Backline Chat: How Good is North Carolina, and NWSL Discipline

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Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome everyone to this week’s Backline chat. We’re talking on Thursday, after yet another huge North Carolina victory last night. So why don’t we start there. The Courage are pretty much a lock to win the Shield, so the only real question is: what percentage chance do you give them to win the championship? Would you rather bet on them, or on the field?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): Honestly right now I am not sure how you don’t pick them to win even with the “curse.” They are beating the teams in the top 6 – outside of Utah – like a drum.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): Yeah, I agree. The one time they lost was a really great goal in the dying minutes of the game. Obviously stuff can change between now and the championship, but I’d absolutely bet on them.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): I’m going with the field. With the playoff setup, a one-off game. Crazy things can happen. The better team doesn’t always win.

Charles Olney: I know a lot has been made over the years about the ‘curse,’ which is sort of an annoying meme. So I’d certainly like to see them win if only for that. But even with their ridiculous dominance so far, I still would have trouble betting on them at over 50% odds. It’s just really hard to beat good teams in the playoffs. That said…given what they’ve done over the last couple weeks…

RJ Allen: I think adding HAO pushes NC over the top though. She is still a really good player and adding her in just makes them that harder to beat.

Charles Olney: It is ridiculous that they were able to add her without giving up any 2018 value. Not that it was a bad trade. I’m pretty high on Doniak and I think Utah may get a lot of value there. But right now, NC went from incredibly good to even-more incredibly good.

Allison Cary: I agree with the idea that anything can happen in the playoffs. But if I had to guess now… like RJ said, they’re consistently dominating teams they will likely meet in the playoffs. Anyone can have a good day, but  if I had to pick one to win the day, I’m definitely picking NCC.

Luis Hernandez: I’m biased and you can’t go against results but versus the Pride when the Courage put the game away in a four minute lapse from Orlando. Any playoff team can find a game plan to counter North Carolina. It’s just a matter of execution.

RJ Allen: NC is like HAO though. You already know what they are going to do. But you still can’t beat them.

Charles Olney: Okay, so related question: who do you think has the best chance of beating them? And what do you think is the right way to play them?

RJ Allen: Utah. I think Riley and Harvey play enough alike it gives NC the hardest match up. And adding Press counters the Dunn/Williams effect.

Luis Hernandez: And right now nobody executes better than the Courage. What I think about them is that they never let up.

Charles Olney: I’ll start by saying that I think Chicago’s game plan this week was pretty solid, and absolutely could have succeeded on another night. If Kerr had finished a couple of her chances, Chicago could have packed it in an protected their lead, and the storylines would be a lot different. It didn’t work out, but the ideas were good. I’d give the Red Stars at least some chance of making it stick next time.

Utah obviously has been the only team to have any real success so far, and I’ll be VERY curious to see how their third game goes.

RJ Allen: I think on a perfect night for them that Seattle could beat them. But everything has to be perfect and the last time they met it was far from it.

Charles Olney: I think that’s a good point, RJ. With every other team in the league, you can squint and see how they beat North Carolina, but they need it all to go right. If Seattle is missing Rapinoe, it gets really hard for them. If Kerr isn’t finishing, Chicago can’t do it. If Orlando doesn’t get peak Marta, they probably can’t manage it. But North Carolina could probably survive several hiccups. Mewis is out? No problem. No Hinkle? Fine. Dunn is out for a month? They’ll manage.

RJ Allen: Yup. They are like sharks teeth. Always something behind to cover.

Allison Cary: Completely agree.

Luis Hernandez: I think each of the playoff teams in the league can beat NC if they play their game and don’t fall into the Courage’s trap. The Red Stars could be more dangerous if Kerr doesn’t miss those chances. Same with Orlando, the offense didn’t click plus Sermanni hasn’t gotten the midfield right against them.

RJ Allen: I think Orlando’s defense has too many holes overall to stand up to a fully attacking NC though.

Allison Cary: I’m inclined to say Utah, but that’s mainly based off of past games. I think any team CAN do it, but like Luis said it’s about execution. Obviously catching NC on an “off” day would be helpful. If they even have those.

Luis Hernandez: I’m also leaning towards Utah since they were about to be successful against them but once again the Royals are as flawed as the rest of the pack. The team that faces North Carolina is going to have to take an “any given Sunday” approach.

