Karina LeBlanc

Portland Thorns FC win NWSL title: Moments to remember from league’s first championship game

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At the onset of the NWSL season, the Portland Thorns were widely picked to take home the new women’s league’s first title. Somewhere along the way, that favorite’s status waned, with the team finishing the season in third place despite talents like Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and Tobin Heath.

But on Saturday in Rochester, that talent — along with inspired play from the team’s defense — won out. Heath’s first half bomb from 30-plus yards gave Portland a lead at regular season champion Western New York. In second half stoppage time, their team playing with 10, Portland saw Sinclair ice the club’s improbable title run, a 2-0 win rendering a season of promise and frustration a distant memory.

Portland stayed near the league lead most of the season, but by mid-August, their hopes of winning the regular season title had faded. Ultimately, they’d have to claim their crown on the road, with matches at FC Kansas City and Western New York — thought to be the league’s two best teams — seemingly setting the team up for a disappointing finish.

But forgetting regular season disappointment to find the type of unity that’s eluded them all season, Portland proved the best team over the two weeks that mattered. They overcame injuries (to Heath and Morgan), two excellent teams, and ultimately, doubt. As a result, the team most picked to claim the first NWSL title fulfilled their destiny, shutting out the regular season champions to do so.

Here are the moments to remember from today’s 2-0 result at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY:

source: Getty Images1. Goalkeepers come up big, early

Karina LeBlanc (right) and Adrianna Franch were tested high all day, the first major chance coming in the 12th minute. When Abby Wambach went left and lobbed a ball far post, right wing Samantha Kerr had her way with Nikki Marshall, out-jumping the Portland left back to head what could have been a goal. But LeBlanc reacted quickly, pushed the shot onto the bar, and managed to grab a rebound that nearly went in off her back in. The Portland keeper kept it 0-0.

Ten minutes later, it was Franch’s turn. Portland right back Marian Dougherty was given all the room she wanted to fire a cross in from the right. Sinclair, streaking across the face of Western New York’s central defense, redirected a ball toward the top of Franch’s goal. But the rookie for Oklahoma State, called on to make a pure reflex save, pushed it over, matching LeBlanc save-for-save early on.

2. Abby Wambach gets Kathryn Williamson sent off

Pity the rookie her opponent — the first year defender from Florida matching-up up against a former Gator who just happens to be the world’s best player — but Kathryn Williamson knew what she was getting into. In two games against Abby Wambach in the regular season, the Thorns central defender had held her own. On Saturday, Wambach targeted her in the second half, eventually drawing two yellow cards.

The first came in the 49th minute, when Williamson was lucky to avoid a straight red after a ball over the top looked set to send Wambach in on goal. Four minutes later, Williamson deservds a second yellow for a nasty challenge on hte Flash number nine, but the official had pity. In the 56th minute, however, that pity ran out, with Portland defender taking down Wambach at the edge of the area, drawing a second yellow card.

Portland would play the final 34 minutes with 10, eventually bringing on former U.S. international Tina Ellertson to partner Rachel Buehler in central defense. Remarkably, the teams was still able to keep the league’s best attack off the board, maintaining their clean sheer despite Wambach getting Williamson sent off.

source: Getty Images3. Carli Lloyd shoots. Again. And again.

Counting her double in the semifinals, Carli Lloyd scored 10 goals this season, one of four players to reach double-digits this year. In Saturday’s first half, she had numerous opportunities to add her 11th, including a 25th minute chance set up by Adriana Martin that saw her push her shot wide right despite being one-on-one with LeBlanc.

As the game went on, Lloyd seemed to single-mindedly look for that 11th goal. A try from the edge of the area set up by Wambach. Dead balls from distance around the Portland area. Predatory runs into the box. Lloyd was an attacking midfielder with a sniper’s mentality, racking up eight shots by the final whistle.

Every time she let loose, there was a chance she would equalize. It was worth a gasp. She has that kind of talent. And as her Olympics performances have shown, Lloyd also has that kind of timing.

Tonight, however, it never happened. Ultimately, Lloyd’s most important goal of the season was the one that never came.

source: Getty Images4. Tobin Heath wins the title for the Thorns

Watch her in warm ups and you’ll see the power in Heath’s shot. Released quickly with a slightly more topspin than a normal player’s, Heath can be a special kind of trouble when given too much room within 24 yards.

