Backline Chat: Playoffs, Referees, MVPs, and More on Sky Blue

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Charles Olney (@olneyce): Hi everyone, and welcome to this week’s Backline chat. It’s been an exciting weekend in the NWSL, so let’s start by discussing the playoff race. I think the general consensus has the current top four (NC, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago) as the most likely to make it in the end. Anyone care to disagree with that?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): If Houston can win against Seattle, they would be 4th. I would like peak madness to happen even if I don’t know if they can pull it off. On the other hand, half of Seattle is on the injured reserve this match.

Allison Cary (@findingallison):  I think Chicago is questionable. I’m with RJ, peak madness is fun. I think Houston and Utah are fun.

RJ Allen: If Kerr is scoring you two, you should be able to hold for a win.

Charles Olney: I will disagree that Utah is fun, though I do like them hanging out in the race even in spite of their relatively dire style of play.

Allison Cary: I meant fun in the sense of them sticking around, less so how they play on the field.

Becky Schoenecker(@Beckster20): I’m all for the madness and I’m rooting hard for Houston and for New Jersey to finish the year with some wins.

RJ Allen: I know this might sound cynical but Sky Blue finishing with 0 wins might be better for them long term than finishing with 1 or 2. And by better I mean a better chance they are sold or they are disbanded and the players can go to places with showers.

Becky Schoenecker: My heart just needs one though.

Charles Olney: I haven’t been able to get up to Houston much this year, but I’ll be there next weekend for the match against Sky Blue. Depending on what happens between now and then, it could be an incredibly tense game, or not so much.

Becky Schoenecker: Also, that one win can’t happen against Houston, my heart would not be able to take that.

Charles Olney: If results go against them, Houston could effectively be out by the time that game happens. If results go in their favor, they could be playing to occupy a playoff position going into the final week. Given what we all said about them going into the season, that’s truly astounding.

Allison Cary: It’s impressive.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): I think Orlando can win its last two and back in, but boy do I have my doubts. If the Dash make it in, I’ll be in shock. I don’t believe in the Red Stars.

Allison Cary: I have no faith in Orlando’s season.

Becky Schoenecker: I’m with Allison I think Orlando are out.

RJ Allen: I don’t think Orlando will win both of their last two and they need to.

Charles Olney: I lean toward thinking that Orlando still has a decent shot, ironically because I’ve rated them a bit worse than most people all season. Which means I don’t see this recent run of results as especially damning, and think it’s still quite plausible they come out strong to close things out.

I’m not predicting they make the playoffs, to be clear, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if they did.

Luis Hernandez: I’m questioning (Orlando) the players’ mental fortitude and resistance.

RJ Allen: I’m questioning the tactics and the player selection.

Allison Cary: I’m questioning all of it.

Becky Schoenecker: If they do make the playoffs – which I don’t think they will – they’d be out first round in my opinion

Charles Olney: What could they do to turn things around? Or is it just a lost cause at this point?

Luis Hernandez: As far as player selection, what exactly do people want to see? I never understood that point. Okay bring on Poliana??

RJ Allen: I have a warm take. I won’t call it hot, but warm.

Orlando is spending too much on Marta. They are paying her max which means she is draining the cap.

Becky Schoenecker: I don’t think Marta’s the problem.

RJ Allen: Marta ISN’T the problem. Marta’s pay is.

Becky Schoenecker: But they’ve still been able to field well above average players. Where would you spend her money if you could?

RJ Allen: They need four starting level defenders and help in the midfield. They need that more than they need Sydney, Morgan and Marta.

Luis Hernandez: I think you have a valid point but a bigger issue is talent identification and scouting.

RJ Allen: Sure, but her pay means that is handcuffed.

Charles Olney: I don’t know if I agree with RJ on the whole take, but I do agree that their defense is a lot more suspect than it might seem by looking at the names. I’d love for them to have a bit more flexibility there. I’d also point out that their midfield has never been one of the stronger, and while they’ve managed to shore up (and play around) that weakness to some degree, it’s still a weakness.

RJ Allen: I really think the NWSL needs to change the pay structure. Marta’s salary means they can’t upgrade some players as easily as other teams can. I’m not saying it’s the only reason or the main one. But I do think it is a big factor.

Becky Schoenecker: I would blame it on tactics then.

