It was a tough October for all teams in the NWSL after subscription-based sports website ‘The Athletic’ published serious allegations against one of the League’s most successful Head Coaches. Shockwaves were felt across the sport – and not just in the US. By the end of the month the league had appointed a new (interim) Commissioner, Marla Messing, and both FIFA and US Soccer had committed to thorough investigations. Week 19 was played in Week 20(ish) and – despite the fact that they only picked up six points during the month – Portland secured the Regular Season ‘Shield’ with a game to spare…
Week 20/21 – Ok, where are we?
With week 19 being cancelled some matches needed to be shoe-horned into a hastily arranged midweek programme to ensure that the regular season could still be completed by the end of the month. Even the NWSL itself wasn’t quite sure what week they should be attributed to. Anyways, within this set of fixtures was a clash of of the titans as top-two Portland and OL Reign went head to head. But more of that later…
Washington Spirit made it three wins from four, beating a profligate North Carolina Courage on their own patch. It was fairly comfortably in the end.
Courage forward Lynn Williams hogged all the chances in the opening twenty minutes but, as can so often be the way with the US international, she didn’t make them count. She half-volleyed one effort over the bar, fired another wide and then didn’t get enough power on her third attempt to beat Aubrey Bledsoe who gathered the ball low to her right.
The Spirit took some time to find their way into the match, but got their first good look of the Courage goal in the 33rd minute when the ‘Ashleys’ – Hatch and Sanchez – combined to force a good save out of Casey Murphy, the keeper pushing Sanchez’s shot around the left-hand post.
Sights set, the visitors were in front six minutes later – with North Carolina playing out a comedy of errors to help them. Meredith Speck got her back pass to Merritt Mathias all wrong, so Spirit wing-back Tara McKeown stole in and headed down the left towards the Courage by-line. McKeown’s cross for Hatch was blocked but a defender inexplicably played the ball across the penalty area, straight to Washington’s Trinity Rodman. Rodman struck her shot well but it may have been drifting past the post. Courage centre back Abby Erceg made sure it didn’t, blasting into her own net. 1-0 Washington. [The league credited Rodman with the goal, Ed.]
The hosts equalised on the hour. Debinha sent Jess McDonald through a seam on the left, the forward put in a low cross that evaded everyone stampeding into the six-yard box, but Speck arrived at the far post and stabbed the ball past a despairing Bledsoe.
Williams resumed her duel with the Spirit keeper in the 68th minute but couldn’t beat her from 18-yards.
The Spirit went down the other end, won a corner and took the lead again. Dorian Bailey drove the ball in from the right, a Courage head got the first contact but it looped to to half-time sub Julia Roddar who volleyed it home through all sorts of traffic.
Seah Nahas’s side looked for a positive reaction once again. Debinha played Amy Rodriguez into a channel on the right but Bledsoe made the stop. Then McDonald rattled the cross bar from point blank range. Moments later McDonald provided a delivery from the right for Williams, but yet again Bledsoe was equal to the effort, saving low to her right.
A 2-1 defeat left the Courage’s playoff ambitions hanging by a thread as they dropped to sixth, in the knowledge that Gotham still had two games-in-hand to overhaul them. Kris Ward’s Washington had hit a rich vein of form through October and this victory lifted them back into the top three.
The Chicago Red Stars scored early and were able to hold on against an Orlando Pride team that missed a first half penalty and ended the match with their playoff aspirations fading away…
In the 5th minute Chicago winger Kealia Watt hared past Ali Krieger down the left but wasn’t able to beat Ashlyn Harris, who deflected the ball into the side netting.
It was a warning Orlando didn’t heed. Sixty seconds later Mallory Pugh’s corner wasn’t dealt with and found it’s way to Watt, completely unmarked, at the far post. She struck the ball first time on the half-volley, it looped over Harris and crashed into the net via the underside of the crossbar.
Rachel Hill nearly extended the Red Stars’ lead but Harris kept her at bay before Krieger blocked a second attempt.
