NWSL: Pacific North West Breakaway (Pt.1)

Across the ‘pond’, the National Women’s Soccer League has been ‘hotting’ up as we head into the last month of regular season games. There were three match-days built around an International Break, during which time OL Reign, Chicago and Houston all went unbeaten. Portland held their position at the top of the standings, despite defeat at the Red Stars. The Thorns were helped in no small part by Washington Spirit having to concede a 3-0 defeat after failing to meet Covid-19 protocols. This exact same situation arose with OL Reign, helping both Cascadia clubs to pull away from the rest of the pack in their pursuit of the 2021 Regular Season ‘Shield’…

Week 16 – All Tied Up

Nobody won and nobody lost on week 16 of the NWSL. Just four goals were scored as four matches were tied. Portland didn’t get to play at all with Washington Spirit unable to field a team after a Covid-19 outbreak within the squad. There was no movement in the standings at all. We start at the Red Bull Arena…

Mallory Pugh: The 23-year old Red Stars winger seems to be enjoying her football again, which is not fun for opposing defenders…

NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Chicago Red Stars couldn’t find a way past one another for the second time this season, splitting a goalless draw. But the home side really had keeper Kailen Sheridan to thank for that…

Scott Parkinson took charge for New Jersey, following the departure of Freya Coombe to one of next season’s new franchises, Angel City.

The Red Stars nearly made the perfect start. Mallory Pugh’s free kick from the right caused all manner of mayhem but Casey Krueger could only fire against the upright with keeper Kailen Sheridan scrambling.

Krueger turned would-be provider in the 18th minute threading Kealia Watt in behind the Gotham back line. Sheridan was super sharp off her line to snuff out the danger at Watt’s boot tips.

Gotham laboured to make chances. The stats will show that they had ten efforts on goal, but none were on target. In the 25th minute Carli Lloyd headed Caprice Dydasco’s right wing cross wide of the frame.

Chicago continued to make the best of the running. Just before half time Katie Johnson fed Watt out on the left. The forward cut inside her marker and got a well-struck shot away that Sheridan turned around the post.

Two minutes after the break Pugh ran half the length of the pitch before firing straight at Sheridan, the ball broke to Johnson who was astonished to see Sheridan make the double stop before Watt lash into the net from an offside position. Johnson’s effort would have counted, though. Woulda, coulda, shoulda…

As the match ticked towards the final quarter-hour Watt had one more good sight of goal. Gotham midfielder McCall Zerboni made an uncharacteristic error on the ball, Pugh and Morgan Gautrat combined to send Watt down back down the left flank. She beat Dydasco for pace, broke Estelle Johnson’s attempted tackle but lost control well inside Sheridan’s exclusion zone, and the keeper gathered.

A 0-0 draw would have felt much more of an opportunity missed for Rory Dames’ Red Stars as it could have firmly consolidated their position in the playoffs. For Gotham, winless in seven at this point in proceedings, well at least they were still hanging around – with a game in hand on most of the clubs above them…

The clichéd phrase ‘a game of two halves’ wouldn’t be a bad way to describe OL Reign‘s visit to Lynn Family Stadium to take on Racing Louisville. Both sides could claim they’d had a strong 45 minutes.

Off the field Mario Sanchez was leading proceedings in the Louisville technical area as Interim Head Coach after Christie Holly was fired by the organisation “for cause”, whatever that is… [This might help. Ed]

Louisville didn’t post their attendance for this one with the league but, from the start, they sounded loud. And they got louder in the 23rd minute when CeCe Kizer released Nadia Nadim, the Danish international shrugged off Alana Cook and slammed the ball inside Sarah Bouhaddi’s left-hand post.

Savannah McCaskill, never a player to pass up a shooting opportunity, tried her luck from 20-yards but Bouhaddi hauled it into her midriff.

At the other end Bethany Balcer tried the same with a minute of the half remaining. Same end result, just a different goalkeeper’s name on the back of the jersey: Betos.

Reign looked a very different proposition in the second period, not least because substitute midfielder Jess Fishlock came on and started to get things moving. She provided a tidy cross from the left in the 65th minute, Dzsenifer Marozsán laid up Tziarra King and Michelle Betos needed to make a fine parry to deny the young forward.

