Chicago Red Stars

Walking through Week 18 of the NWSL season

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The minimal certainty we had last week remains just that: Minimal certainty. FC Kansas City is still in control of their playoff destiny, three points clear of the pack, but they were expected to seal up home field advantage on Saturday in Boston. That didn’t happen, and with the three teams vying for second place all drawing this weekend, we also didn’t get much clarity. First place maintains a sliver of doubt. Second place is an enigma wrapped in a passive riddle wrapped in that hip-to-ankle leg brace that sent fans into hysterics on Wednesday night.

Concerns about form aside, Week 18 sets up a dramatic end to the NWSL’s first season. Kansas City need only draw at home against Chicago to earn home field advantage, but the rest of the picture’s unclear. Western New York’s struggled with Boston all season, and that was before the Breakers’ post-Whitehill surge. Portland seemed to be plummeting, but now their Saturday foes (Seattle) appear derailed. And Sky Blue FC — the team that was limping into the playoffs a week ago — are showing signs of life ahead of their season finale in Washington.

But that’s Week 19. Here’s a look back at last week’s action:

Wednesday, August 7

Boston Breakers 2, Portland Thorns FC 1 – Portland’s recovery from their devastating loss the previous Sunday to Kansas City was overshadowed eight minutes into Wednesday match. That’s when Boston defender and former Thorn Jazymne Avant’s challenge on Alex Morgan twisted the U.S. international’s left knee, leaving her to be stretchered from the match moments later. Portland’s replacement, Tiffany Weimer, eventually gave Thorns FC the lead before second half goals from Lianne Sanderson and Heather O’Reilly snatched a surprise victory for Boston.

Implications: Morgan was eventually diagnosed with a grade 1 MCL sprain with a recovery time for 2-4 weeks. The low-end of that timeline would have her back for the league’s semifinals (played on Aug. 24). The high-end might see her miss not only the rest of the NWSL season but also the U.S.’s Sept. 3 friendly against Mexico.

On the field, it was an emotional loss for Portland, whose defensive struggles continued, allowing their eighth and ninth goals in four games. Once the league’s best defense, Thorns FC looked incapable of keeping goals out by the end of Wednesday’s match, Boston scoring twice in the last 24 minutes to reverse Weimer’s opener.

For Boston, the match was a welcome reversal from defender Cat Whitehill’s coaching debut, one that saw Western New York pull back a two-goal deficit the preceding Friday. The win also ran their unbeaten run to three, pulling them back to “five hundred” (7-7-6).

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 21 38 +13
2 2 W. New York 21 35 +15
3 4 Portland 21 35 +6
4 5 Sky Blue 21 35 +5
5 3 Boston 21 30 +2
6 6 Chicago 21 27 -5
7 7 Seattle 21 18 -13
8 8 Washington 21 13 -23

Western New York Flash 1, Seattle Reign FC 0  – Any suspicion Seattle would wilt after being eliminated from the playoffs seemed alleviated in the first half, when Reign FC’s intensity helped push the match to intermission scoreless. One second half breakdown, however, undid Laura Harvey’s team, with Abby Wambach setting up Carli Lloyd in the 54th minute for the game’s only goal.

Implications: Combined with Portland’s loss, the win moved Western New York into second place ahead of the teams’ Saturday meeting at Sahlen Park. Perhaps as important in the long run, the Flash bounced back from a down performance at Dilboy. Instead of ceding control for most of the match only to rally late, Western New York were the slightly better side throughout.

Washington Spirit 1, Chicago Red Stars 0 – Without Lori Chalupny, Chicago became the second team to lose to Washington this season (first at Maryland Soccerplex Stadium) when Lupita Gorbis beat Erin McLeod in the 58th minute, an almost unheard of open play, game-winning Spirit goal. How the match ended, however, was more interesting than the final score, with two long lightning delays near the end of the second half preventing the game from being completed before Soccerplex’s curfew.