Becky Burleigh’s team hadn’t offered much but were given a lifeline just before half time when Casey Krueger brought down Sydney Leroux in the penalty area. Alex Morgan took on the responsibility but put her spot kick wide.
After the break the pairing of Pugh and Watt continued to cause havoc for the Pride’s back line. In the 54th minute Pugh raced on to a fine ball from her strike partner down the left, took on two defenders hit a sweet drive from 15-yards that Harris just about tipped on to the bar.
The Pride laboured to make chances. On 77 minutes Morgan sand-wedged into the penalty box from midfield, Leroux controlled the ball off her chest but couldn’t keep her volley down.
Harris blocked Pugh’s low shot in the 81st minute and then made a good double stop off Katie Johnson’s distance strike two minutes later.
Orlando sub Erika Tymrak offered some attacking spark in the final twenty, combining with Jodie Taylor and Morgan to get the latter in for a strike at the death. Red Stars keeper Cassie Miller made the stop at her near post.
Pugh could have added some sheen to the result in stoppage time, racing in behind the Pride defence, but she attempted to round Harris who got the slighted touch on the ball and this unbalanced the young forward just enough for her to blast it wide.
The Red Stars were very wasteful in this match but a 1-0 score line would be enough. Rory Dames’ side moved back to fifth in the standings but Gotham’s games in hand meant there was (probably) still work to do to extend their campaign. Orlando now had zero room for error in their final two matches to make the post-season, one of those would be a return fixture with Chicago on the final day…
Kansas City showed that they still had teeth despite their lowly position in the table, unceremoniously dismantling a Houston Dash team that hadn’t lost in five.
Legends Field had become a happier hunting ground in recent times for KC. They hadn’t tasted a home defeat since the end of June (Week 7), and were in the midst of a five-game unbeaten run, during which they had taken three points from OL Reign, as well as shutting out Portland and North Carolina (twice). The Dash arrived on the back of a three-match win streak, but just couldn’t get going here.
In the 18 minute KC forward Darian Jenkins cut in from the left and fizzed the ball into the far corner of the goal for 1-0.
Kiki Pickett nearly doubled that lead on the half-hour when she burst through midfield and rifled a 25-yarder against the cross bar. Just one minute later Lo’eau LaBonta carbon-copied Pickett’s effort with the horizontal still vibrating.
Huw Williams’ side eventually got their second in the 36th minute. Kate Bowen whipped in a right-wing cross to the far post and Elizabeth Ball nodded it back across Jane Campbell with the ball squirming under the Dash keeper. It was a collector’s item for the home fans – defender Ball hadn’t scored all season.
The ‘cross bar challenge’ resumed in the second period. Addie McCain’s 35-yard firecracker was arguably the most spectacular of the night.
Kansas City deserved to make their lead more emphatic, and did so in stoppage time after substitute Jessica Silva was tripped going round Campbell in the penalty area. LaBonta placed the ball and buried it low to the keeper’s right.
Elated with a 3-0 score line, this win was just the third victory of their campaign, but any thoughts that Kansas City were simply going to roll over and hand points to their opponents were firmly dispelled against a shell-shocked Houston. For the Dash they were lucky that their good form over the previous weeks had prevented them dropping below fourth, but (like Chicago) they still had to secure points to ensure a top six finish.
The midweek fixtures concluded with an exciting Cascadia rivalry clash between the league’s top two teams at Providence Park. But there would be no separating the Portland Thorns and OL Reign by the end of the evening as Megan Rapinoe delivered another clutch play in the closing stages of the game.
While Reign fans were going to have to wait until the last five minutes of the match for their goal celebration, the Rose City contingent was on its feet ramping up the noise in the opening five, courtesy of their number one and two picks from the 2020 draft.
Sophia Smith hustled through several half-baked defensive challenges and fed Morgan Weaver in the penalty area. Weaver spun her marker and fired past Sarah Bouhaddi. Just 5 minutes on the board, it was the perfect start for the home side.
