The NWSL Podium: Top Performances is a weekly series that looks at the best attacking, defensive, and goalkeeping performances each week.
Weeks 11 and 12 saw a shake-up in the standings and in the rosters across the league. The Utah Royals lifted themselves into 4th place and handed the North Carolina Courage their first defeat of the season thanks to a last-minute goal from Brittany Ratcliffe. The Orlando Pride continued to tally up goals with a 3-2 win over Sky Blue FC, and the Washington Spirit earned back-to-back clean sheets in their scoreless draws against Sky Blue in Week 11 and the Seattle Reign in Week 12. Meanwhile, a blockbuster trade unfolded following this weekend’s action, which saw Sofia Huerta and Taylor Comeau going to Houston, Christen Press and Sam Johnson going to Utah, and Brooke Elby coming to Chicago. The pending deal left Huerta, Comeau, and Johnson unavailable for the Red Stars 1-1 draw with the Portland Thorns, a game that left both teams out of the top four. Here is a full breakdown of the scores from these two weeks:
Sky Blue vs. Washington Spirit (0-0)
Washington Spirit vs. Seattle Reign (0-0)
North Carolina Courage vs. Utah Royals (0-1)
Orlando Pride vs. Sky Blue (3-2)
Chicago Red Stars vs. Portland Thorns (1-1)
Top Three Goalkeepers
1. Aubrey Bledsoe— Bledsoe had two great games in Weeks 11 and 12, earning back-to-back clean sheets against Sky Blue and the Seattle Reign. Bledsoe faced 37 shots in those two games and made 13 saves. Her brilliant saves were too numerous to count, but I’ll give you some of the highlights. In the first half, Sky Blue got the ball down inside the 18-yard box. They couldn’t get an initial shot off, but after the balance bounced around a bit in the box, it landed at the feet of Katelyn Johnson right in front of goal. But Bledsoe dove and was able to block the shot and clear it out of the box. Then, in her match against the Seattle Reign, she blocked a penalty from Megan Rapinoe in the 51st minute. After that, she made countless brilliant saves to keep her team even. In the 86th minute, Rapinoe got a beautiful ball from Steph Catley and tried to head it into the top corner, but Bledsoe jumped and blocked the shot, earning herself a Save of the Week nomination. She put forth an excellent effort to get her team two points in two matches and stop one of the best offenses in the league.
2. Britt Eckerstrom— It was a fierce battle between the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns on Saturday night. Both goalkeepers had amazing nights, but Chicago was able to get the better shots off and Eckerstrom had to make some massive saves. The only goal she allowed was a rebound off a penalty from Yuki Nagasato that she initially blocked but couldn’t hold onto. In the 64th minute, Alyssa Mautz tried to sneak a ball under the crossbar, but Eckerstrom made a leaping stop and pushed the ball over the net. Sam Kerr got a great ball in the 86th minute of the match, outrunning her defender as she tried to slip the ball into the far corner. But Eckerstrom made a diving stop, with her arms fully extended, and the ball went off her fingertips and out for a Chicago corner. That save was also enough to earn her a Save of the Week nomination and helped keep her team from dropping points on the road.
3. Alyssa Naeher— I narrowly put Eckerstrom’s performance ahead of Naeher, who also made some crucial saves in that 1-1 draw in Chicago. Her first big moment came in the 15th minute, when Ellie Carpenter launched a shot from just inside the 18-yard box. Naeher made a diving side, deflecting the ball which Portland ultimately reposed and then kicked over the net. Another big save came in the 90th minute, when Tyler Lussi sent a ball into the box. It almost curved into the goal, but Naeher managed to jump up and swat the ball down, deflecting it to the side rather than in front of her. The save showed great awareness and earned Naeher a Save of the Week nomination. Ultimately, Naeher faced 11 shots from Portland and made three saves.
Top Three Defenders
1. Becky Sauerbrunn— The Utah Royals faced one of the most productive offenses in the league this weekend, and managed to hold them scoreless. That is thanks, in part, to the great defensive work of the Royals, especially Sauerbrunn. Sauerbrunn made five tackles against the Courage, and had six interceptions and fourteen clearances. While they definitely had a bit of help from the crossbar, Sauerbrunn continued to prove both in this game and throughout the season why she is arguably the best defender in the country.
2. Estelle Johnson— Johnson helped earn her team back-to-back clean sheets in Weeks 11 and 12. She had some particularly brilliant moments in the first match against Sky Blue. While Sky Blue has only managed to pick up two points this season, their attacking force can be quite threatening, even when they’re missing their national team players. But Johnson, working alongside Whitney Church, shut that down. Johnson had eight clearances on the night, as well as three interceptions and four blocks. One of her better moments came towards the end of the match, where she was able to slide in front of Shea Groom on the breakaway and block her shot to preserve the draw. Even though Johnson conceded the penalty kick in the Seattle Reign match, her first appearance of the two is worthy of a nod.
3. Whitney Church—Church didn’t appear in the Spirit’s second game of these two weeks due to an excused absence, but she did have quite a strong game against Sky Blue. Working with Estelle Johnson, Church came up with a few crucial blocks and clearances, and gave Sky Blue little chance to set-up in the final third. She had an important block in the 64th minute, when Shea Groom slid the ball into the 18-yard box for Madison Tiernan. Church was tracking her, Tiernan’s shot bounced right off Church. Church has started in eleven games for the Spirit this season, missing only their most recent draw against the Seattle Reign.
Top Three Attackers
1. Sydney Leroux— It was a low-scoring week in the NWSL, with only the game between Orlando and Sky Blue breaking from the mold. Leroux opened up that scoring in the second minute thanks to a nice cross from Chioma Ubogagu. Leroux was left unmarked, and she was able to set up her shot and slide it into the bottom corner past Kailen Sheridan. Less than 30 minutes later, after Sky Blue equalized, Leroux was able to find her second goal of the night. This time, Christine Nairn sent the ball into the box and Leroux was able to finish it with a nice header (and a superman pose). Leroux brings her season goal tally up to four and ties Rachel Hill and Chioma Ubogagu as the Pride’s leading goal-scorer this season.
2. Brittany Ratcliffe— Ratcliffe certainly had the most talked about goal of the week. She came on as a substitute for Katrina Gorry in the 77th minute, and certainly proved her worth when she scored a stoppage time goal against the North Carolina Courage to end their twelve game winning streak. The moment of magic unfolded just a few minutes before the final whistle. Diana Matheson sent a free kick just outside the 18-yard box. It bounced around a bit, and it seemed like Jaelene Hinkle was going to run with it, but Ratcliffe stripped the defender and took her shot, sending it into the top corner of the net. There was nothing North Carolina could do but watch.
3. Rachel Hill— The second year player out of the University of Connecticut is really starting to develop a name for herself this season. In the match against Sky Blue, Orlando was thwarted by their own poor defense and despite two brilliant goals from Sydney Leroux, they were drawing 2-2. Cue Rachel Hill. She came in during the 60th minute for Chioma Ubogagu and scored the Pride’s game winner in the final ten minutes of the game. The goal is Hill’s fourth of the season, and for some reason, Hill seems really good at making her goals count. Whether it was that ambitious first goal against Chicago, which gave the Pride the early momentum and motivation to win the match 5-2, or her late goal which briefly equalized their match against the North Carolina Courage towards the end of May, Hill has certainly proved her worth on this star-studded offense.