RJ Allen: The Royals are flawed but to beat NC you have to fight fire with fire. And Harvey is all fire.

Charles Olney: To my eyes, the only real true weakness with North Carolina is against teams who can work through the initial press and get enough space in the middle to pick out a long pass. Chicago was doing that very well, but ANY of the playoff contenders could conceivably do it. But that’s not how a lot of them want to play, so it’s tough.

RJ Allen: Can, yes. Will, so far not really.


Charles Olney: So, speaking of NC’s competitors…how is everyone feeling about the playoff race? Things are still very tight, and it looks like it should be a lot of fun right through to the end.

RJ Allen: I think it’s going to come down, 2 or maybe all 3 of the spots left, to the last week or so. And that is great for the league I think.

Allison Cary: I agree. Seattle, Orlando, Chicago, Utah, and Portland are all so tight. And Houston isn’t too far back. I think it’s going to be an exciting finish.

Luis Hernandez: After the NC loss, Sermanni seemed different. He said “back to the drawing board” and I believe him. He said it isn’t going to be about just starting your best 11 players but the best 11 players who can win a particular match. I questioned him about the lack of trading while the other teams make improvements but he seems set on this group.

Charles Olney: That will certainly be an interesting storyline to follow. And not just with Orlando. Which teams look to make real changes vs. which ones stick to the plan and just work on executing.

Luis Hernandez: I’ll buy more into Houston when the Pride play them at BBVA coming up.

RJ Allen: There is going to be at least one if not two teams out of the playoffs this year that I think could win it most other years.

Allison Cary: Yeah, even though North Carolina is dominating, once you get past them there has been some really good competition in the league.

RJ Allen: I am kind of hoping for NC vs Utah in Portland for the final just for the amusement of it.

Allison Cary: That would be fun.

Charles Olney: Which raises the important question: which would be the ideal playoff matchups to maximize the fun factor?

RJ Allen: Not Portland vs NC. Please not again.

Charles Olney: Yeah, if we could entirely avoid Portland vs. NC, I’d be a happy camper. One other obvious one: Portland vs. Seattle would be a fun semifinal matchup

RJ Allen: Utah vs Seattle and NC vs Chicago I think would be really fun.

Luis Hernandez: I don’t think Portland even makes the playoffs

Charles Olney: I think that would probably be fine for most neutral fans. Portland is a lot of fun to have in the league, but not always the most fun to actually watch, particularly when they don’t think of themselves as a flair team…which still seems to be the case.

RJ Allen: Not if their starters keep being suspended for things that should be in game red cards.

Allison Cary: I don’t really have specific match-ups I’m looking forward to. I’m just excited to see how these teams step up their game in the playoffs. And I think the matches for the week/two weeks leading up to the playoffs will be REALLY fun.


Charles Olney: Okay, since RJ brought up the Klingenberg suspension, we should talk about that for a little bit here.

RJ Allen: DISCO lives!

Charles Olney: Are people surprised that the Disciplinary Committee actually did something? Are they surprised at the length of the suspension? Do we think this is a sign that they might get involved in things more going forward? Or is it just a one-off event?

RJ Allen: Do we know who makes up the committee?

Charles Olney: We definitely do not. Folks have asked quite a few times and all anyone has ever got was ‘no comment.’ I don’t think we even know how many people there are, or what their roles are. If I remember correctly, Dan Lauletta got SOME information last year after the Tyler Lussi event, but even that was pretty sketchy.

RJ Allen: I understand not giving out all of the names but saying something like “four former players, three officials” or something would be nice. It makes it very hard to judge without it.

Charles Olney: Agreed.

Connected to the broader question of league discipline, let me just throw out my usual hobbyhorse about in-match officiating: there have been zero red cards issued this year. We are almost two-thirds of the way through the season.

To me that is just malpractice, and makes me wonder whether ANYONE in the whole hierarchy actually cares about the quality of officiating. Because it seems pretty hard to believe that they haven’t done something more serious about this than give Klingenberg a one-match ban.

RJ Allen: I would be happy with more yellows overall than worrying about reds TBH.

Charles Olney: I’m certainly on board for more yellows, too. I checked those numbers last night and it’s still the case that there are slightly more than 2 bookings a game in the NWSL. Compared to 3.5 per game in MLS, all the way up to 5 per game in some of the big European men’s leagues.