Down, but by no means out, the visitors slowly felt their way into the contest. Jess Fishlock’s head met Rose Lavelle’s cross in the 17th minute but it was catching practice for Thorns’ keeper Bella Bixby.
Chances came at either end. ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez’s chipped effort from 30-yards cleared the Reign cross bar. Eugénie Le Sommer’s volley followed a similar path after Fishlock had nodded Dzsenifer Marozsán’s centre back across the goal mouth.
Weaver and Angela Salem both shot wide within the space of a couple of minutes as Portland tried to increase their lead before the break.
On the hour Christine Sinclair went close for the Thorns curling the ball just past the post from 25-yards.
Rapinoe joined the fray as a substitute in the 62nd minute. By the 64th the she had already had her first sight of goal, heading over Sofia Huerta’s right-wing delivery.
The talismanic National Team winger drove into the side netting in the 75th minute. Portland sub Simone Charley couldn’t get her low shot on target in the 79th.
With five minutes to play, Portland were penalised for an apparent handball in their penalty area. There can’t be too many things in the sport that Rapinoe enjoys more than scoring at Providence Park, and she didn’t disappoint here sending Bixby the wrong way to secure a share of the spoils.
A 1-1 draw kept the teams within a point of each other and both were guaranteed a playoff berth.
Week 21 – Portland Win their Second Shield
With matches coming thick and fast in the NWSL it was just a matter of time before one of the top two blinked first. It was the Reign who caved, losing to the highly energised Washington Spirit. That left the way open for Portland to secure their first regular season Shield since 2016, if they could beat Houston Dash at the BBVA. The ladies in orange made it a tough encounter, but the Thorns got it done…
English striker Ebony Salmon was in sparkling form as Racing Louisville drove a fatal stake through the heart of Orlando Pride‘s playoff ambitions at the Lynn Family Stadium.
And yet the match had started with a very different tone when Alex Morgan threaded Jodie Taylor in behind the Louisville defence and the Orlando forward clipped the ball past Katie Lund for a 3rd minute lead.
Morgan attempted to join her team mate on the score sheet in the 17th minute firing off target from the edge of the penalty box.
In front of their biggest home crowd of the season (8,448) the Louisville players started to get to grips with the pace of the game. Lauren Milliet went close from 18-yards in the 34th minute, before Salmon equalised in first half injury time.
Attacking midfielder Yuki Nagasato – in for the suspended Savannah McCaskill – dispossessed ‘Gunny’ Jónsdóttir and found Salmon hovering on the edge of the Orlando ‘D’. Salmon moved the ball on to her right foot and curled it into the keeper’s top left-hand corner – a classic ‘postage stamp’ execution (or ‘top bins’ as the kids say…)
Three minutes after the interval Racing were almost two goals to the good when Katie McClure’s 20-yarder was tipped over the bar by stand-in keeper Erin McLeod.
Four minutes later McClure got her first NWSL goal. Taylor Otto played the ball into Salmon’s feet on the edge of the penalty area. McClure started to run in behind the backline and Salmon’s cheeky back heel dovetailed beautifully with it, the 22-year driving the ball across McLeod into the far corner.
Orlando could have clawed a goal back in the 66th minute, but Morgan lashed Taylor Kornieck’s chipped cross over the bar.
That miss buoyed the home side to go on and get their third – a killer third in Orlando’s case. It was a nicely worked team goal with Erin Simon and Salmon working a 1-2 down the right that allowed the English forward to bomb into space, providing a low cross that Nagasato controlled and slotted in two touches.
Louisville could have made it even more comfortable in the 85th minute when CeCe Kizer burst into the 18-yard area, but McLeod was equal to the pacey forward’s close range effort.
Racing Louisville were never expected to mount much of a playoff challenge in their first season as a franchise and, once head coach Christie Holly was fired, they struggled to find consistency and cohesion under Mario Sanchez. Indeed, they had been on a winless run since week 12, but there are still good players in the group that can hurt opponents that don’t bring their ‘A’ game. A 3-1 victory was no more than they merited.
