Off the Bench with Backline Soccer: 2017, Week 21

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Backline Soccer Recap:

Quick Fire Week 21 Game Previews:

We have just two games left (three for North Carolina and Houston) in the 2017 NWSL season and what a season it has been. We seen more parity between the upper part of the table than years before, which should make an exciting playoff setup. There are three teams competing for the final two playoff positions, Seattle, Orlando, and Chicago. If Orlando and Chicago win this weekend or Seattle loses, both will secure the playoff positions. Let’s break down what to look forward to this weekend. 

Game 1: Orlando Pride vs. Portland Thorns

Orlando Pride record: 10-6-6
Position: 4th
Total Points: 36

Portland Thorns record: 13-5-4
Position: 2nd
Total Points: 43

Orlando’s final home game of the season has serious implications. A win puts them into the playoffs. They would already be there if not for a crazy last second goal by Jess Fishlock last week, but they’ll hope to put it to bed this time around. They’ll need to be careful about the minutes of their returning players who were on national team duty. Six of the eleven starters were with their national teams, Marta, Monica, Steph Catley, Alanna Kennedy, Alex Morgan, and Ashlyn Harris, but only four of them saw minutes. Hopefully they are prepared and recovered enough to put in a solid shift. Alex Morgan is on a tear, with three goals in the two games for the USWNT. If she takes this form into Saturday, Portland will be hard-pressed to shut her down. The Pride’s biggest task will be their defense. Ali Krieger is their leader in the back but she cannot be expected to cover everyone. Portland will put up a big test and it will be up to the backline to shut them down.

Portland also has players returning from international duty, including Allie Long, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Hayley Raso, Amandine Henry, and Nadia Nadim, all of whom saw minutes. Tobin Heath played about fifteen minutes for the USWNT on Tuesday night so I would expect her to maybe get 20-30 minutes in this match as a sub. They will not want to push her too much.  Portland started the season slow, looking unable to make much happen with top players not producing and the loss of Heath. But in recent games, they’re starting to look much better. That said, their last game against Boston wasn’t great, and if they come out in the same way this time, it could make for a long and difficult game. 

Game 2: Washington Spirit vs. Boston Breakers

Washington Spirit record: 5-13-4
Position: 9th
Total Points: 19

Boston Breakers record: 3-12-7
Position: 10th
Total Points: 16

Washington has had a very tough season. They have few healthy players on the bench to sub in. This week they take on the Breakers, who have also been seriously struggling, in what seems to be a race for the number one draft pick. The Spirit were able to pull off a great win against Sky Blue last time out, and will hope to build on that performance. The biggest thing for them at this point in their season is just to take care of their players and keep them healthy and motivated for next year.

Boston is currently sitting in last place. If you had said that would be the case after the first few weeks of the season, I would have called you a liar. But here they are. Boston is in a similar position as the Spirit in terms of needing good draft picks next season to help build their team. This week, with Mal Pugh looking to start to hit a bit of a stride, they will want to work to contain her and work their way through the Spirit defense. 

Game 3: Houston Dash vs. Chicago Red Stars

Houston Dash record: 7-12-2
Position: 8th
Total Points: 23

Chicago Red Stars record: 10-6-6
Position: 3rd
Total Points: 36

The Dash are out of the playoffs but have the opportunity to play spoiler a bit for the Red Stars if they can pull off the win. Houston really has nothing to lose at this point so it will be interesting to see how they come out. If that’s going to happen, I think it starts with Rachel Daly finally getting in more on the attack and another big game from Jane Campbell. She was away on national team duty but did not see any minutes so should be fresh. The Dash have looked decent at times, but often just do not seem to have a clear game plan. Lack of a real head coach might have something to do with that. Against the Red Stars, they will have a lot to handle, with plenty of big names like Yuki Nagasato and Julie Ertz coming at them. But the Chicago defense has been shakier of late, so there is room for Houston to make a mark here. 

Chicago are in a similar position to Orlando: win, and they’re in. They also had six players with the USWNT, Alyssa Naeher, Christen Press, Julie Ertz, Sofia Huerta, Casey Short, and Morgan Brian. All six saw minutes, with both Ertz and Naeher seeing significant time. The team has seemed a bit sluggish and off their mark for several games now but have managed to pull together enough positive results to keep things afloat.  Christen Press has dipped a bit in form, but I expect her to step up this weekend and push her team into the playoffs. Julie Ertz is coming off a hot two games with the USWNT, and should be able to bring that energy to Chicago as well. Overall, if their big players produce as they should, the Red Stars should not have much trouble this week against the Dash.

Game 4: Sky Blue FC vs. North Carolina Courage

Sky Blue FC record: 9-11-2
Position: 6th
Total Points: 29

North Carolina Courage record: 15-6-0
Position: 1st
Total Points: 45

Sky Blue is officially out of the playoffs which may afford them the opportunity to play more freely this week, and with Sam Kerr on the prowl, that could end up being deadly. Facing the Courage will be a tough challenge, but we have seen them pull off some big wins this year, and if anyone is going to give the Carolina defense a rough time, it’s Kerr and company. Defensively, things look dicier, so they’ll try to keep things as tight as possible, but victory is most likely going to be a matter of outscoring the opposition.  

The Courage are still sitting atop the standings and will be looking to stay there through the end. They also had players off on national team duty. Lynn Williams, Taylor Smith, Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Denise O’Sullivan, and Debinha all saw minutes. I don’t expect much experimentation here – they know what works, and will want to focus on locking things in for the playoffs. That said, they have a lot of depth, so we might see them do a bit of minute-management for those who were busy with their national teams. Whoever they run out, North Carolina’s attack will be strong, and will definitely look to exploit a fragile Sky blue backline. 

Game 5: Seattle Reign vs. FC Kansas City

Seattle Reign record: 8-7-7
Position: 5th
Total Points: 31

FC Kansas City record: 7-9-6
Position: 7th
Total Points: 27

Seattle needs a win (and a Orlando and Chicago loss) to stay in the playoff hunt. It is no small task but they have the fight to make it happen. FCKC has been officially eliminated, but are playing some of their best soccer of the year, so could pose a serious challenge to the Reign. Defense has been an issue all season for the Reign but signing Lydia Williams has locked up the back a bit as she has saved their butts quite a few times already. However, she will be on short rest and long travel, after playing every minute for Australia in both games. FCKC have finally started to click and have made a lot of hay from pressuring the opposition and poaching goals, so Seattle will need to be careful as they press the attack to not get caught.  

FCKC’s playoff hopes were dashed with their draw against the Red Stars. However they have been a very good string of positive results and with Seattle’s defensive woes, KC will like their chances of finding the net. They are returning Becky Sauerbrunn and Katie Bowen from national team duty, both seeing significant minutes, but should otherwise be fresh. Seattle’s range of attacking options will pose a real test for the FCKC backline. Hopefully, both sides stay in form and we get a great match. 

The Scouting Report:

We went live on Monday and Wednesday night with two special TSR’s to cover the U.S.A vs. New Zealand matches. 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 episodes, catch up here:

Image courtesy of Kelley Piper