Implications: On Wednesday, the weather overshadowed Washington’s breakthrough. In hindsight, who cares. One week after I evoked the 2011 Atlanta Beat when discussing the Spirit, they shoved that comparison down my throat. Congratulations, Washington. I deserved that.

For Chicago, their playoff hopes ended with the loss, something that gave the curfew extra significance. After the match, however, Red Stars head coach Rory Dames took to Twitter to thank Washington for trying to hard to get the match back underway and give Chicago a chance to save their season. Ultimately, Mother Nature wasn’t a Red Stars fan.

Saturday, August 10

Boston Breakers 1, FC Kansas City 0 – Kansas City’s 4-6-0 formation that was talked about two weeks ago? They started it on Saturday, inserting former Hermann Trophy-winner Teresa Noyola into the lineup for the willing-if-ineffective Melissa Henderson. The change resulted in Kansas City’s flatted performance in the season, their 10-match unbeaten run snapped after Sydney Leroux’s 11th goal of the season. The Blues went on to be outshot 7-2 (shots on goal), surprising given how successful their striker-less formation was against Boston in Overland Park.

Implications: For the Breakers, the removal of Lisa Cole hasn’t been too little, too late as much as it’s just been too late. They’re 2-0-1 under Cat Whitehill, have taken points from the league’s top three teams, and have only given up a three goals in as many games. Granted, all the games have been at home, but Boston may have actually been able to salvage their season had they installed Whitehill three weeks earlier.

For Kansas City, the streak had to end sometime. Better now than in the playoffs. Still, they had a chance to lock down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, leaving the coming weekend’s season finale to work out kinks and rest ailing bodies. Now, their game against Chicago means something.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 9
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 11 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 7
4 tied at 8 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
Katy Freels (SBFC) 6

Chicago Red Stars 3, Sky Blue FC 3 – Against the newly eliminated Red Stars, Sky Blue solved one problem, failed to address another. Three goals (two from Monica Ocampo) and a strong performance from Katy Freels gave SBFC fans reason to think their attack’s returned. Unfortunately, their team also gave up two leads, with Red Star Jackie Santacaterina providing two second half equalizers in one of the season’s more exciting matches.

Implications: Yes, this was a missed opportunity for Sky Blue, but bigger picture, it’s progress. The team hadn’t been playing well for some time headed into this match. Against a good team, on the road, they had their moments. Again: progress.

For Chicago, two second half comebacks showed a lot of heart, considering the team was still without their best player (Chalupny) and had been eliminated from the playoffs three nights before. And for Santacaterina — somebody whose been a valuable squad player for Dames all season — it was a deserved moment in the spotlight.

Washington Spirit 1, Seattle Reign FC 0 – All that fight the eliminated Reign showed in Rochester? In Boyds, not so much. Given the difference in quality between the two squads, Seattle should have won this match. Instead, they played down to their competition. To Washington’s credit, they took advantage, with Diana Matheson’s eight goal of the season in the 83rd minute giving the team their third win.

Implications: Don’t take too much away from the Spirit. Over the course a season you’ll play teams that are on their games and teams that are down. Part of the challenge is taking advantage of the latter, which Washington did. Earlier this season, they weren’t making the most of these opportunities.

It’s important to note how far Washington’s come. They’re still the eighth of eight teams, but whereas last week we were talking about the Spirit as one of the worst teams in U.S. women’s professional soccer history, now they’ve turned it around. Two straight wins over quality teams? That’s unquestionably progress; progress that wasn’t apparent seven days ago. Well done, Mark Parsons.

Western New York Flash 0, Portland Thorns FC 0 – Last week I was complaining that the NWSL and FOX Soccer didn’t put this game on national television. They clearly knew something I didn’t. Not only was Alex Morgan not available (having flow back to Portland with her knee injury), but this game was an absolute dud. Western New York seemed tired. Portland seemed in survival mode. While that seven-eight matchup at Boyds wasn’t exactly the best advertisement for the league, either, it was better than the game in Rochester.

Implications: Western New York stay second in the league, but thanks to Sky Blue’s draw in Chicago, there’s a trio of teams sitting three points behind Kansas City.