Next the Welsh midfielder dashed in behind the Louisville backline, she found Rose Lavelle arriving in the penalty box but the midfielder’s shot deflected wide.

Momentum had shifted, the equaliser had been coming. It finally arrived in the 74th minute. Reign worked the ball out to Sofia Huerta on the right and she provided a pinpoint delivery into the six-yard box that Balcer powered past Betos.

Now the visitors had their foot on the throat of their opponents they wanted a winner. Lavelle would get the best two opportunities.

With ten minutes remaining she was in goal and pulled the trigger, only to be denied by a superb last-ditch tackle from Gemma Bonner that diverted the ball out for a corner.

Then she ghosted into the Louisville penalty box to get on the end of another terrific Huerta cross, but horribly mistimed her header and could only stand frustrated as she watched it loop harmlessly away.

In form Reign’s three-match win streak came to an end and manager Laura Harvey would probably be disappointed with a 1-1 draw on the road that still felt like two points dropped rather than one gained. Sanchez could reflect on some dogged defending from his Racing players. Theirs’ was definitely a point gained…

“I couldn’t be more proud of them — and this is about them. This has nothing to do with me. This is about them and them coming together and showing everybody who they are and what they’re about. As a team, the energy was phenomenal. So what I told them was I’m proud of them, and they should look each other in the eye and give each other a hug and be proud of each other.”

Mario Sanchez, Interim Head Coach, Racing Louisville, via racingloufc.com 4/9/2021
Pride substitute Taylor Kornieck (22) braces herself for the arrival of a joyous Sydney Leroux after equalising against Houston…

Orlando Pride boss Becky Burleigh shuffled her pack late against Houston Dash, but got the equaliser she needed to ensure her team retained fourth spot in the league standings…

The hosts had to endure a long period of the match a goal down, after Rachel had given the Dash a 10th minute lead.

Shea Groom sent a probing ball through the right channel, defender Ali Riley chose to try playing out of the penalty area rather than hoof clear and Daly swooped on the loose ball, drilling it low into the far corner.

The Dash had two opportunities in quick succession to double their lead, but discovered that Pride keeper Ashlyn Harris was in no mood to concede again.

Shea Groom was denied at the back post off a Kristie Mewis corner from the right. Orlando scrambled it away but full back Allysha Chapman recycled the attack, locating Mewis still out on the right. She chose to shoot from the corner of the 18-yard area and hit a peach of a half volley that Harris acrobatically tipped over the cross bar.

Orlando were unable to fashion anything resembling a decent attempt on goal until first half stoppage time. Icelandic midfielder Gunny Jónsdóttir tried her luck from distance but Dash keeper Jane Campbell reeled it in comfortably. Moments later Sydney Leroux was inspired to have a go from 25-yards, but this time the ball whisked past the left-hand upright.

Riley’s afternoon nearly got worse when Dash winger Nichelle Prince robbed her early in the second half. Price sprinted into the shooting zone but was unable to beat Harris at her near post.

But the Pride goalkeeper’s blushes were also spared as Houston pushed for a second goal. When Harris misjudged a Mewis corner delivery, Amy Turner was in the right place to clear off the line before Jasmyne Spencer could get the vital finishing touch.

That moment of defending achieved ‘kudos’ levels when Orlando got their leveller in the 79th minute via a combination of two substitutes. Forward Taylor Kornieck had only been on the pitch for five minutes when her 6’1″ frame got above everyone in the six-yard box to head Meggie Dougherty Howard’s corner in off the underside of the crossbar.

Three points continued to separate the teams at the end of this 1-1 draw. Houston, still sat eighth, had a game in hand on the Pride, though, so were still very much in with a shout for one of the six playoff berths available at the end of the regular season…

Both keepers came up big for their respective sides, but inconsistent North Carolina Courage were held goalless for the second consecutive match by bottom club Kansas City FC at Legends Field.

