Backline Chat: High and Lows as the NWSL Returns

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Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome to our midweek Backline chat. The international break is over. The NWSL is back. There’s plenty to cover, but let’s start with the playoff race. Did this weekend’s results change anyone mind about who will make the cut?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): I knew the results of the Orlando game going in. But boy oh boy did they not look like a playoff team.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): I literally was just typing the same thing.

RJ Allen: It was almost shocking how not put together they were for a game they should have gotten 3 points on. They needed 3 points on it, really.

Charles Olney: The first half of that game was dreadful, on both sides. And while Orlando put together a nice 20 minutes or so in the second half, they also stumbled wildly for parts. It certainly wasn’t the sort of performance that screams ‘we’re a playoff team.’

RJ Allen: Utah didn’t look great, and they need some help to get there, but they did look more put together than they had been. The math is wildly not in their favor but in terms of the eye test they were better than Orlando.

Allison Cary: Luis had a good tweet about it, he said “Orlando Pride playing to the level of their opponent once again” on the first Sky Blue goal. That summarizes my feelings on the whole game.

Charles Olney: We feel very far removed from that ridiculous performance the Pride put up against Chicago a month or so ago. But they could easily turn it back around and blow someone out of the water again. It’s just so hard to tell with them.

RJ Allen: At this point the playoffs almost have to be North Carolina, Seattle, Portland, Chicago just on the numbers, right? I feel like something would really have to go wrong for it not to be that mix. Even if Portland and Chicago swapped.

Charles Olney: I wouldn’t bet against Orlando yet, but they’ve given themselves very little margin for error.

Allison Cary: Orlando is unpredictable. But I think NC, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago is a reasonable prediction/assumption.

Charles Olney: They do have two games against other contenders left, and a game against Sky Blue. If they can get nine points there, they’re probably in. If not, they may be out, unless they can steal some points from Carolina.

RJ Allen: It’s funny because any other year Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Orlando would be a great playoff. But with North Carolina blowing everyone out of the water it leaves everyone trying not to be 4th on top of making the playoffs.

Charles Olney: Chicago have a brutal run-in, but that also means they have more chances to pick up important points. You’d have to say that this weekend went about as well as you could hope for on their part. And they didn’t even play!

RJ Allen: I really can’t wait for more teams for a longer playoff. 6 teams in the playoff, with a first round advance for 1 and 2, I think is a real sweet spot in a 12 team league. And I hope the NWSL gets to 12 solid teams soon.

Charles Olney: I’ll disagree there. As I think we’ve covered here before, I don’t really like playoffs at all, so maybe that’s coloring things. But I especially don’t like playoff systems where 50% of the teams make it. I’d be happy keeping it to four teams for the foreseeable future.

RJ Allen: I would be happy with every team making the playoffs and the regular season used for seeding. So you and I might never agree there.

Charles Olney: That is fair.

Alright, so do we have any thoughts about Seattle? They’re not quite locks yet, but you’d have to like their odds at this point. Securing those three points this weekend was huge.

Allison Cary: Admittedly, I’ve missed a lot of Seattle’s games because of the time difference. But I like what I see.

RJ Allen: There once was a soccer team from Seattle. When they were good they were very, very good and when they were bad they were … still pretty good and will likely force Lifetime to host a playoff game in a place Lifetime does not want to host a playoff game in.

Charles Olney: I have to say, Memorial is a garbage venue, but it’s OUR garbage venue and Lifetime just needs to get over themselves and put it on TV. It’s not THAT bad.

RJ Allen: I think if this was the first year that the team played there, I might get Lifetime’s worry. But we all know where Seattle plays and what it looks like.

Allison Cary: Agreed.

RJ Allen: I am fascinated by the goalkeeping in Seattle. I get the stats pack and Betos and Williams are nearly identical this year. Vlatko gave Barnhart like 92% of all minutes when FCKC was still a thing. And now he’s a swapper.

Allison Cary: Yeah, is there a reason Betos didn’t start this weekend? I was a bit surprised to see Williams in goal after she played all of ToN. I would have thought he would go with the better rested option.

RJ Allen: I have not been able to tell when he is going to play one or the other. By man oh man what a gift to be able to have both as an option.

Charles Olney: I think Williams is clearly better, but that it’s also to have two solid options, and I do think your points are interesting: that the numbers are so similar and that Vlatko is rotating.

RJ Allen: They have the rights to Solo too. I mean now that could be a fun 23 person roster with those three.

*crickets*

What? What did I say?

Charles Olney: Okay, final question about the playoff-bound: North Carolina wrapped up the Shield this weekend, surprising absolutely no one. Any thoughts on them, or have we run out of superlatives?

My take is that they played at maybe 75% of their potential this weekend, and in doing so brushed aside arguably their biggest rival without too much trouble. That’s scary.

RJ Allen: They are the best team the NWSL has fielded in 6 years of play. I think they have, as much as it pains me to say, passed the 2014 Seattle Reign. They have a bunch of “no name” players who put in work that has sent 6 to the USWNT. And yeah, yeah Dunn was on the radar but not like she was before this year.

Charles Olney: All the other teams in the league have to be hoping that they run into the same playoff troubles as the Reign.

RJ Allen: Well Holiday has retired and ARod isn’t going this year most likely. Unless Seattle trades for her. For max lol’s.

Allison Cary: The only team that seems to be able to consistently draw points from NC is Utah. Maybe they could share that magic with NC’s playoff opponents?

