Off the Bench with Backline Soccer: 2017, Week 17

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Backline Soccer Recap:

Quick Fire Week 16 Game Previews:

We are getting a battle now for the fourth place spot for the playoffs and also seeing some top teams face some surprising defeats. Let’s dive in to this weekend’s games. 

Game 1: North Carolina vs. Washington Spirit 

North Carolina record: 12-5-0
Position: 1st
Total Points: 36

Washington Spirit record: 4-9-4
Position: 10th
Total Points: 16

The Courage have pulled five points away from the second place team coming into this weekend. They will look to build on that and continue to solidify their spot at the top. They’ve had some bumps along the way, but just keep pulling out wins, even if they are not so pretty. And it’s been a full team effort. The two players who did so much for them last year–Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald–have really not done a lot this year. Instead, we’ve seen players like Sam Mewis stepping up. This week, with the Spirit struggling, the Courage should not have many issues. But as we have seen from recent games, the table only tells us so much. The Spirit may be in last, but the Courage will still need to be on top of their game. Look for Mewis to continue her hot streak.

The Spirit need work and time but their young players are settling in, and may be setting up for a decent 2018 season. This season, while they could end up playing spoiler, at this point there’s no realistic hope for the playoffs. Against the Courage they just need to focus on their basics. Expect to continue to see a solid shift from Steph Labbé, Mal Pugh to try to get herself on the scoreboard, and a defense led by Estelle Johnson to try to hold off the Courage attack. 

Game 2: Boston Breakers vs. Orlando Pride 

Boston Breakers record: 3-8-7
Position: 9th
Total Points: 16

Orlando Pride record: 7-6-5
Position: 5th
Total Points: 26

Boston has been bitten by the injury bug for several games now.

With several key players out, facing off against a red-hot Pride will be a test. They might still pull off a win, but the chances don’t look good. To get anything, they’ll need to stay organized on defense and find a way to split or shut down the Alex Morgan and Marta connection. Their attack has also been lacking, especially without someone spurring it from the midfield. Orlando will leave them some space to operate; the only question is whether they can find their way through the pockets.

Orlando is hitting its stride and from now to the end of the season, their biggest test will be themselves. They must remain consistent, and keep turning in solid performances. This week, the key is to take Boston seriously. On form, this one should be easy, but underestimate Boston and they can cause problems if Orlando takes the foot off of the pedal. The Pride attacking duo of Alex Morgan and Marta seems to be firing on all cylinders right now and they are looking dangerous. Both have 3 goals each in the last 2 games. The Pride defense, led by Ali Krieger, has also looked much better over this recent run, but has been shaky in the past. With the always vocal Ashlyn Harris back in goal, the Pride have to like their chances. 

Game 3: Sky Blue FC vs. Seattle Reign

Sky Blue FC record: 7-9-2
Position: 6th
Total Points: 23

Seattle Reign record: 7-5-6
Position: 4th
Total Points: 27

This is the first match for Sky Blue since coach Christy Holly stepped down from the position. It will be tough going to rise up from the problems of the past month and push themselves back into playoff contention. Sam Kerr has saved the team many times this year, but couldn’t get much going against Orlando last week, but that is because no one was getting her the ball. The absence of Kelley O’Hara is a big part of that. They’ll need to sort out their distribution if they want to have a chance here. Christie Pearce has been a workhorse all season in the backline for Sky Blue, especially with such a young line set up around her. But she had some issues shutting down the Pride last week as she had very little help to do so. Sky Blue need to make some changes this week at home to try and right the ship against the Reign. 

Seattle is coming in after a last minute comeback midweek against the Red Stars. They will also continue to be without Megan Rapinoe. They gritted out the win against Chicago but really did not look that great throughout the match. If not for a stand-out game for Haley Kopmeyer, there wouldn’t have been a chance of getting back into it in those final minutes. Seattle will need to shut down Sam Kerr; she is hungry to get her team back on track. They will also need to diversify their attack to deal with Rapinoe’s continued absence. While the Sky Blue defense has its struggles, the Reign will still have their hands full getting past the likes of Christie Pearce in the middle. A little creativity will go a long way here.

And if last match was any indication, this game may very well be another one for the books. 

Game 4: Portland Thorns vs. Houston Dash 

Portland Thorns record: 9-5-4
Position: 2nd
Total Points: 31

Houston Dash record: 7-9-2
Position: 7th
Total Points: 23

Portland had been riding a hot streak going into the midweek, but then suffered a surprising defeat to FC Kansas City. Which is another lesson to not underestimate any team in this league. They will look to bounce back against the Dash, who will be riding high after a great midweek performance of their own. The key for Portland is to get some more players involved in the run of play. With Allie Long back in the picture this week, they’ll look to bolster their passing game. But I would like to see more from players like Amandine Henry and Christine Sinclair. Additionally, Nadia Nadim has had limited minutes since coming back from the Euros; if she can get back up to playing a full 90, it would help the attack a lot. 

When Carli Lloyd went down, many expected that it would be the death knell for their playoff push. But the team has set out to prove everyone (including me) wrong. Without Lloyd, they made a great showing during their midweek game, with other players step up to the plate, with Sarah Hagen scoring twice and Rachel Daly turning in one of her best performances in a while. It was against an injury-ravaged Boston side, which means it has to come with a grain of salt. But still, it was an indication.  If the Dash can consistently put out this product, even without Lloyd, they still have a shot for that fourth spot. This week though, especially on the road at Portland, they will have a tough challenge.  

Game 5: Chicago Red Stars vs. FC Kansas City

Chicago Red Stars record: 8-5-5
Position: 3rd
Total Points: 29

FC Kansas City record: 5-8-5
Position: 8th
Total Points: 20

The Red Stars have lost their last two games at home and will be looking to reverse course and get the much-needed three points from FCKC. Even with the recent difficulties, I do not think there is a whole lot to be concerned about with the Red Stars. They will have to take a look at their personnel, identify what is working and what’s not, and make a few adjustments. But the players are good and should pull through. Alyssa Naeher missed the game against Seattle (another USWNT player who picked up a knock at the Tournament of Nations…which is a conversation for another day) but hopefully will be back in goal soon. 

Many of the Red Stars stalwarts did not look great against the Reign, including Christen Press. But one theme of the season is that when Press turns in a subpar performance she usually comes back that next week and grinds out a great one, so I fully expect to see her right back on her train and leading the Red Stars past FCKC. If Press is on this Sunday and we see the defense shift back to the starters, I think the Red Stars will be fine. Even with their 3 minute meltdown midweek, this defense is the best in the league and has enough to stifle the FCKC attack. 

FCKC is coming into this weekend after a big win against the Thorns at home. After everyone had pretty much written them off, they turned on the jets the last two games, reminding us that they’ve still got some fighting spirit. They still have a lot of work to do and still need to figure out how to provide more help to Sydney Leroux, but they’ve done well to find alternate avenues for scoring–like those wonderful free kicks from Yael Averbuch–and are starting to look a little more like a classic FCKC team. The biggest test this weekend will be penetrating that Chicago defense. They’ll need to get service into their forwards, but also need players like Leroux and Shea Groom to come back to help build the attack. Look for FCKC to try and contain Christen Press as much as they can to keep Chicago off of the board early. 

The Scouting Report:

We went live on Monday night with our weekly TSR and Thursday night with our recap of the midweek NWSL games. A reminder that you can catch TSR live every Monday night at 8pm EST on our YouTube channel. Make sure to follow the podcast on Twitter @ScoutingPodcast.

In case you missed the two episodes, catch up here:

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator