NWSL: Favourites Positioning Themselves at the Halfway Point… (Pt.1)

We’re back in the NWSL for an August review. At one point during the month the Portland Thorns had a seven point lead. Then they had to forego league duties for a week to contest the WICC at Providence Park. That gave North Carolina Courage a chance to make up ground and, by the end of Week 15 the gap would be reduced to four. Meanwhile OL Reign smashed out four wins in five and climbed from 8th to 3rd. Looking back on a month’s worth of football has been extending read times significantly. So we’re going to spare your attention-span a marathon 26 minutes and 385 yards by breaking this update into several parts. Here’s part one of three…

Week 11: Portland Open a Gap, while OL Reign Close One…

Trouver ses pieds? – French international forward Eugénie Le Sommer starting to enjoy life in the NWSL…

The Portland Thorns put clear daylight between themselves and the rest of the field for the first time this season, going five points clear at the top. It could have been an even bigger gap had Gotham not retrieved a very late point at Houston.

The weekend kicked off with Orlando Pride travelling to the WakeMed Soccer Park for their third and final meeting of the campaign against North Carolina Courage. The teams had already won one each so a draw was almost inevitable…

The first half was cagey. New Pride Head Coach Becky Burleigh set her side up first and foremost to be organised and hard to break down.

It took fully forty minutes to engineer the first clear sight on goal. Orlando forward Taylor Kornieck found herself in space inside the penalty box but keeper Casey Murphy was equal to the shot.

North Carolina responded with an effort of their own before the break. Denise O’Sullivan played a short corner to Carson Pickett and the full back ripped in a trademark cross that caused all sorts of problems. Orlando only half cleared and Kornieck turned defender, reacting quickly to turn Amy Rodriguez’s shot off the goal line.

Goals arrived in quick succession after the interval. The visitors went ahead in the 50th minute when full back Ali Krieger intercepted a loose pass in her own half and drove forward, bursting through two chasing defenders and slipping Sydney Leroux into space behind the Courage backline. Leroux took a touch and slotted coolly past Murphy.

Three minutes later it was all square. Merritt Mathias outmanoeuvred Courtney Petersen, found Rodriguez down the right, in turn crossing low to substitute Meredith Speck in the eighteen. Speck could have taken a shot but moved the ball on to Brittany Ratcliffe, who was the very definition of composed as she sidestepped a defender and fired past Ashlyn Harris.

Paul Riley’s team pushed on for a winner. Pickett’s 20-yarder would be pushed away by Harris at full stretch in the 68th minute and Havana Solaun rattled the Pride keeper’s left-hand post ten minutes before the end after good approach play involving Mathias and Speck.

Orlando sub Erika Tymrak provided another sight of goal for Leroux in stoppage time but Murphy saved. Marissa Viggiano got to the scraps but drove wide of the target. A late winner would have been a bit harsh on the Courage so 1-1 gave a nice symmetry to this season’s match-ups between the two sides.

Sam Laity’s spell as interim Head Coach continued to gather momentum as OL Reign picked up their third victory in four games. New franchise Racing Louisville were in the firing line for this one.

From the beginning of the campaign Reign had been starting matches quick, failing to capitalise with enough goals and then running out of steam over 90 minutes. Laity was finding ways to stop this happening. In addition, the week-by-week upturn in form of Lyon loan signings Eugénie Le Sommer [pictured] and Dzsenifer Marozsán was making the Coach’s job easier.

And Reign’s classy opening goal was made in Lyon. Marozsán played Le Sommer into space on the left and the French international had Erin Simon backtracking all the way to her penalty area before putting her on her backside with some rapid cuts and curling her shot inside Michelle Betos’s left-hand post.

The hosts doubled their lead two minutes before the break. Dani Weatherholt anticipated a loose pass in midfield and wasted no time playing through the lines to Jess Fishlock, already bombing forward. Fishlock hit a first time ball to Le Sommer in space and the striker weighed up her options with a couple of touches before clipping the ball past Betos.

Louisville improved in the second half and should have got back into the contest in the 51st minute. Nadia Nadim timed her run well enough to meet Emily Fox’s left wing cross, but couldn’t then guide her diving header on target.

