Notes From North America

Impetus’ North American Women’s Football expert Catherine Paquette brings us up to date with all the action from the NWSL both on and off the pitch

Above: Fifteen year-old Olivia Moultrie, who made her NWSL debut for Portland Thorns last weekend. Photo: Equaliser Soccer.

It has been a busy week and a half in the National Women’s Soccer League.  After the dismissal of Gotham FC general manager Alysa LaHue last month, the NJ/NY based club announced former player Yael Averbuch West was named as interim GM and head of soccer operations last week.  

This week saw the suspension of Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke.  The club had originally announced this Tuesday that Burke had stepped down from his position due to health reasons and had been moved to the front office.  However, a further announcement from the Spirit organization occurred on Wednesday stating that Burke had been suspended.  

The second announcement came after the Washington Post reported alleged long standing abusive behaviour by Burke against present and former players.  The Post’s article stated that Burke had a pattern of behaviour which included insults, tirades, abusive treatment and racist and homophobic language.  An inappropriate contact incident in last weekend’s game against one of his players, Ashley Hatch, has also come to light. 

One former Spirit player, Kaiya McCullough, has since come out publicly to discuss the verbal and emotional abuse which she suffered at the hands of her former coach.  The abuse was so great that McCullough said she lost all her love of soccer and it ultimately led her to retire from the sport last fall.  

SB Nation’s Black and Red United reported that this abusive nature may have predated Burke’s hire at the Spirit.  When first appointed head coach in 2019, the publication wrote of several incidents of inappropriate behaviour.  The first occurred while Burke was a youth coach with FC Virginia.  Another player also came forward from their time with the DC United U-23 PDL 2015 squad.  They both stated alleged abusive incidents by Burke which included insulting, homophobic, sexist and violent outbursts.  

The U-23 PDL player in question stated that Burke’s then assistant-coach Tom Torres witnessed this abuse and did not act upon it.  Torres went on to coach with Burke at the Spirit until last year, when he left to pursue other interests.  The Athletic though have reported that this departure had been preceded by intoxicated inappropriate comments directed at players at a post-NWSL Challenge Cup party.  

Above: Richie Burke – suspended by Washington Spirit. Photo: Black and Red United.

Both the Washington Spirit and the NWSL have since stated they have opened a pending investigation into the allegations against Burke during his time with the capital region club.  The Spirit have since put Kris Ward and Paul Crichton, both current assistant coaches, as interim head coaches while they start a search for a replacement.

While the recent incidents may seem bleak, NWSL player’s association director Meghann Burke stated their importance. Speaking of the incident she told The Athletic “What we are seeing this season is the beginning of a reckoning.  The Players Association will continue to work towards creating an environment in the NWSL that is worthy of the people who play in and support it.”

The following is a resumé of last weekend’s matches.

The first match of last weekend’s NWSL was between NJNY Gotham FC and the North Carolina Courage.  In the tight league table, both teams were looking for a win to try to catch up to the first placed Portland Thorns.  

The first part of the match was a good two way game between both sides.  While the Courage had slightly more possession, neither team threatened in the final third.  This changed in the 38th minute.  Carson Pickett provided a great cross into the box.  After a block from the goalkeeper, Meredith Speck put it in for her first NWSL goal.  A few more chances occurred on both sides, however neither team was able to convert.  The Courage won the match 1-0.  

North Carolina’s Carson Pickett deserves a mention not just for her contribution in the last match but also for her form this year.  Joining the Courage from the Orlando Pride prior to this season, she has gone on to flourish with her new side.  In a team packed with talent, she has become not just the Courage’s but one of the league’s most effective attackers.  So far this season, she leads the NWSL in progressive passes, with 70 more than any other NWSL player, and passes into the final third.  This past weekend she also played the full 90 minute despite picking a serious injury to her thumb that will require surgery.  Pickett is proving that development, progression and grit are alive and well in the league.

The second match of last Saturday was between the Washington Spirit and the Portland Thorns.  15-year-old Olivia Moultrie, the youngest player to ever play in the league, started her first NWSL match for the Thorns.  It proved to be an inspired decision.  Despite her young age and professional inexperience, she showed her attacking abilities.  Her first shot on goal came just six minutes into the match and narrowly wide of Washington’s net.  She then supplied a fantastic ball into the box in the 29th minute which was headed in by Simone Charley.  

