6 Takeaways from NWSL: Week 20

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Well, it has been quite the season, hasn’t it? And still, we’ve got two weeks left! 

The NWSL will take their final FIFA break of the season this upcoming week, so we hope you’ll let these takeaways keep your WoSo habit under control until Week 21. But until then, enjoy the International Friendlies, and keep your eyes peeled for some of our NWSL finest as they put on their National Team jerseys.


Boston Almost Did It. Almost. – Alyssa Zajac

Oh, Boston.

Going into this weekend’s matchup, it was almost certain that Portland was going to win by a decent margin. A team approaching its’ peak against a team that has continued to struggle with no signs of relief? A potential blowout in the making.

So you can imagine the almost disbelief that Boston came out swinging and Portland looked sloppy and disoriented. It was like “Freaky Friday” with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, except instead of two people it was two soccer teams. In the end, Portland squeaked out a 1-0 win courtesy of a goal by Christine Sinclair.

Looking at the match stats, you can’t help but wonder how on Earth did Boston not come away with the win – or at least a point. Boston had Portland beaten on almost every stat. The key issue that sealed Boston’s fate? Their inability to finish their chances. Boston had 17 shots to Portland’s three (yes, three total shots by the Portland Thorns). However, Boston had five shots on goal – four resulted in saves by AD Franch, while Portland had two – one of those was Sinclair’s goal. If Boston had been able to finish even one of their chances, they could have stunned a Portland side who just couldn’t get into a good rhythm. That seems to be the theme of Boston’s season: could have, should have, might have.

It’s not all bad though. Boston was able to out-possess, out-pass, and out-shoot Portland. If they improve their finishing come next season, Boston has the capability to finally have the strong season they have waited and worked for.

Chicago and Orlando Keep the Door Open for Seattle – Alyssa Zajac

We could have seen two teams secure the final two playoff spots this weekend with wins, but in the end, no more playoff spots were claimed, and the final games of the season now carry more weight.

Chicago made it out of Kansas City with a point, but the 0-0 draw was nothing spectacular (read: very boring). I’ve written about Chicago two weeks running, so I’ll spare you the “they need to figure stuff out” section. I’ll just say they have a better chance of winning against Houston than they do against Portland to clinch their playoff spot if current patterns hold true.

Now, to Orlando. You can feel a little bad for Orlando. A sure game-winning goal in stoppage time by none other than Alex Morgan – at home – to secure the Pride’s first-ever playoff appearance.  Less than two minutes later in stoppage time, Jess Fishlock scored the equalizer for Seattle. I, watching the stream, had never heard such a drastic difference in sound coming from the fans – joy, to near silence. With Fishlock’s goal, Pride fans are left to wait until the Portland Thorns come to town on Sept. 23 to see if they can secure their place in the playoffs.

Which leads us to the third team in the mix: Seattle. In order for Seattle to make the playoffs, they have to win their final two games against FC Kansas City and Washington, in addition to getting some help from Houston, North Carolina, or Portland. For reference: Houston plays Chicago, North Carolina plays Orlando, and Portland plays both Orlando and Chicago.

Two weeks, three teams, and two playoff spots. Let the race to the finish begin.

 


Preferential Treatment for Star Players – Charles Olney

We all know that superstars get some special treatment from referees. There’s one set of rules for the stars and another set for everyone else. It’s not fair, but it’s not a crisis. And you can even see some logic to it. Sports are, after all, a form of entertainment. And for many fans, the chance to see the biggest names in action is a major draw to a particular game. But if it becomes too obvious, or too extreme, it can start to degrade the fabric of the game. And that’s particularly true when it comes to handing out punishments for dangerous play. We saw a particularly stark example this week, with Alex Morgan (undoubtedly one of the biggest stars in the league) leaping into a challenge for a loose ball with reckless abandon. She missed the ball but did connect—studs up and fully flush—with Jess Fishlock’s ankle. It was a horrific tackle, and while NWSL officiating is notably quite lax, it’s hard to imagine someone of lesser stature getting away with this. Morgan probably should have seen straight red, and Seattle will rightly feel extremely hard done-by since it was Morgan herself who scored the decisive goal and put quite a bit more distance between the teams in the race for the playoffs.

I’ve focused on Morgan here, but the point is not to pick her out. Watch any big name and you’ll see similar treatment. And to a certain extent, this sort of thing is inevitable and probably not worth stressing too much about. But giving stars carte blanche to do whatever they like without consequence is a recipe for dangerous play and unfair games. I hope that the NWSL and the Professional Referee Organization are taking a look at this matter, and will work to reduce the risks going forward.

