Here’s part two of our NWSL Review for September with just the one game week to wrap up. Part One is here. Over the month there were three match-days built around an International Break, during which time OL Reign, Chicago and Houston all went unbeaten. Portland held firm at the top of the standings, despite defeat to the Red Stars (see below). The Thorns were also 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 18 – Results Matter More
It was getting to that point in the season where some teams desperately needed to start winning to keep their playoff ambitions alive – none more so than the Washington Spirit who’d had a second game awarded to their opponent (Portland) after failing to meet Covid-19 protocols. Elsewhere Gotham FC were winless in seven and Houston had only managed one victory in the same number of games. Incredibly, all three would step up to the plate…
NJ/NY Gotham FC came back from a goal down to beat North Carolina Courage at the Red Bull Arena, in the process seriously denting Head Coach Paul Riley’s bid for a fourth consecutive ‘Shield’ with the club.
The Courage got their noses in front on 20 minutes. Right full-back Ryan Williams nutmegged Nahomi Kawasumi and delivered a by-line cross that Gotham only cleared as far as Angharad James on the edge of the penalty box. The Welsh international chested the ball down and half-volleyed it into the far corner.
That lead was in jeopardy just seven minutes later, when Midge Purce was hauled down by Diane Caldwell as she beelined into the 18-yard area. Caldwell was furious as she felt she’d been fouled first, but the referee was unmoved. Carli Lloyd – playing her penultimate home game for NJ – took responsibility and smashed her spot kick past Casey Murphy.
By the 36th minute the hosts were in front with a neatly executed team goal. Keeper Kailen Sheridan sent the ball to halfway and Lloyd spun away from her marker, chipping an inch-perfect pass down the right for Ifeoma Onumonu. The forward showed good strength to hold off Caldwell and cut the ball back from the by-line to an untracked Purce, who drilled past Murphy.
Ten minutes into the second half, Gotham nearly had some breathing space. Lloyd and Kawasumi overwhelmed North Carolina’s James in midfield, McCall Zerboni threaded the loose ball through to Onumonu, but she fired her low shot just past the keeper’s left-hand post.
NJ winger Paige Monaghan returned to action after a long period out through injury. She subbed on in the 73rd minute and had scored by the 82nd, running on to Évelyne Viens’ ball down the left, cutting inside a defender and beating Murphy via a deflection off Kaleigh Kurtz.
Scott Parkinson’s Gotham side remained in eighth spot in the table but now only four points separated them from North Carolina in third, plus they had games in hand. This match ended a miserable, winless September for the Courage. Paul Riley’s side hadn’t picked up three points since Week 14 and retaining the Shield would rely on rivals falling over. For now, they just needed to find a way to grind out results to ensure they secured a playoff berth.
As well as players returning from international duty, Thorns boss Mark Parsons was also back after steering the Netherlands to a draw and a win in their World Cup Qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Iceland. He takes over the OranjeLeeuwinnen full-time at the end of this season.
The form of the Red Stars’ front three has been on an upward curve throughout the campaign and they wasted no time bending the visitors out of shape. Arin Wright got on to Kealia Watt’s cross from the right and forced a good safe from Bella Bixby who turned the shot round her right-hand post.
In the 21st minute Watt turned up on the opposite flank and worked some space for a cross. Mallory Pugh nodded it on and Rachel Hill’s snapshot was prevented from hitting the roof of the net by Bixby’s fine reaction stop.
Just as Chicago were building a head of steam, Portland took a 24th minute lead. The Thorns worked the ball through the right channel to Crystal Dunn in the penalty area. Dunn laid it off to Christine Sinclair arriving at the edge of the penalty area and she thumped her the ball in off the far post.
Before the ‘Twitch‘ commentary team had finished waxing lyrical about Sinclair and the league leaders, Chicago were level. Hill put a low ball in from the right, Bixby came to claim but spilled it and Wright teed up Watt for a composed left-foot finish.
Thorns forward Sophia Smith had a quiet game by her standards but still provided a trademark run and shot in the 53rd minute that keeper Cassie Miller was able to thwart.
Watt continued to cause problems for the Portland defence. On the hour mark she outpaced Becky Sauerbrunn down the right, hared into the penalty box but had her shot blocked by Emily Menges.
But it was the other two pillars of the Red Stars attack that combined for the winner five minutes later. Pugh beat Natalia Kuikka on the left, crossed from close to the by-line and Hill powered her header in at the back post.
Ending the month with a 2-1 defeat wasn’t ideal for the Thorns but the three points they were awarded for the Washington forfeit gave them a modest lead over OL Reign ahead of the Cascadia derby at Providence Park. Chicago moved back into fourth spot, but teams around them still had games in hand.
