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NWSL Week in Review: Is the USL a legitimate option for the NWSL?

Photo Copyright Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

Rumors, particularly unsubstantiated ones, are not really something to go in depth on — because why waste our time, right? But there are some rumors floated to make a point and it would appear that a USL takeover of the National Women’s Soccer League in the not-so-distant future appears to be just that.

Currently, the North Carolina Courage is the only USL team which shares ownership with an NWSL club, and it is head coach Paul Riley who has been most vocal of late about his players being pulled away for U.S. national team duty outside official FIFA windows. U.S. players are not expected to be available for this coming weekend’s (July 20-21) matches, a full week ahead of more friendlies in the Tournament of Nations.

Riley has been careful to limit his arguments to non-allocated players, because that’s where his most leverage is, but it’s no secret that coaches and NWSL personnel (and journalists like myself who cover the league) have become increasingly angry at the league being given so little respect in the eyes of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

However, as we all know, biting the hand that feeds you doesn’t often end well, and we are also aware that the USSF subsidizes NWSL — most notably through paying the U.S. players’ salaries — and without it? Well, the graves of the WUSA and WPS are there to remind us what could happen, aren’t they?

As I’ve (and we’ve) talked about before, though, what is going to happen next year when the World Cup takes place or in 2020 for the Olympics? The World Cup runs from June 7 to July 7, meaning that it’s likely Jill Ellis will want her team in mid-May, not to return to the NWSL until mid-July, with a victory tour possible after that which might force more missed time. In 2015, Christen Press led all U.S. players with 10 goals (Crystal Dunn led the league with 15, but – in what seems farcical today – was left off the final World Cup roster), but played in just 11 games. Will we see a repeat in 2019? It seems probable at this point.

Which leads us to the USL: Who are they? The United Soccer League is currently sanctioned as Division II (men’s) by USSF, putting them just below MLS. But in recent years, the USL has partnered with MLS, with 20 of the 23 current MLS clubs having a reserve team in USL, which has 33 teams and will be at 40 by next season.

So a move to USL would likely not mean a risk of MLS sponsored NWSL teams leaving. And it could even be a boon in some places like Chicago, where an expansion USL team is planning on building a new stadium downtown. Many USL games are shown on ESPN+, so you would think that partnership would continue with some games being shown over the air.

The Equalizer has independently confirmed that there have been no formal or independent talks between the USL and NWSL, but that the idea is at least one that has been thought about.

What other benefits would a move to USL bring for NWSL? The USSF would still hopefully sanction the league, but it would give the NWSL much more leverage for following FIFA rules for releasing players from their clubs for international duty. While a move to USL may doom franchises like Sky Blue FC and Seattle Reign FC (unless they can partner with a USL/MLS team), that may happen anyway.

The biggest danger, of course, is the league not being able to lean on USSF for help when and if it struggles in the next few years. That alone may keep this rumor from becoming reality in the near future. But the more the U.S. takes priority, even in years where there are no major competitions to speak of, the more public the protests from inside the league will become.

Eventually, something will have to be done, so it’s probably better to be sooner rather than later.


What did we learn in Week 16 of the NWSL season, where we saw a real live red card, to Marta of all people?

WEDNESDAY

North Carolina 2:0 Washington

What Went Down: It wasn’t quite a vintage Courage performance, they’ve played a lot of soccer. The first goal conceded may sum up the Spirit season from Jim Gabarra: Rebecca Quinn went off with what looked like an equipment problem (she had been fouled by McCall Zerboni minutes earlier) and then tried to immediately jump back on the field, but the official told her to wait a second. Well, in that moment, the Courage got behind the defense. Quinn was allowed back and desperately tried to get back into the play, but just as she got there, Debinha was poking it into the back of the net.

North Carolina’s second goal started with a bad giveaway from Estelle Johnson. Johnson did enough to block Jess McDonald’s shot, but only enough to push it over her own goalkeeper, Aubrey Bledsoe, and into the back of the net. Other than that, there were some good moments for Washington, but they still didn’t generate much offense without its stars. We’ll see how Paul Riley handles the next few games.

Player of the Game: Debinha – She probably won’t win league MVP, but you can make a case that she deserves to be in the Top 10 or so with her form of late. I’m not sure North Carolina would have as big a lead in the table without her.

