Charles Olney (@olneyce): Welcome to the first Backline chat of the 2019 NWSL season. We have four matches under our belts, and a lot of material to cover. To kick things off, let’s stay big picture. Did anyone see anything this weekend that changed their expectations for the year? Or is the sample size still too small to draw any conclusions?
Allison Cary (@findingallison): Too small, for me. Everything I can comment about this weekend, I can also blow off as a bad game. Or a good one
RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): It looked very Week 1 of the season to me. But I do think Portland and Houston were stand outs for me so far in this season. Both looked better in some ways already than their 2018 form.
Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): It’s still early. Most teams looked to still be in preseason mode. I felt Portland and Chicago looked the best while North Carolina was exactly what I expected.
Charles Olney: The closest I can say is that Orlando might be even worse than I was expecting. But that’s really only one the evidence of a single half. And as Allison says, anyone can have a bad half. Still, it was a REALLY bad half.
Luis Hernandez: The second half was better. I’ve watch Orlando a bit in the preseason and I know what Skinner wants to instill. It’s going to take time.
Allison Cary: I feel like the Houston game is one they would have lost in the past. Granted, they almost choked. But it meant something to me that they didn’t.
RJ Allen: Houston played like a team with a plan and the ability to (mostly) complete that plan. Which is an upgrade for them.
Allison Cary: Exactly @rjallen, completely agree.
Charles Olney: I feel like Houston did a lot to push off the unlucky loser dynamic last year, when they actually got results in lots of games that (to my eyes) they shouldn’t have. But I agree with Allison that there was something specific about those final minutes that felt different. There was definitely an intensity, combined with a joyfulness, in the Houston players post match. They knew they played well, and felt good about being able to repeat it.
Luis Hernandez: I feel better about Houston and less so for the Reign. That team can’t afford more injuries. As for the Dash, I still think they can do better but I was pleased.
RJ Allen: I do wonder if Washington looked better or if Sky Blue are just somehow worse. More matches are needed there, for sure.
Charles Olney: To dial in a little bit, let’s talk through each match briefly. Starting with North Carolina-Chicago. It was a rematch of last year’s semifinal (the #DrainageDerby), and North Carolina picked up where they left off. But Chicago managed to hang onto a draw. What were people’s thoughts there?
RJ Allen: North Carolina’s whole MO is to take a bunch of shots and have a few land. They looked a bit rusty which happens early in a season. Plus having McCall Zerboni not look 100% yet changes how that midfield plays. She is really what drove them forward.
Allison Cary: I thought it was North Carolina’s game to lose. After such a dominant season, not being able to get three points out of your home opener isn’t exactly where you wanted to start. But credit to Chicago for going toe-to-toe with them.
Luis Hernandez: I think North Carolina could have been more sharp in the attack, and if they had cleaned that up they could have beaten the Red Stars.
Charles Olney: This very much felt like a game that NC dominated – and I fully expected them to do their normal thing of reeling off two or three goals around the 60th minute. But they didn’t, and Chicago actually ended up with the final great chance. I do think that was more to Carolina being unable to put them away than any special performance from them.
But from Chicago’s perspective, getting a point away to North Carolina, in a game they didn’t actually play that well, is hardly a bad way to start the season.
Allison Cary: Yeah, I’m happy if I’m Chicago.
RJ Allen: That is the magic of Sam Kerr.
Luis Hernandez: However, I felt the Red Stars came in with a smart game plan and Chicago was able to get a result. Taking points from the Courage at Cary is going to be a win for any team.
Charles Olney: I do sort of disagree there. I don’t think Chicago really had a great game plan. The Courage ran right through them most of the game and they depended a lot on excellent performances from the keeper and center backs. Which…it succeeded, I guess, and maybe there wasn’t any better option available. But I don’t think it was a successful game plan. But we’ll have to see them with a full strength team to really draw any conclusions, I think.
Charles Olney: Okay, the other Saturday game was Washington-Sky Blue. In the matchup of the two bottom teams from last year, Washington managed to find a win. How much of that was due to improvements on their end, and how much was due to Sky Blue’s continued problems?
RJ Allen: 40% improvements and 60% Sky Blue being terrible.
Charles Olney: I’ll admit this is one that I’ve still only seen the first half of. But at least there, the quality on both sides was still pretty lacking. But Washington at least seemed to be reasonably coherent, and occasionally exciting. It was, as usual, hard to even tell what Sky Blue thought they were doing.
RJ Allen: Sky Blue just looked bad. And I’m not sure there is anything that can be done at this point that isn’t new ownership or moving the team to fix it. A lot of the changes are a bit like putting lipstick on a pig.