Bad Incentives and the Race for Andi Sullivan – Charles Olney

With just a couple weeks remaining in the season, there’s not a whole lot of tension left in the playoff race. There is, however, one crucial race still to be decided: the race to see who gets to draft Andi Sullivan. Draft slots are awarded in reverse order of the final table, meaning whoever finishes in last has first pick. This year, that looks like the easiest call in a long time, with Andi Sullivan looking like a budding superstar and a steep drop to the rest of the field. With a victory this weekend, Washington pulled three points clear of Boston. However, the two teams play each other on September 23, where a Boston victory would put them back ‘ahead’ on tiebreakers, and thereby put the Spirit first in line to cash in the Sullivan ticket. As a result, we have the strange situation of a game that both teams would prefer to lose. Now, my point is not to cast aspersions of match fixing. These are committed professionals who care about the integrity of the game and have plenty of self-respect tied up in their performances as well. I absolutely do not expect any shenanigans. But even if the players try their hardest, Boston and Washington fans will be put into the position of hoping that their team loses. That’s not a great look for the league.

The system of reverse-ordering the draft is always going to create some twisted incentives. But there are ways to reduce the magnitude of the effect. One possibility is to replace strict reverse with a lottery system, where teams lower down the table get more tickets. It still rewards the weaker teams overall without generating such a clear motive to throw games.


Got Your Number – Elizabeth Wawrzyniak

It’s odd, isn’t it? How some teams just seem to have your number?

For example, Washington has won a grand total of five games this season, and scored a total of 28 goals. Three of those wins, and 10 of those goals have come against coach Jim Gabarra’s old team, New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC. Earlier this season, I talked about Houston and their unlikely dominance over FCKC when playing in Missouri, never losing when on the road against the two-time NWSL champions. Then there’s Chicago and the NC Courage–despite the fact that they are number one in the league this year, Chicago is the only team that the Courage have not defeated in their inaugural season–and with only games against Sky Blue (1-1-0), Orlando (1-1-0), and maybe a make-up game against Houston (1-0-0) left to play, that little stat will stand until the 2018 season.

So, what is it about some match-ups or some match-ups in specific locations? Is it an intimidation thing? I don’t know if you could say that FCKC are particularly intimidated by Houston in general, much less when playing on their own field. (They have another chance to break this odd little streak in the final week of the season, when they host Houston in Week 24, by the way.) Just as I don’t know that Washington, with its epic list of injuries and its pretty stretched bench, should have posed such a threat to Sky Blue this season, that the team that can score five goals in the second half should have dropped nine points to the #9 team on the table.

But whatever the reasons, it is always interesting. And a reminder that sports aren’t just about physical performance–there’s a whole lot of mental strategy and mind games involved as well.

Not Like It Will Change Anything – Elizabeth Wawrzyniak

It’s been two weeks since Harvey hit the Southern US and the suspended Houston v North Carolina match-up. But just yesterday the NWSL announced that the game would be rescheduled for September 27th, exactly a month after the game was supposed to take place. I’m of two minds whether this game should even be played. On the one hand, yes, I always want more women’s soccer. More games, more teams, more, more, more, more, more.

But on the other hand, this game really doesn’t need to be played.

Even a game behind the pack, the NC Courage are leading the league–as they have been all season. Even if they were to do the near-impossible and beat the Courage, the Houston Dash are, once again, not going to make the playoffs. It just isn’t going to happen. Their 2017 season isn’t a sports biopic about overcoming adversity and Mother Nature. I’m sorry, it’s just not.

All this game does is give the Courage a really short and busy final week as they have to travel to New Jersey for their 6 pm game on Sunday, September 24, then to Texas for their 8 pm Wednesday game against the Dash, and finally back to North Carolina for their 7:30 pm Saturday match (and final game of the 2017 season) against the Orlando Pride. Houston, too, just ends up with a short week of multiple flights, though their travel, at least, is all within the same time zone.

I’m sorry, but all this game really does is put the health and safety of players at risk. We’re at the end of the season, the post-season is fast approaching, and bodies are worn down, stretched to their limits, and fatigue brings injuries. Pretty much always. And for what? A game that won’t actually change anything?

Honestly, the only reason we’re playing this game is so fans don’t have a reason to whine about stolen opportunities and “that year we wouldn’t have made the playoffs no matter what but, heck, let’s get upset about missed opportunities anyway.”

 

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