Fox and Yuki Nagasato gave striker Ebony Salmon an even better sight of goal five minutes later, but the young English striker didn’t get hold of her shot properly and Sarah Bouhaddi was able to make a comfortable save.

Substitute Leah Pruitt should perhaps have put some shine on the final result for OL Reign in second half injury time but Betos tipped over her well struck half volley. A 2-0 win wouldn’t move them up from eighth spot in the table but now they found themselves just four points behind Gotham FC in second.

Providence Park welcomed its biggest crowd of the season as 16,246 spectators witnessed the Portland Thorns extending their lead at the NWSL summit, beating Huw Williams’ plucky but winless Kansas City.

Portland’s Sophia Smith – Already a defender’s nightmare, plus she gets to learn alongside Christine Sinclair in training…

Kansas striker Kristen Hamilton would top and tail the chances at each end of the match, drawing a sensational save out of Bella Bixby in just the sixth minute and then just missing the target in the dying embers of second half stoppage time.

In between the Thorns made the lion’s share of good scoring opportunities. Striker Sophia Smith was a problem all afternoon for the visitors and worked her own 9th minute opening that she smashed into the side netting.

Moments later she was involved in Portland’s opening goal, scuttling into the penalty box and finding Meghan Klingenberg offering an overlap down the left. Smith continued her run to meet the full back’s cross but defender Kristen Edmonds got there first and turned the ball into her own net.

Celeste Boureille played Smith into the penalty box on 20 minutes; she beat her marker but fired wide of the right-hand post. But the 20-year old would turn provider, more successfully, in the 42nd minute when Kansas switched off from a short corner routine with Klingenberg. Smith raced into the box and drove goal bound only for Marissa Everett’s knee to divert the ball past Katelyn Rowland.

The visitors did generate some half chances and tried their luck from distance in the hope of getting on the score board. Arguably the best of these efforts came from the recently signed Hailie Mace. Her 20-yard effort in the first half may have been heading past the post but Bixby wasn’t taking any chances springing to her right to make the stop.

Smith continued to create her own special form of havoc in the second period, spinning her marker on the right just after the hour and fizzing in a cross / shot that Simone Charley volleyed over the cross bar. The Kansas back line may have been relieved to see Smith substituted. Well maybe not, the change came in 93rd minute. By then the damage was done and Portland took a 2-0 win to move five points clear at the top.

The Chicago Red Stars moved into third spot in the standings, securing their fourth win in five matches. The result also meant that Rory Dames’ side went unbeaten against the Washington Spirit in their three scheduled regular season fixtures.

The hosts took the lead in the 20th minute with some Spirit help. Tori Huster was uncharacteristically wasteful in possession and Mallory Pugh picked up the ball, eluded four chasing defenders and fired in a low shot from the edge of the penalty box that seemed to take an age to roll in off the inside of the post.

The Red Stars were two-up before half time. Tatumn Milazzo met Danielle Colaprico’s corner from the right, and headed the ball goalward. Kayla Sharples tried to help it on in the six-yard box and miscued, but this seemed to bamboozle the Spirit just enough for Rachel Hill to bundle in on the goal line – a candidate for the league’s scruffiest looking goal of the season to date.

Any hopes in the SeatGeek stands that Chicago was about to do things the easy way were ‘washed’ away in the 71st minute when the home side offered their opponents a gift of an opportunity. Sharples and Sarah Gorden got some simple passing across the back horribly wrong and Trinity Rodman was on to Gorden’s poor control in a flash, rounding Cassie Miller before finally picking her spot between the two scrambling centre halves to give the visitors hope.

Washington should perhaps have restored parity two minutes later when Ashley Sanchez’s cross located Anna Heilferty in space but the full back couldn’t put enough power on her shot to beat Miller.

As it turned out a refereeing decision would take the game away from the Spirit. Sam Staab blocked a shot from the edge of the eighteen yard box but was deemed to have used her arm even though both arms were clearly tucked behind her back. Washington’s protests fell on deaf ears and Morgan Gautrat was unfazed by the delay, stepping forward and sending Aubrey Bledsoe the wrong way from the spot.

