NWSL: Favourites Positioning Themselves at the Halfway Point… (Pt.2)

We’re back in the NWSL for Part 2 of the August review. At one point during the month, Portland 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 a chance to make up ground and, by the end of Week 15 the gap would be reduced to four. Meanwhile, a BIG name was going to announce their impending retirement and a certain winless franchise was about to get a certain ‘monkey’ off their back…

Week 13 – Kansas City Win!

There was very little movement in the NWSL standings following Week 13. So, the BIG story, the ONLY story in town, to be fair, was Kansas City getting their first victory on the board since their move from Utah.

Kansas City celebrate their first win of the season. Goal scorer Victoria Pickett (top left); Lo’eau LaBonta (right).

It was a big night at Legends Field as Kansas City secured their first three-point haul of the season at the fourteenth attempt. It would be a disappointing start for new OL Reign Head Coach Laura Harvey, however, especially with her side coming into the match as heavy favourites.

Huw Williams’ side started the match with intent. Lo’eau LaBonta (pictured) got in behind the Reign defence in the first minute but drove just wide of the left hand post.

Jess Fishlock had the visitors’ first chance just three minutes later, wide open in the penalty area but shooting off target. Sofia Huerta fired wide in the 16th minute and then Bethany Balcer headed over the cross bar after good approach play from Dzsenifer Marozsán and Celia Jiménez down the right.

Kansas kept toiling away. LaBonta hit another effort straight at keeper Sarah Bouhaddi in the 26th minute before striker Kristen Hamilton received Elizabeth Ball’s pass with her back to goal, spun away from her marker but clipped her shot off the foot of the upright. Addie McCain nearly generated Hailie Mace a 1v1 opportunity but Bouhaddi was off her goal line quickly to save at the forward’s feet.

The breakthrough came midway through the second half from a free kick situated centrally, 25-yards from the Reign goal. McCain and Hamilton were stood over the ball with LaBonta shaping to hit it. Instead McCain backheeled to Mace who struck it well enough but saw it pinball off the defensive wall. Victoria Pickett (pictured) was in just the right place, got her first touch spot on and drove the ball inside Bouhaddi’s near post with the help of a nick off Alana Cook’s toe.

With less than ten minutes remaining Kiki Pickett’s good run down the right ended with her shot bouncing off the side netting.

Reign could only generate three attempts on target all night – a mission not helped by a head injury to in-form striker Eugénie Le Sommer in the first period. But Kansas, well marshalled by returning keeper Abby Smith, stayed disciplined and their 1-0 win was well deserved.

“This is for all of us who worked so hard to get this. Whether it be the stadium operators, ownership, obviously every single coach; every single client. And how about the Kansas City community that boosted us in the last few minutes today when we needed help? I’m very proud of every single person in our organization.”

Huw Williams, Head Coach, Kansas City, via KCwoso.com, 14/8/2021

The ritually entertaining Washington Spirit got out to a two-goal lead at BBVA Stadium. But Houston Dash had reeled them back in by full time with homegrown debutant Michaela Abam scoring a cracking equaliser…

Focused. Houston striker Michaela Abam looks like she only has one thing on her mind: get that equaliser. And she did.

The Spirit had been rocked by behind-the-scenes drama all week but it didn’t seem to take any fizz out of their soda as they started to make chances from the off.

Tara McKeown got the better of a duel with Jamia Fields in the 7th minute setting up Ashley Hatch whose shot was blocked.

A minute later Washington forged ahead. Dorian Bailey’s corner from the right was headed clear to the edge of the penalty area. Paige Nielsen sized up her options as the ball spun towards her, and chose to thump the ball into the net on the volley.

Bit between their teeth, the Spirit pushed on to find a second. Ashley Sanchez swept the ball out to Saori Takarada on the right wing. She clipped in a great cross to the edge of the six which McKeown headed against the cross bar. Sanchez couldn’t bundle in on the follow up.

Then Sanchez tried her luck from distance with the ball land on the top of the goal netting.