Bri Visalli opened the scoring in the 34th minute, seizing on a poor defensive clearance, running it back, cutting inside Brooke Hendrix and driving low past Michelle Betos at her near post.
Louisville were the architects of Houston’s second goal as well playing out from the back under pressure. Nichelle Prince picked Nealy Martin’s pocket, slid the ball to Kristie Mewis and she wasted no time lashing the ball into the net.
The visitors almost got their third in the 70th minute, but Betos made a great one-handed stop to deny Veronica Latsko.
Unfortunately for the Racing keeper, Houston scored from the subsequent corner. Katie Naughton won the first headed contact off Mewis’s far post delivery, then the ball seemed to be scrambled around for an age before reuniting with Naughton who half-volleyed in from 6-yards.
In the 83rd minute Louisville blew up again, gifting possession to Latsko near their penalty area. She fed Mewis, who played in Prince and the winger passed the ball inside the left-hand upright.
The Dash had been a bit hit-and-miss over the month but this 4-0 victory ensured that they ended September in seventh spot, level on points with Washington Spirit who occupied the final playoff spot.
Louisville boss Mario Sanchez would have to put this one down to a really horrendous day at the office and rally his troops before Gotham’s arrival at Lynn Family Stadium on October 1.
The visitors forged ahead in the 8th minute. Victoria Pickett played the ball out to Darian Jenkins on the right and she swung inside Julia Roddar at speed before dispatching an unstoppable drive inside the keeper’s left-hand post.
Kansas had several good chances to double their advantage in the first half, the best of which fell to Jenkins in the 31st minute. She latched on to Desiree Scott’s through ball and cruised into the Spirit penalty area, only to be denied acrobatically at point blank range by Aubrey Bledsoe.
This galvanised the home team and they turned the match around in roughly sixty seconds of playing time either side of the interval. As stoppage time in the first period was draining away Kiki Pickett pulled down Kelley O’Hara in the penalty area.
US Women’s National Team midfielder Andi Sullivan placed the ball and sent international squad mate Adriana Franch the wrong way.
Eleven seconds after the restart the comeback was complete. Spirit kicked off and passed their way to the Kansas ‘D’, the move appeared to break down but Tara McKeown suddenly had the ball back at her feet, sidestepped a challenge and fired past a despairing Franch.
Both teams made further opportunities to add to their tally. Addie McCain’s close range header off a Lo’eau LaBonta free kick was somehow dealt with by Bledsoe. At the other end Trinity Rodman’s dynamic run down the right ended with her lashing the ball across the goal with no one able to apply a finishing touch.
Later it would be announced that the NWSL investigations into former Washington Spirit boss Richie Burke had resulted in him being fired and the club being sanctioned. At least new boss Kris Ward ended the month with a win on the board, and his team still in the playoff mix.
Kansas boss Huw Williams, meanwhile, was now deeply embroiled in the increasingly difficult task of motivating his team to play for little more more than their own pride. At least they don’t relegate teams in the NWSL, right?
One had to wonder whether the Pride coaching staff had watched any recent tape of the Reign, given that the hosts scored a carbon copy of their week 16 equaliser against Louisville inside three minutes here.
Fishlock played the ball to Sofia Huerta on the right; she took a touch, fizzed a cross into the six-yard box and Bethany Balcer arrived to power in her ninth goal of the campaign.
Reign pressed forward for a second. Rose Lavelle, Huerta and Dzsenifer Marozsán all had decent attempts, but it was Eugénie Le Sommer that eventually doubled the advantage in the 28th minute.
Pride defender Amy Turner played a sloppy ball into midfield, Marozsán intercepted, fed Le Sommer and the French international curled it around Ashlyn Harris from fully 30-yards before the keeper could set herself.
Four minutes later the home side scored again. Fishlock received the ball on the left of the penalty area and crossed to the edge of the ‘D’ where Marozsán was waiting to deliver a moment of genius. In one touch she executed an unbelievable, pin-point pass for Le Sommer, who got the ball out of her feet and prodded home from 6-yards.
Lavelle went close to extending the Pride’s misery with a distance strike that keeper Ashlyn Harris did brilliantly to paw away at full stretch.
Le Sommer nearly secured her hat-trick in the final minute of the first half, but volleyed Fishlock’s cross off the cross bar.
The Pride had largely been blown off the pitch in the first half, but Alex Morgan nearly got them a lifeline when she cleverly spun inside two defenders from the right and rifled in a shot from a tight angle that Sarah Bouhaddi needed to deal with.
Normal service resumed in the second period with Balcer, Le Sommer and Angelina all getting sights of the Pride goal. Harris stood firm, but the damage was already done. OL Reign consolidated their second spot in the standings and could gear themselves up for a top-of-the-table Cascadia rivalry clash with Portland on the 2nd October…