The final score of 3-1 allowed Chicago to leapfrog Washington. It will be little consolation to Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke, but his young team are routinely involved in some of the league’s most entertaining matches.

NJ/NY Gotham FC held on to second spot by the skin of their teeth, salvaging a late draw versus Houston Dash at the BBVA Stadium.

There was a strange period either side of half time where the two teams traded very similar opportunities. Minute 42 and Gotham right back Caprice Dydasco found Ifeoma Onumonu with a clever ball over the top. The striker shook off Megan Oyster but couldn’t beat Lindsey Harris who stuck out a timely foot. Less than sixty seconds later Houston’s Shea Groom played a ball over the top that put fellow midfielder Maegan Rosa in space but she shot narrowly over the bar.

In the 50th minute Nahomi Kawasumi’s distance effort was palmed down by Harris who eventually got her feet right to scramble across the goal. One minute later, at the other end DiDi Haracic made an altogether more graceful effort to push away Veronica Latsko’s fizzing 20-yarder.

From the subsequent corner, however, Houston got their noses in front. Emily Ogle provided a good delivery from the left, Katie Naughton looked to connect at the near post and the ball skimmed onwards to Gabby Seiler who hit it first time on the half-volley into the keeper’s top right hand corner.

The visitors immediately raised their game with Kawasumi and Onumonu in particular taking the fight to Houston. The two combined in the 73rd minute but Harris saved at Onumonu’s feet. The striker then spun her marker to engineer half a yard in the penalty area. Jamia Fields made a fantastic last ditch effort to charge down the shot. Kawasumi provided a perfect, driven corner from the right with 12 minutes left that Allie Long headed off the top of the cross bar.

But as the game entered the last two minutes Gotham got the reward that their endeavour merited. Dydasco released substitute Delanie Sheehan in a pocket of midfield space, in turn Sheehan threaded Onumonu in behind the Houston backline and the irrepressible number 25 drove the ball across Harris into the far corner.

Both teams generated some penalty box chaos in the closing moments that had their opponents scrambling but neither couldn’t engineer that one clear opportunity to take the three points. A 1-1 draw meant Gotham remained in second spot, while Houston held on to the final playoff spot in sixth.

The USWNT: All smiles here, but the Bronze was not what they came for…

For a very experienced US Women’s National Team the Olympics wasn’t going to pan out quite the way they wanted.

Defeat to Sweden and a goalless draw with Australia in the Group stages had suggested they were not going to be quite the dominant force expected. The Netherlands took them to penalties in the quarter final stages but they won the shoot out.

Canada awaited in the semi-finals, a team that they had beaten repeatedly over a 20-year period, including a 4-3 thriller at London 2012. But the Canadians’ strong defence was able to hold the Americans at bay despite sustaining a huge amount of pressure and they took the one big chance that came their way when Jessie Fleming converted from the penalty spot in the 75th minute. That 1-0 defeat took the USWNT into the Bronze Medal playoff with Australia.

Australia had already been through a seven goal thriller with Team GB in the quarter finals. A gun fight would be more likely to suit them. This match would be equally high scoring.

Megan Rapinoe set the tone in the 8th minute scoring direct from a corner. Sam Kerr equalised nine minutes later when the US squandered possession near their penalty area. Just four minutes had passed when Rapinoe put America back in front with a superb volley, and Carli Lloyd provided breathing space when she slammed in a lovely half volley off a Lindsey Horan through ball.

When Lloyd nutmegged the keeper for her second in the 51st minute the match looked done and dusted. But the Matildas rallied with Caitlin Foord heading in Kyah Simon’s cross three minutes later and they went close to equalising just sixty seconds later when Kerr’s header came back off the inside of the post. Emily Gielnik did hammer in a low 25-yarder to make it 4-3 but by this time 90 minutes had expired and the US held on to take the bronze.

This was not the expected return for the USWNT squad, though. The challenge facing Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski would be to decide which of the ‘old guard’ needed to be stood down from international duty (assuming they don’t retire) and which young / fringe players should be blended in ahead of the 2023 World Cup.