The scenarios (correct me if I’m wrong):

  • Kansas City takes home-field outright with a point on Sunday against Chicago. The only way they don’t take home field with a loss is if they’re involved in a three- or four-way tie that also includes the Flash. In that scenario, KC’s head-to-head advantage gets usurped by Western New York’s edge in goal difference.
  • Western New York needs to win, have Kansas City lose, and have Portland or Sky Blue win to take home field. A win guarantees them at least second place (and a home game). Barring any outlandish results that significantly change goal difference, they’ll win tiebreakers with Portland, Sky Blue, or a three-way tie between all three clubs.
  • Portland needs to better Western New York’s result (Thorns are at Seattle; WNY hosts Boston). They also need to stay ahead of Sky Blue (at Washington) on goal difference. Do both those things, and Thorns FC hosts a playoff game.
  • Sky Blue needs to better Western New York’s result. They also need to, vis-a-vis Portland:

(a) better Portland’s result; or
(b) stay even with Portland and pull ahead in goal difference (they’re -1 right now); or
(c) stay even with Portland, pull even on goal difference and out-score Portland, which will give them the edge on the league’s third tiebreaker: goals scored; or
(d) stay even with Portland, pull even on goal difference and even in goals scored, which will give them the edge on the league’s fourth tiebreaker: head-to-head road record (Sky Blue has three points at Portland; Portland has one point at Sky Blue).

State of the NWSL, Week 17: Talent not enough in Portland, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 18

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If you’re a masochistic Seattle Sounders fan looking for reason to doubt your Clint Dempsey-emboldened team, look 174 miles to the south, but not to your rival Timbers. Occupying the same stadium is a team which, gifted during the NWSL’s preseason player allocation, was expected to claim the new league’s title. Now, three games from the regular season finish line, Portland finds itself in another trough, inconsistency evident over their last three games having ceded control of home field advantage to league-leading FC Kansas City.

Inconsistency’s been the theme of year for Thorns FC. They spent much of the season’s opening month in first place, with captain Christine Sinclair winning the league’s first Player of the Month award. But as her feared pairing with U.S. international Alex Morgan failed to meet expectations, Portland found itself out of first, relying on their defense to cover for a struggling attack.

The weird part? Neither Sinclair nor Morgan were playing particularly poorly. They weren’t producing like people expected, and their performances were far from perfect, but they weren’t stinking up the place, either. Portland just weren’t able to convert their talents into goals.

Chalk that up to the “separation” that came to light on Sunday, reminding everybody that there’s more to putting a good team together than getting Sinclairs and Morgans on the payroll. There has to be a plan that can get the most out of them. There has to be a cohesion within the team. And you also need strong individual performances. Without those things, even superstars can be made to look average.

Portland still sit second in the NWSL. If they find a way to click over the next two weeks, the Thorns still have the talent to claim the league’s first title. But until they find that formula they’ll serve as a point of caution: Talent isn’t enough.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 20 38 +14
2 3 Portland 19 34 +7
3 7 Sky Blue FC 20 34 +5
4 2 W. New York 19 31 +14
5 4 Chicago 19 26 -4
6 6 Boston 19 24 +0
7 5 Seattle 19 18 -11
8 8 Washington 19 7 -25

RANKINGS OF POWER

In reverse order. The underlying logic: Tomorrow, neutral site, who do we think is more likely to win:

8. Washington Spirit (last week: 8) – Gave up 40 shots over the course of two games. Posted eight of their own. Right now, the 2011 Atlanta Beat have nothing on this team.

7. Sky Blue FC (6) – Coach Jim Gabarra’s side was dealt another blow when Danesha Adams hurt her ankle mid-week in Portland. Regardless, the search for answers continues for the former league leaders.

6. Boston Breakers (7) – The Cat Whitehill era started well but ended in disappointment, their inability to take three points from fourth place Western New York further crippling their playoff chances.

5. Seattle Reign FC (2) – Over the course of nine days, Seattle went from beating Chicago 4-1 to losing to them by two goals. Hence this drop.