RJ Allen: I do wonder what a North Carolina vs Seattle final in Portland would look like though.

Allison Cary: Not that I’m looking for them to lose. I’m just not seeing who is going to beat them.

RJ Allen: What will happen first: Sky Blue wins a game or North Carolina gets their second loss?

Charles Olney: Sky Blue! Somehow, they’ve actually been okay in their last few games. And I have a feeling that the climax to this weekend’s game will be enough to draw the team together a bit. I really hope that they’re able to at least pull themselves up to Breakers level of respectability. There’s too much talent on that team for them to be THIS far adrift.

RJ Allen: I don’t know. They are playing teams that need points to survive and that might sink them.

Charles Olney: My case for Sky Blue: the combination of Dorsey, McCaskill, and Groom (and Lloyd when she’s back from her suspension) is finally starting to click. They also have Rodriguez back, and while she isn’t quite the player they need, that’s a big upgrade from Thaisa. And Gibbons is back in the mix. That’s a team that COULD win a couple games in a row. At least in theory.

RJ Allen: Maybe neither happens and the season runs out before either do?

Allison Cary: I’m tempted to go with that answer. Although I think Sky Blue is getting better and might be able to sneak in a win.

Charles Olney: Yeah, ‘neither’ is quite possibly the best bet here.

Slightly turning the conversation, here’s a (not so fun) thing I noticed: if you combined the points from Washington and Sky Blue, they’d still be in last place. By nine points. That is rough.

Allison Cary: Yikes.

Charles Olney: Which leads to an obvious question: if you actually combined their rosters, would they in fact still be in last place? Or would that provide enough depth to paper over some of the problems?

RJ Allen: There is no way either coach can survive, is there? I think they would be higher with a single roster. At least some of the issues with not having XI quality starters would be gone.

Charles Olney: I’d be very surprised if Gabarra is back next year. I wouldn’t be shocked if Reddy is back…assuming that Sky Blue continues to exist. But I have major doubts about that premise, and if there are changes it’s very hard to see Reddy sticking.

Charles Olney: I agree. Both teams struggle defensively, but combine the options and you could get a serviceable backline out there. Then again, neither team should be nearly this bad even just looking at the actual rosters they have, so…

RJ Allen: I don’t know how the league doesn’t step in on Sky Blue after this year. Governor of New Jersey or not. Gibbons might be able to play in the midfield!

Charles Olney: From your lips to god’s ear.

Alright, one more little topic, on a slightly goofier note: imagine that you’re starting a brand new franchise next year. You’re given the option of poaching any single player in the league to build your team around. Who do you pick and why? (I think there’s an obvious answer, but I’m curious if y’all agree)

RJ Allen: Sam Kerr. 100% Sam Kerr.

Allison Cary: Yeah, Sam Kerr is where my brain immediately went.

Charles Olney: Yeah, that’s the one. So if we all agree there, who would be your NEXT choice?

RJ Allen: McCall Zerboni. You can’t build a house without a solid base and I can get good defenders farther down the line. There is not around midfielder who can who what she does as well.

Allison Cary: I have no idea after Sam Kerr, but I like RJ’s answer lol.

Charles Olney: I’m torn here. I’d want to take someone on the younger side, who still has room to grow and you can count on getting quite a few good years from. I think I might take Sam Mewis if she were fully healthy, but that’s a gamble at the moment. It’s hard to argue with Horan, though I’ve never quite been a true believer there.  I can’t really justify not taking Rapinoe, if given the option. Or Dunn. Ertz gives you flexibility. In conclusion: I don’t know, but also like RJ’s answer.

Allison Cary: Horan and Dunn both crossed my mind.

RJ Allen: So I’m working on a “Non American/Non Canadian NWSL Player Power Ranking” to look at the talent from outside of the US and Canada that the league has hosted.

I gave the selection criteria as:

  1. Impact on the league while playing
  2. Impact on the league after they left, if they are no longer playing in the league
  3. Personal awards (MVP, Best XI, ect)
  4. NWSL Titles

100ish votes in, any guesses on the top 5 the world of Twitter has put forward and who would be on your top 5’s?

Charles Olney: I can’t see much of an argument against Little, Fishlock, and Kerr being the top three, so I’m guessing (hoping) they are in the top 5.

RJ Allen: They are all top 5, yes. But one name is much lower than the other two.

Charles Olney: I’m tempted to include Erceg, though I’d be surprised if she is in the top five.  Based on the second criteria, I think you could make a case for Angerer, who has contributed a lot as both player and coach. It’s hard to argue against Marta. And Alanna Kennedy would be in the mix for me as well. And there are plenty that fall into the category just below this group.

RJ Allen: Right now it is:

  1. Sam Kerr 101/105
  2. Marta 91/105
  3. Jess Fishlock 90/105
  4. Kim Little 73/105
  5. Abby Erceg 71/105

No one else is higher than 58, which is Amandine Henry. Angerer is 44.

Allison Cary: Interesting. I actually would not have thought people would vote for Henry. Catley is up there for me.

Charles Olney: I’m disappointed that the top four aren’t all unanimous, but what can you do? It’s a pretty solid list.

RJ Allen: I do think it’s interesting that players who, I would argue have made a huge impact like Nadim aren’t super high. I don’t know if it’s who is voting, if they are trying to not vote for some in place of making others higher or what. But I thought it was neat. The NWSL has a ton of non-American or Canadian talent.

Image courtesy of Corri Goates