KC forward Kristen Hamilton was celebrating making her 100th NWSL appearance, but it was fellow attacker Mariana Larroquette that set about trying to make life a misery for Hamilton’s former teammates.

In the 10th minute Larroquette’s half volley was expertly tipped over the bar by North Carolina keeper Casey Murphy. Three minutes later the Argentinian international brought a cross from the left under her spell but struck her shot straight at the Courage stopper.

North Carolina’s best move of the first period involved some neat interchange between Carson Pickett, Havana Solaun, Jess McDonald and Debinha on the edge of the Kansas penalty box. McDonald got a shot away but keeper Adrianna Franch was already on her way and charged it down.

Murphy continued to demonstrate why her Head Coach thinks she should be in the US National Team’s plans. She made her best stop just before half time. Kansas forward Jéssica Silva raced in behind the Courage backline, showed nice skill to put Solaun on her backside, fired goalward but couldn’t squeeze the ball past Murphy who somehow got the ball round the near post with her foot.

“I just remembered being dialled in and staying focused. In the formation that we were in, more communication is required, and I thought that they did a great job tonight. In this formation, a lot of players are playing in positions they’re not used to playing. For me, it’s more of the same. My job is to keep the ball out of the net, and if we can leave the game without the other team scoring then I’ll be happy.”

Casey Murphy, Goalkeeper, North Carolina Courage, via nccourage.com 5/9/2021

Laroquette was back on the offensive early in the second period, heading wide from a right wing cross.

The misfiring Courage front four really didn’t have a good day. Debinha was very quiet by her standards and Lynn Williams’ best effort was a shot on goal in the 70th minute that Franch had no trouble catching.

It would not be unreasonable to assume that 0-0 score line between these two teams would have Kansas fans in raptures, but the fact is they were better than the team eleven places above them in the table, and should have won this match. The North Carolina roller coaster continues. They don’t look the same without injured midfielder Sam Mewis conducting attacks. No such form issues for keeper Murphy, mercifully, who kept her tenth clean sheet of the campaign.

“Casey’s save at the end of the first half was world-class. I think she’s more than proved that she’s deserving of a call-up to the national team, and each of her performances this season has backed that up. She’s the best American keeper for me at the moment, and the dominant manner in which she plays surely must have been noticed by the national team by now.”

Paul Riley, Head Coach, North Carolina Courage, via nccourage.com 5/9/2021

Week 17 – 9/11 Remembered

It was the 20th anniversary of the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks. The NWSL, like the rest of the US, remembered and paid tribute to the 2,996 individuals that lost their lives, the c.25,000 injured, and the families and friends affected in the aftermath (picture at top).

In the league things went from bad to worse for the Washington Spirit. Not only did they go another week without a match, but they had to formally forfeit due to “multiple breaches” of league protocol. OL Reign would be awarded a 3-0 victory without kicking a ball. On top of that the Spirit’s owners openly fell out with one another. Oh, and bubbling away in the background was also the matter of their former manager being investigated for player abuse. Elsewhere, the top two would go toe-to-toe at the WakeMed…

Striker Rachel Daly becomes the Dash all-time goal scorer. So why does she often play at full back for England’s international team? Answers on a postcard…

Houston Dash let a thin lead slip for the second week in a row as the Chicago Red Stars benefitted from a goalkeeping misjudgement.

It was visiting Red Stars that nearly forged ahead in the 14th minute, though. Mallory Pugh burst past her marker down the left and drove a low cross to the near post that ricocheted off Kealia Watt more than anything, going wide.

The Dash got their noses in front in the 22nd minute. Kristie Mewis picked up the ball in the kind of area you’d expect to see a left back at kick-off. She spotted a creative opportunity well before her opponents caught on, driving a long ball over the top of the Chicago back line. Daly was in tune with her teammate, though, and shrugged off Tierna Davidson before firing the ball past Cassie Miller into the bottom right-hand corner.

As has often been the way with Houston after a goal, confidence gushed into the group and they poured forward for a second. Shea Groom and Haley Hanson combined on the right in the 32nd minute, with Hanson swinging in a cross to the far post that Mewis should have volleyed in, not wide.

