Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome to our Backline for week 3 of the NWSL season. The US National Team players will be leaving the league now for a few months So before saying goodbye to them for awhile, let’s discuss whose stock has risen or fallen the most based on the first three weeks.
Given that the coach is Jill Ellis, the most likely answer is probably ‘these games literally didn’t matter’ but let’s assume that they are paying attention and do care.
RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): I think Christen Press has been playing really solid in the two matches for Utah and in her time on the pitch I’ve been impressed by Casey Short too.
Those two really stand out to me right now.
Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): Jill Ellis treats NWSL as her own personal version of Whose Line Is It Anyways where the results don’t matter for her.
Charles Olney: I think we all assume that what happened in these few games will have little to no importance in who actually starts in June. But while Alex Morgan is the almost-guaranteed center forward, she’s probably had the worst start of any US striker.
Luis Hernandez: Can we just say that any USWNT player who wears purple at the club level is glad to be in red, white, and blue now?
Charles Olney: I think that’s fair, Luis.
RJ Allen: There are a few in red and blue that might be glad to hear out to the US camp too.
Charles Olney: Emily Sonnett has looked pretty shaky.
Luis Hernandez: Minor knock to Harris, Morgan is a pass first, shoot second striker, and well I don’t know what to say for Ali Krieger
Charles Olney: If we all agree that fullback and central midfield are two of the key possible locations where decisions were still getting made, I think I’d say Casey Short made a strong case for herself. And that Andi Sullivan and McCall Zerboni didn’t do anything to hurt her case, while Allie Long didn’t do anything to help.
Luis Hernandez: Accurate.
Charles Olney: Morgan Brian has played really well, in limited minutes. Given what was reported last month, I definitely don’t think that will matter. But if there’s a surprise later this week, that’s probably why.
Luis Hernandez: I would consider Jane Campbell based on her performance with PKs.
Allison Cary (@findingallison): I think all of the US keepers have looked a little shaky to start the NWSL season.
RJ Allen: I don’t think it matters how good or bad the backup goalkeepers are at PKs. They will not play.
RJ Allen: Ellis is never going to sub Naeher for PKs.
Luis Hernandez: Ellis isn’t going to make a late match sub with PKs looming?
RJ Allen: There is no chance of that.
Charles Olney: I would be shocked if she made that move. Doesn’t feel like an Ellis thing.
Allison Cary: Yeah, I agree.
Charles Olney: And it’s not like Campbell had demonstrated exceptional skills. These were mostly just terrible penalties. Still takes work to save them, but I’d hesitate to read anything predictive into it.
RJ Allen: In a fair world Barnhart goes as the third goalkeeper but that ship is so far out to sea you can’t see it anymore.
Charles Olney: I guess I’d also say that players like Heath and Dunn and Sauerbrunn continue to be very very good. There’s not really any room to raise their stock, but they’ve been excellent.
RJ Allen: Dunn is the hardest of those three. Because her role for the US and her role for North Carolina are so disconnected. Ellis just doesn’t want Dunn in the attack and that’s where she’s most useful.
Charles Olney: It’s bizarre that the best (or second-best, given Sam Kerr) attacking player in the league will be playing fullback, but…here we are.
Luis Hernandez: I wish Horan and Pinoe hadn’t miss so much league time.
RJ Allen: That seems to have been not totally in their control. Seems to be Ellis wanting them to once they had knocks.
Luis Hernandez: I get it. Protect them in bubble wrap but still. There’s something to be said about playing to stay in form.
Charles Olney: Sure, but it’s a month and a half before the tournament starts. Any form from April will be long gone by then either way.
RJ Allen: They are going into a camp that is 2 weeks longer than it should be. I doubt one game for club is going to change much.
Charles Olney: *Jinx
RJ Allen: I’ll buy you a Coke.
Charles Olney: Alright, turning the question around slightly. We’ve talked about the players who will be leaving. But what about the teams that will have to operate without them? Who is going to be hurt the most by the departure of the national teamers? Who will be helped the most, relatively?