In the 40th minute, she was far beyond 24 yards. After a Western New York foul just inside Portland’s attacking third, Heath was closer to 32 yards from Franch’s goal, but with one of the most spectacular strikes of her career, Heath paved Portland’s title path.

Opting for power over precision, Heath straight-on approach launched the ball above the Flash wall with that typical top spin, her heavy strike dipping below Franch’s cross bar as the rookie goalkeeper leapt under the ball. Having set herself up to defend the left side of goal, Franch had no chance, eventually clattering against the opposite post as Heath’s shot bend the net and recoiled out. The most important goal of the season was also the best.

Heath was scoreless in seven regular season games after joining the Thorns from mid-season Paris Saint-Germain. In two playoff games, she scored twice, each time overcoming an injured right foot to help push Portland to their title.

5. Christine Sinclair seals it

As full time approached, there was something about Portland that made you believe they were going to close this out. Despite being down a player; despite the presence of Wambach and Lloyd; despite being on the road; and despite the occasional lapses of their defense this season, it was hard to imagine the Flash finding and equalizer. In the last game of a tumultuous season, Portland had finally looked the part. They finally looked like a team that would pull away from the pack.

One minute into stoppage time they sealed it. Sinclair — a Portland resident and a University of Portland alum — was put in alone on goal after a long throw in deep in Western New York’s half. The huge gap between right back Katherine Reynolds and the next defender was a complete breakdown by a team pressing for the equalizer, one that left Franch with no chance to stop Sinclair as the former Flash forward pulled up from 15 yards.

With the shot headed far post, Western New York’s only hope was for “Sinc’s” shot to catch the post. No chance. The insurance goal nestled against the left side netting as the 30-year-old Canadian ran for the sideboards, celebrating in front of fans silenced by her title-clinching goal.

It was her ninth of the season, and certainly her most memorable. Seeing her team come together after an inconsistent, often frustrating season, Sinclair had captained her hometown club to the NWSL’s first title, the Thorns’ 2-0 win Saturday in Rochester allowing the preseason favorites to finish an improbable if expected championship run.

NWSL Final: What to know about Portland Thorns FC

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On Saturday, the NWSL crowns its first champion, with preseason favorites Portland Thorns traveling to Rochester to face the Western New York Flash. Led by Abby Wambach, the Flash finished the regular season in first place, defeating Sky Blue FC 2-0 in their Saturday semifinal. After beating second place finishers FC Kansas City 3-2 in Overland Park, Portland will hope Alex Morgan, out for the last three games with a knee injury, will be back for this Saturday’s final.

Having broken down Western New York earlier today, here is a look at Portland Thorns FC:

Defending: After Portland received a talent-rich attack in allocation, defending was supposed to be the relative problem, aside from Rachel Buehler. Though the U.S. international was expected to be one of the more competent central defenders in the league, the backline’s other three spots needed to be filled, and although Canadian international Karina LeBlanc was a popular figure, she hadn’t held down a team’s number one spot since her 2009. Portland seemed to have enough talent to out-gun opponents; unfortunately, some suspected they would have to.

source:  Over the season’s first half, the opposite turned out to be true. As Portland’s midfield struggled to supply the team’s talented forwards, the defense that kept Portland in games. LeBlanc turned out to be one of the league’s better goalkeepers, while Kathryn Williamson (right), a rookie out of Florida, often out-shined her national team partner in central defense. With Marian Dougherty and Nikki Marshall, Portland had one of the league’s better fullback tandems, while defensive midfielder Becky Edwards protected the entire group.

Come mid-season, though, the whole dynamic changed, Cindy Parlow Cone losing Edwards for the year with a torn ACL. Without another starting-caliber defensive midfielder in the squad, Portland not only lost the league’s best pivot player but became susceptible in transition. Before Edwards’ injury, Portland gave up 0.70 goals per game. After: 1.50. Come late in the season, while Portland was losing their chance to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs, the team was finally conceding the defense was being left exposed.

Allie Long’s been asked to fill Edwards’ role, but naturally suited to a more attacking roles, it’s been a difficult adjustment.  The Thorns have been a much different team without a destroyer to protect their defense.