Week 12: Plenty of Contenders in the Playoff Mix

Meredith Speck celebrates her first goal for North Carolina with ‘J-Mac’ (14) and ‘A-Rod’ (12)

Portland would extend their lead at the top of the league standings during week 12. But despite this the rest of the table continued to look very tight with just four points separating North Carolina, in second, from eighth placed Houston.

After an unbeaten run stretching all the way back to week 3, NJ/NY Gotham FC were finally undone by the North Carolina Courage with the the teams squaring up for the first time since Gotham’s 4-3 victory in the pre-season Challenge Cup.

Gotham had just two attempts on target in this match but the first arrived inside a minute. Nahomi Kawasumi set her sights from 25-yards and keeper Casey Murphy had to push the ball over the cross bar.

The Courage got themselves in front with nearly 38 minutes on the clock, the goal coming from a now familiar source. Quite why Gotham gave left back Carson Pickett the freedom of the Red Bull Arena to jog down the flank untracked and hit a pinpoint cross on to Jess McDonald’s head is anyone’s guess.

Keeper DiDi Haricic (getting more impressive by the week) did well to parry McDonald’s attempt but the ball broke to Meredith Speck and she slammed the ball in from close range to record her first goal with the Courage. Head Coach Paul Riley would have felt vindicated giving Speck just her second start of the regular season following an impressive performance off the bench against Orlando a week earlier.

The home side responded immediately to going behind. Kawasumi was in acres of space at the back of the six-yard box to receive a cross from the right. She controlled her half volley well making a god connection and keeping it low but Murphy’s reflexes were outstanding and she was able to hold on to the ball. A minute later Caprice Dydasco fired over the cross bar.

Amy Rodriguez and Cari Roccaro had chances to make the game safe for North Carolina but were unable to finish.

So, the stage was set for another late Gotham equaliser and they nearly got it. Dydasco floated a terrific right wing cross to the back post, it was nodded back into the six-yard box but substitute Brianna Pinto couldn’t keep her header down. North Carolina held on to record a 1-0 win, jumping up to second and pushing Gotham down to third.

“That was a good, professional performance away from home. I thought we defended well, and [keeper] Casey Murphy was excellent again. I think that having a bit more possession tonight was important in pushing the ball higher up the pitch. We didn’t do a great job keeping them off the ball, but defensively we were solid and that made the difference in the end.”

Paul Riley, Head Coach, North Carolina Courage, via By NCCourage.com 08/07/2021

It would be the same score line at Segra Field as Washington Spirit lost back-to-back fixtures for the first time this season. The Portland Thorns defence held firm once again enabling Mark Parson’s side to forge a seven point lead over the rest.

Portland’s 15-year old prodigy Olivia Moultrie nearly got her first senior goal in the 6th minute when she rattled the post with a shot from the edge of the penalty area after good hustle from Raquel ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez.

But Washington will feel they should have taken the lead in the 11th minute when Ashley Sanchez burst through the visiting defence and played Trinity Rodman into the penalty area. Rodman composed herself, beat Bixby with a firm, low shot but was astonished to see Christen Westphal make a lunging block on the goal line.

Portland full back Christen Westphal puts in her bid for ‘save of the season’…

Moutrie wasn’t to get her first goal on this occasion, but she would get her first assist in the 29th minute. Emily Menges picked out the young midfielder on the right wing and she took a touch before whipping in a delicious cross between back line and goalkeeper that demanded to be converted. Simone Charley didn’t disappoint with a bullet header that gave Aubrey Bledsoe no chance.

Thorns striker Sophia Smith generated a couple of scoring opportunities for herself either side of the break but couldn’t put them away. She fired past the post after charging down Paige Nielsen’s clearance; later she couldn’t make sufficient contact with Charley’s cross to squeeze the ball past Bledsoe after Portland had worked the ball quickly down the left.

