For the first time since the season’s early weeks, the NWSL has a new leader. The spot Sky Blue FC held down for months was taken by FC Kansas City on Wednesday, the Blues’ win over the Breakers vaulting Vlatko Andonovski’s team from third to first. When FCKC collected three more points at Sky Blue late Sunday night, one of the preseason favorites had consolidated their perch atop the league.
It really is Kansas City’s world, at this point. On form, they’re clearly the best team in the league, carrying a nine-match unbeaten run out of this weekend’s action. They have the league’s best goal difference (+13), are four points clear after their win in Piscataway, and have the league’s best player (Lauren Holiday). They’ve scored the most goals in the league, are tied for the fewest allowed. They’re positioning themselves for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and have no discernible weakness. Even their trouble getting production out of their strikers is offset by the brilliance of Holiday and Erika Tymrak.
The team that has the best shot to catch them is Portland, though the Thorns found a way to stymie their own momentum this weekend. Up two with 15 minutes to play, Portland still managed to drop points at home to Chicago (for the second time this year). Though they’re only four back and have two games in hand on Kansas City, Sunday’s disappointment brings new questions about the league’s other preseason favorite.
Here’s what happened in Week 16 of the NWSL season:
Wednesday, July 24
FC Kansas City 3, Boston Breakers 0 – A game dominated by FC Kansas City didn’t see it’s first goal until past the hour mark, but in that closing third of the match, we saw two unusual things for Kansas City. First, though our Week 16 look ahead worried about the staying power of a team so dependent on two stars, the Blues found goals from other places: Merritt Mathias and Courtney Jones. Second, after spending an hour struggling to see their control payoff, Kansas City switched from their normal 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-2-4-0, bringing on Teresa Noyola for Melissa Henderson. Waves of attacks started hitting a Boston defense that had lost its focal point, leading to three FCKC goals in the final 19 minutes.
Implications: Boston’s playoff hopes were already in critical condition. After this loss, they were on life support. Kansas City, on the other hand, ran their unbeaten streak to eight games, a lopsided result leaving no doubt as to who’s the league’s top team, right now.
Thursday, July 25
Seattle Reign FC 4, Chicago Red Stars 1 – Seeing their own unbeaten run snapped last weekend in Kansas City, Seattle took out their frustrations on the visiting Red Stars, setting their season high in goals while squelching the momentum behind Chicago’s playoff push. Two goals from Megan Rapinoe, doubling the total she carried into the game, were augmented by Kaylyn Kyle’s second and Liz Bogus’s first, with only the Jen Hoy’s first professional goal keeping Hope Solo from finally collecting a clean sheet.
Implications: Seattle’s playoff hopes remain more mathematical than practical, but the benefits of this late season run can be seen at the turnstiles. If the Reign had just faded away after a disastrous start, it’s unlikely 2,017 would have driven to Starfire on a weeknight.
For Chicago, the loss kept them four back of Western New York with five to play. With no remaining games against the Flash, each dropped point leaves the Red Stars that much more dependent on Western New York hitting a banana peel.
Saturday, July 27
Washington Spirit 2, Boston Breakers 5 – For the first time since May, Washington scored from open play, Diana Matheson recording her seventh goal of the year in the second minute. The Spirit repeated the feet later through Conny Pohlers, the German opening her NWSL account, but a season-high five goals allowed sent them to their 12th loss of the season.
Washington was playing with a makeshift defense, injuries forcing three non-defenders into their back line, but they aren’t the first team to have to take evasive action (Seattle did so for the first two months of the season). But when Mariah Nogueira, Lianne Sanderson, Rhian Wilkinson (below), Heather O’Reilly, and Cat Whitehill got onto the score sheet, Washington did become the second NWSL team to give up five (Boston, vs. Sky Blue, June 1).
Implications: The same week it’s announced goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris will play with Sweden’s Tyresö this fall, she allows five goals, one very clearly preventable. As her public comments precipitated the firing of Mike Jorden and his staff after the Spirit’s June 28 loss in Rochester, it’s worth considering what we’ve learned about the Spirit in the month that’s followed. The team is 0-4-1 with a -7 goal difference in that time, worse results than they were getting before Harris spoke out (1-8-3, -14). Jorden may not have been the right coach for Washington, but it’s also unclear the extent to which he was contributing to Washington’s problems. We should be careful where we drive our buses.
As for Boston, they’re in the same boat as Chicago: Waiting for Western New York to screw up. Four back with four to go, at least their playoff hopes are alive, even if we the Flash should be planning to travel on August 24.
Sunday, July 28
Portland Thorns FC 3, Chicago Red Stars 3 – One of the wildest games of the year saw Christine Sinclair finally break through (two goals), Meleana Shim continue her rise from obscurity (three games in a row with goals), but Portland’s defense collapse in the last 15 minutes. Alyssa Mautz completed her unlikely double in the 75th minute, while Julianne Sitch’s 86th minute equalizer gave Chicago an unlikely and needed point.
As entertaining as the match was, the couple of tantalizing stories were in the details.
- Lori Chalupny, one of the league’s four best players this year, gave way for Mautz in the 18th minute after one of the worst tackles of the season left the former U.S. international unable to put weight on her right ankle. A clear red card foul was only shown yellow, with Heath going on to record two assists.
- Alex Morgan was removed from the game in the 74th, which would normally we no big deal, especially with the team up 3-1. But Morgan appeared, shall we say, less than thrilled when replaced by Tiffany Weimer, almost despondently looking on in isolation from her teammates as Chicago rallied from two goals down. Morgan’s effectiveness has been much debated throughout the season (conclusions vary), but Sunday’s was a picture’s worth a thousand words moment, snapped up by the cameras covering the league’s weekly national television game. (Morgan wasn’t available to the media after the game.)
Implications: At the beginning of the season, people talked about Portland’s defense as a relative weakness, though throughout the campaign, it was one of the team’s only strengths. Now that the attack is improving with the addition of Heath, have the defensive issues finally manifest?
For Chicago, it was a dramatic point but not the best result. They close the week four points behind Western New York but with two games marked off the schedule. Their playoff push is blunted.
Sky Blue FC 0, FC Kansas City 1 – The last time FC Kansas City visited Piscataway, a controlling performance was offset when Monica Ocampo found two late goals. This time, given a chance to put four points between themselves and the former, long-time league leaders, FC Kansas City wasn’t so generous. A typically commanding performance came good when Courtney Jones redirected a Lauren Holiday corner past Brittany Cameron for the game’s only goal, though if it wasn’t for a remarkable late save from rookie defender Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall, Kansas City’s result would have better reflected their control of the game. (Nobody’s gif-ed that one.)
Implications: Sky Blue are still struggling. Almost assured of a playoff spot, they can spent the next four weeks trying to find a formula that will work come playoff time. Unfortunately, that formula won’t include right back Caitlin Foord (initial recovery time of 6-10 weeks for her sprain has her out for the rest of the season).
Kansas City runs their unbeaten streak to nine games ahead of a pivotal match in Portland. By that time, the Thorns could be within a point, depending on their mid-week result against visiting Sky Blue. Regardless, a win a JELD-WEN could pave Kansas City’s path to home-field advantage, with season-ending games against Boston and Chicago giving Kansas City the potential to carry some momentum into the playoffs.(All GIFs were found searching Tumblr, with Becky Smith laying claim to the Portland grabs.)