The visitors eventually got their second in the second half. McKeown secured the ball in midfield in the 53rd minute and set Tori Huster on her way into oceans of space. The defence backed off the veteran to the point where it could be described as an escort to the edge of the Houston penalty area, and while she had options either side, Huster went for the shot, drilling low inside Amanda Dennis’s left-hand post.

That second goal seemed to wake the Dash up and they got on the board just eight minutes later. Rachel Daly’s driven corner from the right seemed to surprise substitute Makamae Gomera-Stevens and the ball cannoned off her chest to team mate Veronica Latsko who lashed it home from about a yard out.

Gomera-Stevens had a more orthodox involvement in the home side’s 83rd minute equaliser with a neat bit of skill allowing her to free the ball from a centre circle melee and find Daly. The England international hooked the ball up and over the Spirit backline first time, Latsko headed it on and substitute Abam showed good strength to shrug off two defenders and stroke in a fine finish. She’d been on the field just 12 minutes.

A 2-2 draw was slightly more beneficial to Washington Spirit who jumped above OL Reign into sixth – the only positional change in the standings. James Clarkson’s Houston remained in eighth, still very much in contention for a playoff berth… along with nearly everybody else!

Orlando Pride continued their recent improvement under new Head coach Becky Burleigh, holding league leaders Portland Thorns to a tie at the Exploria.

Jodie Taylor scored for the second successive match to put the Pride in front on 13 minutes. teh move started deep in Orlando’s half with Gunny Jónsdóttir pinging a wonderful 40-yard diagonal out to Courtney Petersen haring down the left flank. Defender Natalia Kuikka gave Petersen too much time and space to pick out her team mate at the front post and Taylor’s bullet header gave Bella Bixby no chance.

As expected from the table toppers, Portland reacted well and largely dominated the rest of the first half. Simone Charley went close from outside the penalty box. Marissa Everett hit the cross bar and then Charley’s header from point blank range was brilliantly saved by keeper Ashlyn Harris, a superb reaction stop demonstrating her agility and sharp reflexes.

Orlando looked to counter. In the 39th minute Petersen had a 20-yard strike that dipped just of her own.

Thorns striker Sophia Smith had sights either side of half time but was denied in both instances by Harris.

Taylor could have wrapped up the victory for Orlando in the 70th minute guiding Meggie Dougherty-Howard’s chipped cross from the left goalward, but finding Bixby perfectly positioned to tip over.

And Portland didn’t look that gift horse in the mouth. Eight minutes later Meghan Klingenberg whipped in a free kick from the right wing and Charley rose highest to nod the ball into the keeper’s top right-hand corner.

On balance a 1-1 draw wasn’t a bad result for either side. Portland’s lead at the top was reduced to five points ahead of their Olympians returning. Orlando extended their unbeaten stretch to three and were able to retain a top four berth at a time where their squad too was impacted by the Tokyo Games.

NJ/NY Gotham FC left it late once again to grab an equaliser. Ifeoma Onumonu broke Racing Louisville hearts with just seven minutes of normal time remaining, cementing her ongoing importance to Head Coach Freya Coombe, particularly with international superstar Carli Lloyd announcing an end-of-season retirement.

Louisville set the early pace. Ebony Salmon’s half volley from the edge of the 18-yard box crashed off the cross bar in the 7th minute.

Six minutes later they were ahead. CeCe Kizer’s excellent run got the home defence all bent out of shape and she found Salmon in space on the right of the penalty area. Salmon was closed down quickly but drove the ball back across goal for Nadia Nadim to convert at the back post.

Salmon rode a challenge to get in behind the Gotham backline again in the 26th minute but was denied by now-returned Canadian Olympic Gold Medallist Kailen Sheridan.

The hosts were struggling to create but it was no surprise that Onumonu was the player to take the fight to Louisville. She shook off the attentions of Emily Fox in the 37th minute and fizzed in a cross from the right that Elizabeth Eddy should have done a lot better with.

