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NWSL Week 20 Preview: Closing the playoff gap

With the 2018 Shield, long a foregone conclusion, officially wrapped up, attention moves to spots two through four. Utah has pushed itself to within a point of playoff spot, but the two teams in front of them have a game (or two) in hand. Chicago has the most possible points left to earn, but they have a rough schedule to finish the year. Meanwhile, Orlando is hanging on but need to regain form, momentum, and points. We could see quite the shakeup in the final two playoff positions as we wrap up NWSL week 20.

Will Chicago’s long break be a boom or bust?

Chicago Red Stars goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) and NC Courage forward Crystal Dunn (19) during a match between the NC Courage and the Chicago Red Stars in Cary, NC in Week 6 of the 2018 NWSL season. Photo by Lewis Gettier.

North Carolina Courage (15-1-4) at Chicago Red Stars (7-4-7)
Friday, 8:00 p.m. EDT, Toyota Park
All-time series: Red Stars lead, 7-5-4 (Courage 1-0-0 playoffs)

The Red Stars have not played a game in nearly a month, although quite a few of their players saw competitive minutes with their respective national teams. This type of long break usually goes one of two ways. One, it lets everyone rest up for the final push to the end of the season (and hopefully into the postseason). It can also provide valuable time for injured players to return to duty – a break Chicago would have welcomed earlier this year. On the other hand, it can disturb the rhythm of a squad, especially with so many players having to switch between club and country, which means different roles, different formations, and different teammates. Chicago is on the outside looking in at the moment, but with more games to play than anyone else but Sky Blue, they’re in the driver’s seat.

  • Courage injuries: OUT – Yuri Kawamura, Julie King; QUE – McCall Zerboni
  • Red Stars injuries: OUT – Stephanie McCaffrey

North Carolina stands in the way of their first three points of this last race to the playoffs. Alyssa Naeher saved a point for the Red Stars in the first meeting between these two teams earlier this year, but North Carolina came back to deliver a 4-1 pounding in the second. The Red Stars would do well to deliver a little of the Courage’s own medicine to them – a high press combined with aggressive, physical ball-winning that starts as soon as possession is lost. The first line of Courage defense starts with their forwards, no falling into a low block for them, and the combination has a team whose goal differential is four times the next highest.

Is Utah’s recent surge the real deal?

Katie Stengel is leading the way in Utah. (Credit: Roscoe Myrick/Utah Royals FC)

Seattle Reign FC (9-4-6) at Utah Royals FC (7-6-7)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT, Rio Tinto Stadium (Lifetime)
All-time series: Reign lead, 1-0-1

Utah is riding high after two successive wins have pushed them into a tie with Chicago in fifth place. That said, both wins came late, and both were against teams in the bottom third of the table. What do the Royals need to do to break down Seattle’s defense, tied for the league’s stingiest? For one, more offensive contributions from their outside backs. This will depend on who Laura Harvey puts in her lineup, as Katie Bowen is more attack-minded than either Becca Moros or Sydney Miramontez. An aggressive right back can also have the added bonus of keeping Megan Rapinoe pinned her own half more often, which is a necessity for a team to get a result against Seattle. The Royals would also like to see quicker play in transition from their midfield. Christen Press is capable of running down through balls or receiving with her back to goal, and the faster she gets the ball from her midfield, the more likely she is to create something dangerous.

  • Reign injuries: OUT – Elizabeth Addo, Yael Averbuch, Steph Catley, Kiersten Dallstream, Rumi Utsugi, Bev Yanez
  • Royals injuries: OUT – Kelley O’Hara; QUE – Desiree Scott, Elise Thorsnes

Utah enters this game at a disadvantage as far as rest goes, having played a midweek match, and against a team like Seattle, who loves to make their opponents chase, fatigue can be even more of a hindrance. A first half goal for the Royals would go a long way, as Seattle rarely concedes in the first half , while both Utah and Seattle are more likely to wait until after the first 45 minutes to score. Leaving it late has served the Royals well these last two matches, as well as against North Carolina, but with both Rapinoe and Jodie Taylor at seven goals apiece, leaving it late might be, well, too late.

Is it too late for Houston?