From an attacking perspective the Spirit were slightly muted by their standards, but were unlucky not to equalise. Nielsen’s 20-yard strike whisked just over the bar in the 70th minute. Moments later they went even closer when Portland only half cleared a long throw from the left and Saori Takarada hammered the loose ball against the underside of the cross bar.

With Olympian players on their way back Thorns Head Coach Mark Parsons had some big team selection challenges before him. This 1-0 score line took his side to four straight wins. Canadian Gold Medallist Christine Sinclair would be returning alongside USA bronze bearers Adriana Franch, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. For the Spirit two defeats on the spin would drop them down to seventh – but half a dozen NWSL teams were within three points of one another.

A few days later it was reported that Spirit Head Coach Richie Burke would be stepping down for health concerns. Burke’s assistants Kris Ward and Paul Crichton would take over the team until an interim was appointed. But less than 24 hours after this news broke a whole different narrative emerged on what was happening behind the scenes at Segra Field with allegations of player abuse and racial insensitivity.

Hindsight is a blunt tool with which to revise a campaign start, but the way OL Reign had been starting matches had suggested they could give someone a real thumping. It was entirely less predictable, though, that Houston Dash would be the team on the end of it.

It’s all coming together: OL Reign’s Dzsenifer Marozsán, Sofia Huerta (11) and Bethany Balcer (24) enjoy smashing the Dash…

All the goals were scored in the first half. Dani Weatherholt flashed an early effort just past Lindsey Harris’s left-hand post but it wasn’t long before the torrent started. From a corner Dzsenifer Marozsán opted to play a ground ball out to Jess Fishlock on the edge of the box. The midfielder got more under her cross than she intended and the ball looped up, up and away, giving Bethany Balcer plenty of time to position herself ahead of the keeper to flick it into the net when it came down.

Sofia Huerta started and finished the move that double Reign’s lead in the 19th minute, intercepting a pass deep in her own half of the field and pinging a fabulous diagonal ball out to Le Sommer galloping down the left wing. The French international cut inside Haley Hanson and played the ball back to Huerta arriving on the edge of the box. She swung inside Jamie Fields, wrong footed Katie Naughton with a stepover and smashed the ball past Harris.

Seven minutes later it was nearly three when Balcer thumped a shot from the edge of the penalty box against the cross bar.

Despite the one-sided nature of the opening quarter of the match, Houston made chances and eventually took one. Gabby Seiler was denied by Sarah Bouhaddi at her near post after a quick counter attack down the left. And the Dash got their goal on the half hour when Shea Groom cut inside her marker and got a shot away that hit Alana and looped over the Reign stopper – Cook’s second own goal of the season.

Having lost in Houston in week seven OL Reign were determined not to let this one slip away from them, however. Just five minutes later Eugénie Le Sommer restored their two-goal cushion ensuring that she was first to the rebound after Harris had stopped her close range header.

Three minutes before the break and Reign made it 4-1 with the best strike of the lot, and a goal of the season contender. Balcer found Le Sommer who’d now stationed herself wide on the right of midfield. She in turn played the ball infield to Fishlock who had a massive amount of space to work with. The Welsh woman’s first touch was about as clumsy as they come, but there was nothing clumsy about the 30-yard missile she conjured next which flew into the keeper’s top right-hand corner.

As the first half ticked towards stoppage time OL Reign weren’t letting up. Fishlock tried her luck from the edge of the penalty area but the ball skimmed past the upright. Balcer would have the last word on the scoring as Fishlock now turned provider, teeing up the 2019 ‘Rookie of the Year’ and watching her crash a lovely drive across the keeper into the far corner. The final score of 5-1 has only been bettered by Portland and North Carolina all season.

Next up: the NWSL’s bottom two met at the Lynn Family Stadium with Racing Louisville coming out on top – in the process generating a ten point gap back to Kansas City.

Little of note occured in either penalty area in the opening 25 minutes although a couple of very timely interventions from Kansas defender Kiki Pickett prevented the hosts from getting a clearer sight of goal.

Kansas forward Hailie Mace tried her luck from 25-yards but her daisy cutter ball skipped wide.