Gotham continued to improve as the match unfolded but they didn’t find their equaliser until the 83rd minute. When it came it was a spectacular effort. Substitutes Jennifer Kudjoe and Nahomi Kawasumi worked the ball into Onumonu from the left, and the striker spun her marker and rifled into the far corner.

A 1-1 draw would see Gotham slip three points behind North Carolina, but with a game in hand. Christie Holly’s Racing Louisville, meanwhile were making a decent fist of their first campaign despite the table placing them ninth at their halfway point.

“I think we had a little bit of a slow start, just playing a different formation today. It took us a while to just get into the groove. I thought our ball pace and movement was a bit slow through trying to figure things out, but certainly after the goal we improved and started to play at the level and intensity that we desire. [On Carli Lloyd] Carli has an unmatched mentality and determination to succeed that has made her one of the world’s elite players. Since my time at Gotham FC, she has been incredible to work with. She works tirelessly in training, scores absolute belters, and will always show up on the biggest occasions with goals… I want to wish her continued success and feel very proud to have worked with one of the best.”

Freya Coombe, Head Coach, NJ/NY Gotham FC, via GothamFC.com 15/8 and 16/8/2021

The weekend concluded with Amy Rodriguez scoring her first goal in North Carolina Courage colours, enabling them to squeeze past the stubborn Chicago Red Stars and consolidate second spot in the table.

Amy Rodriguez (centre) is mobbed by her team mates after scoring what ended up being the winning penalty.

Few chances were traded in the opening half-hour. Courage left back Carson Pickett’s distance drive was comfortably dealt with by Emily Boyd. At the other end Kealia Watt’s effort was turned around the post by Casey Murphy.

Paul Riley’s side took control in the fifteen minutes before the interval. Debinha and Denise O’Sullivan worked the ball left to right and got Jess McDonald to by-line. She crossed to the back stick, Pickett got a firm head to it but it was cleared off the goal line by Tatumn Milazzo.

The only goal of the game came from a penalty kick. Debinha’s cross from the left looped up off a defender and Kayla Sharples misread the bounce, controlling the ball off her upper arm and giving the referee no choice but to point to the spot. Rodriguez stepped forward confidently and drove straight down the middle.

McDonald could have made it two just after the break but Boyd was well positioned.

The visitors almost salvaged a point with some late chances. Havana Solaun had her pocket picked and the Red Stars worked the ball quickly to Mallory Pugh, but she fired into Murphy’s midriff. Watt got in behind the Courage backline with five minutes remaining drawing a far better save from the 25-year old custodian.

Chicago continued to apply pressure until the but North Carolina held out for a 1-0 victory to create a three point gap back to Gotham FC in third. The Red Stars remain top half for now, but three teams below them have a game in hand…

Week 13.1 NWSL Meets The Women’s Cup

The league’s best attendance so far in a match outside of Portland (7,310) saw Racing Louisville draw with the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL, before watching the home side come out victorious in a penalty shootout to contest the final of the Women’s Cup invitational.

It’s one of those oddities of soccer in the USA that the league administrators decided to stitch the two matches together into one – if either side had won in the 90, they would have progressed. A tie meant penalties were required.

Anyhoo… to the match. Louisville’s Erin Simon went close with a long ranger in the 4th minute. But the hosts didn’t have to wait long to forge ahead. Six minutes later Danielle Colaprico showed entirely too much of the ball to Ebony Salmon on the edge of the penalty area and the English striker robbed her, hared in on goal and nutmegged Cassie Miller. It was a horrible goal to concede.

From that point on, though, Chicago pretty much made all of the good chances. Arin Wright’s shot on 23 minutes clipped defender Gemma Bonner before whisking just wide.

They drew level in the 57th minute. After working the ball down the right substitute Rachel Hill crossed from the by-line, defender Simon stuck out a foot to block but only succeeded in diverting the ball to Kealia Watt who made no mistake.