4. Chicago Red Stars (5) – Credit coach Rory Dames for keeping the team together, the Red Stars overcoming their slow start to carve out a place in the playoff race. Now they wait and see if Western New York stumbles.

3. Portland Thorns FC (4) – Portland’s struggling. They’re struggling relative to Kansas City. They’re struggling relative to expectations. But it’s important to remember they’re still a very capable team.

2. Western New York Flash (3) – Saturday’s game in Somerville wasn’t their best performance of the season, but the road point went a long way toward alleviating playoff doubts.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – They control their path to the regular season title. They have the league’s best player (Lauren Holiday), best defender (Becky Sauerbrunn), and possibly its best coach (Vlatko Andonovski). It almost increases the pressure to see this through and claim that title.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 9
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Alex Morgan (PTFC) 8 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
2 tied at 7 5 tied at 5

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, August 7

Boston Breakers vs. Portland Thorns FC (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – Portland beat Boston at Dilboy on July 21 but not so badly that the Breakers couldn’t reverse that result. For Boston, they need a win and some help to keep their playoff chances alive, while Portland’s dream of home field would be dealt a huge blow without three points. With Boston perhaps coming down from their small coaching change bounce, Thorns FC look likely to replicate July’s result.

Western New York Flash vs. Seattle Reign FC (7:05 p.m. Eastern) – Seattle’s played the Flash tough in the teams’ two previous meetings, taking four points while having marginally the better of play. Yet on Saturday in Chicago, Reign FC showed their momentum may be spent. Western New York better hope so, because a strong Reign performance combined with a likely Chicago win in Washington would make this weekend’s visit from Thorns FC more important than Aaran Lines would like.

Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars (7:30 p.m. Eastern) – An obligatory three points for Chicago, where an unexpected stumble could see their playoff hopes evaporate. They’ll be without their best player, Lori Chalupny still recovering from an ankle injury, but if the Red Stars are half as good as their late season push hints, they should take full points.

Saturday, August 10

Boston Breakers vs. FC Kansas City (6:00 p.m. Eastern) – As Western New York found out this weekend, there are no guarantees when going to Boston. But Kansas City have been able to handle the Breakers this season, including a dominant 3-0 result in their last meeting in Overland Park. With eyes on home field advantage, the Blues should claim full points, though it won’t be easy.

Washington Spirit vs. Seattle Reign FC (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – For the second time this season, the league’s nationally televised game on FOX Soccer features the league’s seventh and eighth place teams. This is a meaningless game in the standings, and even though Seattle’s thoughts may already be on the offseason, they’d have to severely underperform to give Washington their second win of the year.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Sky Blue FC (7:00 p.m. Eastern) – This will tell us a lot about where Sky Blue is going into the playoffs. They’ve struggled for much of the summer, but if they can go on the road and give a good account of themselves (in their next-to-last game) against a strong Red Stars squad, they may prove more than “the team you want to play” come the postseason. For Chicago, this is a must win game, though the result in Rochester could see them out of playoff contention.

Western New York vs. Portland Thorns FC (7:35 p.m. Eastern) – Yet another time the NWSL has elected to keep Abby Wambach vs. Alex Morgan off national television. It’s almost is if they’re not the league’s two biggest stars. Still, the stakes will be high in this one, regardless of what happens mid-week. If the Flash stumble against Seattle, they could need a result to hold off Chicago for fourth; yet if they’re coming in off a good result, Western New York would be pushing for a home playoff game. Portland will either be trying to protect their second place position or be looking to keep the pressure on Kansas City for home field.

Walking through Week 17 of the NWSL season

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Certainty. For a league whose top four hasn’t changed for some time, we’ve had a shocking lack of it in the NWSL. Sure, the order of Kansas City, Portland, Sky Blue, and Western New York has changed over the last month or so, but the membership of that group has remained the same for most of the summer. The thing we were really in the dark about: Their order of finish

For most of the season, Sky Blue have occupied the top spot, but their July swoon combined with Kansas City’s 10-match unbeaten run now have the Blues four clear at the top of the league. With Sunday’s 3-2 win at Portland, FCKC became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, providing our first hint as some much-needed clarity. There’s every reason to think the road to this year’s title goes through Overland Park.