Attacking: They were allocated Alex Morgan, thought to be among the best players in the world. The same description applies to Canada captain Christine Sinclair, the Portland resident playing at home for the first time since starring at the University of Portland. With taht firepower up top, the Thorns’ biggest problem seemed to be forging a connection to their forwards. With Edwards and Long in midfield and Tobin Heath set to join the team mid-season, they seemed to have the talent to do so.

source:  But that connection never hapened. At least, progress was slow before Heath’s July arrival. Not only did Edwards go down, but Long, Nikki Washington, and Angie Kerr were never productive as a unit. Though Meleana Shim (right) stepped up and became one of the season’s better rookies, Portland’s high-powered attack finished with 32 goals, tied for fourth in the NWSL.

The problem’s more nuanced than merely “the midfield.” For much of the season, Shim (a midfielder) was played as a forward. She didn’t start a scoring until she was moved back to midfield (she finished with five goals). That switch allowed Sinclair, played as an attacking midfielder for much of the season, to move back to her natural position, with a late surge pushing her to eight goals. Morgan, in the mean time, finished fourth in the league in goals despite leading the circuit in shots and shots on goal. Noticeably worn down before her early-August injury, the superstar’s first season as a full-time starter has been a learning experience.

Without her over the last three games, Portland hasn’t had the route one outlet she provides, something that’s actually helped the team. Forced to rely on building play rather than Morgan’s athleticism, the Thorns seemed to be more cohesive, with a reinforced midfield also helping the team’s defensive issues. It’s an approach that better suits Sinclair, allowing her creativity to thrive as a focal point of the attack, yet it’s also unclear how that style suits Morgan’s. Over the team’s first 20 games, Portland averaged 1.5 goals per 90 minutes, the exact same rate they’ve scored at over the last three games, with Morgan on the sidelines.

Overall: It’s been a difficult year. The defense was strong but suffered after the loss of one of the team’s most valuable players. The attack remains potent but defined by potential, with the team never meeting preseason expectations. Even as they enter the season’s final game, one that could see them crowned champions, it’s unclear what we can expect from the Thorns.

If, however, Portland plays like they did over the last 60 minutes of their semifinal, they’ll likely end the season on top. Coming back from a 2-0 deficit, the Thorns played their best soccer of the year, a reminder that the potential we saw in preseason still exists. As FC Kansas City found out, Portland has the talent to ruin seasons.

We’ve seen enough of Thorns FC to know they’re underdogs on Saturday. We’ve also seen enough to know they’re capable of anything: from being run out of Rochester; grinding out a win; being disappointed by a late breakdown; or exploding in for a rout of Western New York .

Nothing should surprise us when it comes to the Thorns.

NWSL Final: What to know about Western New York Flash

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The NWSL’s first final takes place Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, NY. Regular season winners Western New York Flash, led by reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach, will take on Portland Thorns FC, with the season’s third place finishers hoping an injured Alex Morgan can return for the final.

Click here for a look at Portland; but for now, here is a look at the favorites in Saturday’s final, Western New York:

Defending: When U.S. Soccer allocated U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national team players to the eight teams that would make up the NWSL, the Flash, an organization coming off three straight titles (albeit in different leagues), got no help at the back. Most teams were allocated a goalkeeper and at least one starting-caliber defender from their three U.S. allocations, but not Western New York. Not only did head coach Aaran Lines fail to get a starter for his back five (American or otherwise), he only got two U.S. allocations. The logic, we were told? If team was going to be shorthanded (U.S. Soccer only handing out 23 Americans), it was going to be the team with the best player in the world.

source:  To Lines’ credit, he’s used free agency and astute drafting to forge the league’s best defense. Because other teams were given goalkeepers in allocation, Oklahoma State’s Adrianna Franch (right) fell to Western New York in the college draft. She went on to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting while being chosen second team all-league. While the NWSL office may have given Lines a raw deal in allocation, they also paved the way for Western New York to acquire one of the league’s best keepers.

In front of Franch, Lines drafted Estelle Johnson and paired her in the middle with free agent Brittany Taylor, somebody Western New York was converting to central defense. They brought Katherine Reynolds back from Germany to play at left back while club president Alex Sahlen played on the right, putting in a surprisingly strong season before a season-ending injury.