Mallory Pugh took on three defenders in the 64th minute but couldn’t beat Michelle Betos from a tight angle. The loose ball was recycled between Watt and Morgan Gautrat, with the former eventually taking a shot that was more comfortable for the Louisville stopper.

Gautrat had a moment of her own as the match ticked into its final 15 minutes, arriving in the 6-yard box to meet another Hill delivery but directing her diving header straight at the keeper.

The Red Stars’ best chances to take the win came in the closing stages. Watt got in behind the Racing backline but Betos got the better of the 1v1. Pugh had a glorious opportunity in stoppage time but scuffed her attempt past the keeper’s left-hand post.

A 1-1 draw would mean no change to the league standings.

The Women’s Cup Invitational – it makes sense to someone…

Katie McClure would ensure that Racing Louisville won the penalty shoot out that followed to decide which team would go on to face FC Bayern Frauen in the Women’s Cup Final.

Bayern had beaten Paris St. Germain earlier in the day. The teams drew 2-2 over 90 minutes with Marie-Antoinette Katoto putting PSG in front. Linda Dallmann and Lea Schüller turned the tie on its head and Kheira Hamraoui levelled the scores, taking the game to spot kicks. The French side missed one and Swedish international Hanna Glas ensured the Germans progressed 5-4.

Just to confuse matters (well for this correspondent anyway), elsewhere another two NWSL teams were contesting a semi-final in the Women’s International Champions Cup. Houston Dash were the visitors to Providence Park to take on the Portland Thorns.

No NWSL points were on offer in this one… which makes more sense, but does raise a question about the inconsistency in approach.

It mattered little to the Dash who got out to a good start with Shea Groom scoring both goals to give them a 2-0 lead at the half. Natalia Kuikka got one back and then 15-year old wunderkind Olivia ‘Liv’ Poultrie equalised with a free-kick from outside the box – her first senior goal. Portland keeper Shelby Hogan saved three penalties in the shoot out, Simone Charley converted the winner.

Go Liv! The young midfielder scores her first senior goal, while the Dash ‘wall’ appears to be having a senior moment…

Portland would go on to face seven-time European Champions Olympique Lyonnaise who beat current European Champions FC Barcelona. No penalties were required here. Mariona Caldentey ran in behind to put the Catalan side ahead but Amel Majri and Amandine Henry headers put Lyon in charge before Caldentey converted a second from close range. Melvine Malard made it 3-2 to the French team before the end, ensuring progression to the final with Portland.

Week 14 – The Courage Make Up Ground

The US and Canadian Olympians were all back and available for selection (injuries permitting), but it wasn’t to be a full league programme. With the finals of the Women’s Cup and the WICC scheduled in, there was an opportunity for some teams to get a bit closer to Portland in the standings – North Carolina grabbed that opportunity with both hands.

Back in Blue: Carson Pickett hugs returning striker Lynn Williams after she puts North Carolina ahead.

After finally winning their first match of the season Kansas City FC came hurtling back to Earth, suffering a four-goal mauling courtesy of ten-player North Carolina Courage.

Courage midfielder Havana Solaun was giving her marching orders in the 75th minute for a second bookable offence, but by then the damage had been done with the hosts three goals to the good.

Returning forward Lynn Williams got things going in the 12th minute, reading the flight of Carson Pickett’s deep cross better than her marker, bringing it under her spell and dispatching beyond Katelyn Rowland.

Kansas nearly responded five minutes later. Former Courage attackers Hailie Mace and Kristen Hamilton combined well but keeper Casey Murphy got her angles right to block Mace’s effort.

The home side heeded that warning shot and doubled their tally in the 21st minute. Pickett’s out-swinging corner from the left was tailor made for Jess McDonald and she powered in the fiftieth NWSL strike of her career.

The visitors managed some sustained periods of pressure that culminated in 26 efforts on goal, in comparison to North Carolina’s 9 during the match, but many of them failed to trouble the keeper. Mace fired a presentable chance wide in the 53rd minute after another good interchange with Hamilton. When they did hit the target, however, Murphy was in imperious form. The Courage stopper denied Lo’eau LaBonta in the 54th minute and Addie McCain in the 62nd – the latter of which was an excellent fingertip stop at full stretch.

