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NWSL Week In Review: Which NWSL teams will rest players ahead of playoffs?

Photo Copyright Lindsay Trapnell for The Equalizer

On the final evening of the 2007 NFL regular season, the New England Patriots and New York Giants met in a much-hyped contest that meant … nothing, really.

The Patriots had long since clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Giants were going to be on the road the following week in a wildcard game no matter what the result. What added intrigue is that New England was undefeated, a perfect 15-0, the first team in more than three decades to get that far without a loss.

While he was certainly not going to risk injury to anyone, New England coach Bill Belichick could play his starters knowing that a bye week was to follow. Giants coach Tom Coughlin faced a dilemma, however. Most coaches would have written the game off and rested regulars, particularly veteran ones, to have them ready for the playoffs, which would have drawn the ire of the home crowd and fans, but such is life.

Coughlin didn’t, of course. He rolled the dice by playing everyone the entire contest and while New York fell just short (38-35) that night, five weeks later the two teams met in a game with slightly higher stakes, and the Giants pulled off one of the most famous upsets in sports history, stunning the 18-0 Patriots, 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII.

Coaches in all sports have been a bit reluctant to completely rest players as the playoffs approach, talking about keeping momentum and general pride of competition. But is that 2007 Giants just one data point without any context? Was Coughlin just fortunate that no one got hurt? Were the Super Bowl and regular-season performances completely unrelated, anyway?

These are questions the teams that have qualified for the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs will be asking in the next two weeks, as the playoff race unfortunately all but fizzled out this weekend. We know the North Carolina Courage wrapped up their second-straight NWSL Shield long ago, and Paul Riley has so far played almost all his regulars in the matches since. The Courage close the regular season on Sept. 8 against now-eliminated Houston Dash, and Riley is well aware of how quickly players can get injured. Last October, Debinha dislocated her elbow in the NWSL semifinals against the Chicago Red Starsand missed the final, which the Courage of course lost to Portland.

While North Carolina has nothing to play for, it’s a little tougher for Portland Thorns FC and Seattle Reign FC, who meet on Sept. 7. Barring something unforeseen, they will meet again the following week, but a win in the regular season finale would mean that the Thorns would host the contest. How much is that worth? It depends on who you ask, although it seems unlikely that Megan Rapinoe will play after it was revealed she broke a rib in mid-week against Houston.

Finally, Chicago needs one more point to clinch a playoff spot, but it hosts Sky Blue on Sept. 4, and, unlike the other three teams, plays twice in four days to close the regular season. So if the Red Stars are in already, Rory Dames seems the most likely to rest a host of regulars (especially with some of them coming off national duty) against Utah on Sept. 8 to get ready to take a run at North Carolina a week later in the NWSL semifinals.

But maybe he won’t. Maybe momentum is that important. What would you do?


What did we learn in Week 22 of the NWSL season, where Sky Blue and Washington continue on historically poor seasons.

TUESDAY

Seattle 2:0 Houston

What Went Down: There was plenty of doubt this game was going to get played with the smoke from nearby forest fires wreaking havoc on the air quality in Seattle. But at the last minute, they decided to go ahead with hydration/oxygen breaks. The Dash are a dangerous team and it was interesting how the Reign’s defense took away a lot of their counterattacking ability and awareness. Seattle’s defense in general has had an amazing campaign.

In the end, Jodie Taylor scored twice as the Reign stepped it up in the second half. Megan Rapinoe was subbed out in the 70th minute, which appeared to be just for rest with another game on the horizon, but was actually for an injury suffered earlier in the contest. Houston came on strong at the end and probably deserved a goal, but scoring on Seattle has not been easy this season.

Player of the Game: Jodie Taylor – She did miss a chance right at the end of the first half, but responded with two excellent goals after the break, the second coming on a beautiful move and finish from outside the 18. She hasn’t had a great season, but she is capable at any time.

Under the Radar: Jess Fishlock – Her work rate was on full display as it always is, as she created a few chances on the offensive end, and seemed to be the person in the right place at the other to prevent them.

