Backline Chat: NWSL Buy/Sell/Hold and the China Friendlies

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Charles Olney (@olneyce): Let’s start things off with a quick round of discussion about the national team friendlies coming up against China. What do people expect from these games? Is there anything in particular you’ll be watching for?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): I want Ellis to sit Morgan and Sauerbrunn and co. We know what they can do and we know what they are both good and bad at. I want to see what the other less experienced players are good and bad at. I am pretty sure I am not going to get what I want.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): Agreed. I’d like to see Crystal Dunn get some time, since she’s been great for the Courage so far this season. I’d also like to see some experimentation, particularly on defense. But like RJ said, I don’t really expect to get that. Also please don’t break Rose Lavelle.

Charles Olney: Given that Midge Purce is now out, do we think there’s any chance Dunn plays a more forward role? Or is she definitely going to stick at fullback for both games?

RJ Allen: No. I think they need her in the back or it is going to be basically giving up the wings. Mathias is a very good outside back. For Paul Riley. I don’t know if Ellis can bring that level out in her.

Charles Olney: I’m certainly skeptical of Mathias, though I don’t mind them giving her a look. We’ve seen a lot of players excel when surrounded by the rest of the NC lineup, who don’t necessarily translate that to other environments. But they’re playing a fairly weak China team, so this sure seems like a decent place to test her out.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I agree with both of those statements. I’d like to see her get a chance.

RJ Allen: I think the US is too scared to not win these matches by a few goals. I don’t like it, but that’s what it looks like and has for 20 years.

Allison Cary: Yeah. Ellis has shown in the past that she’s not really willing to use these games to try something new, so I’m not sure why we would expect more out of her now.

RJ Allen: The last coach who tried as fired for it.

Charles Olney: Speaking of Lavelle, my hot take when the news came that she’d joined the roster was: don’t worry, she won’t play, this is mostly just for assessment. Am I being overly optimistic? Do y’all think she actually sees more than a few minutes?

RJ Allen: Yes. Yes you are. I think she might start the second game or be a 45 minute sub.

Allison Cary: I honestly don’t know. So I’ll defer to RJ on this one.

Charles Olney: Let’s make it a mini-bet. If she plays under 30 minutes, you owe me a beer at the championship. Over 45, I owe you a cider. In between and we’ll call it a draw.

RJ Allen: I will take that bet. I do seriously wonder if Ellis thinks of a lot of the young players as just expendable though.

Becky Schoenecker(@Beckster20): I’m with @olneyce on that bet.

Charles Olney: Any final thoughts on this topic?

RJ Allen: I really hope Naeher doesn’t play all 180 minutes.

Allison Cary: I second that.

Charles Olney: Third. Even as someone who generally is more accepting of ‘give Naeher a lot of time.’

Allison Cary: I think Naeher is the best keeper in that group, but I also think its important for other players to get time. We know Naeher is good. Give someone else a chance.

Charles Olney: Alright, let’s turn to the main topic for today. A round of ‘buy/sell/hold’ for the NWSL teams. Basically: given where the team is sitting today, do you expect them to go up, stay about the same, or fade away by the end of the season.

Let’s start at the top with the North Carolina Courage. They’re in first place with a 12 point buffer. Can they possibly get better? Or will they inevitably fade a bit? Buy, sell, or hold?

RJ Allen: It has to be hold, right? They can’t go any higher than dropping just 6 points in 12 matches.

Becky Schoenecker: They’re going to be just as strong, I don’t see them fading unless you consider giving a player a bit of a break and using some usual subs as starters near the end.

Charles Olney: I’m tempted to offer a hot take that they’ll get even better, but…yeah, I think hold is probably fair. They’ll probably lose a game at some point, but I don’t see anyone making it competitive for the Shield

Allison Cary: Yeah. I don’t really see them fading.

Becky Schoenecker: Who do you see beating them?

RJ Allen: Themselves. That’s the only team good enough.

Charles Olney: I really thought Houston was going to get it done this weekend, but frankly the draw was probably fair. And that was with like 70% of the NC squad off the pitch. They’re very very good.

RJ Allen: Are they better than the 2014 Seattle Reign?

Charles Olney: I think I’d take the Reign by a hair, but I do sort of think this NC team might be better at disrupting the Reign than the Reign would be at carving them up. If they can keep playing this well all season, I think they’ll have a strong case for the best single season performance in the league to date. They’re just so relentless and can rip you apart so quickly. Those six minutes or so against Portland last week were incredibly impressive.

Becky Schoenecker: I would take NC over 2014 Reign, but it would be a hell of a game.