That, however, is the only piece of certainty we have. After Week 17, Portland and Sky Blue are tied for second place, and while the Thorns have a match in hand, their inconsistent form means anything can happen (particularly with Thorns FC finishing with three matches on the road). Western New York, three points behind in fourth, may be the best team for the bunch, but a league-leading seven draws shows a tendency to leave points on the table.

At the top, we have more clarity thanks to an increasingly dominant FC Kansas City. Beyond that? It’s still chaos.

Here’s what happened in Week 17:

Wednesday, July 31

Western New York Flash 3, Washington Spirit 0 – Washington’s second straight three-goal loss was actually a type of improvement. The last time the Spirit visited Rochester, they lost 4-0 and changed their coaching staff. This time, Adriana Martin, Sam Kerr, and Carli Lloyd forged the winning margin by the 68th minute. Although the Spirit were able to keep it a 1-0 game for 59 minutes, they were outshot 23-1 on the night.

Implications: 23-1? “What kind of improvement is that, Farley?” Maybe I shouldn’t judge things on score alone, right? Because that’s certainly not a competitive game. I know you could have said that about other Spirit games, and the final margin here wasn’t the most lopsided as other matches we’ve seen this year. But 23-1? How have things gotten to this point for Washington?

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 20 38 +14
2 3 Portland 19 34 +7
3 7 Sky Blue FC 20 34 +5
4 2 W. New York 19 31 +14
5 4 Chicago 19 26 -4
6 6 Boston 19 24 +0
7 5 Seattle 19 18 -11
8 8 Washington 19 7 -25

Portland Thorns FC 3, Sky Blue FC 1 – Sky Blue had been Portland’s bogey team, holding them scoreless over the teams’ previous 180 minutes, and when an early own goal off Nikki Marshall gave the visitors another lead, Jim Gabarra’s club seemed poised to continue their voodoo. But before half, Portland took advantage of a visiting team momentarily down a player (Danesha Adams suffering an injury) to equalize through Alex Morgan. Second half goals from Meleana Shim (fourth in four) and Allie Long fully exorcised Portland’s SBFC demons, helping them to a relatively easy victory.

Implications: For Sky Blue, it wasn’t an unexpected result, but with another player going down, the game exemplified their current state. They’re not playing well, they can’t stay healthy, and even the things they were doing right before seem difficult, now. Portland, however, carried some redemption out of this game, not only defeating Sky Blue for the first time but quelling doubts that had crept in after their late capitulation to Chicago.

Saturday, August 3

Boston Breakers 2, Western New York 2 – Having fired head coach Lisa Cole during the week, Boston took to the field with interim coach Cat Whitehill in central defense, the legendary Kristine Lilly serving as her former teammate’s sideline assistant. The change seemed to inspire Boston to a 2-0 lead, with play off corner kicks leading to goals from Kyah Simon (17′) and Lianne Sanderson (65′).  Then came the collapse, a defensive Breakers side unable to prevent Vicki DiMartino and, five minutes from time, Carli Lloyd from snatching a point for Western New York.

Implications: For the Flash, the comeback is nice, but the result won’t help their quest for a home playoff game. It did, however, eliminate Seattle from the playoffs.

For Boston, Lisa Cole walked the line between being liked and getting results. The organization felt she was underachieving, and although they pulled the trigger on the move three weeks too late to have an meaningful impact on their playoff chances, Boston felt this was their hail mary chance to save their season.

There were questions about her tactics. There were questions about her ability to manage the team’s bigger egos. There were questions about her preferences, carrying over so many Breakers from last year’s WPSL Elite team into this year’s squad. All those quandaries were answered by a bottom line that sees Boston in sixth place, a standing that cost Cole her job.

