Another week, another step closer to the end of the season, and a little bit more parity. The Portland Thorns are currently occupying the last playoff slot, but just five points separate them from the top of the table … and from 7th place. It’s a close race.
Here are our six takeaways from the weekend.
Understated Journeyman, Aubrey Bledsoe – Luis Hernandez
This season has provided its fair share of highlights and outstanding play; however, one of the bright spots of the league to go slightly below the radar is the performance of Aubrey Bledsoe. When Ashlyn Harris went down against Seattle, newly signed keeper Caroline Stanley stepped in due to Bledsoe being out on concussion protocol. That setback didn’t phase Aubrey at all, and once she was cleared she was able to earn her spot in Head Coach Tom Sermanni’s starting XI. Bledsoe’s continuously improving performance coincides with Orlando adding Lloyd Yaxley as goalkeeper coach.
Her time in front of the Orlando Pride goal has delivered the team’s lone clean sheet, two Save of the Week honors, 31 saves, and a record of 4-2-1. In the coming weeks, Harris will be fit enough to reclaim her starting job, but Bledsoe’s performance should give Sermanni some food for thought as Aubrey demonstrated that she has the skills to be a starter in the league, and is making a case for herself should a team need to make a play for a goalkeeper in the offseason. Bledsoe will soon return to the bench, and she’s been overshadowed by the likes of Stephanie Labbe, Sabrina D’Angelo and Kailen Sheridan. But we need to acknowledge, and celebrate, her steadiness in goal and admit that she’s one of the playmakers behind Orlando’s resurgence this season.
The Reign May Rue Another Home Draw – Luis Hernandez
Seattle played its eighth home match last weekend, putting it up with North Carolina for having almost exhausted their home field matches of the 2017 season. However, unlike the Courage–whose home record is 6-2–the Reign have only won four of their home matches so far, notching up four draws as well. The team will have to become road warriors if they hope to break through into the playoff picture. Of course, this isn’t exactly something for Seattle to get their laces in a knot over at the moment. They currently sit in fifth place, trailing the Portland Thorns by a mere point. The club is in control of its fate.
The Reign, however, should be higher in the standings. And they made it harder for themselves by not holding on to the lead against the Boston Breakers. For the season, Seattle has scored first eight times, but only won four of those games. Compare that to the teams above them on the table–they each have a better home game success rate than the Reign. Additionally, hot on their heels are the Orlando Pride, who also have a better percentage when scoring first. If this trend continues, Head Coach Laura Harvey’s crew may miss the playoffs for the second straight season because of their inability to seal the deal at Memorial.
Defender Goals Are the Best Goals – Jordan Small
On Saturday night, two defenders scored their first NWSL goals of their careers. Yes, you read that correctly. Two defenders netted goals on Saturday and neither were headed into the net off of a set piece. Orlando’s Toni Pressley rocketed a shot past FCKC goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart in the 70’ to give the Pride a 3-1 lead. Pressley picked up the ball and took half a dozen dribbles or so before taking a booming left-footed shot from the top of the 18-yard box. The ball had so much curve on it that it ended up bending around the outstretched arms of Barnhart at the back post.
Washington’s Estelle Johnson also wanted in on the goal scoring action in their game against the Houston Dash. And so, in the 75’ Johnson streaked through the box and received a well-timed pass from midfielder Havana Solaun. Johnson shot the ball at the near post and seemed to have caught goalkeeper Jane Campbell leaning.
While forwards like Sam Kerr, Marta, and Megan Rapinoe are lighting it up on the goal sheet this season, it’s always fun to see defenders get in on the goal scoring action. With defenders being asked to get forward even more this season, don’t be surprised if more players on the backline start finding the net.
Jane Campbell Is Settling In – Jordan Small
Jane Campbell’s NWSL career didn’t start off as she had hoped. A 5-1 shellacking in late April on the road against Seattle was not great at the time, but maybe that was the bit of adversity Campbell needed to get her career underway. Now six games into her career, she has righted her goals against average to a pretty impressive 1.3.
On Saturday night, Campbell had eight saves in the 2-1 win against Washington. She was tested early and often, but stood strong in goal to pick up the three points. Her ability to command the backline and her confidence in net has allowed head coach Omar Morales to stick with her over Australian international Lydia Williams. With the Tournament of Nations coming up and Ashlyn Harris still hurt, Campbell has made a very good case for herself to be the backup to Alyssa Naeher for the United States.
North Carolina Need to Watch Out for a Second Half Swoon – Charles Olney
Last year, the Western New York Flash raced out to a strong start, only to stumble badly in the second half of the season—picking up one solitary win in their final eight matches. That was enough to hold off Seattle for the final playoff spot, but it was a close call. If not for some major strokes of luck (getting to play Boston two extra times, and snagging three points secured on an extremely tiny field), they could easily have missed the playoffs. This year, they’ve got a new location, but they might just be in some risk of repeating the results of last year. North Carolina remains at the top of the table but they’re starting to look just a little ragged. Some of that may be down to their style of play: aggressive pressing, constant running, leave nothing on the field. That takes a lot of energy and can be difficult to sustain for a full year. What’s more, teams around the league seem to have made some adjustments. This weekend, Portland looked far more comfortable dealing with the NC attack and far less troubled by the high press.
With only ten games to go, Carolina is still pretty close to a lock to make the playoffs. But if they can’t make some adjustments, the Supporters Shield and home-field advantage might very well be on the table.
Have Sky Blue Been Lucky or Good? Why not both? – Charles Olney
In their last two matches, Sky Blue have started out looking thoroughly outclassed. In each game, they went down 2-0, and it could easily have been worse. Their backline looked haphazard, their midfield sloppy, and Sam Kerr could barely get a touch on the ball. Against Kansas City, a red card for Shea Groom helped turn the tide. Sky Blue came roaring back, winning the game on a Kerr hat-trick. Groom’s foul wasn’t much, but by a strict reading of the rules was a red card offense. A hand to the face is a hand to the face. But this week, the story went the other direction. Nikki Stanton was (correctly) given a yellow card in the opening minutes, and then committed an awful foul about 20 minutes later, but was allowed to continue. That in and of itself isn’t shocking—NWSL referees are quite lenient about rough play and are usually quite hesitant to issue dismissals. But by a strict reading of the rules, it was clearly a bookable offense.
In one sense, these two discretionary calls were the key turning points of their respective games. And had the decisions been reversed—if the referees had been loose in the first case and strict in the second, rather than the opposite—it’s quite likely that Sky Blue would be looking back at two rough losses in a row. So in that sense, they were quite lucky. But it’s important to remember that lucky chances are only as important as you make them. Even with a bit of luck in refereeing decisions, the New Jersey side still had a lot of work to do to pull those results back. And they deserve all the credit in the world for staying tough, holding on, and capitalizing on the opportunities provided. At the end of the day, you can’t control what sorts of lucky breaks will come your way, but you absolutely can control what you do when they do show up. And right now, Sky Blue is exploiting their luck to great effect.