NWSL October: Farewell to a Living Legend…

The Shield had already been wrapped up by Portland going into the final weekend of the NWSL season. OL Reign were cemented in second so the two bye-spots were taken. Now five other teams had to contest four playoff places, with Houston Dash and North Carolina Courage fighting it out for the final berth. Washington, Chicago and NJ/NY Gotham all confirmed their participation in the post season, but were jostling for home advantage. Attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd had an emotional 10 days, making her 316th and final international appearance for the USWNT, and then scoring in her last ever regular-season match for New Jersey…

Following week 21 of the NWSL, the US Women’s National Team regrouped for a double-header against South Korea, as the Carli Lloyd ‘Farewell Series’ of matches came to an end.

Carli Lloyd. Enough said…

While the Koreans would be regarded by many observers as mere cannon fodder for the World Champions, they did not lie down in the first match, holding the US to a goalless draw.

But the Americans came out bullishly in the second match, taking a 9th minute lead from Lindsey Horan’s deflected shot. Just before half time they got a second. Andi Sullivan made contact with Catarina Macario’s in-swinging corner but it was Cho who diverted the ball into her own net.

Lloyd was subbed off in the 65th minute. Surely only someone with a stone heart could be unmoved watching the veteran of 316 caps (and 134 goals) wrestle with her emotions as she slowly left the field (see end of article).

Her replacement, Alex Morgan, scored pretty much straight from the restart, running on to Megan Rapinoe’s delicious outside-of-the-boot pass and lashing the ball through the keeper’s legs.

Rapinoe added a flamboyant fourth in the 85th minute, half-volleying Emily Sonnett’s cross in off the bar.

Morgan then put Rose Lavelle in behind the Korean defence and the Reign midfielder finished right footed – a collector’s item for the packed Allianz Stadium in Minnesota.

Tobin Heath provided the assist for Lynn Williams’ close range effort to make it 6-0 in stoppage time.

Week 21.9 – The stragglers finally catch up…

It can’t all be about Carli, Racing Louiville attacker CeCe Kizer had a big weekend with a goal double against NJ…

The weekend began early with Racing Louisville and NJ/NY Gotham FC playing a catch-up fixture to align with everyone else on 23 completed matches. Gotham were pegged back after scoring early as Louisville looked to finish their inaugural NWSL season in style…

The visitors got their noses in front in the 7th minute. Midge Purce and McCall Zerboni combined to engineer space for Nahomi Kawasumi on the left. Kawasumi played inside to Carli Lloyd, who eluded two defenders with quick feet and squared for Ifeoma Onumonu – the striker scoring with her second attempt.

Lloyd – working the left channel again – nearly doubled that lead but centre back Gemma Bonner got just enough of a block on the ball to send it careering wide of the far post.

Louisville’s best chance of the first period was more about opportunism, with Yuki Nagasato swirling a shot just over the cross bar from the edge of the penalty area.

Gotham could have put the game beyond their opponents in the 51st minute. Caprice Dydasco’s corner from the left had been dealt with but the full back got a second chance to cross and located Onumonu at the far post. The striker put her header against the foot of the upright.

It was to prove a costly miss. Just sixty seconds later Lauren Milliet sent Katie McClure galloping through all sorts of space in midfield. Ebony Salmon offered a run to her right, but strayed offside. Instead, McClure opted for CeCe Kizer to her left; the versatile Louisville attacker keeping her cool and firing past Kailen Sheridan.

Scott Parkinson’s side now had a ‘stick-or-twist’ dilemma. Winning could lift them to third in the standings, but equally they didn’t want to over commit, possibly lose this match and then end up in a final day dogfight with Houston and North Carolina.

Lloyd and Purce weren’t entertaining such concerns. The original ‘Jersey Girl’ played a beautiful lofted pass over the Louisville backline in the 81st minute. Purce won the footrace and got her shot away but defender Kaleigh Riehl’s last-ditch lunge took just enough pace off the ball for Katie Lund to gather it in.

Nevertheless, Gotham fans would have their hearts in their mouths in stoppage time. Cheyna Matthews showed great strength to spin away from Elizabeth Eddy in the penalty area, rifling a half-volley towards the top left corner that Sheridan acrobatically tipped over the cross bar.