Luis Hernandez: I can point out Kennedy’s regression and inconsistent play more than Marta’s salary. Or EvE’s face on a milk carton all season long

RJ Allen: That’s on the HC then for keeping them on the roster.

Charles Olney: I guess my ultimate feeling about Orlando is: I don’t think they’re wildly underperforming. I had them 5th (but very close to 4th) going into the season, and that’s right about where they are. I think the issue is that they’re more hot/cold than some of the other teams. When they play well, they blow the doors off. When they play poorly, they’re quite depressing. With a different coach, different structure, they might well play more consistent, but I’m not certain they’d be better.

Luis Hernandez: I have to defend Sermanni’s tactics because when the players follow the plan they play well. They just haven’t put in a full 90 which fine you can blame Tom for that.

RJ Allen: I think Orlando plays some of the worse looking soccer in the league and that’s a mix of players and coaching. They don’t have a really strong flow about them.

Luis Hernandez: I believe the Pride roster is going to get blown up after the season anyway

RJ Allen: Head coaching change and a new roster would do the team wonders.

Luis Hernandez: I hope the coach doesn’t change but I also think after the season anything can happen.

Becky Schoenecker: Tom to Washington? haha

RJ Allen: I do not think Sermanni is a great coach. He is fine, but he isn’t great.

Charles Olney: I’d love to see Sermanni at Washington, FWIW.

Becky Schoenecker: I think he can get teams started.

RJ Allen: He would be good in a Washington or even a Sky Blue.

Luis Hernandez: Tom in Washington would be very interesting

RJ Allen: I think GM/HC needs to be more strongly defined in this league. And that is something that would help a lot.

 

Charles Olney: Alright, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the playoff teams, but very little about North Carolina, probably because there’s nothing really new to say there. Their season has been astonishing, and there’s no doubt they’re the best team in the league. But we all know that the playoffs can be a crapshoot and (famously) the Shield winner has never actually taken home the title. So: if I gave you even odds would you bet North Carolina or the field?

Luis Hernandez: The Courage for me. I love the killer instinct

Becky Schoenecker: I’d bet North Carolina.

Allison Cary: I bet on the Courage.

RJ Allen: I think the match up is important.

Portland: 60/40

Seattle 70/30

Chicago: 80/20

Orlando: 90/10

All in North Carolina’s favor.

Becky Schoenecker: RJ what about Houston?

RJ Allen: lol

Charles Olney: #TeamOfDestiny #DashTFOn

Becky Schoenecker: #DashTFOn

Charles Olney: I have to say, much as I love this Carolina team, I think I’ll still bet the field. We’ve seen Chicago play them very close in two games recently. And even Orlando was giving them real trouble this weekend until the wheels came off. And we all remember what happened when the rubber hit the road in the final last year.

RJ Allen: I think this NC team remembers the pain of last year.

Becky Schoenecker: I still think when it matters they’re going to win in commanding fashion.

Charles Olney: Even if they’re 2 to 1 favorites in both matches, that’s still under 50% chance of actually winning.

Luis Hernandez: There’s a blueprint to beat N.C. Doing it is a separate story

RJ Allen: I think you could make a super team out of the other 8 teams in the league and NC still wins.

Allison Cary: I would tentatively agree with that.

RJ Allen: It’s going to be a shame when expansion comes and strips half their players.

 

Charles Olney: Dialing into the games a little bit, it was a pretty exciting weekend with plenty of talking points across the league, with referees featuring a number of times. Any in particular that people want to discuss?

Luis Hernandez: Sky Blue! I really thought they could win this week.

RJ Allen: I’m sorry Sky Blue fans, from what I saw the ref did nothing wrong giving 3:50ish in stoppage and not stopping at 3 minutes on the dot.

Charles Olney: The level of anger about that one really surprised me. I understand why people were frustrated – for the sake of Sky Blue who really deserved a win there – but there is just no there there in this controversy. Three minutes just means a minimum of three. If the ref felt like there should be 3.5 minutes, he’d signal 3 and stop it whenever (in his judgment) full time was up. This is bog standard stuff.

Now, as I tweeted on Saturday night, I find the stoppage time process overall to be dumb and far too reliant on ill-defined norms. But it is the process. So I’d happily join a general complaint against the whole approach, but there was nothing wrong in this instance.

RJ Allen: I have no real issue with stoppage time.

Charles Olney: It’s very low on my list of changes. So I’ll spend my capital elsewhere, for sure.