RJ Allen: What are the Euro women’s leagues?

Charles Olney: I couldn’t find those numbers easily when I wrote my column on it last year. But I should put those together and write an update.

Allison Cary: I don’t have the stats, but I feel like there weren’t a lot of cards given in the matches I went to. I don’t think I ever saw a red. Maybe a few yellows, but not a ton. That was in England and a few Champions League matches.

RJ Allen: I wish they would get the little things right as much as the cards. It feels like every game there is a huge error somewhere in the match about offside or something.

Charles Olney: I agree with that, though I can sympathize a bit more with those sort of mistakes. Officiating is hard, and sometimes even good refs get things wrong. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t expect more, but you can try your hardest and still fail. But the disciplinary stuff isn’t ‘hard’ in that sense. They have just decided to call things extremely loose, and don’t seem to care that it degrades the quality of the game (and puts players at risk).

As fans, I think it’s fair to focus on the mistakes that affect results more than the daily churn of loose discipline. I just don’t want that part to completely fall out of the equation.

Luis Hernandez: My first thought after I heard about Kling being only suspended one game was that the NWSL PA really needs to unionize because there’s no appealing the decision. Once the league and the players get to the point where there’s some collective bargaining. Oh boy!

RJ Allen: I don’t really think this is something that should be appealed though.

Luis Hernandez: But other than that, I think it should have been more than just one match.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I think it probably should have been a three game suspension.

Luis Hernandez: The NWSL seems to get the refs that are trying to end up officiating in MLS. I don’t like that the only refs with stats on the PRO webpage are MLS refs. Why not the ones in USL or NWSL?

Charles Olney: That’s a great point, Luis. I think they assume that MLS fans are the only ones likely to be engaged enough to care. And if I wanted to be even less charitable, I’d say that they don’t regard USL and the NWSL as being important enough to have someone spend time uploading that information.

As with most things, though, there’s a supply and demand issue here. The expectation that fans don’t want or need something means that no one can develop the habits of expecting those things. So what appears to be lack of interest is really just the system being designed from the beginning to discourage people from caring.


 

Charles Olney: Alright, enough negative stuff. Let’s turn to our final topic: what are people excited about in this weekend’s games? I’ll start by saying that I’m personally excited to finally be seeing a match live after a several month drought. I’m in Seattle visiting family and will be going to see the Reign and Dash.

RJ Allen: That is the perfect match for you.

Allison Cary: That’s fun! I’m hoping that Orlando can bounce back against the Spirit after a few bad results. I think Portland-Utah will be a good game, but it kicks off at 4:00am my time so I probably won’t be watching.

Charles Olney: I also think that Portland-Utah game should be good. I briefly considered making the trip down to Portland on Friday night to see it, but it was just too much travel time in a short trip. I would love to get back to Providence Park, though.

RJ Allen: I am excited to see if Portland and Utah will survive the match up at all or if this is how the world ends.

Luis Hernandez: I wish the Orlando City match didn’t have its start time moved because the club was having a World Cup/Orlando City watch party at the stadium (includes a ticket to the Pride match) then see Orlando beat Washington.

RJ Allen: Washington makes me sad this year.

Charles Olney: I would really like to see Washington go on a run for a few games. There’s a lot of talent there, and even with the struggles it still seems like they ought to be able to put something together.

Allison Cary: Yeah. At the beginning of the year, it seemed like defense was more of a problem. Now their defense is starting to improve, but they can’t score. They just can’t put it all together.

Charles Olney: It sure seems like the unifying trend has been problems in the midfield. And…as someone who loves central midfielders this pains me to say, but…maybe signing five very similar central mids isn’t the BEST move?

RJ Allen: Hey I have a final like yes or no question for y’all. North Carolina needs 16 points in 8 games to break Seattle’s record for most points in a season – 54 points is the current record.

They play:

  • Washington
  • Sky Blue
  • Utah
  • Portland
  • Chicago
  • Orlando
  • Seattle
  • Houston

Do they do it?

Luis Hernandez: Yes

Allison Cary: Yeah

Charles Olney: Yes, but I think it’ll be close.

RJ Allen: I think draws leave them at 54 points, and a tie for the record.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator