be hoping the Spirit’s scoreless streak continues as so far Orlando hasn’t been able to replicate their road form at home and probably want to restore some hometown, well, pride (pardon the pun).

Can Houston’s new look defense shut down Rapinoe?

(Credit: ISI Photos)

Houston Dash (4-5-5) at Seattle Reign FC (6-3-5)
Saturday, 10:00 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series:  Reign lead, 10-1-0

Taylor Comeau seems pretty set to be the Dash’s right back, but Vera Pauw doesn’t appear to have decided what to do with Clare Polkinghorne, playing her both at centerback and defensive mid. The new Dash players haven’t completely integrated just yet, but when they do both players should improve one of the league’s most porous defenses. Comeau will be particularly key in this game as she’ll have the task of shutting down Megan Rapinoe. The Dash got their first-ever win over Seattle earlier this year, but Rapinoe didn’t enter that match until the second half. What we’ve seen from the Reign is if Rapinoe is on, they’re good, and when she’s off, they’re iffy.

  • Dash injuries: OUT – Kristie Mewis
  • Reign injuries: OUT – Yael Averbuch, Kiersten Dallstream, Jessica Fishlock, Jaycie Johnson

The problem with Seattle is that all offense flows through Rapinoe. She’s either scoring, assisting, or drawing defenders out, which is certainly her job, but every other player takes their cue from her. Jodie Taylor needs to be creating space regardless of whether or not Rapinoe is feeding her the ball. Bev Yanez – who to be fair has been quietly good this year, as per her norm – needs to be making those runs in from midfield. And they need someone, be it Elizabeth Addo or Nahomi Kawasumi, to do on the right what Rapinoe does on the left, particularly as that will tie up Kealia Ohai for the Dash.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Katie Stengel: The striker came as close as anyone to scoring the first hat trick of this season.
Becca Moros: She’s overshadowed by Becky Sauerbrunn, but Moros has been just as key to Utah’s defensive prowess.
Carli Lloyd: She’s scored in two successive games, and her goal in Utah was harder than it looked.

Not

Whatever went down between Allie Long and Meghan Klingenberg
Rebecca Quinn: Her rookie struggles culminated in a complete whiff on a shot last weekend.
The schedule that gave Chicago two road games in a week with three games

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