Louisville midfielder Savannah McCaskill was looking the class act on the field and when a goal finally arrived two minutes before the break it was little surprise that she was involved – no less than three times! – picking the ball up in her own half, finding left back Emily Fox, providing an overlap for the return, a give-and-go with CeCe Kizer to get her to the byline and crossing for Ebony Salmon to punch in from 7-yards.

The home side would have been delighted to get in one-up at the break but when five minutes of stoppage time turned into nine minutes of injury time Kansas were presented with a chance to get back on terms.

Centre back Rachel Corsie had the chance to clip a free kick into the penalty box from deep but went short to Pickett who had a better angle. No one made contact with the flight of the cross and the ball landed at Mallory Weber’s feet. She did well to dig out a half-volley but keeper Michelle Betos parried only for Darian Jenkins to stick away the rebound.

The hosts retook the lead in the 55th minute and McCaskill was central again, receiving the ball from Fox on the right, taking Weber to the by-line and clipping in a cross to the edge of the six-yard-box that was meat and drink to Nadia Nadim – the experienced Danish international heading across the keeper for her first goal in Racing Louisville colours.

It’s hard to believe that ladies clad in black and violet fleur-de-lis could smell blood. But that was the situation. Kizer latched on to a loose ball outside the ‘D’ and was unlucky to see her shot canon back of the cross bar.

In 31 degrees Celsius a flagging Kansas needed to rally. They came out more positive after the second half hydration break and put together some good moments, the best of which concluded with Kristen Hamilton mistiming her header in front of goal.

But, as has often been the way this season, the visitors imploded with a few minutes remaining. Kristen Edmonds let Pickett’s simple throw-in get away her in front of the penalty area in the 86th minute and substitute Cheyna Matthews nicked in, rounded the keeper and walked the ball into the net. A goal out of nothing gifted Racing Louisville a 3-1 victory and left Kansas completely stranded at the bottom with no wins and just four points.

Interim Head Coach Becky Burleigh enjoyed her first win since taking on the Orlando Pride. Victory over an in form Chicago Red Stars at the SeatGeek Stadium made it four points from two fixtures for the former Florida Gators supremo.

Olympians Marta (Brazil) and Ali Riley (New Zealand) returned to the fray for the Pride bolstering both their attack and defence.

But it was Chicago that nearly took the lead inside three minutes, when Kealia Watt danced past two defenders in the six yard box and was able to beat Ashlyn Harris but not the defender stationed on the goal line.

Orlando signed striker Jodie Taylor in July. In the 8th minute she nearly volleyed the Pride in front from Courtney Petersen’s left wing cross. But the English international didn’t have to wait much longer for her first goal in Pride colours, reading Ali Krieger’s long ball out from the back on 17 minutes better than three defenders, cutting on to her right foot and clipping the ball past Cassie Miller.

Rory Dames’ side looked to respond. Mallory Pugh brought an excellent save out of Ashlyn Harris from 18-yards that had the Pride keeper at full stretch.

Just after the break, Harris got across her goal nimbly to save Morgan Gautrat’s back post header off a Pugh corner.

Not to be outdone, Red Stars keeper Miller did well to deal with Sydney Leroux’s effort from the edge of the six-yard box in the 80th minute. But Leroux would eventually win that duel with a minute left when Erika Tymrak’s fine run and through ball put the forward in on goal and she confidently slid the ball under the keeper’s dive. It was Leroux’s seventh goal of the season putting her top of the scoring list.

Pugh did have one final chance in stoppage time to get Chicago on the board but blasted her shot over the cross bar. The Pride hadn’t won any of their previous six matches so this 2-0 victory was a welcome tonic. It also allowed them to jump back over Chicago and into fourth in the standings.

“We knew we had our hands full. Chicago has been playing really, really well. They’ve been on quite a tear lately and they brought it to us, especially early we were under the gun. But I think we weathered that initial pressure from them and got a little more into our game plan. We’re fortunate to score two really nice goals and have a really great defensive team effort.”

Becky Burleigh, Head Coach, Orlando Pride, via orlandocitysc.com 09/08/2021
Approaching the halfway point in a very competitive NWSL: six play-off berths, eight realistic contenders…

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