After all the excitement that was the inaugural Tournament of Nations, the NWSL returned on Friday night. While many internationals did not play, there was plenty of goals, saves, and comebacks to welcome us back. Now, let’s dive into our takeaways for Week 15 of the NWSL.
The Injury that Could Be the Breaking Point for Sky Blue – Jordan Small
In the second half of the Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue match, Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan went down with an apparent lower leg injury after limping minutes before. The rookie has played every minute for Sky Blue this season and is a big reason for their success this year. While Sky Blue has been injury-ridden all season, this injury could be the breaking point for Sky Blue. The team is just one point out of a playoff spot, but an injury to their star rookie could cost them points down the road. If Caroline Casey is forced to step in against Orlando, it could put even more pressure on an already unstable backline.
The Youth Movement Has Arrived in the Nation’s Capitol – Jordan Small
The past five goals that have been scored for the Washington Spirit have been from players who have played in two or fewer NWSL seasons. Havana Solaun has lead the youth movement in Washington with two goals in the past two games and four overall this year. Against Sky Blue on Friday, Arielle Ship and Meggie Dougherty Howard, both rookies, each scored their first professional goals. Second-year player Cheyna Williams also netted a goal against Sky Blue to give them a 4-1 win. And then there’s Mallory Pugh, the phenom with three goals in her seven games. While there is little left of the season for Washington, it appears as if the younger players have come to life, all fighting to move Washington up the ranks.
Minimal Impact from International Absences – Luis Hernandez
There was some serious doubt the two tournaments would cause more of a disruption than what was really felt this last weekend. One notable exception, Line Sigvardsen Jensen of the Washington Spirit tearing her ACL while playing for Denmark will have a long-term impact on her club team. But most players from the Tournament of Nations were able to play with their clubs in Week 15. Sky Blue, though, certainly missed Sam Kerr and Kelley O’Hara. Perhaps Megan Rapinoe could have changed the fortune of the Seattle Reign. The Orlando Pride, the team most impacted from the Tournament of Nations with seven absences, benefited the most from the arrival of Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan, Marta, and Alanna Kennedy while the Chicago Red Stars were missing Casey Short, Christen Press, and Julie Ertz. Those key losses allowed Orlando to take a point for the first time against the Red Stars. The league is starting to come down to crunch time for those fighting for the last playoff spot, and happily, there won’t be any more interruptions for the rest of the season.
There’s Only One Playoff Spot in Question – Luis Hernandez
Speaking about the last playoff spot, call it premature, but if you ask me, I think there’s realistically only one spot left to be determined. In my book, I’m penciling in North Carolina, Chicago, and Portland for the postseason with the only question being which team falls where. The fight for the fourth spot has Sky Blue and Seattle in tight competition with Orlando and Houston, who are all within four points of the place currently held by the Reign. Who actually ends up in the playoffs will come down, in part, to which team has the more favorable schedule and which team gets hot at the end like the Western New York Flash did last season. I’m not going to say who will wrap up the last spot, but it will be fun to see those team battle it out.
Lucky Lussi – Elizabeth Wawrzyniak
Tyler Lussi could be the Portland Thorns’ saving grace this season. The former Princeton player was signed by the Thorns a month ago to help fill in the gaps that the Euros, the Tournament of Nations, and injuries have left on their roster. Lussi has played in a few games so far and scored her first NWSL goal on Saturday against the Houston Dash. The absences on the team have forced Coach Mark Parsons to adjust the look of his team, and in the win on Saturday, he put Lussi up top, where she was a persistent thorn in the side of the Dash defenders. (See what I did there.) Christine Sinclair played a little more of a supporting role, threading passes through to Lussi, who, more often than not, was making a run in toward goal. Putting Sinclair in a more creating and distributing role than scoring one allowed the speedy new forward Lussi the freedom to roam and seek out openings in the Houston backline. It’s brought a dynamic quality to their attack that the team has been lacking so far this season. And in her few early games with Portland, Lussi has made an impact. Much was made of Emily Sonnett’s first NWSL goal on Saturday, the one that put the team up early in the match, but if you look carefully, Lussi is the reason anyone in red in the box even has a chance on that ball, set up at the far post and heading Klingenberg’s cross in toward her teammates. Then, in the 39′, Lussi notched her own first goal, waiting in the box as Klingenberg brought a pass from Sinclair down the field. She had the presence of mind to collect a deflection off a Dash player, turn towards goal, display a little footwork to throw off the defense, and curl a shot past Jane Campbell and into the net. As their internationals come back, and Lussi settles into the team, the Portland Thorns could be finding their groove this season.
The Times, They Are A-Changin’ – Elizabeth Wawrzyniak
The UEFA Women’s European tournament hasn’t had a new champion since 1995. In the nine times this tournament has been held since 1991 (not counting the other forms it took in the 1980s), Germany has hoisted the trophy every single time but once–in 1995, when Norway faced the Italian hosts in the final and Germany settled for fourth. This year, the German team didn’t make it past the knockout round, and neither did other top-ranked FIFA teams who various Carnac the Magnificents predicted would be contenders for the championship game. No, Germany, France, England, and Norway were all sent home early as #12 Netherlands and #15 Denmark fought their way to the top, with the Dutch hosts eventually winning in regulation after a fast and furious 4-2 victory.
And then there’s the Tournament of Nations, where four of the top teams in the world–#1 USA, #6 Japan, #7 Australia, and #8 Brazil competed in a friendly tournament, the first of what the US has stated will be a recurring tourney in non-Majors years. And while the US was not heavily favorited to win–especially after their dismal showing at their own She Believes Cup back in the Spring, Australia’s domination of the games came as a complete surprise. The Matildas didn’t drop a single point over their three matches, and by comparison, their opponents really looked like amateurs against the Sam Kerr-led offense.
The women’s soccer world has been run by a few select teams over the past twenty years, teams whose early investment into development has obviously paid off. But the rest of the world is catching up. And there’s a shake-up ahead–I can’t wait to watch as it all happens.