Charles Olney: You do have to wonder about a team coming straight out of preseason, when they’ve had a month to talk about their approach and style, with no particular idea of how to play. And a coach whose postgame comments make clear that she doesn’t have a vision, either. That’s bad, no matter how you dress it up.
Allison Cary: Neither team really looked “good.” I feel like they’re gonna be hard to judge until they go up against other opponents, but if I’m Sky Blue I’m pretty terrified.
Luis Hernandez: The Washington/SkyBlue game was really hard to watch, and I’m not taking Yahoo Sports stream.
Charles Olney: We’ve spent a lot of time on these chats feeling sad about Sky Blue, so let’s turn our attention to the positive side. Do people see this Washington with a real chance to break out from the bottom tier? Or not? Or, again, still too soon to know?
Luis Hernandez: I can’t say too much against the Spirit since they won. I’m reserving judgment on them until they play a game or two more.
Allison Cary: I think it’s too soon but… I’m not encouraged.
Luis Hernandez: It just isn’t an accurate indicator because of who they played.
Charles Olney: The Spirit have Utah next weekend, which could be a good match to tell us a lot about both teams. Or maybe will end up being another game that will just leave us scratching our heads for more data.
The one thing I’ll say for the Spirit is that, whatever the history behind Burke as a coach (which I continue to think has not been taken nearly seriously enough by the team), he seems to be pretty popular at the moment with the players.
Allison Cary: Yeah, I’m not really a fan but I guess I’ll give him a chance to change my mind.
Charles Olney: The real test will be when things go poorly for a while, so it’s absolutely something to keep our eyes on.
Charles Olney: Okay, turning to Sunday’s games, the first was Orlando-Portland. As we’ve already mentioned, the first half was very good for Portland and very not good for Orlando, but the second was much more even. Thoughts on what that tells us?
I’ll start with the controversial statement that Tobin Heath looked very very good, which is a good sign for the US this summer, but a bad sign for other NWSL teams.
Luis Hernandez: It’s going to be a rough year for the Pride. Portland was Portland. Very good. Talented. Deep.
RJ Allen: Orlando is not a good soccer team and hasn’t really been since they were founded. For a team that has some of the best players in the world it is not a good sign. I understand it takes time to build a team and with a new coach it takes more. But they do not have 1-20 a good or solid roster.
Allison Cary: Even if they aren’t as bad as they were in the first half, Orlando is not gonna be able to compete with the top teams in this league.
Charles Olney: In some ways, I wonder if that great run at the end of 2017 actually ended up hurting the Pride overall. I think it’s pretty clear on the evidence of the past few years that this roster isn’t actually a world-beating group, but for a couple months they just looked that way. But because they had that success, they maybe stuck with the plan longer than might have otherwise happened.
Luis Hernandez: Orlando had to field supplemental players in the first match. What else do people need to know?
Charles Olney: That said, it was pretty clear this offseason that things needed changing, and they didn’t change much, so maybe not.
Allison Cary: Yeah, they didn’t fix their problems from last year. Even with a new head coach, they needed to do more. It’s gonna be a long year.
Luis Hernandez: The main problem from last year was that they underachieved.
Charles Olney: I do think there’s space in this squad to set things up for the next few years, in anticipation of the team that will come after Morgan and Marta leave. But it may be a bit of a slog.
RJ Allen: The league wants Orlando to be a good team. They might even need Orlando to be a good team. So I hope they can get it together.
Luis Hernandez: I know sports isn’t about patience but that’s exactly what everyone will need to have for the Pride. The roster isn’t even complete.
RJ Allen: That makes it so much worse though.
Luis Hernandez: And look at the first ten matches for Orlando, it’s brutal. Hi. Let’s play Portland at home then travel to North Carolina then to the Reign in one week.
Charles Olney: For Portland, any other thoughts? They looked good, certainly. Better than I was expecting for them out of the gate. I do really worry about what they’ll be able to do during the World Cup, but if they can play this well outside of that window it may not matter.
RJ Allen: I do think they dip a bit during the World Cup but I think they will still end up in the playoff picture and end strong.
Allison Cary: They looked impressive, albeit with very little resistance.
Luis Hernandez: Yeah, I wanted to call out Kling for a dirty foul on Morgan that didn’t get called.
Allison Cary: Yeah, that was a bad missed call.
Charles Olney: I think we’re all pretty sick of rough play going uncalled. This was just one more example.
RJ Allen: A lot of players in the league play to whatever level of reffing there is. Kling is one of them. If they let her get away with murder, she and a lot of other players will go for it.
Luis Hernandez: The Thorns need to grab all the points while they have their starters. They will make the playoffs. I didn’t think they would until Sunday.
RJ Allen: Can we talk about the surprise front runner for best match of the week now?