The Thorns’ defensive capabilities were also on full display in the last match.  While their offensive prowess and creativity are often mentioned, Portland’s defence has been an equal strength this season.  This defensive force starts with their press and goes all the way to their back line.  Just this past game, they won 62% of all duels, 11 shots and 64% of all tackles.  Spirit attackers Ashley Sanchez and Ashley Hatch, who have both had a fantastic month while international players have been away at the Olympics, were relatively restrained this past weekend. 

It is this defensive capability that has ensured Portland’s stay at the top of the league.  This past match also saw perhaps the best demonstration of defensive heroics this season. When it looked like Trinity Rodman would put it in for the Spirit, The Thorns’ Christine Westphal came flying in to block her shot.  The match ended 1-0 for Portland. 

The final Saturday match was between the OL Reign and the Houston Dash. The Reign started their 2021 season slowly.  After registering just three wins in their first ten games in which they found the back of the net only six times, they have changed their fortunes in the last three weeks. Their talent-packed squad started to find their attacking power and have scored nine goals in three consecutive victories.  

The latest game can only be described as a Reign first half goal fest.  Bethany Balcer opened the scoring account in the sixth minute of play.  Sofia Huerta doubled the score several minutes later.  The Dash were able to get one in though.  Shea Groom showed some fancy footwork, beating off her defender, before taking her shot on goal.  It was deflected off Alana Cook before going in to make the score 2-1.

Eugénie Le Sommer then made it 3-1 for the Reign when she was able to put her own blocked rebound in.  The goal of the game then came courtesy of Jess Fishlock.  She picked up the ball just inside the Dash’s half before striking an amazing long range effort into the net.  Balcer made it 5-1 several minutes before the first half ended. This was the final result.

Sunday saw two games being played. Racing Louisville met KC in the first match.  Louisville were looking to turn around their form after a month of July with three losses and one draw.  KC for their part, were still looking for their first franchise win.  

Louisville dominated the first 15 minutes with the majority of the possession. However, it was KC who registered the first shot on goal.  Despite this fact, Racing were the more attacking side.  They were able to get ahead in the 43rd minute.  

The wonderful team goal started in the Racing half.  Savannah McCaskill made a run with the ball out of her box.  She then passed it in to Emily Fox, who passed it back to McCaskill as she was making an overlapping run.  McCaskill made a one touch pass to Nadia Nadim who passed it back to McCaskill as she continued her run.  The play ended with McCaskill sending in a cross which was then deflected in by Ebony Salmon.  

KC were able to get a goal just before the half ended.  Kiki Pickett, who has been one of the bright spots for KC, put in a cross.  After a rebound, Darian Jenkins equalized.  Upon her return from the half, McCaskill produced another bit of brilliant work when she was able to fight off her defender and send in a cross that found Nadim.  She headed it home to put Louisville in the lead.  The final goal of the match was another Racing spectacle.  Cheyna Matthews stole the ball off a KC defender, beat goalkeeper Rowlands and then walked the ball into the net.  Racing won the game 3-1.

Racing’s person of the match was Savannah McCaskill.  A terrific creative force, McCaskill has often been inconsistent during her time in the NWSL.  However, she seems to be settling in well with Louisville.  This game was her best one for her new side.  Not only did she dictate the play for her team and wreak havoc for KC but she also took chances on goal as well.  Racing will be hoping that this becomes her permanent form.  

The last match of the weekend was between the Chicago Red Stars and the Orlando Pride.  The Red Stars started the game by attacking.  The Pride were able to gain some control after the 15th minute.  For the second week in a row defender Ali Krieger provided a fantastic ball in for her attacker, this time Jodie Taylor, to finish and score.  

However, the Red Stars did not give up.  Morgan Gautrat’s wonderful 2021 form continued.  The vision, creativity and passing capabilities that lead her to the USWNT when she was still in college have been on full display.  She was able to give one of those great passes to Mal Pugh in the first half who then turned and shot on goal.  Ashlyn Harris, who has also had terrific 2021 form, showed her goalkeeping skills by stopping it. Sydney Leroux was able to double the Pride’s lead late in the second half.  Erika Tymrak provided a great pass in for Leroux to finish. Putting in her seventh of the year, she became the leading NWSL goalscorer. The Pride won it 2-0. 

The game though was overshadowed by poor refereeing.  Two players from Chicago, Danielle Colaprico and Morgan Gautrat, were forced to leave the field after bad tackles.  Like too many NWSL games, the referee never had a grasp on the game nor the proper judgement to reprimand dangerous tackles.

With these results, Portland have increased their lead at the top of the table with 28 points.  Only four points separate the second placed North Carolina Courage from the eighth placed Houston Dash.  KC are still winless at the bottom.  Five matches occur over this coming weekend. 

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