Against a Thorns team that’s lacked width all season, playing midfielder Sarah Huffman at left back shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The core finished with the league’s best defensive record, allowing only 20 goals in 23 games, will be in tact – a group that gave up only one goal in 180 minutes to Portland this season.

Attack: As with any Abby Wambach team, everything revolves around her, whether she’s on the ball or not. She’ll not only torment Portland’s central duo, Rachel Buehler and Kathryn Williamson, she’ll also serve as a focal point out of the back and open up space for her teammates, the effects of which helped Carli Lloyd score eight times in 15 appearances.

source:  The true virtue of this set up comes when Wambach goes left, which happens surprisingly often for a player whose known for her penalty area prowess. Between Lloyd in attacking midfield and Spanish international Adriana Martín on the left (somebody who has many number nine qualities, herself), the Flash have two goalscorers who can fill the space she creates. The threat of 19-year-old Sam Kerr (right) on the right, an Australian international responsible for six goals and five assists this season, gives Western New York the type of balance that keeps them dangerous even when Wambach’s been accounted for. And with McCall Zerboni (if healthy) and the under-appreciated Angela Salem holding down the midfield, Western New York are capable to causing havoc without exposing their defense.

Despite Lloyd missing over two-thirds of the season, Martín spending the summer with Spain, and Kerr’s occasional call-ups to her national team, the team lead the league in goals; though like Portland, they had relatively diminished success against their Saturday adversaries. Western New York drew 1-1 at Portland in July before the teams’ dour 0-0 reverse in August.

Overall: On pure talent alone, there may not be much to separate Western New York from Portland. Even if Alex Morgan isn’t 100 percent fit (coming back from a minor knee injury), Portland has Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, Rachel Buehler, and Karina LeBlanc through their middle. In that sense, a Thorns victory on Saturday wouldn’t be a shock. particularly after the team came back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate Kansas City in the semifinals. Portland’s ability to move beyond a conflicted regular season shouldn’t be underestimated.

But by all measures, Western New York seem the better team. One to 18, they’re just as talented as the Thorns but have the production to back it up. Led by Wambach, the Flash have the league’s best attack, and with Franch behind Johnson and Taylor, they also allowed fewer goals than any team in the NWSL. With players like Veronica Perez, Vicki DiMartino, and Ingrid Wells, Western New York will have the deepest squad in Saturday’s final.

They the regular season champions; they’re the form team; they’re the favorites. Rightly so.

State of the NWSL after Week 18: Saying goodbye to four, Rankings of Power, and a look at Week 19

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In the three days since we last talked NWSL soccer, the only changes on the local women’s soccer league’s landscape are four teams being closer to a 23rd game, four others falling 72 hours closer to the ends of their seasons. While we’ll get at least one more week with Kansas City, Western New York, Portland and Sky Blue after this weekend’s games, we’ll have to say goodbye to Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington.

And rather than coming back next year, restarting these NWSL posts, regretting that I never thanked these teams for their parts in the NWSL’s first season, I want to summon the spirit of Alanis Morrissette and …

thank you India,
thank you terror,
thank you …

… all the teams that we’re not going to see after Sunday’s games:

FOR DIANA MATHESON, THANK YOU, WASHINGTON SPIRIT – It’s a shame Diana Matheson didn’t have much of a profile among American soccer fans before this NWSL season (what do we care about a Canadian star with 152 caps, am I right?). At least, it seems like she didn’t have much of a profile down here, because few talked about Matheson’s allocation to Washington as being a boon to the otherwise dispersal-deprived Spirit. Coming into the final week of the regular season, she’s scored eight of her team’s 15 goals.

More generally, her success is a reminder of how insular U.S. women’s soccer culture can be. Matheson has been Washington’s best player. Desiree Scott and Lauren Sesselmann have been crucial to FC Kansas City’s success. Sophie Schmidt’s provided valuable goals for Sky Blue. Portland’s Karina LeBlanc has been the league’s best goalkeeper, and Kaylyn Kyle’s been transformed into a valuable central defender for Seattle.

Canada is more than Christine Sinclair, which we all knew. But in the buildup to this season, we were so focused on the U.S. allocations that we overlooked the extent to which Canada’s allocations would influence the campaign. And Australians, too, for that matter! So thank you, Washington, for providing the platform from Matheson’s success.

thank you frailty
thank you consequence
thank you Diana Matheson!