Charles Olney: Absolutely. In the final game of the weekend, Houston drew with Reign FC. I was able to make it up to Houston for this one, and it was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve attended in a long time. We’ve already talked a bit about Houston, but any further thoughts there, or about the Reign?
Allison Cary: Injuries suck
RJ Allen: Two subs for two hurt players in quickly is going to hurt any team. I think Seattle handled it about as well as you could.
Allison Cary: Yeah, especially considering who they lost and who was already out.
Charles Olney: I’ve got a full post coming up on the site about this game, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. But the main point I do want to hit is that I saw qualities from both of these teams that helped answer some of the lingering questions I had about them.
RJ Allen: Houston had 8 shots on goal. 8! And they were good chances too.
Charles Olney: Houston actually possessed the ball really well, which is a huge change from last year. They also pressed well, which is different, and gives them a new angle. Those suggest a team who isn’t just hanging on. They think they’re good enough to outplay the opposition. That’s great.
For the Reign, the first half was really rough, but the second half showed that they should be very good again. Even accounting for injuries, and for the strange poor play from Theresa Nielsen. They’ve got a real player in Darian Jenkins. They’ve got a potential replacement for what they’ve traditionally gotten from Rapinoe (playmaking from the wings drifting inward) in Shea Groom. They have real depth in the defense, with McNabb and Celia both performing well. But oh boy do they need to get Fishlock back and/or need better performances from Andrews and Kellond-Knight.
RJ Allen: Charles took the words right off my keyboard.
Luis Hernandez: The game I felt was officiated well. I don’t give credit when that happens but I kind of feel like I need to since I’ve been bashing the refs in Orlando.
RJ Allen: Also maybe have Allie Long take the Seattle PKs?
Allison Cary: Yeah that PK from Taylor was… not good.
Charles Olney: Okay, we’ll wrap up with the conversation about matters ON the pitch there. But let’s also take a moment to discuss everyone’s favorite topic: streaming. How was the experience using Yahoo for the first time?
RJ Allen: My Roku played the Yahoo app without issue. The only problem was the steams on day 1 being switched and then switched back.
Luis Hernandez: I had difficulties casting to my TV but I could watch on my laptop. I didn’t try to use the mobile app
Allison Cary: I just watched on my laptop. It was fine.
RJ Allen: Chromecast doesn’t allow Yahoo steams to be cast, so I’ve been told.
Charles Olney: Everything also basically worked for me. I do have some nitpicks: the streams swapping, some difficulty actually finding the streams on the app, technical issues causing problems with the replays (both during the broadcast, and with attempts to watch the streams after the match was over), and the obligatory name-flubs and other commentary issues. But it’s far better than the go90 rollout. And we heard some nice new voices in the broadcasts, too.
Luis Hernandez: I wasn’t expecting Dan on the broadcast.
RJ Allen: Having someone with as much woso knowledge as him back, was nice.
Luis Hernandez: I’m going to try the other options as the matches come up. Or invest in a Roku.
RJ Allen: Roku’s are the best.
Charles Olney: On the whole, it sounds like our experiences were okay, though there could always be improvements. I certainly would like to see more and better options for streaming, casting, and watching. It continues to frustrate me that the experience on the league website is clearly superior to the official one through a huge tech company. But que sera.
RJ Allen: VPNs are good my friends.
Charles Olney: Alright, any thoughts on the matches coming up this week? We’ve got North Carolina and Orlando tonight, and four more games on the weekend. Any that particularly catch your eye?
Luis Hernandez: I’m looking forward to seeing Utah.
Allison Cary: Orlando is gonna get killed.
Luis Hernandez: Which match Allison?
RJ Allen: Both.
Charles Olney: Both.
Allison Cary: I meant NC, but both.
Charles Olney: I actually would be a little surprised if they lose both. But not that surprised.
Luis Hernandez: I think they’ll fare better in Tacoma.
Charles Olney: To me, Chicago-Portland looks like the game of the week, and could give us a real sense of where those teams stand at this point. But I also am excited about Utah and Washington, as a game with two teams that have some potential to make big improvements this year facing off.
RJ Allen: I’m just glad the NWSL is back and we can talk soccer weekly.
Allison Cary: Amen
Charles Olney: RT @rjallen
Luis Hernandez: Are we expecting a Chicago win at home or a Portland win on the road. RJ picked a draw.
RJ Allen: Spoilers!
Allison Cary: Portland win. Because why not.
Charles Olney: Draw seems like a fair call. I wouldn’t be surprised at any result, though.
Luis Hernandez: I expect Chicago to find a way to win.
I also expect Kerr to get fouled like it was going out of style.
Allison Cary: Fair prediction.
Charles Olney: Alright, with that we’ll call it a wrap for this week. Thanks to everyone for joining us. And as always, feel free to hit me any of us up on twitter with questions or comments.