Luis Hernandez: Agreed

Charles Olney: Okay, any thoughts on the calls (or non-calls) in Portland? Do we think Chicago’s anger about either goal scored against them is justified?

Becky Schoenecker: I have a semi cool story related to that. Yesterday, after our women’s college match I was talking to the refs about the NWSL and the calls. The second I mentioned the league he goes oh that call against Chicago that wasn’t called? He watched the broadcast on ESPN news and from the sound of it a lot of higher up referees are. Just a fun little tidbit.

RJ Allen: I think Portland manages to get a lot of non calls that go their way.

Luis Hernandez: Especially at home.

Charles Olney: I wouldn’t be confident saying that they get better treatment than the average team, but anecdotally lots of people feel that way. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they were on balance benefactors of refereeing calls.

Luis Hernandez: The ref bias out of Portland is head-shaking. It just stands out so much. How do you explain it? The way the Thorns play, you should be whistled more than that.

Charles Olney: In this game, I don’t really think Chicago were correct about either complaint, in the sense that the goals should CLEARLY have been disallowed. But you see stuff like that called plenty, so it wouldn’t have been out of line if things had gone that way. And I can understand frustration at losing a bunch of 60/40 calls.

In terms of physicality, I think y’all know my feelings there. I wouldn’t call that favoritism, but more that the Thorns are exploiting a general problem. Utah is the same way. Both play extremely aggressive (far beyond the bounds of what I’d call acceptable), but mostly get away with it.

Allison Cary: Yeah, agree with that 100%.

Luis Hernandez: Someone should explain persistent infringement to the referees.

Charles Olney: Ironically, for all that North Carolina are possibly the most physically intense team in the league, I don’t really see them as villains on this front. At least not this year.

Luis Hernandez: I think the Courage have been less just bull in a china shop physical

RJ Allen: I am as much a fan of brutal soccer as anyone. But I am starting to really move toward the league is going to end up really hurting someone. Like not an ACL but a spine.

Luis Hernandez: NWSL Fight Club.

 

Charles Olney: Alright, another topic I wanted to bring up is the MVP race. Obviously, this depends to some extent on what happens over the final week. But I have to say that I’m thrilled with just how wide open things are.

I think you could make a serious case for at least these players: Kerr, Rapinoe, Dunn, Zerboni, Horan, Sinclair, and maybe Sauerbrunn or Erceg. I’m not saying *I’d* vote for all them, but I can see a reasonable case.

RJ Allen: Corsie over Sauerbrunn, I’m sorry but it’s true. Corsie hasn’t missed the time Sauerbrunn has and IMO has been as solid on the field when they are together.

Luis Hernandez: If the MVP comes from a non-playoff team I’d be shocked. No playoffs no MVP award.

RJ Allen: Zerboni has been my MVP since about week 9 and I haven’t changed on that.

Charles Olney: I’ve been similarly locked into Dunn, but while she’s remained quite good (as has Zerboni) I think a bunch of the folks who were below them most of the season have really kicked into gear.

RJ Allen: North Carolina isn’t 100 points ahead of everyone else if not for Zerboni.

Luis Hernandez: Just check the golden boot standings and you’ll get your MVP winner

Charles Olney: On that point, one name I didn’t bring up among the favorites is Lynn Williams. But per Luis’s point, she might well win the Golden Boot. If she does, do people think she’ll continue the trend of the MVP and Golden Boot being identical awards? Or could this be the year they’re finally severed?

RJ Allen: I think if Williams wins Golden Boot she’ll be the MVP. Same with Kerr.

Luis Hernandez: If Kerr were to win the golden boot, you’d have to believe the Red Stars are in the playoffs

RJ Allen: I think Kerr can win the Golden Boot and they still are 5th. But it would be hard.

Charles Olney: I’d like to believe that people could see their way to breaking the connection with Williams. But I generally agree if Kerr does win the Boot, it’ll be because she scored enough that Chicago made the playoffs. And she’d also have done enough to deserve the MVP regardless. In fact, that might be where I’d bet at this point.

RJ Allen: I think 2017 might still be on people’s minds. She has been very good this year but not 2017 Kerr.

Charles Olney: Sam Kerr is very good.

RJ Allen: Sam Kerr is very good.