Six minutes later Mewis did hit the target from the corner of the eighteen, but Miller was perfectly positioned to deal with it.

Rory Dames wasn’t just going to watch his Chicago side getting walked all over for the entirety. He clearly got into his players at half time and they came out much better in the second period.

Within sixty seconds of the restart Pugh read Sarah Woldmoe’s long, lofted pass, hared into the penalty area but couldn’t beat Jane Campbell – who made an astonishing one-handed reaction stop.

Campbell was in action three minutes later, pawing away Pugh’s angled shot from the left.

The Red Stars’ winger continued to present the main threat to Houston’s clean sheet and in the 76th minute Alyssha Chapman fouled her 20-yards from goal in an invitingly central location for set-piece expert ‘Danny’ Colaprico.

The substitute had only been on the pitch for a few minutes, but wasn’t going to pass up a free kick. She seemed to aimed for the keeper’s top left, but ended up putting more spin on it. Campbell, perhaps anticipating where the ball was supposed to go, over-dived. She got a hand on it but diverted it straight into the path of onrushing Red Star Casey Krueger who wasn’t going to miss a header from two yards.

The Dash raised themselves again late on and should have grabbed all three points in stoppage time. Chicago only half dealt with a cross from the right and the ball fell to Daly who half-volleyed over the bar from inside the penalty box.

This 1-1 draw became the fifth consecutive tie in the NWSL fixtures list since the start of September. Houston Dash had been part of two of them. While they moved above Gotham FC into seventh place James Clarkson’s squad would have to reflect on four points dropped from winning positions prior to the international break. For Chicago, it was a decent point on the road and kept them in the top-half.

Guess who’s back for Orlando? (There is a clue…)

It was a tale of two strikers at the Exploria Stadium. Second half substitute Alex Morgan made a successful return to first team action for the Orlando Pride, while Racing Louisville would end the match facing the rest of the season without Nadia Nadim who was stretchered off with (what later was confirmed as) an ACL tear.

Louisville started brightly. Inside five minutes Nadim beat her marker on to Savannah McCaskill’s cross from the right, but headed wide. But it soon became apparent that the Denmark-adopted Afghan superstar had hurt herself badly. She was taken off in the 17th minute and replaced by Yuki Nagasato.

Nevertheless, for around half an hour the game remained one way traffic. Moments after Nadim’s exit, Pride keeper Ashlyn Harris punched McCaskill’s free-kick delivery to the edge of the penalty box and CeCe Kizer lobbed her on the half volley. Orlando were grateful to centre back Amy Turner, who had anticipated the situation and was able to head away.

Two minutes later Racing full-back Emily Fox burst through the right channel, rode a challenge and fired a low drive that Harris parried. Ali Krieger and Gunny Jónsdóttir combined to scramble the loose ball away.

Then Jorian Baucom cut inside from the right, but dragged her shot wide of the keeper’s left-hand post.

Just before the 30 minute mark Orlando Pride generated their first clear cut opportunity. Jónsdóttir, Marta and Jodie Taylor combined to get a ball in from the right wing by-line, Sydney Leroux was perfect placed to finish but leaned back and blasted her shot over the bar.

But this moment galvanised the hosts and they effectively began to take the game away from Louisville in a devastating four-minute spell. Leroux raced on to a simple ball over the top, drawing a good stop from Michelle Betos. But the ball didn’t go dead and Taylor recycled it back to Leroux on the left, who spun inside Fox and Freja Olofsson, dispatching a laser into the far corner.

In the 34th minute they were at it again. Taylor provided the ball over the top, Leroux timed her run beautifully, crossed for Marta and she tucked it away.

Louisville regrouped at half-time and, to their credit, came out with renewed vigour early in the second period.

They got a goal back in the 51st minute when McCaskill played Nagasato through the middle of Orlando’s defence. The Japanese attacker’s first effort was blocked but she kept her composure, cleverly used the offer of an overlap to her left to move the tracking defender and dinked a wonderful ball into the penalty area that CeCe Kizer unceremoniously slammed past Harris.

