6 Takeaways from NWSL: Week 21

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Welcome, welcome, welcome, to Week 21 of the 2017 NWSL season. Things happened. People kicked balls. Players got political. Tobin Heath made her first appearance on an NWSL field since last year’s playoff game against the WNY Flash.

Oh, and our four playoff teams are locked in. I’ll write an actual intro when my mind isn’t jumping in a thousand different directions at once.

It was a busy week, y’all, so let’s dive right in …


Take a Knee – Elizabeth Wawrzyniak

Maybe you’ve noticed that I don’t actually talk about soccer a lot in my takeaways. I talk around soccer. For a lot of reasons, but mostly because I’m still learning the ins and outs. (DO NOT ask me what the offside rule is. Or whether it’s offside or offsides.) I don’t know the history like RJ, the strategy like Charles, or the people like Jacob. But what I do know about soccer is this:

It’s far more than just a game.

This weekend NFL fans and curious visitors to the world of the National Football League saw something pretty amazing happen. After a year of people paying attention to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest for all the wrong reasons, until finally this week when, after 45 spilled some garbage out onto Twitter about the former 49er, we all started to focus on what mattered. That Kaepernick’s protest was a shout out for people to take a moment and really listen to what people of color and other minorities are trying to tell us all.

Over the past few years as a soccer fan, I’ve watched as these players fight for better and more equal wages. I’ve watched them support each other in coming out, in struggles with mental health, in obstacles on the field and off of it. I’ve watched them build networks of support for each other and for their fans. I’ve watched as Megan Rapinoe bravely joined Colin Kaepernick’s protest in the waning weeks of last season, long before most had made up their minds about whether he even had the right to take a knee. (Spoiler: it’s Constitutional.) And  I’ve watched as they work tirelessly to improve themselves, their play, their teams, and their sport for fans and for future players alike.

This weekend I watched as the National Anthem played at the Seattle Reign v FCKC match wound up, and Megan Rapinoe, Desiree Scott, Yael Averbuch, Sydney Leroux, USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn, Elli Reed, Lauren Barnes and Madalyn Schiffel made the decision to stay in the locker room instead of standing for the anthem.

Sports means something. This weekend, it has been the vehicle through which many in our country united to say that we will not stand for racial violence, oppression, discrimination, or brutality.

And, maybe this takeaway isn’t about soccer, but I needed to say it: I’m proud to be a fan of women’s soccer. I’m proud to be a fan of the NFL. And I’m proud to support those who took a knee today in defiance of injustice.

 

The High and the Low (Scoring) Game – Elizabeth Wawrzyniak

Some might look at the outcomes of the two games on Saturday and assume that one was automatically more interesting than the other. Sure, the Chicago Red Stars beat the Houston Dash 3-2. But what the non-soccer fan might not understand is that an outcome of 0-0, especially between two teams like the Orlando Pride and the Portland Thorns, doesn’t mean the game was lackluster or slow. In some cases, and certainly in this case, as far as I’m concerned, it meant the game was 90 minutes and stoppage time (where the fuck are my 16 seconds, ref!) of tense, “any moment might change the whole story of the game” play. Sure, goals are exciting. But if you really want an adrenaline rush, or a game spent sitting on the edge of your seat, the kind of game Orlando and Portland played this Saturday is the way to go. Multiple chances, multiple attempts and almost-there-just-a-smidge-too-wide shots, shots that should have had no chance but somehow come closer than anything else.

I mean, yeah, we all love a high-scoring game. The Seattle and Sky Blue games this year? Epic. But there’s also something about a game so tense you can feel the wire stretching tighter every time the ball moves from one side of the pitch to the other. That’s what we got in the Orlando v Portland game this weekend and damn, was it satisfying to watch.