Charles Olney: Speaking of the Reign, in second place are the Seattle Reign, sitting on 18 points, and with a game (or two) in hand over most other teams in the playoff hunt. Are they punching above their weight, or can they sustain as the #2 team in the league?

Becky Schoenecker: I see them dropping, but still making playoffs.

RJ Allen: I think Seattle ends up second or third. So mostly a hold.

Allison Cary: Admittedly, I’ve missed a lot of the Reign’s games due to the time difference. But I think they stay in #2. Maybe slip down to third. But I think they keep it close.

Charles Olney: I’m tempted to buy on Seattle, because I’m a big believer in Vlatko, and I think things will start to gel even more. But results so far have gone of gone in the opposite direction–with great performances right at the start, and uglier ones (though still with some solid results) in the last month. So I’ll stick with hold. If I had to bet, I’d stay with them to get a home playoff game. But I think it’ll be close either way.

Alright, third place: the Orlando Pride, on 16 points. In many ways it seems like they still haven’t quite found their feet. Are people optimistic that they’ll kick on the afterburners again like they did last year?

Allison Cary: The Pride are there own worst enemy. I honestly can’t predict what will happen to them this season. They could get better– there is a ton of room for improvement on that squad, considering the talent they have. But they could also fall off the deep end.

RJ Allen: I think sell. I really think things are going to come off the bus with a midfield that weak.

Charles Olney: I’ll say sell. Not because I think they’re bad, but just that they’re at the most risk of a minor injury disrupting their season, because they’re quite bare in a few spots. Basically: what RJ said.

Becky Schoenecker: They have some great moments and a pretty good roster, but I’m selling.

Allison Cary: I agree about the injury thing, especially on defense. They have big name players, but they’ve been completely unable to perform. I still stand by what I said at the beginning of the season: I think they’ll be right on the edge of the playoffs. Probably 4th or 5th, although I could see more of a range if the table stays this tight.

RJ Allen: I think 5th is where they end up. Krieger being out is a big blow.

Charles Olney: It would not surprise me in the least if they reel off four or five straight wins and race ahead of the competition. But I could also see things falling apart a bit. That said, I do think that Sermanni is a really underrated coach. Not that people think he’s bad, but a lot of the stuff he does goes under the radar. So I’m going to stick with ‘sell’ but I think I’d still bet on them to squeak over the line into the playoffs.

RJ Allen: He is good at some things for sure. But I do not trust that midfield.

Charles Olney: Fourth place are the defending champs: the Portland Thorns. It’s been a bit of a rocky road this year, but they’re currently in a playoff position, albeit by the skin of their teeth. Buy, sell, hold?

RJ Allen: Sell.

Charles Olney: Mmmm, I’ll say buy. What’s your argument?

RJ Allen: I don’t know what is going on in Thornland but I feel like something is going really wrong there. It’s like Parsons has lost the plot.

Charles Olney: Things have definitely felt a little scattered, but I think they’ve been coming together a lot. The game against North Carolina was a nightmare, but I thought Portland actually played pretty well. They just ran into a brick wall.

Becky Schoenecker: I think they make the playoffs, but just barely. In saying that I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost a lot of games they shouldn’t and just miss it. Overall though if they have to get a win in the end to get a spot I think they’ll pull it through, but only at the last minute.

RJ Allen: I don’t like Portland’s style of play so I might be more harsh on them for it.

Allison Cary: I think they have some really magical moments, but I don’t think it’s enough to lift them up. Like the Pride, I see them probably at either 4th or 5th. If they make the playoffs, I’d say just barely.

Becky Schoenecker: I think if it came down to the Thorns vs anyone else to get the playoff spot though they make it over almost anyone else.

RJ Allen: Points are a funny thing, though.

Charles Olney: To some extent, I look down the roster and find it hard to justify to myself why they wouldn’t make the playoffs. Then again, we’ve seen Portland struggle to put it all together even with a great roster before. In the end, I think talent wins and they find a way to grind out the results they need. But I find it hard to argue with any of the doubters here.

RJ Allen: One of their best rosters ever got them 5th. I can see it happening again.

Charles Olney: For all these teams in the 2-6 range, you kind of have to ask yourself: how are they going to respond in the final two weeks if they’re scrapping for a playoff spot? I see Portland as the best equipped to bulldoze through people if that’s what it takes.

Allison Cary: I agree with that. Especially over someone like Orlando. Or Utah, if they worked their way up.

Charles Olney: Fifth place are the Chicago Red Stars. I wrote a pretty long piece documenting some of their struggles, which also acknowledged some reasons to expect improvement. I’m curious where others fall. Will Chicago be in the playoffs in September?

