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NWSL Week In Review: The end (of the season) is near

The end is near! Well, the end of the NWSL regular season, that is. Approximately a month from the time you’re reading this, the NWSL semifinals will be ready to begin. We know North Carolina will be hosting one of them, but the rest of the playoff picture is quite fuzzy to both the near-sighted and far-sighted at the moment.

Seattle did take one giant leap for its playoff aspirations by winning in Utah, and may have eliminated the Royals in the process. Can I try to put the slightly distorted playoff photo in some focus for you? Let’s give it a shot, although, full disclosure, I have been wrong before (I know, shocking):

EXTRA: This week’s podcast ponders why the Pride are slumping, how close the Dash are to contending, plus your questions answered by Dan Lauletta and Chelsey Bush!

SEATTLE

Currently 2nd, 36 points.

Remaining games: vs Chicago, vs. Houston, vs. North Carolina, at Portland

It’s hard to see the Reign missing the playoffs at this point, although if they were to lose to the Red Stars on Wednesday, fans may start to be a tad bit concerned with the schedule remaining. Their defense is now statistically the best in the league (15 goals), and that usually prevents slumps. I have long been on the Megan Rapinoe for MVP bandwagon, and if Seattle finishes here I certainly think she deserves it.

PROJECTED POINT TOTAL: 42 (2nd)

PORTLAND

Currently 3rd, 32 points.

Remaining games: vs. Chicago, vs. Sky Blue, at Washington, vs. Seattle

Now fully healthy, the Thorns are rounding into fairly good form, although it did again take a couple of very good saves from Adrianna Franch to keep a clean sheet. For whatever reason, Sky Blue has given them fits, and ironically they are going to need all six points from that Sky Blue-Washington stretch (the Spirit game will be at Audi Field and Washington is now healthy if still playing terribly) to have a chance at home field in the playoffs. It says here that they’ll slip up in one of those matches. (NOTE: Seattle has the tiebreaker with Portland thanks to winning the first two head-to-head meetings this season.)

PROJECTED POINT TOTAL: 40 (3rd)

ORLANDO

Currently 4th, 30 points

Remaining games: at North Carolina, vs. Chicago, at Sky Blue

As most who closely follow know, the Pride are in big trouble. They only have three games left and the first is at the Courage. They seem to be falling apart internally and their defense has been inconsistent at best. If there is good news for the Pride, that home game against the Red Stars on Aug. 25 is a six-pointer, and just a win in that one may be enough (combined with a result at Sky Blue maybe) to push them over the top.

And the computers still think they have a better chance than Chicago (and also have Seattle and Portland essentially clinched):

PROJECTED POINT TOTAL: 34 (5th)

CHICAGO

Currently 5th, 29 points

Remaining games: at Seattle, at Portland, at Orlando, vs. Sky Blue, at Utah

Like Portland, they are finally (almost) healthy and look to be a threat if they can join the playoff party. But that’s a rough road for the next few weeks, and with only one home game, it might be tough to fight through the busy schedule in the season’s final month. But if they can fight through the fatigue, those last two matches could prove huge and allow them to sneak in at fourth and win a trip to North Carolina in the semifinals.

PROJECTED POINT TOTAL: 36 (4th)

UTAH

Currently 6th, 28 points

Remaining games: at Sky Blue, at Washington, Chicago

You will notice that by my projections if the Royals win out, they will finish on 37 points and edge out Chicago and Orlando for fourth. And that’s obviously not a ridiculous schedule the rest of the way. But they don’t hold the tiebreaker over anyone, and there’s been nothing in their play that shows – even with their schedule – they can finish perfect. However, they’re not quite out yet.

PROJECTED POINT TOTAL: 33 (tied 6th)

HOUSTON

Currently 7th, 26 points

Remaining games: vs. Washington, at Seattle, vs. Sky Blue, at North Carolina

The fact that they’re here at all might be good evidence to present to the Coach of the Year committee for Vera Pauw. But also, look at that remaining schedule. The Dash have had very few poor matches this season and should be able to get six points from home games against Washington and Sky Blue. Then they get North Carolina in the season’s final game with perhaps everything to play for, while the hosts’ main goal will be trying to stay healthy for the playoff game the following week. But we shall see.

PROJECTED POINT TOTAL: 33 (tied 6th)

What did we learn in Week 20 of the NWSL season, where it’s still hot in the afternoon, unfortunately, at least it was in Utah?:

WEDNESDAY (recap)

Utah 1:0 Washington

What Went Down: Hooray, Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Andi Sullivan all started. And then Pugh was subbed out after 30 minutes (scheduled apparently). And Lavelle left at halftime. Unfortunately, the Spirit are not only poor, but they’re also (unlike Sky Blue) boring as heck to watch, as their only goal since May 27 was an Ashley Hatch header off a corner last month. They have the look of a team that can’t wait for the season to end.

Meanwhile, Utah really didn’t put Washington away easily, either. It took a quite brilliant dummy from Diana Matheson and finish from Katie Stengel to finally break through late in the second half and secure three points. As I pointed out before, the schedule favors the Royals, but they’ll have to score goals.

Player of the Game: Katie Stengel – It was only one goal, but Utah appears more dangerous when Stengel is on the field this season, and she did record four shots on goal in the contest. Alas, it wasn’t enough to get her the start on Saturday.

Under the Radar: Diana Matheson – Amazingly, Matheson had the play of the game after coming on as a sub without even touching the ball. She saw Stengel and let the ball roll through her, taking half the Washington defense with her, and allowing Stengel to score the game-winner.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of shots on goal for the Spirit. And the end of the match (that they also had no corner kicks), it looked like zero, but later an Andi Sullivan shot was reclassified as on target.