For Becky Burleigh and the Orlando Pride, well they’ll need to figure out over the off-season why it is such a talented squad of players was unable to force their way into the playoffs when they were top of the pile after the first six weeks of the campaign. They accrued 15 points from their opening 7 matches. But that nosedived to just 13 points in the next 16, including a four-game losing streak during the run-in.
‘Own goal’ was back on the score sheet at the SeatGeek as the Chicago Red Stars all-but-secured their spot in the post-season championships, narrowly beating Kansas City with the benefit of some line officiating that laid bare the complexity of offside law interpretation in real time.
Katie Johnson nearly put hosts Chicago ahead inside 5 minutes hitting the post after good work from Kealia Watt down the left.
Watt herself fired wide in the 19th minute and Mallory Pugh also couldn’t get her shot on frame a few minutes later as the Red Stars reprised some the wastefulness that had characterised their victory over Orlando in midweek. This was brought into sharper focus when Johnson hit the post again in the 24th minute – this time from about 2-yards.
But the hosts finally forged ahead in the 34th minute with one of the scrappiest goals of the NWSL season. A right-wing corner was half-cleared, Tierna Davidson headed it back into the six-yard box and the ball bobbled off defender Kristen Edmonds into her own net.
That lead lasted less than three minutes. KC won a corner on the right, Lo’eau LaBonta went short to Kate Bowen, she crossed immediately and Hailie Mace powered in from 10-yards.
Now Huw Williams’ side had a foothold in the game they sought to take a lead into the break. Maddie Nolf’s 20-yard drive called keeper Cassie Miller into action with the Red Stars keeper tipping the ball over her cross bar. Nolf, a central defender, now had a taste for the high-life and tried her luck again from a similar range with the ball sailing over the bar.
Kansas forward Darian Jenkins swung in a superb cross from the right in the 50th minute that Kristen Hamilton met at the back post, only for Cassie Miller to make the block.
Less than a minute later Chicago were back in front, working the ball from one end of the pitch to the other. Watt and Makenzy Doniak combined in midfield before Morgan Gautrat tried to thread Pugh in behind the Kansas back four. Mace intercepted but Pugh, coming back from an offside position picked her pocket and sent Watt racing away down the left. The winger crossed, Doniak had followed the play and applied a sliding finish into the roof of the net.
The debateable moment here was Pugh’s involvement. She was clearly (yards) offside when Gautrat played the original through ball, but Mace’s interception seemed to negate her from being judged ‘active’ by the line official – only for Mace to be dispossessed immediately by Pugh in the very next moment of play!
The decision went for the hosts and that goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Kansas City. They wouldn’t significantly trouble Miller again.
Meanwhile, Chicago full back Casey Krueger clipped the top of the bar with a cross from the right, and both Watt and Pugh missed presentable chances to make the game more comfortable. A 2-1 result would see Chicago going into the last match of their season in fourth. Kansas City could still climb off the bottom of the table mathematically, but would need to win both of their remaining fixtures to do so – and hope Gotham FC could beat Louisville…twice in a weekend!
Bang-in-form Washington Spirit stunned OL Reign at the Cheney Stadium, with a victory that not only kept their excellent run-in going, but also guaranteed the club their spot in the playoffs.
The Reign hadn’t lost in eight, and the last time the teams had been scheduled to clash Washington were required to forfeit after breaching Covid-19 protocols.
The visitors made the early running. Ashley Hatch spun her defender 20-yards out but fired over the bar. Then Tara McKeown nicked the ball off left-back Lauren Barnes, sped into the penalty box, but dragged her shot wide.
Catching practice ensued for both goalkeepers. Reign striker Eugénie Le Sommer drove straight at Aubrey Bledsoe. Ashley Sanchez offered an equally straightforward stop for Sarah Bouhaddi.
In the 22nd minute Washington got their final ball right and took the lead. Julia Roddar put in a cross from the left to the far post, Taylor Aylmer met it on the half-volley and the ball looped over Bouhaddi to give the midfielder her first professional goal on her first professional start.