RJ Allen: Sell. Any team that keeps Sam Kerr from doing what she does best and she has to break the plan to be Kerr, should be sold.

Becky Schoenecker: I want to believe they will be, but if it was between Thorns and Red Stars I’d have to go with Thorns pulling it out.

Charles Olney: I really want to convince myself to buy here. Kerr is coming into form, DiBernardo is coming back, and is going to be huge. Short is coming back and is going to solidify things. Ertz will round back into form. I could go on. But…I just can’t make myself believe it. I think they’ll hang around the whole season, but end up on the outside looking in. So I guess that’s a hold.

RJ Allen: I think Dames has not adapted to his new team in anyway. It’s like he still thinks it’s 2015 with what he is doing.

Allison Cary: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, Kerr has three goals in her last two games. Like you said, DiBernardo and Short coming back, and Ertz getting back into form. But I’m not sure.

Charles Olney: I already said my piece about this on twitter so won’t belabor the point here, but Dames’s comments about wanting this team to play like Guardiola’s Man City are…worrisome. I really hope Chicago does find a way to ease into a more possession-oriented game, and gives Kerr the support she deserves. I’m just not sure I see it happening.

RJ Allen: Yeah that isn’t Chicago at all. Did Dames ever see Kerr play before he traded for her?

Charles Olney: Sixth place are the Utah Royals. They’re sitting just behind the three teams ahead of them, and have a couple games in hand. Do people see them moving up, or have they settled about where you’d expect?

Allison Cary: I don’t see them moving up.

RJ Allen: Buy, if they get Press. I think ARod finding her form, O’Hara coming back and that defense is going to help them. I think they squeeze in.

Becky Schoenecker: I’ll be optimistic and say they’ll move up – especially if they got Press, but I can see them moving up.

RJ Allen: Their defense is really, really good.

Charles Olney: I really like what Utah has done this year, and have been super impressed with Harvey. I think she’s made it clear that she really does know what she’s doing and it wasn’t just a one-time thing with that great Seattle team. That said, it’s felt to me all year like they were getting a little lucky about results. I think they could actually improve a bit and still not move up the table. So I’ll sell.

If they’re able to pick up HAO, or Press, or someone that can help them score some goals, that could be the difference-maker.

RJ Allen: They NEED someone else to help out that attack. They could really use Gibbons or Groom.

Allison Cary: I agree. But if they get Press or HAO or anyone else to help the attack, I’m still not sure I see them doing it this season. I think they could move up a slot or two, but probably not playoffs.

RJ Allen: Harvey is the trade master.

Becky Schoenecker: If the trade master can get another attacking threat I think they can make a playoff spot.

RJ Allen: Hegerberg to Utah. Either one of them.

Charles Olney: Seventh place is the Houston Dash. They were just a few minutes away from being the first team to beat North Carolina this weekend, and (astonishingly) would have moved up into the playoff spots if they’d managed it. They’ve defied pundits all season. Do you think it will continue?

RJ Allen: Hold. I don’t think they finish higher than 6. Not with Mewis out and Press refusing to play there. Unless Press is traded and they get a good deal for her.

Allison Cary: I think they’re getting better. But I also think they’re the type of team that could be devastated by one or two injuries. I think they’ll survive losing Kristie Mewis, but if Daly or Ohai gets injured, I think they’re done.

Charles Olney: I’m playing mostly to type here, but yeah I have to go with sell. The performances really have improved a ton, with three good games out of their last four. And the team spirit seems to be flying. That said, their roster is just so much weaker than everyone around them.

Allison Cary: I really like what they’re doing on both ends of the pitch right now. And I think they’ve got some good defenders, if they can find a bit more chemistry they could be really dangerous. But they have like no depth.

Charles Olney: I really hope I’m wrong. The Dash defying the odds has been my favorite story of the season so far.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I didn’t expect to find myself cheering for them at the beginning of the year. But, here I am.

Becky Schoenecker: I don’t see Houston making playoffs, but I do see them ruining some other teams days. They are a better team than I think a lot of people expected them to be and they have relentless work ethics. I’m absolutely cheering for them, but overall would say hold.

RJ Allen: They kind of bore me because of the style they have to play to win. But I get they have to play that style.

Charles Olney: I will say that, for all I have criticized Van Wyk, I think she’s been much more solid lately. That’s been helped by the formational shift giving her more protection when she steps up and misses a tackle. But she’s great in the air and is no longer a liability like I think she was at the start of the season.

RJ Allen: But is she worth the international spot?

Charles Olney: Probably not, but she’s a better use than they’re getting from some of the other spots, so…

Alright, eight place: the Washington Spirit. I don’t think anyone expected them to dominate this year, but I think many saw them being at least in the mix with the playoff teams. So far, we’ve seen very little of that. Do people think it will change? Sub-question: does Jim Gabarra last through the end of the season?