Racing Louisville completed their home programme with a nice, neat four wins, four losses and four draws with plenty of positives to take into next season. Taking out the Challenge Cup attendances of spring, they averaged around 6,500 per match which confirmed that there’s at least as much of an appetite for NWSL in Kentucky as anywhere else in the country.

NJ wouldn’t seal their playoff spot here, but knew that a point on the final day would be enough. They had a good handle on their opposition. It would be Racing Louisville again! But this time they would square up at the Red Bull Arena…

Week 22 – Carli Closes her account. Oh, and some playoff stuff…

The Chicago Red Stars ended their regular season campaign on a high, beating Orlando Pride on their own patch to secure home advantage in the forthcoming playoff quarter finals.

Mallory Pugh and Arin Wright had first half attempts for the visitors but couldn’t hit the target.

The Pride were similarly wasteful with Gunny Jónsdóttir and Alex Morgan failing to test Cassie Miller in the Red Stars’ goal.

In the end the Red Stars simply had more at stake than their opponents. Morgan Gautrat teed up Kealia Watt in the 65th minute and the attacker curled the ball past Erin McLeod for the only goal of the game.

Orlando ended their schedule with a five-match losing streak and Head Coach Becky Burleigh announced that she would be stepping down in line with what had been agreed with Pride general management.

Chicago, conversely, closed out their fixtures on the back of three wins and would host Gotham FC on the 7th November at the SeatGeek Stadium. It would be the sixth consecutive year that Chicago had made the post-season.

Kansas City left it until the last game of the season to announce their new name, branding and colours for next year, but were then royally battered by OL Reign on the pitch.

Eugénie Le Sommer: “Qualification pour les demi-finales”. It’s fair to say, the season has gone well for the French forward…

There was a feelgood feeling in the 6,300+ crowd with the prospect of the NWSL’s first purpose-built stadium in the City on the horizon and a fancy launch video circulating on social media. From this point on, KC are going to be known as the Kansas City Current – a reference to the river next to which the ground will be situated. D2B is not going to lie: it’s going to take some time for that name to sink in and start sounding normal to our British earholes…

On the field, however, the current was against them as OL Reign largely dominated. Dzsenifer Marozsán’s half volley in the 3rd minute was brilliantly tipped over by Adriana Franch and the keeper was in the right place ten minutes later to deny Eugénie Le Sommer with her legs.

Eventually the dam cracked and Reign took a 35th minute lead. Marozsán located Sofia Huerta on the right and the winger whipped in a trademark cross that deceived intended target Rose Lavelle, whisked across Franch and ricocheted off defender Kiki Pickett into an empty net.

Marozsán tried her luck from inside the ‘D’ in first half added time but Franch was equal to it again.

But Kansas City were unable to hold out for long after the restart. Megan Rapinoe’s corner from the left seemed perfect for Lavelle, but she shanked her volley across the goal. Le Sommer put the ball in at the far post.

Just after the hour Rapinoe volleyed wide from another pinpoint Huerta delivery. But the Reign deservedly increased their lead three minutes later with a wonderful team goal. Jess Fishlock, Rapinoe and Marozsán wove a path down their left, ‘Pinoe’ crossed and Le Sommer met it with a bullet header from six-yards.

They should perhaps have made the result look more comfortable with Le Sommer and substitute Bethany Balcer missing chances, but credit to Franch in the KC net who never offers up an easy goal if she can help it.

OL Reign would get a week off to prepare for the highest seeded winner from the playoff quarter finals. The Tacoma club had enjoyed a very good run-in, though, with just one defeat in their last ten games. The team really found its groove after new Head Coach Laura Harvey arrived and implemented some of her ideas, so they’d be confident that they could go one better than the regular season and clinch the NWSL Championship…

Kansas City finished the season bottom of the table, but defeat to the Reign was their first home loss since the end of June so there will surely be hopes in the City that a fresh start and a shiny stadium can breath new life into Huw Williams’ squad for 2022. Talking of which…

“Power. Lives. Here.” Well if that’s true at least we know the floodlights will work. Kansas City have an announcement to make…

North Carolina Courage kept their dwindling playoff hopes alive with a goalless draw at the home of Shield Champions the Portland Thorns. Sean Nahas’ side had to endure a lot of pressure but were arguably robbed of a perfectly good goal by the Assistant Referee…

Less than three minutes had been played when Courage left back Carson Pickett curled in an inviting free kick delivery that Kaleigh Kurtz headed in at the far post. The celebrations began and then abruptly ceased, but it was never quite clear why the goal was chalked off. No one looked offside and Kurtz didn’t appear to foul anyone in her quest for the ball.