Inside the Numbers: 6 – Number of shots for Sofia Huerta, who has quietly picked up the pace in that category in the past couple of weeks

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

WEDNESDAY

Washington 0:1 Utah

What Went Down: The first game of the post-Jim Gabarra Era didn’t look any different than the ones before it. The Spirit were again lifeless, and while the Royals never added to Amy Rodriguez’s 12th minute goal, they finished out-shooting Washington 21-2, with the Spirit never recording a shot on goal. While it wasn’t an overwhelming performance, it did keep Utah’s faint playoff hopes alive.

Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle both came off after an hour, which was scheduled. I understand we want to be cautious coming back from long-term injuries, but it’s been a month now, and the optics of taking your two best players off down a goal when you haven’t won in forever just isn’t great. Pugh looks especially tentative, and the Spirit just want the season to end.

Player of the Game: Becky Sauerbrunn – You can say she didn’t have to do much, but part of that is that she is always in the right place to begin with so she doesn’t have to.

Under the Radar: Didi Haracic – In a rare start, Haracic came up with 10 saves. Goalkeeping jobs are tough to come by in the NWSL, but we’ll see if this earns her a roster spot somewhere for 2019.

Inside the Numbers: 2 – Number of fouls committed by Washington, which doesn’t exactly help quell the fact that their effort has not been good of late.

Up next: Washington – Played again; Utah – vs. Chicago (Sept. 8)

Portland 2:1 Sky Blue

What Went Down: The Thorns have had trouble with Sky Blue for whatever reason, and while they were in control throughout, this one wasn’t the most comfortable of victories, either, with Sky Blue showing a lot of fight at the end. But it was three points, and a playoff-clinching three points at that.

While slightly better than last year, Sky Blue has never truly figured out things at the defensive end enough to be competitive, and if they exist next season, that’s probably the first place to improve. Again.

Player of the Game: Tobin Heath – She would be a serious MVP candidate had she played just a little more time, and – while playing a different style than Sam Kerr – is similarly undefendable at the moment, especially on set pieces where the combination of her and Lindsey Horan will be the focal point of any playoff scouting report.

Under the Radar: Christine Sinclair – She just keeps moving along, putting together solid performances and helping her teams win games. You won’t get very far on the list of all-time great players before you get to her name.

Inside the Numbers: 6 – Number of fouls committed by Madison Tiernan, which isn’t that surprising. She did receive one of four yellow cards for Sky Blue.

Up next: Portland – Played again; Sky Blue – Played again

SATURDAY

Seattle 1:1 North Carolina

What Went Down: As it happened, I went to referee school last week to do youth games in the area, and – while I’m sure anyone knows the true definition of handling – factors referees are taught to look at are: intent, position of the arm, and distance from the ball. It is also emphasized to be sure when calling a penalty kick, because of the gravity of it. Therefore, I would not have called a penalty against Abby Dahlkemper in stoppage time. Could you make a case for one? Yes. But she clearly wasn’t looking. Her arm was slightly away from her body, but not completely extended, and she wasn’t that far from where it was played.

Lost in the ending is that this game wasn’t a whole lot different than other North Carolina games: the Courage out-shot Seattle 29-6 and put 13 shots on goal, with the 13th finally going in. Seattle’s defense is tough, however, and they will make things tough (hopefully with Rapinoe and Allie Long) if they meet in the finals. And Katelyn Rowland’s form is slightly worrying.

Player of the Game: Sam Mewis – This is as close as Mewis has come to peak form this season as she dominated the midfield with her trademark runs into the Reign final third. Alas, it didn’t create any goals, but still.

Under the Radar: Theresa Nielsen – She has had a remarkable season for Seattle, even if it has been understated because of the position she plays. And she was rewarded with a goal, even if it was an unorthodox one.

Inside the Numbers: 60.7% – Percentage of passes completed for Seattle. Welcome to playing against North Carolina.

Up next: Seattle – at Portland (Sept. 7); North Carolina – vs. Houston (Sept. 8)

Orlando 1:3 Chicago

What Went Down: The Pride had everything to play for; a win would likely see them in the playoffs, even with all the trouble they’ve had down the stretch. They had a nice crowd show up and then offered little resistance to Chicago, who dominated from the first minute en route to an easy victory and eliminated Orlando from playoff contention. The match-up was not great for the Pride, who are not blessed with great defensive speed to deal with Sam Kerr, but you wonder where they go from here? Marta will be 33 next season and their defense, comprised of several veterans, was a mess at times this season. Do they overhaul the roster? Change the coach? All of the above? Ironically, all that would likely be easier with expansion, which now does not appear to be on the horizon.