Luis Hernandez: I’m going to say the unpopular thought but I think Horan should be MVP

 

Charles Olney: Alright, one final topic: the situation at Sky Blue. We’ve talked about their problems a few times here, but Cloud 9 just put out a statement confirming that the promised changes haven’t materialized, and that there doesn’t seem to be any indications of progress. Thoughts about where this stands at the moment? Does anyone have any faith that Sky Blue can survive in its current form?

RJ Allen: I know a few of the Cloud 9 people and they care about their club, the league and women’s soccer as much as anyone I know. They are good people and reading the statement I can only imagine how difficult it might be. But I think they said what needs to be said in a way that is very honest and in the end I think they are right. The league needs more than part time GM’s and part time staff. Sky Blue promised to change and they have not.

Luis Hernandez: I’m going to hope Sky Blue uses the off-season to right the ship with better improvements. It’s hard to find a better practice field right at the end of the season

RJ Allen: I think the only way it gets “righted” is a sale and move a la Western New York or the Boston route. The ground needs to be salted.

Charles Olney: I would really like that to not be true, but I’m increasingly finding it hard to see any other alternative.

Luis Hernandez: I think things went passed the point of no return but I’m still hoping Sky Blue can fix thing by the start of next season. Don’t mean to talk out of both sides of my mouth here.

Charles Olney: Sky Blue were barely able to meet standards at the beginning of the league when expectations were much lower. What they provide has never been acceptable but at least you could squint and say that it was necessary. It no longer feels necessary. If they can’t make big improvements (and I don’t think they can) that may be the end of the road.

RJ Allen: I think it’s alright to be sad about this. Mourning the history and the jobs and team lost. But I do think if the league wants to make it, it has to grow and that includes higher standards. The NWSL should have higher standards than nearly everything Sky Blue has done.

Luis Hernandez: I’m curious how much better off things are in Seattle. Is it safe to say that the Reign are next after Sky Blue?

RJ Allen: No.

Luis Hernandez: Then who is the team above Sky Blue in this department?

RJ Allen: I think they are apples and oranges. I don’t think it’s that kind of scale. It’s not nearly that easy.

Luis Hernandez: It is a scale; meet the standards as they rise.

Charles Olney: Seattle have some serious issues, but in their case it’s a matter of finding ways to thread the needle. It absolutely can be done, and they’re working on it. Maybe they’re the team that’s ‘next after Sky Blue’ but only because someone has to be next. I don’t think it’s even in the same ballpark.

RJ Allen: I agree with Charles.

Charles Olney: The stadium issue obviously has to get fixed, and if they can’t figure out an answer, they’ll have to leave. But I have much much more faith in their ability to get a satisfactory answer than I have faith in Sky Blue resolving they’re many problems.

Allison Cary: I have very little knowledge of what’s going on in Seattle, but I would agree with Charles. It seems like Sky Blue and Seattle aren’t even close in terms of problems.

RJ Allen: Seattle’s big issues are 1) Finding a better home field and 2) Keeping some staff in like the media departments for more than a year at a time. That is like one-tenth of the Sky Blue list.

Luis Hernandez: For sure.

 

RJ Allen: How many NWSL teams do we have opening day of 2019?

Luis Hernandez: An even number.

Becky Schoenecker: It’d be nice to have 10

Allison Cary: 10 would be nice.

Luis Hernandez: 12 would be crazy

Allison Cary:I don’t see things staying the same no matter what.

Becky Schoenecker: I would LOVE 12.

Luis Hernandez: Expansion draft for 2019 for sure. In a Wold Cup year.

Charles Olney: Reading the tea leaves, I don’t see any of the usual suspects that seems like they’ll be ready to enter in 2019. And if we think Sky Blue might not be long for this world, it’s really hard to see them finding two franchises. I’m not saying that it won’t happen, but I’m a lot less certain that it’ll be 10 than I was a few months ago.

Luis Hernandez: 8?

RJ Allen: That is my guess.

Becky Schoenecker: I really hope it isn’t 8 that would be concerning and I don’t feel like the NWSL is in a place of concern, but growth (or change).

Luis Hernandez: That would just be a down ending

RJ Allen: I think 8 would be fine for a year to get the house in order. Growth without stability is an issue.

Charles Olney: I don’t think eight would be a real problem. But I agree the optics wouldn’t be great. Still, I’d rather have eight solid franchises than struggle to make 10.

Allison Cary: I agree. Hopefully not long-term obviously, but stability should be key.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator