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Lauletta: Team-by-team grades at the FIFA break

Marta celebrates scoring a goal with her Orlando teammates. She has one pointer finger raised.
Photo Copyright Rob Gray for USA TODAY Sports

The National Women’s Soccer League is dark this weekend for a FIFA window. With all 14 teams having played either 10 or 11 games, that means the season is more than one-third complete but less than halfway. That makes it a good time to check in, team by team, and offer grades on the clubs to this point. I’ll list the teams in order of how they stand and not necessarily in order of the grades.

Orlando Pride (8-0-4, 28 pts), A

The Pride are for real. Early in the season it looked like they had turned a corner but the arrival of Barbra Banda has turned them into live contenders. They now have many different ways to beat you, partially because Banda individually has so many ways to beat you. She instantly made other players better, notably Ally Watt. But she has created space in the attack and uncertainty on opposing back lines.

The final areas of development for the Pride is in their own back line which has been good but occasionally leaky, and Anna Moorhouse is still prone to some mistakes in goal. And Banda and Marta still have some chemistry things to work out. We will also see how the Pride respond once their unbeaten run ends. But it’s a new day in Orlando.

Kansas City Current (7-0-4, 25 pts), A-

From the moment Vlatko Andonovski was named head coach, it felt like the Current were always meant to be near the top of the table. But think about all the factors potentially working against them clicking early, starting with the simple point that it often takes new coaches some time to fully implement systems and philosophies. They also lost Debinha to injury during the first game and later Bia, who just returned last weekend off the bench. They have also started an 18-year old, Claire Hutton, in midfield and a rookie, Ellie Wheeler, for the first six games of the season. Yet the attacking side has clicked beautifully and the Current have found ways to get results even when not playing optimal soccer.

Defensively, there remain issues in Kansas City. Set piece defending has been abysmal and nearly cost them several points. The goal conceded against the Dash, while probably a one-off, was a comedy of defensive blunders that cost them two points on a day they dominated the proceedings. That won’t serve them well when fall comes and things get tighter and cagier.

Washington Spirit (8-3-0, 24 pts), A+

Remember when the Spirit traded Sam Staab and everyone wondered why? Remember when the Spirit traded Ashley Sanchez and everyone wondered why? Enter Croix Bethune. Drafted with the pick they obtained from the Chicago Red Stars for Staab, Bethune has been more than a suitable midfield replacement for Sanchez. Two picks later the snatched Hal Hershfelt who promptly unseated last year’s rookie find Paige Metayer in midfield and will be part of her first United States national team camp this week. And the cherry on top has been Ouleymata Sarr has found her scoring touch after struggling to find her footing in a seven-match stint last season.

Now comes the hard part. All of the good work so far has been under the tutelage of interim head coach Adrian Gonzalez. The full-time coach, Jonatan Giraldez, should arrive shortly and will be looking to keep the train on the tracks while injecting some of his own ideas. The Spirit also lack depth in back and are still trying to get Ashley Hatch accustomed to a wider role up top.

Portland Thorns FC (6-4-1, 19 pts), B

Maybe the most difficult team to figure out so far and a grade that will likely not make me popular in the Rose City. After a dreadful start to the campaign, the Thorns changed coaches to Rob Gale and promptly ripped off a six-game winning streak. That streak crashed to a half last Friday in Orlando. Sophia Smith, who missed the Orlando match with a leg injury, has been nothing short of fantastic, making the offense role as she looks for a second straight Golden Boot.

But when Smith is not creating or scoring, the Thorns lack bite in the attack, especially with Morgan Weaver on the shelf. The defense has improved through the season but is probably not good enough to overcome a stagnant offense. I expect them to remain a mid-level playoff team but not to challenge the top three as long as those sides remain in form.

NJ/NY Gotham FC (5-2-3, 18 pts), B-

There is a feeling around the league that the time to get Gotham has passed and that they are an improving club ready to run roughshod over the league. Juan Carlos Amoros is a big believer in squad rotation which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the regular Gotham lineup will be. But after eight games plus the Challenge Cup without scoring multiple goals they have now done it two games in a row and getting four goals in three games from Ella Stevens is the sort of contribution that turns good teams into great ones. Ann-Katrin Berger has been the NWSL’s best keeper since her arrival in April.

On the downside there are good players lacking minutes and squad rotation is not always a winning formula in the locker room. But if Gotham continues to click with its glut of new players they figure to keep moving up the table.

Chicago Red Stars (5-5-1, 16 pts), B+

If I told you at the start of the season that the Red Stars would hit this break 5-5-1 and in the top half of the league, it would have been viewed as a major success. So even though they are tailing off a bit and it took them too long to get their teeth into a home match against Louisville over the weekend, the Red Stars project is in a good place. The defense they built is as stingy as it was expected to be led by center backs Sam Staab and Natalia Kuikka. Up top, Mallory Swanson has been overshadowed by players like Barbra Banda and Sophia Smith but has had her own moments of brilliance after missing most of 2023 with a knee injury. Jameese Joseph has shown great potential as a rookie when she has gotten on the field.

There is really nothing not to like about where the Red Stars are right now if you keep it in the context of where they were at the end of last season. Alyssa Naeher’s injury has shown a light on goalkeeper depth with Mackenzie Wood struggling but if the Red Stars can get to the end of the summer still contending for a playoff berth, it will be a good thing. There is a long way to go in the rebuild, but there is new ownership, a fresh start, and a match at Wrigley Field coming up that promises to expose more people than ever to the club.

North Carolina Courage (5-6-0, 15 pts), C

A few weeks into the season, I tabbed the Courage as the team doing the most to be true to its identity. Now they get one of the lowest grades on the list as they hit the break in a 1-4-0 swoon that culminated by getting thoroughly beat down by the Dash and leaves them without a point from 6 away matches. For the moment, the best things going for the Courage are Kaleigh Kurtz setting the league’s consecutive minutes streak and Ryan Williams continuing to improve and looking comfortable in the wingback role she has been deployed at the last two weeks. Ashley Sanchez has had her moments as well but has lacked consistency.

At first it looked like the road woes were an unfortunate coincidence but Friday night in Houston was the Courage’s worst match in quite some time. The absence of Denise O’Sullivan over the last two weeks has been immense. Sean Nahas went to a 3-5-2 against the Royals and it worked but the Dash rendered it mostly moot. Also of note that until that Utah game, Nahas had only used 16 different players (it’s up to 18 with brief cameos from Meredith Speck and Landy Mertz) which is not a recipe for surviving the long season and maybe not in the locker room either.

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Racing Louisville FC (2-2-6, 12 pts), C+

There have been a lot of positive vibes around this team under Bev Yanez in 2024. And it is very possible she as the club moving in the right direction for a change. But they have thrown away too many points and played too inconsistently for me to score them any higher than this. The rookie class here has been good thanks to Emma Sears and Elexa Bahr, and Uchenna Kanu looks much more comfortable than she did last season. Savannah DeMelo, when healthy, has been solid as usual and continues to be wonderous on direct free kicks.

Look at the dropped points though. Starting from Week 1 when they had Orlando on the ropes, up 2-0 and playing 11-v-10 but settled for a 2-2 draw. They dominated the Dash but that one ended 0-0. They took an unlikely lead in stoppage time at Gotham only to give it right back with a defensive communication breakdown. Until Louisville starts getting points under adverse conditions instead of giving them, they will remain at or below the playoff line (which it should be noted they are at, thanks to goal difference).

San Diego Wave FC (3-4-3, 12 pts), D

What exactly is going on in San Diego? Thursday night’s 0-0 draw at Angel City left the Shield holders with only 9 goals in 10 matches. Yes there have been injuries, and yes teams slip into slumps, but it has been going on long enough that there is legitimate cause for concern. The prize offseason acquisition was Savannah McCaskill and the Wave then added Maria Sanchez in the transfer window and neither has made any major impression. In fact, one of the best offensive matches of the season was May 8 against the Royals when McCaskill did not start and Jaedyn Shaw played in the central attacking midfield role.

Things should get better up top though as Alex Morgan rounds back into health and others return to the lineup. When healthy, the duo of Naomi Girma and Abby Dahlkemper remain the best center back pairing in NWSL. Last summer, the Wave were a hot mess during the World Cup break and Casey Stoney coaxed them out of it enough to win the Shield. That goal may already be too far gone in 2024 but a move up the table is not. But the Wave need to be much more crisp attacking and far less mistake-prone in back.

Houston Dash (3-5-3, 12 pts), C

I’m not going to get sucked in after their performance against the Courage. Yes, it was great, and yes you can only play one match at a time. But the Courage are not the best barometer right now and the Dash have been so poor at times this season that it is difficult to believe in them at this point. But Tarciane had a strong debut and maybe, just maybe, her and Natalie Jacobs is the start of a solid back line. Rookies Avery Paterson and Amanda West have also proven to be solid contributors.

New coach Fran Alonso has been under fire, but I will give him some credit for sticking with his system while he waits for the personnel to match the philosophy. However, it is also prone to bad mistakes in back so I expect a lot more growing pains before we see consistent performances like the one on Friday night.

Angel City FC (3-5-2, 11 pts), B-

This team is so hard to figure out. Slow start. Picked it up. And just when it seemed like things were on the up-and-up, a dreadful defensive showing in Washington followed by a sleepy offensive showing at home against their biggest rival, the Wave. Claire Emslie has been phenomenal; too good to have her team two games under .500 and several places below the playoff line.

Losing Sarah Gorden was a major blow to the back line even though they posted a clean sheet against the Wave without her. There was already too much disconnect between the lines and Gorden’s absence won’t help. The five weeks between next weekend and the Olympic break will tell us a lot about this squad.

Bay FC (3-8-0, 9 pts), D

Simply put, what Bay FC has run out this season has not worked. They loaded the ship with dynamic scorers and playmakers in the hopes of outscoring teams and it just has not worked. Worse still, the offense is going in the wrong direction. A team that seemed close to breaking through early in the season now looks to be farther and farther away. It is still the first season so of course they need time, and management seems ready to spent whatever it takes. But the early signs have not been great in terms of this team becoming a playoff contender.

Seattle Reign FC (2-8-1, 7 pts), F

Sometimes a team will “miss the setup” for a match, roll out the wrong tactics, and lose badly. It is starting to feel like that is a microcosm for this Reign season. The loss of Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, and Emily Sonnett has proven too much to overcome. The midfield often does not track back to defend in the box which creates mismatches and quality chances for opponents. Jess Fishlock remains a very good player but no longer controls game over game with her ability to seemingly be everywhere in the midfield.

On one hand, who would have believed it would be June and Laura Harvey still would not have the three wins she needed to reach 100. On the other, you can make the case both of their wins have been fortuitous. The season-opening shutout of the Spirit looks to be an anomaly for the Washington side. And the win over the Wave came playing with 10 for most of the games and required more than one gift along the way. Even though we’re not at the halfway line, it is starting to look like a lost season for the Reign.

Utah Royals FC (1-9-1, 4 pts), D-

Only the Royals being a first-year club keeps them from receiving an F. They are the worst offensive team in NWSL since the 2018 Spirit (my opinion, no numbers to back it up) and the one win they had was the type of match that if it were replayed 100 times, the Royals maybe win two of them with a few dozen draws. The same can be said for their last two losses—1-0 to North Carolina and Kansas City. Neither game was remotely close between the 18s but somehow the opponents struggled to finish.

Ally Sentnor has been a bright light but without much help, her ability to score and create has been largely neutralized.  Hannah Betfort has struggled mightily in the final third. Like Bay FC, the Royals deserve time but at the moment they are simply the worst team in the NWSL.

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