Up next: Utah – Played again; Washington – at Houston (Fri.)

FRIDAY (recap)

Chicago 1:1 North Carolina

What Went Down: The Courage leave with only a point, but they were still statistically dominant on the road against a good, fairly desperate team in a match that North Carolina had little to play for having already clinched the NWSL Shield. And they did so without McCall Zerboni, who was being rested with a minor injury. With that being said, there were some moments where the Courage was under pressure and pinned in, and we haven’t been able to say that much this season.

The Red Stars are finally rounding into form, and – despite all the injuries – some credit has to go to Rory Dames with all the changes that Chicago has made this season. The next key will be scoring goals. They still only managed a single shot on goal in this game, although plenty of credit has to go to the Courage’s underrated defense as well. Morgan Brian looked better and hit a post (and had a pretty terrible miss in the first half, but at least she was there).

Player of the Game: Vanessa DiBernardo – When someone is missing for as long as DiBernardo has, it’s easy to forget about how important they are. But her quality, including her assist, gave North Carolina fits, and combined with the likes of Danielle Colaprico and Morgan Brian in the midfield, they are a title contender if they can get into the postseason.

Under the Radar: Merritt Mathias – I’ve seen some argument that she shouldn’t be a USWNT player at this point, but I would beg to differ. She was solid again in this match not only defensively, but offensively, where she covered a ton of ground and an put dangerous service in for the likes of Jess McDonald and Lynn Williams to go chase.

Inside the Numbers: 25 – Number of crosses for Chicago, just two less than North Carolina, in a category that they are usually dominant.

Up next: Chicago – at Seattle (Wed.); North Carolina – vs. Orlando (Sat.)

SATURDAY (recaps)

Utah 0:1 Seattle

What Went Down: Laura Harvey had some decisions to make, having played in mid-week and with deplorable conditions (95 degrees and smoky due to nearby wildfires) on Saturday, she chose to not start Katie Stengel and Erika Tymrak. Now, Seattle has the best defense in the league currently as well, but the end result was just six shots, just two of them on goal, and little that threatened the Reign goal. And probably the end of Utah in the playoff chase.

When you look at the Seattle defense as a whole, there are no true standouts and no national team caps (well, except for the 121 Theresa Nielsen has for Denmark, of course). But week in and week out, they continue to impress, with Morgan Andrews and Kristen McNabb in front of them in this match. Eventually, it’s not just that every opponent had a bad day.

Player of the Game: Megan Oyster – Someone on the podcast asked about Oyster’s USWNT prospects and I downplayed it, but she certainly deserves to be in the running for an NWSL Best XI selection this season, and she should be on Jill Ellis’ whiteboard somewhere going forward. Her assist was brilliant as well.

Under the Radar: Megan Rapinoe – She was held off the scoresheet, but she continues to be the most dangerous person on the field in almost every game she plays, even in 95-degree heat.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Yellow cards for the Royals, but it led to perhaps the most comical moment of the season: Becca Moros clearly thought Rapinoe dived to draw the call and, well, the video tells the rest of the story.

Up next: Utah – at Sky Blue (Sat.); Seattle – vs. Chicago (Wed.)

Sky Blue 1:2 Houston

What Went Down: For whatever reason, Sky Blue has been much more competitive on the road than at home this season, as they now have just one point from 10 home outings. The Dash should have been up three or four at the half and not just because Rachel Daly scored and the goal wasn’t given. They had several other chances that were squandered, and – to their credit – Sky Blue was a different team in the second half, equalized through Madison Tiernan (after some shoddy Dash defense) and nearly took the lead.

In the end, justice was done, I guess, as Daly buried an unfortunate penalty kick after a late Sky Blue handball. It was another entertaining match involving Sky Blue, who now has six matches to avoid going winless. I still think they’ll win at least one.

Player of the Game: Rachel Daly – She should have had a hat trick if you count the ball that crossed the goal line, but was not ruled a goal. And she continues to be an almost Sam Kerr-like menace to opposing NWSL defenses after starting the season at outside back.

Under the Radar: Sofia Huerta – Speaking of outside back, Huerta was not there again, but this might have been the first time we’ve seen her best midfield form in Houston..

Inside the Numbers: 26 – Number of points currently for Houston, which is a franchise record, a pretty amazing feat considering how we thought of them at the start of the campaign.

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. Utah (Sat.); Houston – vs. Washington (Fri.)

Orlando 0:2 Portland

What Went Down: Tom Sermanni’s comments after the game were pretty much spot on, but it does beg the question why he hasn’t fixed his team’s problems by mid-August. It’s not like he has a young team, you would think players like Alex Morgan and Ashlyn Harris (or any of the other veterans), could see what was going on and pick up the tempo. But, again, it never happened. After dominating the first 15 minutes, the Pride were second best in just about every area.

The Thorns could have won by more, but Adrianna Franch was forced to make six saves, so there has to be some concern about the Portland defense going forward, at least when looking at matchups against future playoff teams like North Carolina and Chicago. But barring a collapse, the Thorns do appear playoff bound, which we couldn’t say a month ago.

Player of the Game: Hayley Raso – There is some irony that much of her success came at the expense of her Australian teammate Alanna Kennedy, who did not have a good evening. But if your defense makes mistakes, chances are Raso will be there to make you pay.

Under the Radar: Adrianna Franch – She has to get her first USWNT cap against Chile in a few weeks, doesn’t she? I mean, why not? Maybe don’t answer that.

Inside the Numbers: 6,012 – Attendance in Orlando, which is a significant improvement and good to see, even if the season’s end is just about here.

Up next: Orlando – at North Carolina (Sat.); Portland – vs. Chicago (Sat.)

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