We’re still not sure what the Rory Dames-Sofia Huerta fallout was all about, but Dames once again has to get credit for having his team playing well at the end of the season. Being healthy and having Sam Kerr help, of course, but it would be surprising to see them roll over for North Carolina in a few weeks in the semifinals.

Player of the Game: Sam Kerr – She actually missed several chances in the first half that could have made things easier for her team, but in the end, she did what she pleased and, much like Lynn Williams, eventually the preponderance of chances led to goals.

Under the Radar: Casey Short – There was a point in the second half where Orlando applied some pressure, but for most of the match, Short got the best of Marta down her side, just as she gets the best of almost every opponent that comes her way.

Inside the Numbers: 1 – Number of weather delays in this match, luckily only 30 minutes or do. A comprehensive list of delays in the NWSL this season would be lengthy.

Up next: Orlando – at Sky Blue (Sept. 8); Chicago – vs. Sky Blue (Sept. 4)

Washington 0:1 Portland

What Went Down: This was an improvement for the Spirit, as much as losing for the 10th straight time and getting shut out for the seventh consecutive game can be called an improvement. Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle almost went the distance and for a couple of fleeting moments looked dangerous. But they were fleeting and Adrianna Franch was not severely tested in front of a defense that has shown a couple of leakages in the past couple of weeks.

We now know the Thorns and Reign will more than likely meet twice in the next three weeks and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. Portland obviously has world-class players, but Seattle has had the most organized defense in the league this season and will be ready with a game plan. But can it stop Tobin Heath, and can it prevent themselves from being in dangerous set piece situations for 90 minutes. We’ll have to wait and find out, I guess.

Player of the Game: Tobin Heath – I know she only had the one goal, but it was a brilliant one, and with apologies to Kerr, she’s the most dangerous player in the league on the ball as well as the scariest for opposing defenders.

Under the Radar: Margaret Purce – She was a late addition to the lineup when Meghan Klingenberg couldn’t start and Purce looked healthy and close to the form she had at the beginning of the season when she was getting up and down the right side for the Thorns. We’ll see if Mark Parsons tries to make use of that in the next month.

Inside the Numbers: 694 – Minutes Washington has now gone without scoring a goal. And remember the Spirit have scored just once since May 27 (off a corner kick). That’s kind of hard to do for a professional team, so that NWSL record may live for a while.

Bonus: 7,976 – Attendance for the first women’s game at Audi Field. We hope there’s more. Many more.

Up next: Washington – vs. Sky Blue (Sat.); Portland – vs. Seattle (Sept. 7)

Houston 6:1 Sky Blue

What Went Down: Carli Lloyd picked an interesting time this week to come out and say all her Sky Blue teammates should look in the mirror about their team’s cursed season, which now has three games left to avoid the ignominious winless mark over 24 games. Had she been playing for Orlando or Washington, Lloyd’s comments would have made sense, but Sky Blue’s effort has generally been good for much of the campaign, even if the talent and experience level is low and there have been some interesting tactical and team selection choices by Denise Reddy. And Sky Blue followed up Lloyd’s comments with its worst match of the season, reminscient of many a game last season where its defense was mercilessly shredded.

Are the Dash a playoff favorite next season? Possibly. With a year to prepare for Vera Pauw’s style of play, teams may be able to deal with it slightly better, but they are certainly not far away and have plenty of youth, led by Rachel Daly and Kealia Ohai. If Pauw can add a solid international player from somewhere and one or two others? A World Cup year can be a different animal, however.

Player of the Game: Sofia Huerta – Huerta, still in the midfield, was not called into U.S. national team camp again, but has put together a couple of performances this week that looked like her at the beginning of the season in Chicago. She controlled the middle and fed Daly, Ohai, and others, while producing herself as well.

Under the Radar: Linda Motlhalo – Motlhalo got her first NWSL goal, but quite frankly, if she’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s something wrong. There is no other rookie that has had an impact close to what Motlhalo has this season in Houston.

Inside the Numbers: 3 – Number of players in NWSL history that have scored goals at a younger age than Motlhalo: Ellie Carpenter, Sam Kerr, and Mallory Pugh. Pretty good company.

Up next: Houston – at North Carolina (Sept. 8); Sky Blue – at Washington (Sat.)

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