And teams that don’t take their chances at the WakeMed Soccer Park, well they usually get punished. Two minutes after McCain was thwarted former KC striker Amy Rodriguez made it 3-0, with a classy finish to round off a neat move down the right involving Lynn and Ryan Williams.

Solaun saw red with fifteen minutes to go for a soft second caution, but it wouldn’t have a serious impact on the outcome. Kansas full back Mallory Weber rattled the cross bar with a fine effort from 25-yards. A minute later LaBonta swung in a cross from the right, but Hamilton’s header couldn’t find a way past Murphy.

With the visitors desperately trying to get something for their efforts they left the back door unlocked for North Carolina in stoppage time. Weber had shot charged down by substitute Taylor Smith and the Kansas defender found herself in an unwinnable foot race with Meredith Speck. Keeper Katelyn Rowland raced into the Courage half to snuff out the danger, only for Speck to push the ball past her and hare into open space, taking a single touch to set herself before rolling the ball into an empty net from 20-yards.

These two teams had split a goalless draw the last time they met in Week 10. That result probably surprised people more than this one, although the Courage didn’t necessarily look 4-0 better than their visitors over the 90 minutes. Better finishing of clearer chances prevailed, and Paul Riley’s side moved to within 2 points of the Portland Thorns having played one more fixture. Kansas remained rooted to the bottom.

NJ/NY Gotham FC snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at Cheney Stadium as Megan Rapinoe scored two late penalties to ensure OL Reign finished on the right side of a five-goal thriller.

The cliché ‘a game of two halves’ doesn’t quite hold but it was pretty close. Gotham’s attack found an early groove and they forged ahead in the 9th minute. Elizabeth Eddy’s left-wing cross was contested by Carli Lloyd and two Reign defenders, Lloyd got the best of it and the ball broke to Ifeoma Onumonu who lashed it into the roof of the net.

By the quarter hour Gotham were in dreamland. Keeper Kailen Sheridan’s long punt out was helped on, Nahomi Kawasumi played Onumonu in behind the back line and the striker fired past Sarah Bouhaddi before she could set herself.

The hosts dug in and tried to find a way back. Midfield playmaker Rose Lavelle was at the heart of everything positive about Reign’s attack without finding the net. She combined with Rapinoe and Kristen McNabb down the left in the 24th minute, but Sheridan got across well to push her long ranger round the post.

The turning point came in the 54th minute, but not in the Gotham penalty area. NJ midfielder McCall Zerboni found Caprice Dydasco in space on the right flank and the full back whisked in a delicious cross that Lloyd met on the full, ten yards out. Everyone in the Cheney must have been expecting the net to bulge, a third Gotham strike. Bouhaddi had other ideas, springing across her goal and getting just enough of a fingertip on the ball to divert it against the post.

And that was the catalyst for a Reign recovery. Three minutes later Megan Rapinoe drove in a corner from the right and McNabb powered her header into the net.

Momentum swung. Reign were on the attack. With fifteen minutes remaining right winger Sofia Huerta was tripped as she Cruyff-turned Allie Long inside the Gotham penalty box. Rapinoe stepped forward and hammered her penalty down the middle to even things up.

Now it looked like there could only be one winner. Gotham looked punch-drunk. Rapinoe invited Gina Lewandowki to make a challenge in the same area of the 18-yard box that Huerta had enjoyed success. The defender got her timing wrong and the match official had no choice but to award a second spot kick.

The clock had moved into stoppage time. Rapinoe stepped forward, an entire career of clutch plays like this in her memory banks, and sent Sheridan the wrong way.

