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NWSL Week 16 part 1 preview: Washington can score but can they win?

We’re back for another round of midweek games. Washington scored but still hasn’t won since May, Orlando and Houston battle for the season series, and Utah looks to rebound. Queue up two screens at once and grab some caffeine because a jam-packed Wednesday awaits to kick off NWSL Week 16.

Did Washington open the floodgates?

Washington Spirit (2-10-4) at North Carolina Courage (12-1-3)
Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series:  Courage lead, 10-3-3 (plus 0-0-1 playoffs)

The Spirit finally ended their scoring drought (and even led for about 20 minutes) thanks to Ashley Hatch and were a post and some Marta magic away from taking a result home from Orlando. Now that they’ve scored, the next step is to score from the run of the play, as Hatch’s goal was a header off a corner kick. They looked threatening off and on although the Pride were more often the dominant side and ultimately took all the points. It’s becoming a tired song, but part of the problem is still their midfield. Lackadaisical passing and a hesitancy to pressure gave Orlando some of their best chances, and those are the types of mistakes North Carolina pounces on. They’ve also got to do better defensively. Aubrey Bledsoe should be in the mix for Goalkeeper of the Year (she made 10 saves in Orlando), but even her good form can’t save everything, and as the Courage’s finishing problems have dwindled, they’re more likely than the Pride to convert those shots – and potentially take more than the 31 Orlando put up.

  • Spirit injuries: OUT – Cali Farquharson, Cheyna Matthews, Francisca Ordega, Mallory Pugh, Arielle Ship, Tiffany Weimer; QUE – Estefania Banini
  • Courage injuries: OUT – Liz Eddy, Julie King; QUE – Abby Erceg, Jaelene Hinkle, Samantha Mewis, McCall Zerboni

In fact, with no less than three goals in each of their last three games, all of which were against teams in the top half of the table, we’re really not talking about the Courage having finishing problems anymore. Notable here is the fact that McCall Zerboni has been added to the injury report, although as questionable it’s anyone guess as to whether she plays. Thus far the Courage have rarely missed a beat when playing without their preferred starters. One of the few exceptions is having to scramble for a late draw in Houston when they were missing both Zerboni and Sam Mewis, which could be a possibility tonight. Should that happen, it’s one of the few positions in which they don’t really have a natural replacement.

Can either side put together two good halves?

Ali Krieger defends the Houston attack (photo copyright Hannah Di Lorenzo)

Orlando Pride (7-5-4) at Houston Dash (4-6-5)
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series:  Pride ead, 5-3-0

Marta delivered late to keep the Pride in playoff position, while Houston couldn’t keep it together in the second half in Seattle and the road to fourth place is getting longer and longer. It’s getting to must-win status for the Dash, who can’t take sixth place regardless of the outcome of tonight’s games, if they want to keep any playoff hopes alive. Meanwhile, Orlando continues to do just enough to stay in the mix but haven’t been convincing in their performances. What neither side can do is put together a solid 90 minutes of soccer on a consistent basis. We get a good start here, a second half comeback there, but few commanding, start-to-finish games. In fact, their last meeting exemplified just this. The Pride overran the Dash in the first half but couldn’t put enough on the scoreboard to put it out of reach and didn’t show up in the second half, whereas Houston came out of the locker room on a mission and took home three points. This is their last meeting of the season, with each team winning one game so far.

  • Pride injuries: QUE – Alex Morgan
  • Dash injuries: OUT – Kristie Mewis

One option for Orlando should be to put Dani Weatherholt back in the starting lineup, whether that’s for Emily Van Egmond or Christine Nairn. Van Egmond hasn’t quite found her niche in Orlando, and although she’s capable of running a midfield – we’ve seen her do it at high levels with Australia – she’s been lacking this season, and Weatherholt brings energy that’s missing. With Nairn, she can either be very good or very quiet, and the problem is you don’t know which one you get until the game starts. Weatherholt may not be as technically inclined as either, but she’s aggressive and gritty, and Marta brings enough flair for the entire team as it is. In Houston, defensive shape remains an issue, and they have to be alert on dead balls – Megan Rapinoe burned them with a quick throw-in. Offensively, they’d like to be as much of a threat on the right as Kealia Ohai has been on the left.

Will Utah’s defense recover?

Gunny Jónsdóttir plays in the Royals home opener. (photo copyright Patti Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Utah Royals FC (5-4-6) at Seattle Reign FC (7-3-5)
Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. EDT, Memorial Stadium
All-time series:  tied, 0-0-1

One of the storylines this season has been Utah’s defensive prowess. Anchored by the (almost) always reliable Becky Sauerbrunn (editor’s note — after publication the Royals announced that Sauerbrunn would miss this match with a left tibial stress reaction), they were the league’s best defense – until Portland punished them with four goals. Of course that doesn’t make their defense automatically bad, but it did demonstrate a few weaknesses. One is the “almost” part of the sentence above, which means that when Sauerbrunn isn’t having her best game, someone like Rachel Corsie needs to step up. Another is that they aren’t the paciest, a fact that Megan Rapinoe is likely to exploit. Putting Sam Johnson at outside back against a team who loves to run the flanks probably wasn’t the best decision, one Laura Harvey seemed to recognize, but it’s also questionable what the solution is at right back without Brooke Elby any longer or Kelley O’Hara until at least the end of the month. Sydney Miramontez is a good defensive sub as a one-off but not likely more than that

  • Royals injuries: OUT – Alex Arlitt, Makenzy Doniak, Mandy Laddish, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn
  • Reign injuries: OUT – Yael Averbuch, Kiersten Dallstream, QUE – Elizabeth Addo, Jess Fishlock, Rumi Utsugi

Seattle enters this match with their own problems despite regaining second-place with a two-game winning streak. Namely, their preferred starting midfield, with the exception of Allie Long, is on the injury report. Jess Fishlock has been upgraded, which is good news for a team that has really missed her at times, but Rumi Utsugi and Elizabeth Addo are also questionable. Morgan Andrews is likely to fill the box to box midfield role, with Long dropping deeper and Bev Yanez roaming higher, while Nahomi Kawasumi probably returns to the starting lineup up top for Addo. If Andrews starts, she’s the one to keep an eye on. Utah’s midfield, even sans Diana Matheson, still has a bite to it, and she’ll probably have her hands full.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Tobin Heath: She scored two minutes into the game and picked up an assist. The Thorns have nearly always been noticeably better with her on the pitch this season.
Aubrey Bledsoe: She’s highest in saves, third in save percentage, and tied for third in clean sheets.
Ali Krieger: The defender was very active in Orlando’s attacking half last weekend.

Not

Yellow cards instead of red: We’ve been saying it would take someone getting hurt, and someone did.
Jane Campbell: The goalkeeper has had very good moments but overall appears in a sophomore slump.

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