Luis Hernandez: I think it helps Sky Blue and Houston.
Allison Cary: I think it hurts Chicago and Portland.
RJ Allen: Orlando, Chicago, Portland and North Carolina feel the most impacted based on the first few weeks when you take the National Teamers out.
Luis Hernandez: Hurts everyone else but the Courage keep winning
Charles Olney: Chicago seems like the biggest question mark. I actually think they may come out of this far stronger than you’d expect, simply because they have 3-4 bubble players, all of whom are likely to stay.
It’s certainly a question is whether they can restructure the attack to deal with the absence of Sam Kerr (that’s a big absence!), but with DiBernardo, Colaprico, Brian, Nagasato, Johnson, etc. they’ve got a lot of quality.
RJ Allen: Dames is a coach who can tinker pretty well. And shovel. He is a good with a shovel.
Charles Olney: I saw some speculation this weekend that the Reign might actually benefit from losing Taylor. I don’t subscribe to the point of view that Taylor is a liability, by any means, but it will at least force them to think about different ways to set up, which could be helpful.
RJ Allen: I’m worried about the Reign just in general.
Allison Cary: Whatever they’re doing now, it’s not working.
Luis Hernandez: Taylor right now is absolutely not a liability for the Reign. I know teams like Orlando focused on her.
Charles Olney: We haven’t mentioned Utah. Obviously, they’re going to take a hit to the backline, and will lose the only player who has created a goal for them so far. But otherwise, they may be alright?
Allison Cary: I think Utah will be okay.
RJ Allen: I think they end up staying in that 2 or 3 spot. I’ve been thinking a lot lately because of my work with RSL Soapbox and they have some good depth in places. Having Laddish back may be huge.
Charles Olney: I think the last two years took a tiny bit of the shine off the Laura Harvey hype train, but this year will be the real test. As you say, they’ve got a lot of good pieces, and I feel pretty good about her ability to get it all clicking.
RJ Allen: Not having Kim Little on your team makes your team not as good.
Luis Hernandez: I think the time without national team players is going to allow the Dash to climb into the playoff race.
RJ Allen: I do not know if I believe that. I would like to, but Canadians and Daly are a huge part of that team.
Charles Olney: Alright, that’s a nice way to transition into the discussion of this weekend’s games. Because I’m curious what people thought about the Houston-North Carolina match. To me, it was evidence that Clarkson might still have a ways to go before he quite settles in. But I could make an alternative case that he wanted to give his team a shot to really go for it, and they’ll build off the lessons they learned. Thoughts?
RJ Allen: Playing North Carolina is hard.
Charles Olney: It is indeed. And that’s potentially an argument for the second option. If you figure that you’re probably going to lose no matter what, why not give it a shot.
But I also think it’s basically suicidal to leave yourself that open to North Carolina and not to really adjust during the game, as things started to break down.
They had a really good start. But after the opening 15 or 20 minutes, that games was only going one way.
Allison Cary: I admittedly didn’t get to watch it, but based on that and how they looked in their win of Sky Blue, I think they’re on shaky ground.
Luis Hernandez: I get that for sure, but going forward Ohai and Huerta can be a real difference. Nairn is a bit inconsistent for me. Losing to the Courage. There’s no shame in that. (edited)
RJ Allen: The first month of the season is basically preseason in terms of the play. I do think Houston can do well but it’s a long road.
Charles Olney: It felt a lot like many of the other new coaches, who struggle to get just quite how intense the league can be. But Clarkson also has a lot more familiarity with the team, so might be able to get over that hump quicker than some others.
Luis Hernandez: He should be able to get Houston properly adjusted to bounce back against Orlando.
Charles Olney: I don’t have much else to add about North Carolina. They’re ridiculously good. Crystal Dunn has been even better than her high standards. The fullbacks are excellent. The forwards are excellent. Zerboni and Mewis are absurd together. The center backs have been a little shakier than usual, but it doesn’t really matter.
So, moving onto some of the more contentious games, what about Orlando-Utah?
Luis Hernandez: Here we go.