FOR REINCARNATION, THANK YOU, SEATTLE REIGN FC – Because I’m based in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle’s horrible start caused a lot of curious, well-meaning colleagues to inquire about the future of Reign FC. Would Laura Harvey be fired? Would owner Bill Predmore just walk away? Would the NWSL revoke their franchise and give it to the Sounders?

And of course, the right answer at that point of the season was:

Over the summer, Seattle not only improved on the field but off. The crowds at Starfire Sports started to come around. The energy around the franchise changed.

Missing Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, and Amy Rodriguez (otherwise known as their entire original U.S. women’s national team allocation) ultimately left Seattle’s season D.O.A., but come summer, the team was reincarnated as something that defined itself by something other than playoff ambition. So Seattle, thank you for not defining yourselves by your spring results.

thank you `Pinoe’s hair
thank you Solo’s glare
thank you, thank you Fishlock!

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

FOR THE CHALUPACABRA, THANK YOU, CHICAGO RED STARS – During the year without a women’s professional league, some of us forget how good Lori Chalupny is. We remembered how goos she was, but as the Red Stars became more dependent on her throughout season, we were jolted awake, as if a 5’4″, red-headed dervish had wedged a shoulder into our rib cage, knocking us out of our WPS-induced slumber.

And it’s no coincidence that Chicago, as they allowed themselves to rely more-and-more on Chalupny, climbed the table. It’s also no coincidence their playoff hopes effectively ended the moment Chalupny’s ankle was hurt in Portland.

Most media members’ MVP ballots are going to have Lauren Holiday one, Abby Wambach two. After that, Lori Chalupny may have been as good as anybody in the league. And for giving the former U.S. international a chance to show she’s still international-quality, thank you, Chicago.

how `bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out?
how `bout, Tom, giving Lori Chalupny a try out?

FOR SURVIVING THE ONSLAUGHT, LEARNING A LESSON, THANK YOU BOSTON – Despite a roster with talents like Sydney Leroux, Heather O’Reilly, and Lianne Sanderson, Boston’s first season is going to be be remembered for charge people to access their games online. While other teams made streams free, the Breakers charged for theirs, a decision only made worse when NWSL mandated teams to make games available online.

Boston entered a agreement with their broadcast partner, MediaBoss Television, before the NWSL sent out its mandate. From their point of view, they felt locked into a commitment, and while the situation created a ton of negative publicity, the club told Equalizer Soccer that pay-per-view helped them offset costs.

But these clubs are getting major subsidies from U.S. and Canadian soccer. It’s not unreasonable for the fans or federations to demand things like free streams, implying some of the subsidies go to things like quality equipment, consistent internet connections, and a certain standard of on-air personnel (all of which have been a problem with Boston’s pay broadcasts).

To the Breakers’ credit, it appears they’re shooting for a free stream next year. And at times, it seemed like they were more frustrated by this year’s arrangement than the casual fans who tweeted their displeasure with even pay-walled Breaker broadcast.

Regardless, thank you, Boston, for surviving the swell of negativity. And thank you for making it a learning experience (potentially).

Aaaaaaye yeeeeeeaaaaaah!
Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah!
Yeeh, yeaaaah!

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) – This was tough. Keeping the Spirit eighth after a six-point week? That hardly seems fair, but in my heart of hearts, I believe that if they played team number seven on at a neutral site, they’d likely lose.

But let’s stop being such bummers about this. For weeks, I’ve been writing nothing be negatives about the Spirit, recycling the same analysis, the same point of view, because nothing was changing.

Now something’s changed. Two games! Two wins! Two home shutouts! Who cares about some stupid power ranking when your win column goes from “1” to “3” in four days.

“Keep your rankings, Farley,” I’d say, if I were them. “We’ll take our wins.”

7. Seattle Reign (5) – Between kickoff in Rochester and Matheson’s late goal in Maryland, Seattle’s run-in went from “playing for pride” to “yeah, I guess.” A season-ending derby on Saturday against Portland could charge the batteries.

6. Chicago Red Stars (4) – Jackie Santaceterina’s second half brace salvaged a point against visiting Sky Blue, but the reality of their week was still bleak. They lost at Washington and didn’t get full points at home against a previously struggling Sky Blue.