After some wry smiles – but limited protests – the match resumed. Thorns forward Morgan Weaver fired wide shortly afterwards, following a typically brisk run and cross from striker partner Sophia Smith.

Portland started to ramp up the pressure. Christine Sinclair’s deflected effort was hauled in by keeper Casey Murphy. Then Smith missed a sitter after Lindsey Horan had teed her up. The young striker drove wide in the 41st minute and finally got one on target two minutes later, only to find Murphy perfectly positioned to make the parry.

Weaver’s snapshot early in the second period cannoned off the upright, then Sinclair drove another attempt over the cross bar. Just after the hour mark Horan conjured up a cross from the left, but Weaver couldn’t keep her header down.

With Mark Parson’s side having ‘one of those days’ in front of goal, there was always the chance that North Carolina could smash and grab victory. Jess McDonald bulldozed her way past makeshift full back Kelli Hubly and drew a good save from Bella Bixby at her near post. McDonald got to the rebound first but blazed over.

With two minutes to go McDonald was the target for Pickett’s out-swinging corner but powered her header off the cross bar.

A 0-0 draw was probably just about fair given Portland’s relentless pressure versus North Carolina’s chalked off goal. The Thorns had nothing on the game and just needed to avoid injuries. While it would have been nice for their fans to condemn a fierce rival to the ignominy of no post-season their highest attendance of the campaign seemed to enjoy the occasion nonetheless.

For Sean Nahas and his squad, they finished the match hanging on to a playoff berth by the skin of their teeth. But the Courage would need Washington Spirit to do them a favour the following day against Houston. The Dash only needed to match North Carolina’s result to ensure they took their place in Championship quarter finals…

Houston Dash blew their playoff dreams with a single-goal defeat to form side Washington Spirit at Audi Field. James Clarkson’s side started okay, but their ambition faded and they decided to dig in for a point. The Spirit scored late and Houston couldn’t sufficiently reignite their attack as time ebbed away…

Rookie of the Year? You’d be hard pressed to find a better bet than born assassin Trinity Rodman (2). Here she is murdering Houston’s playoff aspirations…

A nice aside before kick off, Spirit veterans Tori Huster and Kelley O’Hara celebrated their 150th and 100th NWSL games respectively before the match. Then it was down to business, well for O’Hara anyway.

Houston keeper Jane Campbell was in action early, pawing away Ashley Hatch’s close range header at full stretch.

The Dash found their way into the game, though, with Haley Hanson heading Kristie Mewis’s left-wing corner over the bar in the 12th minute. Nichelle Prince played Rachel Daly in behind the Spirit defence but the English international flashed the ball across the face of goal with no one in support.

The teams traded distance efforts. Dash midfielder Sophie Schmidt hammered her effort straight at Aubrey Bledsoe from the edge of the penalty box. At the other end Ashley Sanchez drove over the bar from a similar range.

Spirit rookie Trinity Rodman had been quiet in the first half but started to come to life after the break, offering herself for Kelley O’Hara’s cut back in the 54th minute but clipping the ball high and wide of the goal frame.

A minute later Rodman was on the left flank, cruising inside her defensive shadow before unleashing a fiercely hit shot that Campbell was grateful to gather without any drama.

With 20 minutes remaining James Clarkson revealed his hand, subbing off pacey attacker Jasmyne Spencer for defender Megan Oyster. The Dash hadn’t been able to get anything going in the second half so holding out for the draw would be the play.

Washington dropped a grenade on that strategy six minutes later from a simple ball over the top. Centre back Sam Staab clipped a nicely weighted forty-yarder into Rodman’s path, she won the foot race with Abby Dahlkemper and smashed the ball past Campbell on the half-volley.

Now Houston needed a goal. Desperately. Kristie Mewis generated half a yard on the edge of the Spirit penalty area in the 82nd minute hitting a low drive that Bledsoe fielded low to her right.

The hosts almost wrapped the result up three minutes later, but Sanchez’s 25-yard free-kick didn’t dip quite enough to trouble Campbell.

