The NWSL Podium: Top Performances is a weekly series that looks at the best attacking, defensive, and goalkeeping performances each week.
The NWSL returned to action this week following the international break, and it did not disappoint. Of the four matches in Week 18, all played on Sunday night, the Orlando Pride vs. Sky Blue may have been the most exciting. With goals from Marta, Dani Weatherholt, Imani Dorsey, and Shea Groom, the match also featured a Carli Lloyd red card, a missed PK from Marta, and Sky Blue’s first lead of the season. The Houston Dash hosted the Utah Royals in a defensive battle that saw the Royals mount a comeback to win the game 2-1 after going down a goal at the end of the first half. And the North Carolina Courage officially clinched the NWSL Shield with a month of games left to play thanks to their 2-1 victory over the Portland Thorns. Here is a full breakdown of this week’s scores:
North Carolina Courage vs. Portland Thorns (2-1)
Orlando Pride vs. Sky Blue (2-2)
Houston Dash vs. Utah Royals (1-2)
Seattle Reign vs. Washington Spirit (2-0)
Top Three Goalkeepers
1. Lydia Williams— Despite falling over like a baby giraffe at one point (her words, not mine) to come out and get the ball, Williams put forward another solid goalkeeping performance this week that marked her sixth victory and seventh clean sheet of the season. She faced twelve shots and made two saves against the Washington Spirit. Both saves came in the second half. The first came in the 48th minute— a bad giveaway by the Reign on a free kick allowed Ashley Hatch time and space to take her shot. She tried to sneak it in under the crossbar, but Williams made a leaping stop and pushed the ball over the net. The second save, which earned her an NWSL Save of the Week nomination, came in the 80th minute. A failed clearance by the Seattle defense allowed Caprice Dydasco to come grab the ball and take a quick shot inside the 18-yard box. But Williams read the shot and was able to block the ball. It bounced off her right hand, then her left, and fell to the feet of defender Theresa Nielsen.
2. Kailen Sheridan— Sky Blue asked a lot of their goalkeeper on Sunday night, but Sheridan’s performance met those demands. She faced 21 shots from the Orlando Pride and made six saves. After Dani Weatherholt equalized for the Pride in the 73rd minute, Orlando thought they could win the three points and started pressing hard. Just five minutes after the Weatherholt goal, Alex Morgan took a shot from inside the 18-yard box. She aimed to slide it under the crossbar, but Sheridan jumped up and pushed the ball over the crossbar. That save earned her a Save of the Week nomination. But it was her final save that secured her team a point on the road. In the dying minutes of stoppage time, Carli Lloyd earned a red card in the box for a hand ball and the Pride were given a PK, which was taken by Marta. Sheridan blocked the attempt. The Pride tried to put something together with the remaining time, but they were unable to do so, and Sky Blue went home with a point.
3. Ashlyn Harris— The Sky Blue offense were out possessed by the Pride on Sunday night, but the strikers for the New Jersey side took advantage of their opportunities. Harris faced nine shots from Sky Blue and, perhaps due to her shaky defense, had to make four saves. In the 28th minute, Savannah McCaskill slipped a ball through the Pride defense and to Imani Dorsey. Dorsey went one-on-one with Harris, who came off her line and made the save. In the 68th minute, Harris made another brilliant save off a shot from Carli Lloyd. Harris got her fingertips on the ball, sending it over the crossbar. That stop earned her a Save of the Week nomination.
Top Three Defenders
1. Becky Sauerbrunn— Despite starting in two matches for the United States in the Tournament of Nations and playing 180 minutes, Sauerbrunn showed no signs of exhaustion against the Houston Dash. The Royals defense was challenged within the first minutes of the match, but Sauerbrunn and Corsie were an impenetrable wall. Sauerbrunn had eleven clearances, four interceptions, and three tackles on the night. At the end of the match, when some of her teammates seemed to be suffering from tired legs, Sauerbrunn seemed to move into the midfield, maintaining possession for Utah and trying to help the team create more scoring opportunities to secure their lead. The Utah Royals held onto that 2-1 lead, and earned three points on the road.
2. Clare Polkinghorne— Polkinghorne started in all three matches for Australia in the Tournament of Nations, coming off only in the 29th minute of the final match against Japan. Yet just three days later, Polkinghorne was the strongest defender on the Houston Dash backline. She played in the central defense alongside Amber Brooks, making the match a real defensive battle. Polkinghorne had five tackles, eight clearances, two interceptions, and one block against the Utah Royals. Ultimately, a bad defensive mistake by Amber Brooks and a brilliant ball to Katie Stengel from Erika Tymrak lost them the match at home.
3. Abby Erceg— Erceg, who has just been named to the July Team of the Month, is definitely a contender for Defender of the Year. In her performance against the Portland Thorns on Sunday, she quietly went about doing the things that she does to make the North Carolina Courage one of the best teams in the world. For example, in the 11th minute of the match, the Portland Thorns gained possession of the ball. But before they could set up any sort of attack, Erceg intercepted a pass from the Thorns and regained possession for her team. Similarly, in the 72nd minute, McCall Zerboni lost the ball and Christine Sinclair tried to set up an attack for the Thorns. She sent the ball down the field, hoping to find Raso, but Erceg beat her 15there. Erceg passes the ball off to Rowland, but her kick only goes as far as Sinclair. She again passes the ball to Raso, but Erceg is there, and is able to beat Raso on the header, giving possession back to the Courage. Being able to contain the Portland offense is no small task, but the Courage— captained by Erceg— were able to do just that.
Top Three Attackers
1. Lynn Williams— Williams earned herself a brace in North Carolina’s 2-1 victory over the Portland Thorns and she now leads the race for the Golden Boot. While she is tied in number of goals with Lindsey Horan, Williams has four assists on the year while Horan only has two. Williams first goal of this match came off a quick counterattack in the 37th minute. Jessica McDonald had the ball out wide and sent it into the box, where Williams was able to tap it past Adriana Franch and into the bottom corner. The Courage tend to score their goals close together, and this match was no exception. Just eight minutes after that first goal, Williams found her second of the night. Merritt Mathais sent a ball into the box, and after it bounced around a bit, Williams was able to tap it into the corner. The brace was enough to lift the Courage to their 15th win of the season.
2. Dani Weatherholt— Weatherholt played a critical role in both of the goals for the Pride this week. While it does not count as an assist, it was the deflected shot from Weatherholt that Marta tapped in for the Pride’s first goal in the 51st minute. In the 73rd minute, Alex Morgan headed the ball to the feet of Camila, who passed the ball to Weatherholt but was taken down by Sky Blue defenders. Many anticipated the play to be blown dead, but Weatherholt kept going. She muscled past the Sky Blue defenders, and when Sheridan was unable to collect the ball, Weatherholt was able to finish off the play and head the ball into the back of the net. Weatherholt showed determination on the field on Sunday night, and was rewarded with her second goal of the season.
3. Imani Dorsey— Dorsey earned her third goal of the season on Sunday night against the Orlando Pride. The goal came in the 53rd minute, only a few minutes after Marta’s goal. Shea Groom, who was surrounded by Pride defenders, got a pass off to Dorsey, who remained unguarded in the box. Dorsey went one-on-one with Harris, as she had in the first half, but this time she won the battle. She recorded two shots on the night, both of them shots on goal. This is the second game in a row where Dorsey has scored for Sky Blue. She is now tied with Carli Lloyd and Savannah McCaskill for the most goals for Sky Blue this season.