Notes From North America

Catherine Paquette casts her expert eye over Round Eight of the NWSL and highlights all the moments that mattered.

All ten National Women’s Soccer League matches took place last weekend.  At this point in the summer, all Olympic bound internationals, except two Kiwis who were controversially held back by their clubs, were missing from the starting line-ups.

While many do ask why the NWSL does not take an Olympic break like the Swedish or Norwegian leagues do, something that could be expected given the more than 30 NWSL players departed for what could be more than a month and a half of international duty, a closer examination of the NWSL schedule easily explains why.

At present the NWSL’s regular season is expected to go until the end of October.  The play-offs, which this year has three rounds including the final, will extend the post-season into late November. 

Several northern NWSL clubs can expect to have temperatures at that time nearing freezing.  The Chicago Red Stars and New Jersey/New York Gotham FC are located in areas that have even had snow on the ground in mid-November.  From a climate perspective, it is just impossible to extend the season.

Moreover, for avid long time viewers of the NWSL the lack of World Cup and Olympic breaks have always been a positive thing.  The NWSL is a notoriously difficult league to break into for novice players.  The parity of the league and intense competition leaves very little leeway for player development. 

The World Cup and Olympic summers offer a unique opportunity for players on the periphery, or players who may not stand out when international teammates are around, to break into the first team or even get a chance to shine.

Many NWSL mainstay players got their break during these summer openings.  Previous years have seen present day superstars such as Crystal Dunn, Lynn Williams and even Jess Fishlock given the space to individually shine.  

For a league often overshadowed by big international names, the World Cup and Olympic game NWSL periods give fans a chance to really see talent that may otherwise go overlooked.  This past weekend lived up to this expectation.

The first match occurred on Friday between the Orlando Pride and Racing Louisville. Both teams were coming off a loss, and a tumble in the league table.  Expansion side Louisville came out strong to start, dominating the early possession.

Their 20-year-old signing from Bristol City, Ebony Salmon, continued her wonderful NWSL form.  Salmon broke the nil-nil deadlock in the twenty-first minute and put Racing up 1-0.  It was her third goal of the season.

The real drama in the game came in the fourth minute of second half added time.  Looking as if they were headed for another loss, Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris ventured into Louisville’s half to recuperate the ball.  Harris then struck a deep cross into Racing’s box.  After making contact with Taylor Kornieck’s head, it found the boot of Sydney Leroux who struck it home.  The Pride saved the point with seconds to go with the match ended at 1-1.

The Saturday match was between the Washington Spirit and the North Carolina Courage.  The relatively young Spirit side proved they could compete with a Courage side packed with seasoned players. The final score for the match was 2-0 to Washington due to a brace by Ashley Hatch.

A Washington player who stuck out though during this match was attacker Ashley Sanchez.  Sanchez decided to make the daring decision in 2020 of leaving UCLA and declaring for the NWSL draft a year early.  While she was surprisingly picked fourth overall, lower than expected, her form in this match showed why she could have easily gone first.

Sanchez created several chances for her teammates during the game, wreaking havoc on the seasoned North Carolina midfield and defence.  In total she had seven shots, including three on target.  Sanchez was unlucky due to a brilliant stop by Courage keeper Casey Murphy and two post hits.  However, should she continue her form during the rest of the Olympic game period, she could easily turn out to be one of the new NWSL breakout stars.

Another player who played very well during this game was her teammate Andi Sullivan.  Sullivan has been on the brink of a consistent place in the USWNT for several years now.  However, while she has 18 caps for the team, she has yet to make a major tournament squad.  

The maturity and vision Sullivan is displaying this season though as Spirit captain may change this in the future. Playing in a more traditional defensive midfield role, Sullivan is becoming the team metronome, essential to both their defensive and offensive capabilities.  

Perhaps her best display of this defensive vision and the ability to be an offensive threat came with Washington’s second goal.  Spotting a bad pass midway in her own half she stole the ball and then made a half a pitch long run before her assist pass to Ashley Hatch.  Like Sanchez, this Olympic period could be her big break.

The first of the Sunday matches was between the Portland Thorns and the New Jersey/New York Gotham FC.  Overall it was a very defensive affair which ended in a 0-0 draw.

While the Thorn’s defence were better at limiting Gotham’s shots, to eleven total and two on goal, the Gotham defence and keeper for their part showed fantastic displays of defensive heroics. 

Despite twice as many shots and three times as many shots on goal by the Thorns, none were able to breach Didi Haraicic’s goal.  

Both Portland keeper Casey Murphy and Gotham keeper Didi Haracic have long been backup keepers in the NWSL.  With their respective first team goalkeepers away with the US and Canada for the Tokyo Olympics, it could give both the opportunity to show their abilities over the next month.

Above: Action from Portland Thorns v New Jersey/New York Gotham FC. Photo: courtesy of Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Thorns FC)

The second match of the day was between the Chicago Red Stars and the Houston Dash. It finished with the most bizarre set of circumstances.

Both teams have shown inconsistent form this season. While the Red Stars did show a more promising start in this game, they still continued to struggle offensively.  The Dash for their part struggled with a number of their biggest offensive players away on international Olympic duty.  

They did however find a way to break through the Red Stars defence early in the second half.  A great long run by forward Jasmyne Spencer past a number of Chicago defenders was then passed to Veronica Latsko who found the back of the net. 

However, what then ensued is the bizarre part.  A Chicago free kick in the seventy-third minute was accidentally deflected by Houston defender Shea Groom into her own net. Her teammate Katie Naughton then also found the back of her own net three minutes later.

The Red Stars won the match 2-1 despite not having a single shot on goal.

The final match of the weekend was between the OL Reign and Kansas City.  The Reign won the affair 2-0.

Both teams have struggled to find form this season.  The Reign’s troubles seemed to be due to their inability to find form in the final third while KC has struggled to find form at all.  

The Reign looked a lot better this game compared to previous matches.  The connection and passing displays that have been on show for a while continued this game but were finally matched with offensive completion.  

They opened their scoring account in the third minute of the match. A mistake by an otherwise outstanding KC goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart was intercepted and put in by Reign striker Bethany Balcer.  

Balcer found the back of Barnhart’s net a second time in the first half.  A great team play by OL led to a cross into the box and a perfectly timed Balcer run.  Her header put the Reign up 2-0.

Drama occurred in the sixty-ninth minute of the second half.  Reign goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi ran out of her net and intercepted a run by KC forward Jéssica Silva.  The referee deemed it a denial of a goalscoring opportunity and handed a red card to Bouhaddi.

Despite being up against a 10-person Reign though, KC were not able to capitalize in the final twenty minutes of the game.  They barely created any opportunities despite the one woman advantage.  

This leads us to this upcoming weekend.  Eight teams will meet in four matches.  So far each NWSL team has played 9-10 matches. What is striking in the league standings is the parity within the NWSL.  

From the first to the seventh position there are only three points separating the teams.  There are six points separating first and ninth position.  With the notable exception of KC, this league is still wide open.

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