The homes side regained their two-goal advantage in the 65th minute. Morgan had only been on the pitch four minutes when Leroux played her into a pocket of space on the left of the penalty box. Morgan let the ball run past her to get it on her favoured left foot, then lashed it across goal into the far corner with her first touch. That first touch was literally her first touch.

The Pride had one more good chance to extend their lead when Leroux headed Marta’s left-wing corner high and wide, but a 4-1 score line would have been harsh on Racing Louisville.

A 3-1 victory was more than enough for Orlando to consolidate their fourth place in the standings, while Louisville – now winless in six – would have to reflect on more lost ground to the playoff hopefuls above them.

To close the weekend, the league’s top two met in Cary with the North Carolina Courage looking to draw level on points with the Portland Thorns. What transpired was a match high on quality approach play but low on quality finishing.

The teams traded distance strikes early on. Natalia Kuikka fired over from 20-yards for the Thorns; Debinha robbed a defender but served up an easy catch to Bixby.

Portland won a series of corners. Lindsey Horan headed Kuikka’s delivery from the left well over in the 18th minute. From the next one Angela Salem’s put her half-volley straight at keeper Casey Murphy after the initial ball in had been headed clear.

Thorns striker Sophia Smith looked lively throughout the first period. She provided a trademark solo burst forward in the 28th minute which had three defenders scrambling, but didn’t get enough power on her final shot which Murphy gathered low to her right.

North Carolina’s best chance of the opening 45 came two minutes later. Cari Roccaro lofted a perfect 40-yard ball over the top of the visiting backline for Jess McDonald, who got the first touch spot on, but then tamely prodded her final effort at Bella Bixby.

Horan’s header off Angela Salem’s corner did draw a save, of sorts, out of Murphy. Then Salem and Crystal Dunn combined through the left channel for Smith to get a shot away. Once again the ball flew into the keeper’s midriff.

The breakthrough came twelve minutes into the second half. Christine Sinclair received the ball out on the right touchline and clipped it over the top of the Courage defence for Smith to run on to. At first it looked like the ball would run through to keeper Murphy, but she initially opted to stay in her six-yard box. Instead a worse-case scenario unfolded for NC where Smith cruised into the penalty area, Murphy made a late rush, but the striker finished coolly off the outside of her right boot.

It was a poor goal to concede.

Paul Riley’s side set about trying to find a leveller, bringing Amy Rodriguez and Meredith Speck off the bench. They combined down the right in the 66th minute to engineer a far post cross that Debinha nodded wide.

Moments later Rodriguez was played into the penalty area by Debinha but hit a poorly struck shot on the turn that failed to trouble Bixby.

The hosts best chance to equalise came two minutes into stoppage time. Substitute Taylor Smith burst in-field from the touchline and played Rodriguez into acres of space to her right. the forward let the ball run across her, narrowing the angle slightly, and drove directly at Bixby. It was a massive, missed opportunity.

Going into the international break a 1-0 victory for the Portland Thorns extended their lead over North Carolina to six points. OL Reign, meantime, had jumped above the Courage into second, thereby holding the gap between the Pacific North Western clubs to three.

How it looked at the end of week 17: Portland leading, and with games in hand…

Following their Olympic bronze, the US Women’s National Team was back to shooting fish in barrels as they started the ‘Carli Lloyd Farewell Tour’ with a 9-0 hammering of Paraguay in Cleveland, OH.

Lloyd herself scored a 34 minute hat-trick and would add two more, one either side of the break. Midfielder Andi Sullivan bagged a brace, while Lynn Williams and Tobin Heath completed the rout.

Lots of goals: but one has to wonder what either side really gets out of these matches…

The following Tuesday the sides met again with almost the same result. The US were 5-0 up in the opening quarter of an hour through Rose Lavelle Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan (2) and Catarina Macario.

The USA complete a 17-0 aggregate goal differential over two ‘friendlies’ with Paraguay…

There was a bit of a lull to allow fans in the stands to get their breath back, before Morgan completed her hat-trick eight minutes into the second half. Carli Lloyd chipped in with one and Macario’s second goal – the best of the bunch (above) – rounded off an 8-0 margin of victory.

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