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NWSL Week 16, part 2 preview: Big games in Utah, Chicago, Portland

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

We’re two-thirds of the way through the season (more for some teams). Sky Blue FC still hasn’t won, the North Carolina Courage have only lost once, and the Houston Dash have made the middle of the table tighter than ever. Nearly every game this weekend could set the tone for the final stretch of the season as we finish out NWSL Week 16.

Can Gibbons change Sky Blue’s fortunes?

Photo copyright Lewis Gettier

North Carolina Courage (13-1-3, 42 pts.) at Sky Blue FC (0-11-3, 3 pts.)
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Yurcak Field

Let’s be real: Sky Blue has been out of the playoff race for a while. At this point, it’s about salvaging some morale to keep players around for the next season, and figuring out what can work with said players in order to build on it in the future. In my opinion, Christina Gibbons could play a role. She struggled at outside back and got benched for it. Perhaps it’s time for Denise Reddy to take a page from Vlatko Andonovski’s playbook and try Gibbons in the midfield. In her rookie season at FC Kansas City, Gibbons also struggled at fullback, and her move to the midfield coincided with the team getting their season back on track. At the very least, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try.

Reddy has switched things up recently, moving Carli Lloyd up top where she can be more dangerous, but without someone behind her to provide service, it’s not going to change much. Gibbons can also provide a stronger defensive presence than someone like Janine Beckie, which is exactly what is needed against North Carolina. Facing down McCall Zerboni is no small task, but for Sky Blue to find any result, it starts in the midfield.

  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT – Michaela Abam (left knee tendinitis), Jen Hoy (right knee sprain), Raquel Rodriguez (back spasms); QUE – Rebekah Stott (back strain)
  • Courage injuries: OUT – Liz Eddy (left quadriceps strain – D45), Julie King (left ankle repair), Jessica McDonald (excused absence) ; QUE – Jaelene Hinkle (left quad strain), Samantha Mewis (right knee pain), McCall Zerboni (right ankle sprain)

Will Press and Rodriguez form a partnership?

(Photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Orlando Pride (7-6-4, 25 pts.) at Utah Royals FC (5-5-6, 21 pts.)
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, Rio Tinto Stadium

Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez have both scored for the Utah Royals – they just haven’t done it while on the field together. They led the Royals’ press against the Seattle Reign, which initially looked like it was going to pay off, but no one from Utah could find the back of the net. From the moment the Press trade was announced, we knew this pairing would have to work for consistent Utah success. They’re four points away from a tightly contested playoff spot, and Houston has now moved to just one point behind Utah.

At this point there’s no telling which Orlando Pride will show up, but they’re overdue for a good performance. Their two games with Utah previously have yielded all of two goals and two draws, so history says this could be a low-scoring affair. Which means there’s no better time than now for Press and Rodriguez to find their chemistry, especially against a Pride defense that is susceptible to speed and likes to play high, which Rachel Daly exploited on several occasions.

  • Royals injuries: OUT – Alex Arlitt (left knee strain – SEI), Makenzy Doniak (left knee ACL tear – SEI), Mandy Laddish (right hip contusion – SEI), Kelley O’Hara (right hamstring strain), Becky Sauerbrunn (left leg irritation), Elise Thorsnes (left hamstring strain)
  • Pride injuries: NONE

Was Fishlock the missing piece?

(Photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Seattle Reign FC (8-3-5, 29 pts.) at Chicago Red Stars (6-4-7, 25 pts.)
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, Toyota Park

Seattle’s story this season is that they’ve followed the form and fortunes of Megan Rapinoe, be they up or down, but have lacked bite elsewhere. With Jess Fishlock returning from injury, that trend could be over. Yes, it was Rapinoe who scored the lone goal in Wednesday’s victory over Utah, but Fishlock brought her trademark relentless energy to the game, helping them withstand the Royals’ pressure until Seattle scored. I have to temper this by saying that Fishlock may be rested after just coming back from injury, but if anyone can go from zero to 90, it’s Fishlock.

The Reign are the only other team besides North Carolina on a winning streak, and they’ve also managed to find separation at second place, ensuring they’ll stay there for another week regardless of this weekend’s results. The talk of the season has been lack of consistency for those teams in the middle of the table, and if Seattle can maintain their streak against the fourth-place Chicago Red Stars, they could be well on their way to hosting a playoff match.

  • Red Stars injuries: OUT – Stephanie McCaffrey (illness)
  • Reign injuries: OUT – Yael Averbuch (illness), Kiersten Dallstream (left quad strain); QUE – Elizabeth Addo (right knee strain), Rumi Utsugi (left calf strain)

Is Rachel Daly having her best season yet?

(Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier)

Houston Dash (5-6-5, 20 pts.) at Portland Thorns (6-5-5, 23 pts.)
Saturday, 11 p.m. ET, Providence Park

Daly has been one of the Houston Dash’s best players since her debut and was once in the conversation for Rookie of the Year in 2016. All that said, she could be in the middle of her best season yet. She’s tied for third in the league and leads the Dash in goals scored, and she’s already scored more than each of her previous seasons. What’s more, Daly has demonstrated a keen ability to combine with multiple teammates, including Kealia Ohai, Kyah Simon, and Sofia Huerta. Her pace will let her get behind the Portland Thorns’ backline, although it will take something special to beat Adrianna Franch, so it’s up to the Thorns midfield to block the Dash in transition.

Portland does have the superior midfield, although Clare Polkinghorne and Linda Motlhalo form an interesting dual pivot that work better together every week. Where the Dash want to focus are the flanks. Ohai would have met her match for pace in Midge Purce, but in her place, Ellie Carpenter has to avoid getting caught up field. This is also likely to be a physical match, and here’s where I note that Daly is one yellow card away from suspension.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Andressinha (right ankle sprain), Caitlin Foord (right lis franc repair), Meg Morris (left hip pain – SEI), Midge Purce (right ankle sprain)
  • Dash injuries: OUT – Kristie Mewis (left ACL sprain – SEI); QUE – Janine Van Wyck (left hamstring strain); INT – Bianca Henninger (Mexico)

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Denise O’Sullivan: She tends to be overshadowed by those on the Courage’s roster who score more often, but she’s a pure workhorse who has played a deeper role at times this season quite well.
Adrianna Franch: Her sometimes amazing ability to hold onto the ball was highlighted by goalkeeper parries gone awry at both ends of the field in Houston.

Not

Marta’s red card: It was far from the most egregious foul of the season, and in fact was just a silly mood made from pure frustration that’s going to see her miss an important match.
Rachel Corsie’s yellow card: It was far from egregious too – in fact, from the angle we could see on the stream, it didn’t look like Corsie committed a foul at all.

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