Two minutes later Emily Sonnett found Trinity Rodman in the penalty area, who generated half a yard of space but couldn’t beat Bouhaddi at her near post.
Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle combined on the stroke of half time to create a shooting opportunity for Jess Fishlock in the ‘D’, but the Welsh international couldn’t get her shot on frame.
Kris Ward’s side extended their lead around the hour mark with a goal that materialised out of thin air. Ashley Hatch picked up the ball from Rodman midway in Reign’s half. There didn’t look to be much on in that moment, but rather than hold the ball up and wait for support, Hatch unleashed a low drive that fizzed past Bouhaddi into the bottom left-hand corner.
Three minutes later the Spirit nearly scored again. Ashley Sanchez broke through midfield and played Rodman into all sorts of space on the left of the penalty area. The winger nutmegged an onrushing Bouhaddi but was probably as surprised as everyone else in the stadium to see Fishlock appear from nowhere to make a sliding clearance off the goal line.
To their credit, Reign endeavoured to make chances until the end (they had 15 attempts), but none of their players were able to apply the quality finish – particularly Le Sommer, who had a frustrating night in front of goal.
A 2-0 win for Washington put them in the enviable position of being able to make decisions on whether to rest key players ahead of their last regular season match. Spirit boss Kris Ward had options, of course, to retain his starting eleven and build on their winning momentum going into the playoffs.
The Reign could find themselves in the same boat as Washington for entirely different reasons. They were already assured post-season soccer – and a semi-final spot to boot. But Laura Harvey’s side had been pursuing Portland for the ‘Shield’ which was why she had continued to name strong sides. This defeat wiped out any margin for error. OL Reign knew the Thorns would take the regular season title if they could beat Houston Dash.
While some teams were finding form at just the right time others were heading into the abyss. This stark contrast was neatly evidenced at the WakeMed Soccer Park where NJ/NY Gotham FC took their unbeaten run to five at the hands of a beleaguered North Carolina Courage who now had just one win in their last eight.
North Carolina were their own worse enemies, though, with national team forward Lynn Williams spurning a trio of very presentable chances in the opening half hour.
Gotham started to hit their stride and find a route to goal after these. Carli Lloyd’s angled shot was dealt with by keeper Casey Murphy at her near post, then McCall Zerboni’s distance effort was hauled in by the Courage stopper.
The visitors took the lead in the 54th minute working the ball from left to right through Lloyd, Nahomi Kawasumi, Ifeoma Onumonu, Midge Purce, Zerboni and Caprice Dydasco. The full back’s low cross deflected off Courage midfielder Havana Solaun, allowing Purce to arrive in the right spot to stroke past Murphy on the half volley.
Tails up, Scott Parkinson’s side went looking for a second. Lloyd’s long-ranger was parried by Murphy on the hour, but the keeper was unable to keep out Purce four minutes later, who got was in the right place to hoover up after Onumonu’s initial shot had been blocked.
Two minutes after the Courage restart, Gotham scored again. Estelle Johnson played the ball infield to Lloyd, who spun away from her marker on to her left foot and drilled past Murphy from 20-yards.
Gotham keeper Kailen Sheridan had had a fairly quiet afternoon given the opposition, but her shift wasn’t quite done – palming Debinha’s effort on to the upright.
Before the end Lloyd headed wide but it mattered little as a 3-0 win lifted them above North Carolina into fifth.
North Carolina were now out of the playoff six and not only needed to win their last match of the season, but keep their fingers crossed that other results went their way. Their final opponent, however, would be the Portland Thorns – who on the same evening were trying to win the Regular Season outright…
It was by no means an easy night, but the Portland Thorns secured their second NWSL ‘Shield’, beating a spirited Houston Dash with the only goal of the game.
It had been a highly competitive season and Head Coach Mark Parsons had been juggling Portland duties with international management (for the Netherlands) all season. After defeating Houston their win percentage was a little over 56%, they had the best defence in the league and the second best attack.