RJ Allen: I am selling them until Gabarra is gone. I think he is a bad coach.

Charles Olney: I’ve been a Gabarra-defender a lot over the years. I think he’s a strange coach, who makes a lot of indefensible decisions, but who also manages to get a lot of things right. But things really feel like they’re going off the rails at this point.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I don’t see them improving.

Charles Olney: I’ll still buy, because the roster is stacked with young talent. But I worry for them getting their heads on right.

Becky Schoenecker: They’re a much better team on paper than what they’re producing. They’re having the most shocking season to me. I keep waiting for them to connect things and they just aren’t.

RJ Allen: Church is just not a fast enough to be used the way he wants to use her. Sullivan has look bad at times. Pugh and Hatch can’t find the same page.

Charles Olney: It does astonish me that more teams don’t just sit back, wait for Washington to come at them, and then launch balls over the top. Easiest way in the league to get a one-on-one with the keeper.

Allison Cary: Kind of a separate note, but I was happy to see Tori Huster’s sister get signed as a national team replacement and I hope they get to play together on Friday.

Charles Olney: Agreed. Huster the younger feels like a victim of league contraction, so I’m glad to see her getting a spot.

So that brings us to last place: still sitting on just one point after nine games, Sky Blue. They have to improve. Right? Right?

I’m buying. This team just isn’t that bad.

Allison Cary: I feel like they’ve got too much talent on that roster NOT to get better.

RJ Allen: I am selling (to Mia Hamm).

Charles Olney: Strong move.

RJ Allen: It feels like a death of 1000 cuts. The ownership group having people in charge who don’t get it and hiring a coach without giving her support and then bringing in Lloyd and players that don’t fit together.

Becky Schoenecker: I’ve enjoyed seeing McCaskill play with them, I think she brings a lot to the table as a player

Charles Olney: Denise Reddy seems, by all accounts, to have a pretty good eye for talent, and to be a solid tactical coach. Nothing we’ve seen so far this year really confirms that but I still think she’ll turn things around.

RJ Allen: I have no faith in this team to turn it around right now. I feel for the players and the fans. But even if they win two games they are worst than even the worst Boston had to offer. With better players. (edited)

Charles Olney: But I think the example of Houston is pretty telling. It’s not like the Dash have any holding midfielders, either, but they’ve managed to at least get things stabilized in spite of that. Sky Blue are making some progress (they’ve been better in the last couple games), but it’s still a long ways off.

RJ Allen: 0-8-1 should get you fired.

Becky Schoenecker: Their backline is hard to watch, they just seem so much slower than other teams. So even with good moments one on the other end and they’re down and I don’t see them as a team that can come back, maybe have a chance of holding onto a lead, but not making up goals.

Allison Cary: I agree, RJ.

Tyler Nguyen (@tdn_): If I can just pop in here for a second: the difference between Sky Blue and Houston is that Houston has people in midfield who at least in theory can be dangerous on the ball. Sky Blue has a completely dysfunctional midfield right now. Sky Blue won’t improve until they roll the dice and put McCaskill in the middle.

RJ Allen: Which they won’t do over Lloyd.

Charles Olney: It’s worth noting, on that point, that they looked a lot more coherent this weekend. Not necessarily better, but more coherent. Janine Beckie isn’t even really a major change over Lloyd in that attacking midfield role, but at least her speed created another set of problems for the defense to think about

RJ Allen: Lloyd looks like she has given up most of the time.

Charles Olney: The big question for me about Sky Blue is whether they start making some significant changes. Whether or not Reddy’s initial plans made sense, at a certain point resignation sets in and even good ideas just aren’t going to work. You’ve got to be willing to make a change.

RJ Allen: In real sports the GM and the coach would be sacked – at the latest – at the end of the season. But it doesn’t seam like anyone wants to do that in women’s soccer, at least in the US.

Charles Olney: If this were Serie A, Sky Blue would be on the fourth manager by now.

Alright, with all that said, one final question that we’ve already talked a bit around: name the eventual playoff teams.

I’ll say North Carolina, Seattle, Portland, Orlando. With Chicago juuuust barely missing out.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I was going to say the same thing. Not entirely sure of the order, but I see the current top four as the final top four.

RJ Allen: North Carolina. Seattle. Portland. Utah. Y’all convinced me to move Portland higher.

Becky Schoenecker: I’ll say North Carolina, Portland, Seattle, Utah.

Charles Olney: Well, none of us picked Chicago, so that pretty much guarantees they make it, right?

Image courtesy of Corri Goates