This 3-2 score line made it five wins from OL Reign’s last seven matches and took them above Gotham FC into fourth, with the table still very tight. For New Jersey, winning had become somewhat elusive in the last few games. They would need to bounce back quickly, and find a way to do that without Head Coach Freya Coombe who was reportedly joining new franchise Angel City for the 2022 season. Club and manager officially parted company on the 23rd August.

Washington Spirit left it late to get their first win on the board since Week 10 but were eventually able to find a way past Orlando Pride at Audi Field.

Tori Huster (left) and Ashley Sanchez just love a late winner. Caption competition anyone?

Ashley Hatch and Dorian Bailey went close in the opening twenty minutes as the Spirit looked to get out of blocks quickly.

In the 22nd minute Trinity Rodman broke away down the right taking three defenders with her. She could have looked to square the ball but chose to go it alone, firing her first shot at keeper Ashlyn Harris and then smashing the rebound off the underside of the cross bar.

Four minutes later Anna Heilferty played Rodman into space down the left. The rookie cut inside her marker and tried to beat Harris at her near post with the ball cannoning off the upright.

Orlando came into the game more as the first half progressed. Marta intercepted a loose ball out from keeper Aubrey Bledsoe and threaded Marisa Viggiano in behind the Spirit backline. Viggiano found Sydney Leroux who had two bites from close range but found the Spirit stopper equal to both.

As the first period ticked into stoppage time Marta curled a free kick over the bar.

The Pride maintained their attacking momentum after the break and they took the lead in the 68th minute. Leroux out-muscled substitute Ashley Sanchez and sent Gunny Jónsdóttir on her way. The Icelandic international played the ball into Jodie Taylor on the edge of the penalty area and she laid it off to Marta, who sidestepped a defender and rifled the ball in off the keeper’s left-hand post.

The Spirit restored parity almost immediately, working the ball out to substitute Kelley O’Hara on the left. She swung the ball towards the far post, Kylie Strom got her clearance all wrong and Ashley Hatch smashed the ball in from seven yards.

The hosts’ winner came from an Orlando corner with just a minute of normal time remaining. Marta’s out-swinger ended up being contested on the edge of the Spirit penalty area. Sanchez somehow managed to slide the ball to Tori Huster and she in turn hit a long ball down the right for Rodman to chase.

Suddenly the Pride were just trying to get bodies back home. Rodman entered the penalty box with two defenders for company and others arriving as back-up. The winger got her head up and noticed something that none of the Pride players had – Sanchez, turning up just outside the ‘D’. A simple pass and Sanchez did the rest, getting the ball out of her feet quickly and hammering it into the top right-hand corner.

A 2-1 win for the Spirit moved them back into the top three, but only one point separated them from Chicago in seventh so the league was still phenomenally tight. The Pride would have felt they were good for a point in this one, but were still in that batch of teams vying for playoff berths.

At the halfway mark, nine out of ten NWSL clubs would be in the hunt for the playoffs…

The WICC concluded on the same weekend with the Portland Thorns beating Lyon 1-0 at Providence Park courtesy of an 87th minute strike by substitute Morgan Weaver. This would lead some to hail the Thorns as the ‘best team in the world’, although quite how much value there is in winning an invitational trophy on your home ground against a team still in their pre-season – well, look, Thorns fans enjoyed it anyway, and that’s great.

FC Barcelona finished third in the same competition after they narrowly beat Houston Dash 3-2.

Over in Kentucky, the final of the Women’s Cup played out between hosts Racing Louisville and FC Bayern Frauen. Klara Bühl gave Bayern the lead just after the break but Jorian Baucom equalised. Substitute Yuki Nagasato thought she’d won it for the home side with five minutes left, but Gemma Bonner put through her own net in stoppage time off a Linda Dallmann cross.

For the second time in a week Louisville were in a penalty shoot out. Substitute goalkeeper Katie Lund had already saved three spot kicks when she stepped up and scored to make the score 7-6. She went on to save her opposite number’s effort to seal the club’s first trophy.

Katie Lund (right) had to replace the injured Michelle Betos in goal. She went on to be Louisville’s hero in the penalty shoot out.

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