Under the Radar: Taylor Smith – Smith had her way for much of the night with Heather O’Reilly at left back for her former team, creating most of Washington’s chances it seemed, but no goals.

Inside the Numbers: 8 – Number of shots from Lynn Williams, with only one of them being on frame, which was a vintage 2017 performance from her, but also more shots than the entire Washington team (6)..

Up next: North Carolina – Played again; Washington – vs. Houston (Sat.)

Houston 3:1 Orlando

What Went Down: This one set up pretty much exactly how Vera Pauw would have liked. The Dash sat back a little and looked to counter against a fairly slow Orlando defense and it led to an early Rachel Daly goal. From then on, the Pride were chasing the game and Houston has been 100 times tougher (estimated) to break down than last season. Only a Jane Campbell miscue prevented a clean sheet.

For the Pride, even after a two-hour rain delay, they couldn’t figure out exactly how to handle Houston, and although they took 26 shots, they did not look on the same page, even with most of their stars on the field. They are not necessarily a playoff lock, and lost Marta to a red-card suspension for a silly play in second-half stoppage time.

Player of the Game: Rachel Daly – It’s a pretty easy call when someone scores two goals (I still think his disallowed third should have stood as well), but neither was an easy finish. And, like Debinha, she is rapidly moving up the list of MVP candidates, even though she likely won’t get to the top.

Under the Radar: Kealia Ohai – She would probably agree she’s not quite at 100 percent still, but it’s been interesting to watch her progress in her vision and savvy on the field. She appears to be playing a much smarter game this season as is shown by her partnership with Daly.

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Official number of fouls from Houston in this game, which shows the Dash’s organization, but also the lack of aggressiveness from Orlando.

Up next: Houston – Played again; Orlando – Played again

Seattle 1:0 Utah

What Went Down: I did not pick the Reign to make the playoffs, forgetting one of the major maxims of NWSL history thus far, which is “In Vlatko We Trust.” This was never more evident than on the Seattle goal, clearly worked on extensively on the training ground, with Megan Rapinoe starting in the Utah net on a corner, peeling off and being wide open for what turned out to be the only shot on goal in the contest. Rapinoe immediately ran to Andonovski and it was a good vision why Seattle is in second place.

Perhaps more evident of the job Andonovski has done in on defense. Collectively, it did not look like a great defense on paper, but the Royals managed precious little, even with Christen Press. Lydia Williams was not forced into a single save, and I can’t remember a good scoring chance other than Amy Rodriguez’s great one in the first 10 minutes, even with Utah pressing down a goal.

Player of the Game: Beverly Yanez – Playing as a midfielder fighting for balls probably isn’t her most natural position, but she was in for a lot of them in this one, even against Utah’s physically strong midfield.

Under the Radar: Steph Catley – Catley got the assist on the goal and – although not the offensive threat of some others – has cemented herself as one of the top outside backs in the NWSL.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of shots on goal from both teams, so it wasn’t the most entertaining game of the season, even if it was a huge three points for Seattle against their former coach.

Up next: Seattle – Played again; Utah – Played again

SATURDAY

Sky Blue 0:4 North Carolina

What Went Down: Sky Blue actually exposed North Carolina’s pressure early by dribbling through it and created a couple of really good chances … and then got trounced in the end anyway. I guess we’ll never know what would have happened if Sarah Killion’s header didn’t hit the post.

In the end, like so many others before them, Sky Blue was buried in the second half by the Courage’s relentlessness, especially up top as Lynn Williams finished with a hat trick and probably could have had double that (much like Sam Kerr last week). North Carolina’s goal difference is up to a gaudy +27, and they’ve scored 15 more goals than any other team in the league. So, yes, they may have a bad day at some point in the playoffs, but it’s not due to anything structural at the moment.

Player of the Game: Lynn Williams – Her stats always tend to border on the ridiculous, but she finished with 13 shots, seven of them on frame on the way to her hat trick. And she missed a couple of chances in the first half as well.

Under the Radar: Kristen Hamilton – We don’t know who will be in uniform for North Carolina next week, but surely Hamilton will be one of them. Paul Riley gave Hamilton the start to rest Jess McDonald and all Hamilton did was be effective, including an assist on Abby Erceg’s first-half goal.

Inside the Numbers: 16 – Number of points North Carolina leads the rest of the league by at the top of the table. We knew this already, but the Courage aren’t being caught.

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Portland (Sat.); North Carolina – at Utah (Fri.)