Chicago Red Stars 3, Seattle Reign FC 1 – Just over one week earlier, Chicago was being routed in Tukwila, 4-1. Consider this the Red Stars’ revenge. Early, dubious penalties converted by Sonja Fuss and Kaylyn Kyle (two central defenders taking PKs) meant a Hope Solo mistake in the 41st minute would be the difference at halftime. The Seattle keeper’s bad pass gifted Inka Grings an easy 41st minute conversion.  In the 72nd, Grings completed her double, keeping Chicago on the fringe of the postseason.

Implications: Chicago stays in position to take advantage if Western New York stumble, though with the team moving back to “five hundred”  (7-7-5), there was some personal pride to be taken from the result. They can also take heart in their first sellout crowd of the season.

For Seattle, the run had to end sometime, though seeing it end after a couple of preventable goals is unlikely to placate Laura Harvey. This was an unexpectedly sloppy performance from the Reign, but having been eliminated from playoff contention at halftime (by the Western New York result), maybe their run was over before Grings sealed their coffin.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 12 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 9
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Alex Morgan (PTFC) 8 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
2 tied at 7 5 tied at 5

Sky Blue FC 1, Washington Spirit 0 – After giving up 23 shots in Rochester, Washington gave up 17 to a Sky Blue team that didn’t even have to break the glass on the hobbled Lisa De Vanna. Monica Ocampo, quietly up to six goals on the year (scoring every 120 minutes), notched the game’s only goal, though it took the home side 58 minutes to break through on the normally generous Spirit. Chantel Jones, stepping in for the injured Ashlyn Harris, helped stem that tide, though with only one shot on Sky Blue’s Jillian Loyden, Washington couldn’t solve their problems going forward.

Implications: Sky Blue snapped their three-game losing streak, but as was the case with Western New York, this game was an obligatory three points. A 1-0 against the Spirit isn’t exactly a rallying point. For Washington, however, the game was an improvement on the battering they took in Rochester, though after scoring twice last weekend, their goal-scoring problems seem to have returned.

Sunday, August 4

Portland Thorns FC 2, FC Kansas City 3 – The most important game of the season saw the league’s top team visit a record crowd at JELD-WEN Field, with the 17,619 attendance hoping to see their Thorns leapfrog Kansas City into first place. Lauren Holiday, however, was having none of that, scoring twice as the Blues counter attack picked apart Portland’s defense, giving FCKC their second win of the year over the preseason favorites. Portland did get goals from Danielle Foxhoven (a second half equalizer to make it 1-1) and Alex Morgan (a late score to make it 3-2), but with a leaking defense that could seemingly be picked apart whenever Kansas City found the initiative, Thorns FC missed their chance to move top.

Implications: There’s no doubt who the best team is in the NWSL, and if Sunday’s any indication, it’s not really close. There’s also little doubt who the league’s best player is, with Lauren Holiday’s double affirming her league lead in goals and assists. If she doesn’t play another game this season, she’s still the league’s MVP.

Portland is subtly experiencing a minor crisis. The team had high expectations coming into the match but found themselves chasing two goals as control of home field advantage slipped away. Despite having the league’s best talent, they’re not the league’s best team, with a small rift in the team undermining their ability to improve.

Foxhoven mentioned the rift post game, something that’s existed since early in the season  (“there’s been a little bit of a separation in our team and that’s why we’ve struggled in the past”). It’s an ideological divide, with a significant number of players believing the team should be playing differently. The late substitute of Elizabeth Guess for Foxhoven only highlighted the chasm’s persistent influence.

With internal attempts to resolve the divide having failed, Portland’s left to hope their talent will win out.

State of the NWSL, after Week 16: Homestretch arrives, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 17

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Maybe it’s the calendar. Maybe it’s the state of the standings. Maybe it’s the fact that Western New York, the team currently sitting on the right side of the NWSL’s fourth-fifth divide, is back in action tonight, potentially rejuvenated after nine days off. Whatever the reason, there’s now the distinct feeling that the homestretch has arrived.