Franch Makes History – Alyssa Zajac

Usually when a game ends in a 0-0 draw, there isn’t much to be said after the final whistle. That changed this weekend when A.D. Franch earned her 11th shutout of the season, breaking Nicole Barnhart’s record of 10 shutouts from the 2013 season with FC Kansas City. Quite the achievement, considering where the season started for Franch – being put in the starting spot after the unexpected departure of Michelle Betos, and struggling with pretty much every aspect of her game for weeks into the season. However, instead of writing off the season and solely depending on her defense to get through games, step by step she improved her play and figured out how to best work with the Portland backline. And it proved effective. The Thorns have home-field advantage in the playoffs, and could very well be on their way to a second NWSL title.
I’m about to use a Pokemon analogy, please forgive me. Watching Franch this season was like watching a Magikarp evolve into a Gyarados. That is, going from seemingly unassuming and a weak link on the pitch, to an intimidating opponent and a formidable force in goal.
With one game to go before the playoffs, I just have this to say: congrats, A.D. The record was hard earned, and well deserved.

Spoiler Alert: FC Kansas City Did The Thing – Alyssa Zajac

Back in Week 16, I wrote a takeaway about the final stretch of games were key to FC Kansas City, and how they could play spoiler to teams in the playoff hunt. Good job, past me – called it.

All seven games that remained in FCKC’s schedule were against teams still in playoff contention. Six of those games have passed, and FC Kansas City had a direct role in delaying one team’s playoff bid (Chicago), giving one team a playoff spot (Orlando), and ending the playoff hopes of a third (Seattle).

First up, Chicago. FC Kansas City beat Chicago 3-1, capping off a three-game skid for the Red Stars in Week 17. This game didn’t have a direct impact on playoffs, but it still was a significant result. Fast forward to when these teams met again in week 20, and Chicago needed a win to clinch their playoff spot. One 0-0 draw later, Chicago had to wait another week to try to make the playoffs (which they did, beating Houston 3-2).

Now, for Orlando and Seattle. Orlando, like Chicago, needed a win to claim the final playoff spot. However, after two draws against Seattle and Portland, Orlando needed either FC Kansas City to beat Seattle in Seattle or hope they could beat league-leading North Carolina. Seattle needed to win their final two games to even have a chance of claiming the final playoff spot.

Well, Orlando needs to send flowers or an Edible Arrangement to Kansas City, because FCKC did it. They went to Seattle and won, ending the Reign’s playoff hopes and handing the Pride the final playoff spot. What makes this even more impressive, is that not only did FCKC beat Seattle at home, they did so by ending a 28(!) game at-home scoring streak.

While their future location may be unknown, playing wise FC Kansas City has improved greatly in the last few weeks and shows good promise moving forward.


R.I.P. Washington Spirit – Luis Hernandez

I know the players on the Washington Spirit are fighting to the end of the season, but it’s almost comical how the team allowed the Boston Breakers to win on the road for the first time this season on the Breakers’ last attempt. It would not seem the Spirit are “tanking”, but things are lining up for Washington to end up at the bottom of the standings claiming the number one pick in the 2018 college draft.

It’s been rough for Spirit fans, as the team suffered a slew of injuries all season long. I questioned to myself what sort of things have to be going on in team practices where the injury bug kept biting the roster. Losing Stephanie Labbe after a promising start of the season didn’t help. How about seeing Kristie Mewis traded away twice and ending up in a spot where she may be able to prove her worth? Do Washington supporters look at Ali Krieger in Orlando leading another playoff run and wonder “what if?”

Chin up Spirit fans, you still have Mallory Pugh, the highlight of the season, and Andi Sullivan should end up in a Washington kit next spring.

The MVP race is locked up – Luis Hernandez

Sam Kerr is going to win the most valuable player award. She’s one goal away from breaking the season goal scoring record Kerr shares with Kim Little. She has also done most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the Sky Blue offense and is the main reason the team is currently sixth in the standings considering the defense has allowed a whopping forty-eight goals. This has been her year for both club and country, as she has been out of this world good with the Matildas, and should have been a finalist for FIFA World Player of the Year.

Another reason Kerr will win the MVP award is she is a lock to claim the league’s golden boot award with Megan Rapinoe missing the last match of the season for Seattle with a yellow card accumulation suspension, and Orlando’s Marta trailing Kerr by four goals. So for the fifth straight year in the league, the golden boot winner will be MVP. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or Kerr doesn’t deserve the honor; it just seems the only measuring stick to most valuable player for a team is scoring league-wide. However, the whole point of having the golden boot is purely as a scoring award. The golden ball award (best player) winner in the World Cup doesn’t always go to the golden boot winner, and that’s all I’m saying.