5. Sky Blue FC (7) – We’re giving them major credit for taking a point at Chicago, but more importantly for Jim Gabarra’s side, this weekend represented progress from their previous performances. Remarkably, the team still has a chance at a home playoff game.

4. Portland Thorns FC (3) – Portland seemed happy with a draw in Rochester, and after losing three days earlier in Boston, that feeling was understandable. The change of approach, however, was a bit concerning for Portland fans, as the Thorns shouldn’t have to completely shift gears just because Alex Morgan is out of the lineup. Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath is more than most teams have at their disposal.

3. Boston Breakers (6) – Cat Whitehill’s got seven points from three games as Breakers’ coach, and in taking wins over Portland and Kansas City, the Breakers are playing better than they have all season.

2. Western New York (2) – Didn’t play particularly well against either Boston or Portland but managed to hold on to second place. A full week off should recharge the team head of a tough finale against the Breakers.

1. FC Kansas City (1) – They’re 10-match unbeaten run is over after their worst performance of the season, but it’s going to take more than one banana skin to knock them off this list’s top spot.

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

COMING UP THIS WEEK

Saturday, August 17

Western New York Flash vs. Boston Breakers (8:00 p.m. Eastern) – A Flash win gives them home-field advantage in the semifinals (and the entire playoffs, if Kansas City loses). The only problem: They’re 0-1-2 against Boston this season, their loss coming in Rochester earlier this season (2-1, Apr. 27).

Seattle Reign FC vs. Portland Thorns FC (11:00 p.m. Eastern) – By the time the teams kick off in Tukwila, Portland will know if their quest for a home playoff game’s alive. They need to out-point Western New York to have a chance at the second seed, and since goal difference will be important should they end up tied with Sky Blue, Portland can’t settle for merely a victory. But given how Thorns FC have played over their last four games (1-2-1), any win is a good one for Portland.

Sunday, August 18

FC Kansas City vs. Chicago Red Stars (4:10 p.m. Eastern) – This one only matters if Western New York wins on Saturday. If not, FC Kansas City will have already clinched the league’s top seed. And if the Flash beat Boston, the Blues need only a point to stay in Overland Park throughout the playoffs.

Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC (5:00 p.m. Eastern) – Whether they have a chance at something beyond the postseason’s fourth seed, Sky Blue has work to do. Last week in Chicago was progress, but they’re still not ready for the playoffs. Jim Gabarra has 90 minutes to find a postseason solution.

Walking through Week 14 of the NWSL season

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At the onset of the season, Portland and Kansas City were thought to be the league’s measuring sticks, but as of the NWSL’s 14th week, the circuit’s standards might be sitting sixth and seventh. Amid a midseason lull the league’s top four can’t shake, Seattle and Chicago have surged, creating an undue amount of parity within the eight-team league. With seven squads capable of beating each other on any given day, expect an increasingly muddled playoff picture to become even more murky as the season progresses.

The benefits of that parity were seen Sunday in Seattle, during the league’s first ever nationally televised game. For the first time, Reign FC sold out Starfire Sports Complex, the additions of Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe combining with the team’s renewed relevancy to draw 3,855 to the southern Seattle suburb. For a team that had some questioning their viability two months ago, the Reign’s club suddenly looks very strong.

Here’s what else happened in Week 14 of the NWSL season:

Wednesday, July 10

Washington Spirit 0, Chicago Red Stars 2 – Last week, we mentioned this as a must-win for Chicago’s playoff hopes, and the Red Stars came through. A goal and a bicycle kick assist from newly acquired Adriana Leon produced two second half scores, while Washington continued a scoreless run from open play that extends back to May.

Implications: After a year of shuffling players around, accounting for injuries and ineffective play, Rory Dames has finally found a combination that works, and while that has involved moving Ella Masar to the bench, she’s strangely having more of an impact than she had while starting. For Washington, the post-coaching change energy is gone, perhaps predictably so. While they may be competing better than they were under Mike Jorden, the team’s still not very good. The dour atmosphere’s bound to return unless results improve.