For the first time, people are meaningfully considering Sky Blue’s slide. Time’s running out for the former league leaders to correct course. Portland’s lack of consistency’s been seen with new urgency, Boston and Chicago are finally considered playoff long shots rather than parts of a viable race, while FC Kansas City may soon be the consensus favorites to claim the league’s first title. These are the types of conclusions you become comfortable in the season’s final throes.

Just consider the implications of tonight’s games. If Western New York defeats Washington in Rochester (and it would be a mild shock if they didn’t), the Flash would be seven points up on Boston and Chicago, each team left with four to play. The race wouldn’t be dead per se (there’ve been too many times in sports where we see a team get hot, another get cold at the right time), but with Western New York closing their season with three at home, the race would be one in name only.

Then there’s Wednesday’s nightcap in Portland. If Sky Blue can beat Portland for the second time this season, they’ll have stemmed the tide of disappointment and positioned themselves to not only challenge Kansas City for the regular season title but take a huge stride toward a home playoff game. Thorns FC, on the other hand, would move within one of first and have a match in hand on league-leading FC Kansas City as they try to snap the Blues’ nine-match unbeaten run Sunday in Portland.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 19 35 +13
2 6 Sky Blue FC 18 31 +6
3 4 Portland 17 31 +6
4 3 W. New York 17 27 +11
5 7 Boston 18 23 -0
6 5 Chicago 18 23 -6
7 2 Seattle 18 18 -9
8 8 Washington 17 7 -21

That schedule highlights the extent to which Portland’s up-and-down form will influence the top four. In addition to playing Sky Blue and Kansas City over the next five days, Thorns FC visit the Flash on August 10, making them the only playoff-sitting team with games remaining against the other postseason favorites. If the Thorns can put their Sunday collapse behind them and continue the improvement they’ve shown since Tobin Heath’s arrival, they can win the league. If their uneven performances persist, the future of postseason soccer at JELD-WEN Field will be in Sky Blue’s hands, while a nose dive could see them starting the playoffs in Kansas City, a place where they’ve had almost no success this season.

With the league’s trade deadline passing tonight and only three weeks until the playoffs begin, we’re reaching a what you see is what you get point of the season. And with Sky Blue, Portland, and Western New York all in action tonight, we’ll quickly have a better idea of which teams are capable of competing with Kansas City.

RANKINGS OF POWER

In reverse order. The underlying logic: Tomorrow, neutral site, who do we think is more likely to win:

8. Washington Spirit (last week: 8) – On Saturday, Washington became the second team to allow five goals in a game, but rather than toil on that demoralizing fact, Spirit fans focused on the two goals they scored against visiting Boston, the first time they’d scored from open play since mid-May. For a team that’s struggled more than expected, it’s all about the silver linings.

7. Boston Breakers (7) – The Breakers’ mid-week 3-0 loss in Overland Park was telling. Yes, Kansas City’s a buzz saw right now, but given the point we’re at in the season, that was a back against the wall game for Boston. Though they kept the game scoreless for over 70 minutes, they were second-best for 90 (decidedly so).

6. Sky Blue FC (6) – Their match against FC Kansas City was closer, a converted second half corner all that separated the Blues from their hosts, but it still showed Sky Blue’s limitations. Now that midfielder Sophie Schmidt’s cooled off, striker Lisa De Vanna is the team’s only consistent goal-scoring threat, but if she can’t get her hamstring right, Sky Blue will need a new idea to stop this slide.

5. Chicago Red Stars (5) – One point in two games on the road has killed their playoff momentum, but in Sunday’s second half comeback at Portland, the Red Stars gave their best performance in two weeks.

4. Portland Thorns FC (2) – Who knows with this team? In all likelihood, those final 15 minutes against Chicago were aberrational, but for a team that’s had trouble with consistency throughout the year, it may the latest blip in a scattered, erratic, yet potentially winning pattern.

3. Western New York Flash (3) – Among their final five games, Saturday’s trip to Boston will be their last on the road. If Portland or Sky Blue trip, the Flash are in a great position to catch them.

