NWSL Week 2: A Look Ahead

Ashlyn Harris

By KAREEN DROT

The first week of  National Women’s Soccer League action produced a mixed bag of results – the defending champion Portland Thorns FC underwhelmed against expansion side Houston Dash while Seattle Reign FC, a second-to-last place team last season, earned their first ever clean sheet. But Week 2 should shuffle the deck even further.

Seattle has the week off while the rest of the teams have the chance to catch up to The Reign, currently holding the top spot in the league table.

Houston will visit the Boston Breakers at their brand new home at Harvard Stadium. The Breakers lost 3-0 to Seattle and will be looking to use this week’s game against the Dash to erase a rough start. The Chicago Red Stars return to action after taking the first week off and will host the Western New York Flash at Toyota Park in a double-header with Chicago Fire.

Meanwhile, a defeated Washington Spirit will try to rebound against FC Kansas City as the Thorns will visit a tough Sky Blue FC.

Here’s a closer look at this weekend’s NWSL matchups:

WASHINGTON SPIRIT vs. FC KANSAS CITY (Saturday, 6:30 PM ET – watch live)

The Spirit struggled last week against a physically imposing Western New York Flash, but showed signs of fight, equalizing once before falling 3-1.

This week, the Spirit need to reintroduce the aggression they presented early on against the Flash. One minute into the game, Washington didn’t waste time attacking down the flank, penetrating the box and testing the Flash goalkeeper. This setup could put FCKC off their guard and set the tone for Saturday’s match.

Spirit may have the drive but lack clinical finishers, something that FCKC has in abundance. Proven scorers Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez and Erika Tymrak will look to expand the holes in a shaky Washington defense and Spirit may have to use midfielders like Yael Averbuch to mark those top scorers.

FC Kansas City’s challenge will be to control Washington in the midfield and thwart any attempts made to push the ball forward. The Spirit’s experienced and aggressive midfield might struggle breaking down a Kansas City defense led by Becky Sauerbrunn with Leigh Ann Robinson. There’s newcomer Kasey Kallman to worry about – she earned her first assist of the season on an Amy Rodriguez goal in the first half against Sky Blue last week.

CHICAGO RED STARS vs. WESTERN NEW YORK FLASH (Saturday 6:45 PM ET – watch live)

Chicago have been handed a tough season-opener as they host the Flash for the first of three meetings this year. Unfortunately, the Red Stars might not be prepared to handle the new talent that has joined an already intimidating Flash team, including Vicky Losada, voted last week’s best player.

Losada, the Flash’s newest addition from FC Barcelona, has scored two goals and an assist in her debut. She spells trouble for the Red Stars, who still lack a solid defense. Chicago’s back four remains relatively unchanged with all four previous season starters likely to play a full 90. This defense conceded 36 goals last season and Chicago’s best hope to stay in the game is with Karina LeBlanc between the posts. LeBlanc was superb for Portland last season, earning 7 shutouts.

The difference for the Flash may be how calculated they are in their approach. They don’t take anything by chance – when they put the ball up, it should be on target. Last week, the Flash put up four shots to score three goals. If Chicago’s midfield gives WNY an inch of space, the Flash will certainly capitalize. Chicago’s best opportunity could be to use Adriana Leon and Julie Johnston out on the wing in the midfield to shut down any attacks formed by Losada or Carli Lloyd. The Canadian and American international players would also be the strongest options on the field to push the ball forward and get Chicago on the board.

SKY BLUE FC vs. PORTLAND THORNS FC (Saturday 7:00 PM ET – watch live)

The Portland Thorns and Sky Blue FC both started the season under-performing, but salvaging points – one for Sky Blue and three for Portland. Week 2 for both sides will be about playing to their potential.

Both clubs could have added more experienced players to the roster in the offseason and chose not to. But both clubs have the pieces they need if they can use them right.

For Portland coach Paul Riley, it may have been a mistake not to add a target forward to replace star striker Alex Morgan while she recuperates. Unfortunately, the Thorns can’t always depend on Christine Sinclair to score as she disappeared into the background last week as the midfield fell apart at the seams.

If the Thorns want to fare better this week, Mana Shim may need to return to the starting 11. The former Broncos midfielder could have made an impact early to spur the midfield and contain Houston in the defensive third rather than concede four corner kicks in the first half.

This week, Sky Blue has to regroup and place more emphasis up top. The lone striker formation that Gabarra has used throughout the preseason has not proven so far to work very well this team. Maya Hayes has yet to convert on any chances, which may mean Gabarra needs to find a player who has a proven ability to score. Gabarra should be looking for someone who can play independently up top while falling back into the midfield if needed. An ideal target forward may be Monica Ocampo, the team’s top scorer last season. However, she only made an appearance in the 76th minute for Sky Blue last week.

Sky Blue’s midfield also shouldn’t rely on Katy Freels to pick them out of a sticky situation. They will need Sophie Schmidt to once again take a leadership role there. But Sky Blue should head into this week’s match buoyed by Caitlin Foord’s performance last week in the midfield. She is a force that the opposition struggle to contain and this could come in handy against a Portland defense that is struggling to find their rhythm without their leader, Rachel Van Hollebeke.

In terms of scoring potential, Portland is the favorite to clinch the lead due to the ambitious and aggressive style of play by Jessica McDonald and Allie Long, which is likely to cause Sky Blue’s defense and midfield to work overtime.

BOSTON BREAKERS vs. HOUSTON DASH (Sunday, 6:30 PM ET – watch live)

After a disappointing result in their NWSL debut, the Houston Dash will have to leave the comforts of BBVA Compass Stadium and travel for the first of two on the road games. Their first stop will be against Boston this weekend at Harvard Stadium.

Houston has a lot to offer, especially with their starting midfielder, Jordan Jackson. The former Nebraska midfielder had two golden opportunities to score at home, missing just above the crossbar. Jackson slipped behind the defense on several occasions and managed to get on the end of perfectly placed balls inside the box. Unfortunately, her aim let her down but Boston will want to be on the lookout – leaving her unmarked might result in Boston losing their second consecutive match.

For Boston, their defense is still an area of concern. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher is mostly strong between the posts, but her back four has a tendency to get out-maneuvered by agile players. As the defense focus on one primary attacker, they lose sight of the supporting players in the background, who begin to clutter around the 18 yard box. Boston needs to spread their defense wide because Houston’s midfield is strong down the flanks. They’ll also have to keep an eye on striker Stephanie Ochs, who is capable of charging down the center of the field and then switching sides to come in from the wing.

On the other end of the field, Boston needs Lisa De Vanna rested and ready to start. Her speed will occupy the Houston defense and allow Boston space to move forward, giving Lianne Sanderson a chance to get on the end of a cross inside the box. Houston will face a challenge trying to dispossess Breakers playmaker Heather O’Reilly as she will look to set up attacks through Sanderson, De Vanna and Katie Schoepfer.

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What do you think of this weekend’s NWSL slate? Which matchup are you looking forward to the most?

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