(photo copyright Nicole Rossi for The Equalizer)

Houston Dash (6-8-5) at Sky Blue FC (0-13-4)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Yurcak Field
All-time series:  Sky Blue lead, 6-2-3

Mathematically speaking, the Dash aren’t out of it yet, but practically speaking, they need help to make it. Late game defensive lapses, their Achilles heel, gave points away once again, this time to Utah in a match the Dash should have put away, and at the end of the season they’ll probably mark that game as the beginning of the end for their playoff hopes. As much of a problem as their defensive lapses is their lack of finishing – they have the worst shooting accuracy in the league. This is particularly problematic when a team plays a style heavily reliant on counter attacks, which the Dash do. They counter very well, but the end product is lacking too often, and a counterattacking team isn’t going to create as many chances as other teams. They have to make those chances count.

  • Dash injuries: OUT – Bianca Henninger, Meliana Shim, Kyah Simon; QUE – Kimberley Keever, Janine Van Wyk
  • Sky Blue injuries: OUT – Shea Groom

Surprisingly, Sky Blue is more accurate with their shots than two-thirds of the rest of the league; they just don’t take many, and they can’t stop hemorrhaging goals on the other end. They didn’t look like a last place team in Orlando, and having gotten a taste of their first lead of the year, they’re going to want more. Carli Lloyd undoubtedly saved a point for her team with her, ahem, clearance, but they’re going to miss her as she serves her red card suspension, as she was a spark off the bench against the Pride. With the records and defensive frailty of these two squads, this has the making of a high-scoring affair, even if results won’t change the table.

Which team will carry the series?

(photo copyright Hannah Di Lorenzo for The Equalizer)

Portland Thorns FC (8-6-5) at Orlando Pride (8-6-6)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Orlando City Stadium
All-time series: Thorns lead, 4-1-1 (plus 1-0-0 playoffs)

No offense to any other game this weekend, but if you only watch one, this one is your best bet. If either of these teams don’t make the playoffs, they’ll point to this game as the turning point. A win for either will stem off the rising tide of Chicago and Utah, while the losing side could find itself out of contention for the week. The last two matches between these teams ended 2-1, with each team taking one. Portland is probably in the better form currently, with their recent loss to North Carolina ending a three-game winning streak. Orlando is on a three-game undefeated streak, but the last two have been draws. For the Pride, it comes down to chemistry and communication. They’ve been reliant on moments of individual brilliance, and it’s carried them this far, but that feels like a train ride that can only go so far. They have to get themselves on the same page, combine in the attack and keep shape on defense, and, oh yeah, mark Lindsey Horan on set pieces.

  • Thorns injuries: OUT – Katherine Reynolds
  • Pride injuries: OUT – Sydney Leroux

For Portland, their success seems to ride on their defense. Whether it’s injuries or poor play, it sets the tone for the rest of the team. Last week, a tired Emily Sonnett make a few bad decisions, even though she got away with a clear penalty, Adrianna Franch didn’t have her best game, and Meghan Klingenberg was overwhelmed. Should Orlando send someone like Marta or Alex Morgan to attack Klingenberg’s side, it could cause problems for the Thorns, although the rest of the Pride would need to make the necessary runs into the box to take advantage of any flank work. The Thorns also want a stronger game from Horan, who allowed herself to be pushed around by the Courage too much. Hayley Raso’s general pest-like behavior seems made for success against Orlando’s backline, especially if combined with someone like Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic.

HOT … OR NOT?

Hot

Katie Stengel: After scoring two game-winners in four days, she’s the Royals’ leading scorer.
Dani Weatherholt: She’s coming off what was probably her best game for the Pride.
Denise O’Sullivan: She sometimes gets overlooked in North Carolina’s crowded midfield, but whether attacking or playing a deeper role, she’s an important cog in the Courage machine.

Not

Jane Campbell: What started as a strong season is ending in disappointment, and may cost her her USWNT spot, at least for the immediate future.
Burning a sub on a sub: Jim Gabarra may be happy to have both Mallory Pugh and Cali Farquharson back, but it wasn’t his best idea to sub one player who is returning to fitness for another.
Chioma Ubogagu’s lack of passing: She has the skills on the ball and the acceleration to make things happen, but she has to pick up her head and find her teammates before losing possession.

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