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NWSL week 18 preview: Sunday funday

It’s finally here, the last full month of regular season NWSL play. The Shield and three playoff spots remain at large, although the former could be off the market by the end of Sunday. That’s right, it’s a rare full slate of Sunday soccer to carry us into August and NWSL week 18.

Can the Courage make it a sweep against Portland?

Heather O’Reilly scored her first goal for the Courage to win the ICC. Photo by Lewis Gettier.

Portland Thorns FC (8-5-5) at North Carolina Courage (14-1-4)
Sunday, 6:00 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series:  Thorns lead, 6-5-3 (plus 2-1-0 playoffs)

While the Thorns still have their 2017 championship win over the Courage to boast, they’ve yet to find success against their burgeoning rivals in 2018. Their first match was a narrow loss, but the second was a blowout victory by North Carolina in Portland. Adding possible insult to injury, the Courage could clinch the 2018 Shield this weekend. North Carolina is also riding high on the momentum of their win in the first-ever women’s International Champions Cup, the first of three possible pieces of hardware they could collect this year.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Katherine Reynolds; QUE – Midge Purce
  • Courage injuries: OUT – Yuri Kawamura, Julie King; QUE – Meredith Speck

One big question for each side is who plays, as key starters on both teams saw significant minutes in the Tournament of Nations. North Carolina should have their preferred backline intact, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCall Zerboni start in midfield, either. Meanwhile, Portland should start seeing minutes from Caitlin Foord, who should provide them another wide option. The big question for Portland is how many minutes Emily Sonnett and Ellie Carpenter can play, which leaves their defense in a less than ideal situation.

Can Orlando’s defense shape up?

Pride defender Shelina Zadorsky (Credit: Orlando Pride)

Sky Blue FC (0-13-3) at Orlando Pride (8-6-5)
Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Orlando City Stadium
All-time series:  Pride lead, 3-2-1

Orlando is in the race for a playoff spot as much as any other team, but what sets them apart is their lack of defensive prowess. For all their individual talent on the backline and in goal, they’ve failed to consistently put together solid defensive performances, the result being the lowest goal differential and highest number of goals against out of the top five teams, with only four clean sheets in 19 games. Part of the issue may be in the midfield personnel. Emily Van Egmond is having a disappointing initial season in Orlando, putting additional strain on the responsibilities of Alanna Kennedy, and when Tom Sermanni rolls out his three-back formation, Kristen Edmonds on the right wing hasn’t been tracking back with enough urgency.

  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT – none; QUE – Domi Richardson
  • Pride injuries: OUT – none; QUE – Sydney Leroux

It’s hard to say what kind of offense Sky Blue will put on the field to test Orlando. They’ve only scored 12 goals in 16 games, but one out of the only two games in which they scored more than once was against the Pride. However, they have scored in five of their last six matches (the exception being against league leader North Carolina), and putting Savannah McCaskill in the middle appears to have reinvigorated the rookie. Katie Johnson is also coming off an excellent tournament for Mexico, scoring three goals to help them win the women’s soccer championship at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games.

Will there be goals?

Jane Campbell is coming off her second clean sheet of the year. (photo copyright Tom Salus)

Utah Royals FC (5-6-7) at Houston Dash (6-7-5)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. EDT, BBVA Compass Stadium
All-time series:  Royals lead, 1-0-1

History says no. The only other two matches between these teams produced a single goal in 180-plus minutes of play. Neither team is higher than fifth in the league for goals scored, and Utah is actually in the bottom third, trailing Seattle by six goals. However, recent form says yes, at least for the Dash. With Kealia Ohai and Rachel Daly rounding into top form, they haven’t been shut out since May 19, which, coincidentally or not, was their last match against the Royals. Ohai may have extra motivation now after being recalled into the USWNT fold only to be cut two days into camp.

  • Royals injuries: OUT – Kelley O’Hara; QUE – Elise Thorsnes
  • Dash injuries: OUT – Meleana Shim; QUE – Janine Van Wyk

On the other hand, Utah has been shut out in five of their last seven matches. The much-anticipated goals that were supposed to accompany Christen Press haven’t quite landed yet as she still seeks a key partnership on the team, one that looks increasingly unlikely to be with Amy Rodriguez. However, having seen plenty of minutes in the Tournament of Nations, Press may not have a lengthy presence in this game regardless. The best news for the Royals is that Houston has the second-worst defense in the league, coming off only their second clean sheet of the season. Their first? The last time they hosted Utah.

Will Seattle prove that defense wins the day?

(photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Washington Spirit (2-12-4) at Seattle Reign FC (8-4-6)
Sunday, 9:00 p.m., Memorial Stadium
All-time series:  Reign lead, 9-4-2 (plus 2-0-0 playoffs)

The Reign have had a fairly good grasp on second place, holding it more than any other team, and they’ve done so primarily on the backs of their defense. Although Megan Rapinoe has been in rare form and Jodie Taylor has contributed six goals, they’ve scored less goals than anyone in the top six on the table. What’s gotten them this far is the league’s second-best defense, anchored by Lauren Barnes and led by Lydia Williams. Vlatko Andonovski spent the first part of his season tinkering with his backline, prodded by various injuries, but he seems to have settled on his back four (Steph Catley will miss this one with an excused absence). Theresa Nielsen, one of those in and out of the lineup, has been one of the most reliable fullbacks in the league, showing a good knowledge of when to push forward and when to drop back.

  • Spirit injuries: OUT – Tiffany Weimer, Kelsey Wys; QUE – Arielle Ship
  • Reign injuries: OUT – Elizabeth Addo, Yael Averbuch, Kiersten Dallstream, Steph Catley, Bev Yanez; QUE – Rumi Utsugi

A new wrinkle to Washington’s attack that could keep Seattle on their toes is the move of Taylor Smith from outside back to a wide midfield role. The move allows Smith, who was only converted from a forward to a fullback after starting her professional career, to make full use of her pace while also alleviating her of the responsibilities of tracking back – while at the same time helping out Washington’s defense by eliminating the swath of space often left behind her. However, it remains to be seen if the move can help the Spirit’s fortunes on either end of the pitch, and it’s already too late for this season’s playoff hopes.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Lindsey Horan: In fantastic form for the NWSL, her last-minute header against Australia in the Tournament of Nations set the stage for the US to bring home the trophy.
Amber Brooks: The centerback is the only one on the Houston backline who doesn’t seem to have an off day.
Alanna Kennedy: She’s picked up steam with Orlando, and she was instrumental in Australia’s undefeated Tournament of Nations run.

Not

Caroline Casey: The two early goals she gave up to Portland can’t be laid entirely at her feet, but they made for an inauspicious 2018 debut.
Gunny Jonsdottir: Maybe it’s the result of one too many collisions or maybe other players are catching on, but Jonsdottir’s full-steam ahead approach hasn’t been as effective in recent matches as the beginning of the season.

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