Catherine Paquette casts her expert eye over Round Seven of the NWSL and highlights all the moments that mattered.
This past NWSL weekend was a foresight, arguably of things to come. It was the first weekend where some of the internationally selected Olympic players were absent on national team preparation duty.
The remaining Olympians departed this week and will be gone for at least the next month. In total more than three starting line-ups worth of NWSL players will be heading to Tokyo. The only team unaffected is Racing Louisville.
Teams are allowed to temporarily bolster their squads during this loss. Some, the OL Reign for example, have planned ahead and arranged loans which will last through the expected Olympic period. Others have signed replacement players on short term contracts.
The weekend gave us a first glimpse though of teams without some of their most skilled talent.
Friday had six teams meet in three fixtures. The first of the long weekend saw the Chicago Red Stars get their third win of the year, on the road, against the Washington Spirit. The winning goal was poked in by Kayla Sharples in the 33rd minute of the match off a corner.
Chicago’s striker Kealia Watt, who looked significantly more offensive this match than any other all season, should have been given the second of the match. It was erroneously not called as a goal after the ball bounced back into play from inside the net and was missed by the touchline referee.
Overall though, it was not a great match for either team. The Red Stars have had an erratic start to the beginning of the season, playing a dull brand of football often littered with mistakes and a lack of creativity. While there were moments of respite from that during the last match, suffice to say that overall the Red Stars’ Friday performance was not much of an improvement. Luckily for them most of their Olympic players had already departed. The same occurred with the Washington Spirit.
Washington for their part do pass the ball well. Sadly, that seems to be all they are currently capable of doing. Their coach Richie Burke has been quoted as saying he wants his team to make 600 passes minimum each game. While the idea of having a successfully passing team is a good one, if they are hardly hitting the back of the net and are consistently conceding then passing ideals are worthless.
The Spirit have conceded in every match of the year bar one and have yet to play a regular season game this year where their winning margin was greater than one. They are not the worst performing team in the league by far but they still have a ways to go to improve in order to become a dominant, consistent team.
The second match of the weekend was between the Houston Dash and the OL Reign. Houston still had some Olympic talent who had yet to depart. The Reign entered the match without their head coach Farid Benstiti, who had resigned the day prior after an abysmal year and a half in charge of the team. Sam Laity, who has been with the Reign since their inception, took over as interim coach.
The resignation did not change the 2021 form of the Reign. They succumbed to a 2-0 loss to the Dash at home. The OL Reign were able to show creativity in their build up, as they have done this year, but as always were not able to find space and convert in the final third. A lot of credit has to go to the Dash’s Jane Campbell, who made a number of great saves.
The Dash for their part slowly built from the back but often looked predictable in their attack. The Reign, to their credit, were able to keep the Dash contained in their own half for the earlier part of the match.
However, a great pass from Shea Groom to Jas Spencer led to the Dash’s first goal of the night. The goal was especially emotional for Spencer who had just made a two year comeback from injury. She had had an ACL tear at Houston while playing for the Reign in 2019. Seeing her joy after scoring in the stadium where her career nearly ended was lovely.
The Dash were also able to capitalize later on in the game off a set play. A great ball in from Sophie Schmidt was headed twice before finding the back of the net. This is the second assist in two matches for Schmidt who will now depart for Olympic duty with Canada.
The final match of the first day of play actually stretched over two days. Gotham FC’s game against Kansas City was delayed for more than three hours due to weather conditions and started at 10:20 PM on Friday night.
A goal from NJ/NY in the middle of the first half by Ifeoma Onumonu resulted in a Gotham lead for most of the game. Onumonu received the ball in front of goal off a great Midge Purce pass and sent a low curler into the corner of the net.
KC continued to show the struggles they are encountering as an expansion side. Some sloppy passing and mistakes under pressure plagued many of their attacking chances. However, one cannot fault them for continuing to persevere and not giving up, especially against a Gotham squad that gave a lot of forward pressure and did not leave KC much room to operate.
This perseverance led to what is so far the goal of the season. KC’s Mariana Larroquette received the ball just inside Gotham’s half. She then proceeded to pass to herself and then charge towards the goal. She finished it off with an incredible curling strike after 38 minutes into the top of the net. There was nothing Gotham’s goalkeeper Didi Haracic could do about it.
The match ended tied in the early hours of Saturday with a score of 1-1.
The next match occurred later on Saturday. Portland Thorns were at Racing Louisville without all their American and Canadian internationals. It was the two sides’ second encounter of the year. The Thorns had bested Racing 3-0 in the earlier match in June.
The scoreline for this game would be quite similar. An unlikely foul by Racing’s Yuki Nagasato in the first half led to a converted Raquel Rodriguez penalty for the Thorns. A second goal, off a clearly well rehearsed set play, was headed home by Simone Charley.
Louisville are still learning a lot as an expansion franchise. While mistakes are still being made by the side and there are a lot of passes to nowhere, they showed they have a lot of good ideas to develop play and are able to follow through with tactical plans. In this match Louisville were able to keep the Thorns compact with a high defensive line for many parts of the match. As they are not losing any internationals to the Olympics this should keep Louisville more stable over the next month of play.
The big story of this game though was the debut of 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie. Moultrie, with the support of the Thorns whom she has been training with for the last few years, sued the NWSL for discrimination due to the league’s age restriction. A judge sided with Moultrie and ordered the league to allow her to sign.
After a bit of drama with regards to discovery rights, which were allocated to the OL Reign after the court injunction and required the Thorns to trade a draft pick to get Moultrie’s rights back, Moultrie signed a professional contract earlier this week.
A lot had been written about this young player, often described as a prodigy. She was offered a college scholarship at 11 and decided to turn professional at age 13. Her debut was therefore hotly anticipated. While she was on the field for only the last 10 minutes of the game, her few touches and runs showed signs of why Portland have been in agreement to allow one so young to turn professional.
The final match of the weekend was between the Orlando Pride and the North Carolina Courage. While the Pride have been performing very well for most of the season, this match was not their best. They are both currently missing significant parts of their squads to international Olympic duty. The beginning of their match started with severe pressure from the Courage and saw the Pride make many mistakes.
A big one, a bad pass back by Dougherty-Howard in the third minute of play, was well-read by the Courage’s Debinha who picked up the ball and slotted it home. Things did not improve performance-wise for the Pride who looked very one-dimensional during most of the match.
Their goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris was the one reason that the scoreline did not finish off worse than it was. Harris made a number of world class saves throughout the match including a penalty save in the 35th minute.
However, Harris’ heroics could only go so far. A wonderful Courage team goal occurred in the 66th minute. Angharad James crossed to Lynn Williams who in turn passed it in front of the net for Jessica MacDonald to make a short pass to Havana Solaun who kicked it into the net.
The Pride did try to fight back, with a number of attempts on goal but were unsuccessful in their comeback. The Courage won the match 2-0 and were propelled to the top of the table. Whether they will be able to keep this position after the remainder of their Olympians leave will be seen.
There are five more matches this upcoming weekend spread over Friday to Sunday.
Don’t miss Catherine‘s round up each Tuesday from the NWSL and keep an eye out for her special articles for Impetus.