The depth of quality in their squad had been cited back in May as the main reason that pundits felt they would be favourites for the regular season title. And Parsons’ rotation of his group had suffered very few hiccups, despite a bit of a wobble in weeks 18 and 19. They even won the WICC trophy seeing off Euro giants FC Barcelona and Olympique Lyon.
The pace and fearlessness of youth blended beautifully with the experience and composure of their international players, and this was on show for Portland’s 43rd minute winner. Sophia Smith bulldozed her way through several defensive challenges before squaring the ball to Morgan Weaver. Weaver teed up Lindsey Horan on the turn and Horan rattled a 15-yard drive into the keeper’s top left-hand corner.
The result won’t show how much Dash brought to this game in the second half as their playoff aspirations hung in the balance. Kristie Mewis headed Nichelle Prince’s cross wide in the 54th minute, and the same player clipped a daisy cutter inches past the post after good approach play by Bri Visalli and Rachel Daly.
Thorns striker Christine Sinclair nearly took the match away from the Dash with twenty minutes left but was denied on the goal line by Canadian international team mate Allysha Chapman.
The hosts pressed hard for a goal that would salvage them a point. Substitute Veronica Latsko cut in from the left and drove straight at Bella Bixby from 20-yards. In stoppage time Mewis glanced another good chance wide of Daly’s right-wing delivery with Latsko unable to get a contact at the far post. It had been a good performance but just wasn’t their night.
A 1-0 defeat would leave Houston perched precariously in sixth above North Carolina. They needed to match or better the Courage’s score on the final day. The Dash faced a trip to face the league’s in form team Washington Spirit, while North Carolina travelled to Providence Park to take on the newly crowned Shield winners…
A New (but Temporary) Commissioner
Following the weekend’s action, the League announced that it had appointed Marla Messing as the Interim Commissioner. She was probably most well known to women’s football followers as one of the masterminds behind the highly successful Women’s World Cup of 1999 when the US played to packed out stadiums, won the tournament and spawned the highly talented (and marketable) ’99ers’.
Messing could demonstrate both experience and success in senior executive roles for the Los Angeles Olympic / Paralympic Bid Committee, the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and in Major League [men’s] Soccer. She had also been a consultant to the MLS’s Los Angeles FC, and Spain’s FC Barcelona.
She later sent out a personal message to NWSL fans:
“As I step into this interim role, I fully recognize the meaningful change that still needs to occur, the trust that needs to be rebuilt and the accountability that must be enforced. I can assure you that while I am in this role, I am committed to working closely with the board of governors, the players and all of you to make important changes across the league that will allow us to emerge as a stronger, more inclusive organization where player safety, welfare and respect are central to everything that we do.”Marla Messing, Interim CEO, National Women’s Soccer League, via nwslsoccer.com 18/10/2021
The search for a permanent replacement continued unabated but the hope was that Marla Messing could provide a safe pair of hands until at least the conclusion of the playoffs.
Week 21 – Captain’s Supplemental…
NJ/NY Gotham FC had been dragging behind the rest in terms of completed fixtures. So, they would face a midweek trip to Kansas City FC to partly catch up, before starting and ending the final weekend of games with two matches against Racing Louisville…
The Kansas / Gotham game ended in a 1-1 tie which made no material difference to the table depicted above. It did confirm Kansas as the club that would finish bottom of the 2021 standings. Gotham, meanwhile, would only need to match Houston or North Carolina’s final result to make the post-season.
Gotham opened the scoring in the 25th minute when McCall Zerboni intercepted a poor pass out of defence and sent Midge Purce on her way. The winger held off three defenders, raced into the penalty box and drilled the ball into the far corner.
Kansas had become a stubborn force to contend with at Legend’s Field and equalised just before half time from the penalty spot after Kristen Hamilton was clattered by Erica Skroski in the 18-yard area after picking the defender’s pocket.
Defender Kristen Edmonds placed the ball and calmly clipped it past DiDi Haracic, who had guessed right but couldn’t get a glove on it.
Haracic would still finish the match a hero, though, showing all the necessary reflexes and agility to tip Addie McCain’s close range volley over the cross bar in the 61st minute…