NWSL Standings

Pos. PST
Rank
Team GP Pts. +/-
1 4 Sky Blue 16 31 +10
2 6 Portland 15 27 +5
3 1 Kansas City 16 26 +7
4 5 W. New York 16 24 +8
5 7 Boston 15 20 +1
6 3 Chicago 15 19 -4
7 2 Seattle 16 15 -10
8 8 Washington 15 7 -17

Thursday, July 11

Seattle Reign FC 3, Western New York Flash 2 – Abby Wambach scored twice to move within one of Boston’s Sydney Leroux for the league lead in goals, but it was a late score from emerging Rookie of the Year contender (leader?) Christine Nairn that allowed the Reign’s robust midfield and improving attack to overcome their erratic defense, pushing Seattle’s unbeaten run to five.

Implications: Seattle may need to run the table to make the playoffs, but with this defense, it’s difficult to see it happening. Their disorganization concedes too many penalty kicks and allows opponents to capitalize for opportunistic (read: preventable) goals. For Western New York, they just ran into a good team, one that showed that matching the Flash in the middle of the park will yield chances against a decent but unspectacular defense.

Saturday, July 13

Sky Blue FC 0, Boston Breakers 0 – Two strong goalkeeping performances saw the teams share points in a match that seemed destined to end scoreless. For Sky Blue’s Brittany Cameron, it was her eighth shutout of her remarkably unforeseen season, one that stands in contrast to Boston’s Ashley Phillips, would posted her first clean sheet. With Alyssa Naeher having undergone surgery on surgery on her broken nose, Phillips should get another extended run in Boston’s team.

Implications: Sky Blue continues to look like a team experiencing a dip, but to their credit, their points haul is transcending their form. With this result, Jim Gabarra’s team sat five clear of Portland at the top of the league. Boston, in the mean time, got a valuable road point against the league’s leaders, but the momentum they carried from their Cascadia road trip was slightly blunted. Even though the game ended in a draw, their attack got shut down.

League Leaders

Goals Assists
Sydney Leroux (BOS) 10 Lianne Sanderson (BOS) 7
Abby Wambach (WNY) 10 Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 6
Lauren Cheney (FCKC) 9 Leigh Ann Robinson (FCKC) 5
Diana Matheson (WAS) 6 Heather O’Reilly (BOS) 5
Sophie Schmidt (SBFC) 6 Christine Nairn (SEA) 5

Sunday, July 14

Portland Thorns FC 1, Western New York 1 – Wambach went joint-top of the goal-scoring charts with a late first half goal, one that was equalized minutes later by Meleana Shim. The rest of the game was a goalkeeper’s duel, with Karina LeBlanc ‘beating’ Adrianna Franch thanks to a late penalty kick save on Wambach.

Implications: Portland dropped points at home, but they looked like a team that could develop into the Thorns everybody expected at the season’s onset. Tobin Heath deserves some of the credit, but Tiffany Weimer, the return of Christine Sinclair to forward, and Shim in her natural midfield role helped. For the Flash, their four-game road trip ends with a positive result, though only two points in four games curbed their surge toward the top of the league.

Chicago Red Stars 3, FC Kansas City 3 – Lauren Holiday returned with a goal and an assist, combining with another strong performance from Erika Tymrak (goal) to give FCKC a 3-1 lead headed toward stoppage time. Then another strong performance from super-sub Masar took hold, with a 90th minute goal and an assist on Lori Chalupny’s 96th minute equalizer giving the Red Stars an improbable point.

Implications: It was another tough result for Kansas City, who have had trouble closing out games. With Holiday, Tymrak, and Desiree Scott, they consistently out-play opponents only to drop points near the end, a pattern that extends back to the first game of the season. For Chicago, the draw was noble, but any dropped points at home do serious damage to the team’s thin playoff hopes.

Seattle Reign FC 2, Washington Spirit 1 – Washington scored, but it was from the spot. Although they took an early lead through Diana Matheson, the Spirit still hadn’t scored from open play, a fault that came back to haunt them over the match’s final 79 minutes. Goals four minutes apart from Red Stars cast-off Jessica McDonald sent the Reign into halftime up one, a lead they held through a scoreless second half.

Implications: The score looks nice, but especially compared to their earlier visit to Seattle — a four-goal game that marks the last time they scored from open play — you can see how far Washington’s fallen. The Reign, on the other hand, might be the best team in the league, one that has an outside chance of postseason place. Too bad they dug themselves such a huge hole.