Utah 1:2 Orlando

What Went Down: The Royals got their goal and were dominating the listless Pride until a controversial penalty call after Gunnhildur Jonsdottir pulled Alanna Kennedy down on a corner kick. Utah felt especially aggrieved because Jonsdottir appeared to be tackled in the Orlando box minutes before, but there was no call.

Afterward, Laura Harvey and her compatriot Mike Petke of Real Salt Lake (who has been a solid supporter of the Royals) mentioned they might end up getting fined this week. Petke was slightly more entertaining and forceful after his team fell 3-2 to Minnesota Saturday.

With that being said, Utah pretty much fell apart after the incident and didn’t threaten much after the always aggressive Abby Smith got caught off her line for Kristen Edmonds’ eventual game-winner early in the second half (Smith later was forced to leave after another collision). The Royals’ anemic offense has not improved (even against Orlando) with Christen Press, who managed only two shots, zero on goal. It’s a long way back into the playoff race for Utah now.

Player of the Game: Alanna Kennedy – When Orlando is playing well, Kennedy is winning everything in the middle of the field and she was in the second half in this one.

Under the Radar: Ali Krieger – She picked up the assist on the winning goal in her 100th NWSL appearance, but also has to be given credit for helping to sure up what had looked like a backline that was in some trouble, given how their last game went and how this one started. But Utah got nothing after its goal.

Inside the Numbers: 4 – Number of yellow cards handed out, all to the Pride. Rachel Hill – who committed five fouls – might have been fortunate not to see a second yellow in the second half.

Up next: Utah – vs. North Carolina (Fri.); Orlando – vs. Seattle (Sat.)

Chicago 1:0 Seattle

What Went Down: Small margins can be the difference: Seattle was in the midst of another masterful defensive performance when off a Reign goal kick, Sam Kerr somehow got a breakaway and game-winner in the 85th minute. A closer look sees Theresa Nielsen marking Kerr closely, but that allowed her to sneak in behind Nielsen on a perfect cushioned header by Yuki Nagasato. Michelle Betos has been known for occasional shot goal kicks since all the way back in WPSL Elite, the Reign didn’t adjust one time, and it’s three massive points for the Red Stars.

The game was marred by a scary injury to Arin Gilliland that saw her immobilized and carted off the field after colliding with Nielsen. Danielle Colaprico also left after meeting Jess Fishlock in the middle of the field. Fishlock had already been booked, but was not sent off. Replays on both showed nothing malicious, at least in my opinion. Seattle did have 14 fouls in the game.

Player of the Game: Casey Short – You see the difference it makes to Chicago to have her healthy and on the field. It will be interesting to see how Jill Ellis handles her with the USWNT in the Tournament of Nations.

Under the Radar: Yuki Nagasato – She has had an excellent season in Chicago and didn’t really even have a great game here, but that header on the winning goal was just so perfect and not an easy ball to play.

Inside the Numbers: 14 – Number of days off for Chicago until its next game. Many of its players will report to international duty, but that should still give some time for them to rest.

Up next: Chicago – vs. Sky Blue (July 28); Seattle – at Orlando (Sat.)

SUNDAY

Portland 3:1 Houston

What Went Down: In the end, the Thorns won comfortably, but it might not have gone that way had Jane Campbell not made mistakes on the first two Portland goals and Adrianna Franch had been called for what looked like a clear penalty after pulling down Rachel Daly. With Ellis trying to figure out what goalkeepers to call in after Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, this was not a goalkeeping exhibition.

But it’s a much needed three points for Portland, who is now just two points back of Orlando and Chicago, in third and fourth, respectively. They were the better team on the night and appear to be playing better at home of late after some mysterious results early in the season (and last season). Having a healthy Tobin Heath certainly helps that cause.

Player of the Game: Lindsey Horan – Again, Jane Campbell probably should have stopped both her goals, but she was again a handful not just in the penalty box, but in the midfield, where Houston had trouble getting the ball enough to counter (being behind didn’t help, either).

Under the Radar: Tobin Heath – Obviously not very far under the radar here, but she is so fun to watch when she’s at 100 percent. Let’s hop she can stay that way for a while.

Inside the Numbers: 0 – Shots from Sofia Huerta in the game. That pretty much speaks for itself.

Up next: Portland – at Sky Blue (Sat.); Houston – at Washington (Sat.)

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