2. Seattle Reign FC (4) – Chicago’s result in Portland put the Reign’s 4-1, mid-week win over the Red Stars in perspective. Oh for a longer season, Seattle fans lament.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – Four points clear but with only three to play, the Blues can consolidate their first place claim with a result in Portland. Given Portland’s remaining schedule, they don’t necessarily need a win, but particularly if the Thorns beat Sky Blue on Wednesday, they’ll need a draw to defuse a potential surge from Portland.

[MORE, Looking back: Walking through Week 16 of the NWSL season]

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 8
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Diana Matheson (WAS) 7 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
4 tied at 6 3 tied at 5

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Wednesday, July 31

Western New York Flash vs. Washington Spirit (7:05 p.m. Eastern) – The last time Washington visited Rochester, the Spirit took a Friday night beating (4-0), leading them to change coaches by Monday. This game could be just as ugly, even if that doesn’t end up reflected in the score. Washington’s back line’s decimated by injuries, while the Flash have had nine days off.

Portland Thorns FC vs. Sky Blue FC (10:30 p.m. Eastern) – Sky Blue’s also has a number of injuries (Caitlin Foord, Kelley O’Hara, and Manya Makoski all out for tonight’s match). Those absences, however, can be accounted for, and against a Portland team that’s been unable to break them down in two previous meetings, organization will be as important as personnel. If, however, Lisa De Vanna isn’t fully healthy, Sky Blue will be left reliant on more wonders from the likes of Taylor Lytle and Monica Ocampo.

Saturday, August 3

Boston Breakers vs. Western New York (3:00 p.m. Eastern) – This is Boston’s last stand. Coming into this game, they’ll likely be trailing the Flash by seven, meaning a loss will mathematically eliminate them from the playoff picture. The other side of that coin gives the Flash a chance to clear the path to a playoff spot (at a rival’s expense). Given Western New York’s quick turnaround from their mid-week game, Boston has a chance to prolong their playoff hopes, even if a win will still leave them waiting for more (and bigger) Western New York stumbles.

Sky Blue FC vs. Washington Spirit (4:00 p.m. Eastern) – Sky Blue has two matches against Washington in their run-in, both of which look like must wins if the Piscataway club hopes to host a playoff game. Both teams, however, are struggling for goals, making a 0-0 a greater likelihood than Jim Gabarra would like. With Washington’s newfound struggles in defense (10 goals allowed in four games), the Spirit may prove a tonic to Sky Blue’s ill. If not, Sky Blue’s problems are even greater than we’ve described.

Chicago Red Stars vs. Seattle Reign FC (6:00 p.m. Eastern) – At what point do the Reign stop caring? Or, said without cliché, at what point do we see a dip in effort commensurate with their games’ reduced stakes? Because nobody would fault them if, traveling to a game that should mean nothing to them (Western New York could eliminate them from contention by the time this game kicks off), they start going through to motions. It’s not that they won’t want to win. It’s more that, having that spark of hope extinguished, they may regress a little. Will that be enough to turn around Thursday’s 4-1 home win over Chicago? Given Seattle’s get to let up, Chicago could see their playoff quest end on Saturday night.

Sunday, August 4

Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City (8:30 p.m. Eastern) – The side have split their three previous meetings, with no team having won on the road. Kansas City, however, is performing an unmatched level. Whatever the previous meetings tell us about this matchup, it’s almost rendered irrelevant by the Blues’ form. If there’s ever a time in the regular season Portland’s going to step up, this has to be it. A win gives them the inside track to home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Walking through Week 16 of the NWSL season

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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.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 1 Kansas City 19 35 +13
2 6 Sky Blue FC 18 31 +6
3 4 Portland 17 31 +6
4 3 W. New York 17 27 +11
5 7 Boston 18 23 -0
6 5 Chicago 18 23 -6
7 2 Seattle 18 18 -9
8 8 Washington 17 7 -21

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.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 8
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Lauren Holiday (FCKC) 10 Abby Wambach (WNY) 6
Diana Matheson (WAS) 7 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 6
4 tied at 6 3 tied at 5

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.)source:

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.)