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.
We are nearly two months into the 2019 NWSL season, and things are not taking shape the way many of us expected them to. With six or seven games come and gone for each team, it is the Utah Royals who sit in the No. 1 spot in the standings, tied with the No. 2 Washington Spirit in points but leading on goal differential. The North Carolina Courage, who were unstoppable in 2018, have dropped to the No. 7 spot with just nine points in seven matches. It’s still early enough in the season that most teams are within five points of each other, with only Sky Blue and the Orlando Pride falling far behind the rest of the pack, but the standings are eye-catching for sure. Here is a full breakdown of this week’s results:
Sky Blue vs. Portland Thorns (0-1)
Utah Royals vs. Orlando Pride (2-0)
Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit (0-2)
Reign FC vs. North Carolina Courage (2-1)
The Washington Spirit earn another win against a difficult opponent
The Washington Spirit have had a surprisingly strong start to the 2019 campaign. Under new head coach Richie Burke, the Spirit are 4-1-1. They added on another 2-0 win this weekend over the Chicago Red Stars, who had won their last two matches going into this game. Despite being on the road and not having goal-scorer Cheyna Matthews, who joined the Jamaica national team ahead of their first World Cup appearance, the Spirit still managed to knock two back and earn three points.
The first goal, admittedly, was a scramble at the goal line that ended up counting as a Yuki Nagasato own goal. In the 63rd minute, Ashley Hatch took advantage of a favorable deflection to find the back of the net again for the Spirit, giving them the 2-0 lead. Of course, the Spirit’s defense– led by goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe– put on a stellar performance, facing 20 shots and requiring seven saves. Still, Washington’s offense did their part to earn the points and the Spirit are cruising along in a close second place. Can they keep this momentum going?
Reign FC earn their second straight victory.
Two weeks ago, Reign FC hadn’t earned their first win of 2019 and were struggling with just three points in four games. But in the last two weeks, they’ve earned back-to-back wins and breathed some life into their struggling squad. This week, they were able to hand the North Carolina Courage their second defeat of the season. We’ll focus on the Courage’s perspective in a moment, but for now, let’s keep our eyes on Reign FC.
Jess Fishlock returned to the lineup for Reign FC this week, inevitably having a massive impact after she missed the beginning of the season on loan to Olympique Lyon. She had four shots in the game and played a full 90 minutes. But the goals went to Bethany Balcer, who opened up scoring with a powerful header in the first fifteen minutes, and Shea Groom, who capitalized on a mistake from Katelyn Rowland towards the end of the match and solidified the win for the Reign. After a slow start to the season, we might be starting to see Reign FC in the form they’re hoping for.
North Carolina Courage drop more points.
Perhaps we are all too adjusted to seeing North Carolina dominated painlessly, but there recent string of results is starting to become concerning. After earning their first loss since 2018 two weeks ago against the Chicago Red Stars, the Courage earned another loss on the road this weekend. They have now earned just two points in their last four matches, and sit in the No. 7 spot in the table.
Surely, losing their national team players is having an impact on this team. But that might not be the only force at work here. The team still had Abby Erceg, who scored the lone goal for the Courage, but were unable to buckle down on the defensive end. Rowland made a careless mistake that may have cost her team points, and Lynn Williams has had even more trouble finishing than usual. Is it time to be worried about this North Carolina team? I think they’re still one of the top teams in the league. But a month ago, I would have said they were untouchable. The inevitable shift seems like it may have begun.