The Game Changers is a weekly series looking at the most important results each week. Each section will look at one team and how its win, loss, or draw impacts the season.
Week 13 in the NWSL has come to pass, and as teams prepare to welcome back their U.S. Women’s National Team players, the NWSL standings are starting to look a little more familiar. Following this week’s action, the North Carolina Courage are back on top of the standings. They are tied in points with the No. 2 team, the Portland Thorns, who has arguably had one of the better runs during this World Cup. Nothing is surprising at the bottom of the table, as the Orlando Pride and Sky Blue are tied for the lowest amount of points. They are still five points behind the No. 7 Houston Dash, but in recent weeks, both teams have started to improve. Here is the full list of results from this week’s matches:
Sky Blue vs. Utah Royals (1-0)
North Carolina Courage vs. Reign FC (2-0)
Houston Dash vs. Chicago Red Stars (0-1)
Portland Thorns vs. Orlando Pride (4-3)
Sky Blue wins again
It’s kind of astonishing to think that Sky Blue has had more victories in the two weeks since Head Coach Denise Reddy’s departure than they did under her entire tenure as head coach. But, it’s true. Following their 2-1 victory over the Chicago Red Stars last week, Sky Blue earned a 1-0 victory at home over the Utah Royals. It was the opposite of what you usually expect from Sky Blue: instead of playing an even game and giving up a late goal, they played a fairly even game and found a way to win. And these two victories are against decent teams.
While the Utah Royals dominated possession in this game, Sky Blue had twice as many shots and four shots on goal. They forced three saves from goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart and only needed Kailen Sheridan to make a save once (probably a nice change of pace for a goalkeeper who usually is the only thing standing between her team and total annihilation). I think it’s a stretch to say this Sky Blue team is “good” but for once, they aren’t miles away from everyone else. In fact, I’m not even sure they’re the worst team in the NWSL. What kind of a run can they put together in the latter half of the season?
The Utah Royals drop more points
The Utah Royals haven’t won a game since their 1-0 victory over Sky Blue on June 15th. Now, they find themselves outside of the playoff picture: granted, only five points behind the No. 1 North Carolina Courage. They are winless in their last three games and they have also failed to score in those three matches. They have never been a high-scoring team, but something has to change if they want to stay in the playoff picture.
The Utah Royals will benefit from the return of players like Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Christen Press. But the points they dropped in this World Cup period may comeback to haunt them at the end of the season.
The Portland Thorns find a way
If the Utah Royals and others have been struggling without their national team players, the same cannot be said for the Portland Thorns. They have only two losses on the season and have had no problem picking up points even when they are missing most of their Starting XI. They are only going to get better when players like Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, and Adriana Franch return to the team.
The match on Sunday in Providence Park against the Orlando Pride was a back-and-forth thriller. While the Thorns dominated most of the first half, they only had one goal in the third minute from Hayley Raso to show for it. In the second half, the Thorns scored first in the 58th minute via Midge Purce. Then, three minutes later, Marta launched a rocket past Britt Eckerstrom. Five minutes after that, Christine Sinclair made it 3-1 for the Thorns, but just two minutes after that, Emily Menges scored an own goal that tightened the gap for the visitors. In the 90th minute, Erin Greening scored for the Pride and thought that might be enough to get the visiting team some desperately needed points on the road. But Tyler Lussi did not agree. In the waning final seconds of stoppage time Meghan Klingenberg sent the ball into the box on a corner kick, Lussi got her head on the end of it and sent the ball past Orlando Pride goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer. Despite the wildness of the match, Portland found a way to win.