RJ Allen: Orlando is a bad soccer team. They are not a well constructed roster and it shows. I think Skinner has interesting thoughts but that doesn’t always win games.
Allison Cary: I was amazed at the lack of urgency to score. It felt like Ubogagu was the only one who cared, and then they pulled her.
Charles Olney: They were better in this game than against North Carolina. Maybe on par with how they played the Reign. Which is to say: they’re nowhere close to a Breakers 2016 or Sky Blue 2018 situation. But they’re also nowhere close to the late-2017 Orlando Pride, which people expect them to be.
RJ Allen: Barnhart has the fountain of youth in her basement.
Charles Olney: She’s been so great. It’s been a real joy to watch her.
Luis Hernandez: She should let Marta have a drink. Because I haven’t seen much from Marta so far this year.
RJ Allen: Marta looks like she is starting to move past her prime. It is a sad fact Father Time is undefeated.
Charles Olney: There have been flashes, but it’s clear she’s declined. Which makes me very sad. It had to happen eventually, but I would have liked another couple years.
Allison Cary: Yeah, she’s hardly done anything this season.
Charles Olney: She’s still only 33, so it’s actually a little surprising that there’s no more in the tank. That said, she’s played a LOT of minutes over the years. And age hits people differently.
RJ Allen: I am interested to see how Kopmeyer plays this year.
Charles Olney: Yeah, she got the chance a week early with that late Harris scratch, and made a mess of the Press goal. But I think she’ll settle in well and have a good year.
Allison Cary: I think she got better throughout that game.
Luis Hernandez: Agreed. She should have handled the goal better though.
Charles Olney: That goal combined a bit of pure technical magic, with Press bringing the ball down as perfectly as a human could do it, with a pretty weak shot that only went in because of some of the worst goalkeeping you’re likely to see.
Allison Cary: That pretty much sums it up.
Luis Hernandez: Kop said postgame that it took a deflection
RJ Allen: It’s going to be a shame when Press plays like 200 minutes in the World Cup.
Charles Olney: Any other thoughts on that game, or can we talk about the snowpocalypse in Chicago?
RJ Allen: Why is their snow in the last weekend in April?
Allison Cary: I don’t understand how people live in cold places.
Luis Hernandez: Did they have an orange ball?
Charles Olney: They did!
Luis Hernandez: I’m actually shocked
Charles Olney: I’m glad they called it. Seems like they probably could have made the decision earlier. But it’s better than some previous late decision-making, so I’ll take it. As for the game, we’ve all already expressed our worries about the Reign. Any specific thoughts on the game?
RJ Allen: The Reign need Pinoe back and they will not have her for months.
Charles Olney: I suppose I should tilt against the windmills for a moment and point out that Nagasato actually had a pretty poor game, by her standards. She scored a goal on an open net, and provided an assist to Casey Short who was (I’ve done the calculations) more open than any other soccer player has ever been in human history. But otherwise, she was pretty off for a lot of the game. So obviously she was voted player of the week.
RJ Allen: To be fair, and I’ll take the blame, she was my number one this week.
Luis Hernandez: I didn’t think she should have won it
RJ Allen: She is a very fun player to watch and some of that masks when she has a bad game. So blame me.
Charles Olney: I prefer to blame the entire world.
Allison Cary: It’s more fun.
Luis Hernandez: As much of a fair system as goal and save of the week
Charles Olney: I guess the one other thing I’ll add about the game is that I actually thought it was a lot closer than the final scoreline, and I’m less worried about the Reign than many folks. The Short goal was a disaster, but Vlatko will fix the defensive positioning. And they need to get more creativity. But they weren’t really that bad.
Luis Hernandez: I’m not sure coaching is going to be enough for the Reign.
Charles Olney: Alright, the last game of the weekend was the 2-2 draw between Sky Blue and Portland. Good result for New Jersey? Bad result for Portland?
RJ Allen: My official professional break down of this game: lol
Allison Cary: Good result for Sky Blue, IMO. It was an important sign of life.
Charles Olney: I tweeted this yesterday, but the main thing I want to say is that we (and I definitely mean ‘we’ because I’m a big offender here) spend too much time complaining about the annoying aspects of the Carli Lloyd experience, and not nearly enough time marveling at what she can do.
Luis Hernandez: I think RJ nailed it by saying Carli Lloyd FC.
RJ Allen: Carli Lloyd in a vacuum is an amazing thing to behold.
Charles Olney: As RJ said, Father Time is undefeated, but Carli sure seems like she’s going to fight him to the very death. And probably give him a swift kick in the junk on the way out the door.
RJ Allen: She has looking in to hiring a hit man.
Charles Olney: From the Portland perspective, should they be worried about the defense leaking so many goals? Or will it get sorted out once Menges comes back?
RJ Allen: I think Menges helps but Sonnett is likely gone.
Luis Hernandez: As for Portland, I think it could be a preview of what’s to come this summer.
RJ Allen: I think the first game they play in the NNT (non national teamers) era is going to be very important mentally.
Allison Cary: Yeah, it’s… not good.
Charles Olney: I’m not too worried for them. But I think they’d be much happier to be going into that NNT era with a couple more points in the bag.
RJ Allen: All in all I think they make the playoffs but they aren’t as strong as the last two years.
Allison Cary: Yeah, I’m not worried about them falling off a cliff or anything.
Luis Hernandez: When is the first home game for the Thorns?
RJ Allen: September. (I’m kidding)
Charles Olney: Okay, taking a step back from the analysis of the action, can we talk about the product a little bit? We’ve seen a bunch of the national team players drop Hulu sponsorship videos, and we’ve seen a whole host of ridiculous gifs released by US soccer. Meanwhile, North Carolina is putting together a Star Wars event (in which they portray themselves as the dark side?). Houston had some puppies on the pitch. They now sell beer at Reign games. Any thoughts about any of those things?
RJ Allen: Did y’all know Hulu has live games? And some players are very bad at making ads they themselves have to write? And Becky is (naturally) very good?
Allison Cary: Selling beer and adding puppies are always good developments.
Charles Olney: Controversial!
Allison Cary: I’m willing to die on this hill.
RJ Allen: North Carolina knows who they are by making themselves the dark side. #Underdogs
Allison Cary: “Yeah, lets do a Star Wars event, only lets be the fascists”
Charles Olney: Yeah, the Courage leaning into being the Empire is pretty on point. But I endorse it. Know yourself.
Allison Cary: The Spirit are doing a Star Wars night too, although what exactly that entails I’m not sure.
RJ Allen: The Spirit are Squibs.
RJ Allen: I know, I know mixing fandoms.
Luis Hernandez: I appreciate how well Orlando is embracing the new supporter group. Huge improvement over last year.
Charles Olney: For the most part, I’m not the audience for this kind of stuff. I don’t care about special theme nights (other than pride nights – more pride nights please!) or goofy announcements. But even grumpy old me can see how much fun some of these things are.
Charles Olney: One other final thought before we finish up: I just wanted to throw out there how much I enjoyed getting Jen Cooper, Poppy Miller, and Dan Lauletta on the broadcasts.
RJ Allen: Yes. It was nice to have some different voices this week. And stats. So many good stats.
I’m excited for the end of the week when we can finally have the USWNT roster and the endless speculation can be done.
Luis Hernandez: I’m glad for a Friday night match and only one Sunday match. Now we need a staggered start on Saturday to be perfect.
RJ Allen: Yeah the league has done a lot of starting games at the same time this year.
Luis Hernandez: And that’s just annoying
Allison Cary: Agreed.
Charles Olney: I know they have to worry mostly about what’s the best time for maximizing attendance and when they can use the stadium, and honestly that should be the priority. But I certainly appreciate when games are staggered.
RJ Allen: Also good work on the league and Chicago to get that game on air and not make it closed door.
Charles Olney: True. In previous years that has often not been the case.
Alright, that’s a wrap for this week. Thanks to everyone for joining us. Now go and enjoy all those preposterous USWNT gifs!