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.

Above: England star Jodie Taylor who made a big impact for Orlando Pride in the latest round of matches. Photo: Orlando Sentinel.

Five National Women’s Soccer League matches were disputed last weekend.  As has been the situation for a few weeks now, Portland Thorns entered the weekend top of the table with seven points separating them from the rest of the league. The second to eighth placed teams were separated by only four points.  Racing Louisville was in ninth place with 14 points and Kansas City were bottom of the league with 4 points, still chasing their first franchise win.

All of teams had played 12-14 of their 24 regular season matches, with the league entering the final third of its 2021 season.  The battle is therefore intensifying.  Under the new 2021 league changes, the top six teams make the play-off rounds.  All are therefore within a reasonable range of reaching of that goal with the exception of Kansas City.  They would arguably have to win nearly all games remaining, a difficult ask considering their record.

The first match occurred on Friday between the Houston Dash and the Washington Spirit.  At seventh and eight in the league, both teams were just below the play-off positions. The game marked the 150th regular season appearance of Tori Huster, the only member of Washington’s squad to have been with the franchise since it started in the NWSL in 2013.  It was her team that were first to find a goal.  In the eight minute of play Paige Nielsen received a deflected ball off a corner and then struck a fantastic curving shot into the net. 

Nielsen then went from goal scorer to goal saver several minutes later when she headed wide a ball being crossed into the box.  While both teams had chances in the rest of the first half, fans had to wait until the 54th minute for a second goal.   Huster celebrated her appearance milestone by taking the ball, making an impressive run and then sending a rocket shot into the net to put the Spirit up 2-0.  

As is often said in football, the worst lead is being up 2-0.  This was the case for Washington on Friday.  Six minutes after the second goal, the Dash got their first of the evening when Veronica Latsko put in a ball off a corner.  The highlight of the night though came courtesy of Michaela Abam.  A product of the Dynamo & Dash Youth soccer club, Abam is the first homegrown player to have been signed by Houston.

Eleven minutes after her debut for her hometown club, Abam stole the ball off a Spirit defender and proceeded to take a successful shot on goal.  Her equalizer was the last goal of the game and helped save a needed point for the Dash. It ended 2-2.

The second match of the weekend occurred on Saturday between the Orlando Pride and the Portland Thorns.  It was the third meeting this year between both clubs, with each having won a previous game 2-1.  The Pride had announced that Alex Morgan would be unavailable for the foreseeable future, after having picked up an injury during the bronze medal match of the Olympics.  The mid-season signing of striker Jodie Taylor last month was therefore not just a good move on the part of Orlando, but also an essential one at this point in their season.

It paid off 13 minutes into the game.  Courtney Petersen, who has been one of the principal sources of creation for the Pride this year, made a fantastic cross into the box which Taylor expertly headed in.  The Thorns did not let this deter them though.  A team known for not enjoying being on the back foot, they started a series of attacks on Orlando’s goal.  Ashlyn Harris, who has been in spectacular form this year, made a number of key saves to keep her team in the lead. 

The Pride for their part also went on the offence again with Petersen being the primary creator of chances. However, it was her Thorns counterpart Megan Klingenberg who stood out.  Klingenberg has had a fantastic 2021 season, placing herself amongst the top players in the league for progressive passes, passes into the box, expected assists, progressive runs and crosses.  

In this game latest game, she was the best player on the field. It was her fantastic set piece into the box that set up Simone Charley’s equalizing header.  The match finished 1-1, ending Portland’s four match winning streak. 

The second Saturday match was between Kansas City and the OL Reign.  The meeting was between a winless franchise in KC, who had recently acquired new talent, and a talent packed team in the Reign, who had been successful of late but inconsistent during the year. It was their first match under new manager Laura Harvey who had previously been with the club for the first four years of its existence.

The game was an intense one, not reflective of what can be a dominant team meeting a winless one.  The change in KC formation, their new players and their loud home fans, bolstered their attack.  While they were more direct in their forward progression than l’OL, KC had a very offensive night.  Lo’eau Lobonta had one of her best games of the season, looking seemingly free on the right hand side of the pitch. Despite having less possession than the visitors, KC registered more shots.

The home team contained the Reign by stopping their transition, playing a very physical game, where the OL midfield were given little space and time, thus restraining the Reign from playing in their usual fluid passing style. It paid off.  In the 72nd minute a deflected KC free kick found Victoria Pickett who scored the only game of the match.  Kansas City finally got their first franchise win.

The first match on Sunday was between NJNYGotham FC and Racing Louisville FC.  Racing were the ones to open the attempts on goal.  Ebony Salmon had a tremendous shot that hit the crossbar in the seventh minute.  Not long afterwards, she received a pass into the box from Cece Kizer and instead of being selfish and taking a shot on goal she passed it to Nadia Nadim who scored against her former club.  

Salmon nearly made it two in the 26th minute but was stopped by returning Canadian gold medalist goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.  Gotham for their part were also offensive.  Ifeoma Onunomu, who has been a real attacking threat for NJNY all season, made a great pass in the box in the 36th minute that met Elizabeth Eddy’s head.  It was deflected away though. 

Onumonu would have to wait until the 83rd minute of the game to find an equalizer with a rocket shot in to the top goal.  The game would end 1-1.  The player of the match though for Gotham was Allie Long.  The midfielder had a 98.3% pass accuracy off 60 passes.  

The last match of the weekend was between the North Carolina Courage and the Chicago Red Stars.  The game was originally delayed nearly an hour due to weather and took place in very wet conditions.  The only goal of the match came in the 40th minute.  North Carolina were awarded a penalty off a Chicago Red Stars handball.  New player Amy Rodriguez confidently put it in.

While the Courage had a greater percentage of possession and greater pass accuracy throughout the match, the Red Stars were fully capable of attacking.  The best performer for North Carolina was arguably their goalkeeper Casey Murphy. Despite the wet conditions she made a number of key saves to keep her team in the lead.  She deserves to share the player of the match award with the fans, who stayed out in the rain for more than 90 minutes. 

So after this weekend some things have changed in the NWSL.  Several teams moved up in the table, the Thorns’ lead has been minimized and KC are not winless.  The upcoming week will see four games disputed. Three will occur next weekend between the North Carolina Courage v Kansas City, the OL Reign v Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit v the Orlando Pride. One midweek game will occur this Wednesday between Racing Louisville and the Chicago Red Stars.  The game will also double as a match in The Women’s Cup exhibition tournament.  Prior to it, Paris Saint Germain will face FC Bayern Munich.  The losers of both matches will face each other in a third place game on Saturday, followed by the winners of both matches in the Cup’s first placed game. 

The Portland Thorns and the Houston Dash will face l’Olympique Lyonnais and FC Barcelona in the Women’s International Champions Cup in the coming week.  Like the Women’s Cup it will start this Wednesday with both teams European teams facing each other followed by both American teams.  Again like the Women’s Cup the losers of both matches will face each other in a third place game on Saturday followed by the winners of both matches in the WICC’s first placed game.

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