Clarkson’s last roll of the dice was to throw forwards Michaela Abam and Veronica Latsko into the fray. But it was defensive substitute Oyster that nearly found him an equaliser, getting on the end of another Mewis corner but directing her header straight at Bledsoe.

A 1-0 win for Washington Spirit meant Kris Ward’s side finished their regular season in third place. Plus they were heading into a home playoff quarter final on the back of four straight wins and with Golden Boot winner Ashley Hatch in good form. They hadn’t been beaten on a football pitch since Week 12 (they had forfeited two games in the meantime due to breaches of Covid-19 protocol). In a season where they had seen a manager fired for player abuse and had to endure all sorts of off-field drama involving the fans and the club’s owner, this exciting (mostly young) Washington Spirit side had been a joy to watch.

For the Dash, well they hit the skids at exactly the wrong time. Three straight defeats in their run-in saw them plummet from third to seventh – even though they had enjoyed a much better second half of the season than North Carolina.

But it was really the manner of defeat in their final match that was so disappointing – they had so much more at stake than their hosts on the day. The Dash clearly had a talented group; when they were firing they were a very tough proposition. But the team never got out of a low gear against Washington. Performance levels aside, fans could also argue that decisions on subs took too long, and that an emphasis on defending the draw carried more risk than trying to go on the offensive. The playoffs would be poorer without them…

Carli Lloyd closed out her regular-season career with NJ/NY Gotham FC with a second half goal. But Racing Louisville would once again find a way back against them with CeCE Kizer ensuring the points were shared.

The point gained in this fixture would ensure that Lloyd’s elongated farewell to domestic and international soccer would continue into the playoffs, but you know what: it’s refreshing to see the entire league making such a fuss of a genuine living legend who, at 39-years old, has been able to maintain such high standards right up to her last kick of the ball.

The match itself was not a classic to be fair. Ifeoma Onumonu went closest in the first half, heading wide from Caprice Dydasco’s 24th minute free kick.

The story was Lloyd, though, and she gave the home fans what they craved in the 53rd minute. Midfielder Allie Long played the ball out to Elizabeth Eddy on the left; the full back fizzed a superb cross into the six-yard-box where Lloyd was arriving to power past Katie Lund. It was a picture perfect strike from one of the sport’s iconic attacking midfielders.

Carli Lloyd’s last ever regular season goal for Gotham FC.

That could have been the moment for Louisville to head to the beach, mentally, but they rallied and Savannah McCaskill’s left-wing delivery somehow duped Long into a bizarre handball inside her own penalty area. CeCe Kizer had scored in the draw with Gotham three days prior to this contest and looked confident stepping up to take the spot kick. Rightly so too, because she clipped the ball plum into the postage stamp of Kailen Sheridan’s top left-hand corner.

Dydasco tried her luck from 20-yards with a few minutes remaining but a 1-1 draw was a somewhat fitting result for this final fixture of the season. Including the Challenge Cup these teams had met four times since the spring and had tied all of them!

Louisville would head into the off season to consider where improvements could be made to the squad with the prospect of expansion and college drafts on the horizon.

Gotham FC headed into the playoffs for the first time since 2013 (when they were Sky Blue). They would travel to Chicago to take on the Red Stars knowing that they had been beaten fewer times than any other team in the NWSL regular season (just 5 losses). They were also on an eight-match unbeaten streak, the second time that Gotham had put such a run together during their campaign. Dark horses for the Championship? Carli’s final season. Stranger things have happened…

[There would normally be a final standings image in this spot. But for reasons known only to the NWSL they didn’t drop a table on Social Media..! Ed.]

The team of the month was announced at the start of November:

They’ve shoe-horned Sofia Huerta in at right back, but rightly so – the OL Reign winger was absolutely brilliant in October.

The Quarter Final matches in the playoffs would be played on November 7th, at good times for ‘Brits’ and other western European countries.

Chicago Red Stars host NJ/NY Gotham FC at 3.00pm ET which is 19:00 GMT.

Washington Spirit then take on North Carolina Courage at 5.30pm ET which is 21:30 GMT.

For information, the Portland Thorns and OL Reign have a bye to the semi-finals where they will both get home advantage against the QF winners with Portland getting the lower seeded team.

Not exactly a tactical substitution: 316 and done for Carli Lloyd…

==

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