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Stanford in the NWSL: Chapter 3

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Another week of National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) action meant another week of hard fought games, league drama and new signings as teams continue to battle in the month-long, pre-season Challenge Cup. 

To start off the week, the Orlando Pride faced Gotham FC on Wednesday, April 14. The highly anticipated match ended in a 0-1 victory for Gotham, even after an incredible penalty kick save by Orlando keeper Ashlyn Harris. 

Surprisingly to most fans, the majority of the first 60 minutes was a back and forth battle as players such as Sydney Leroux and Courtney Peterson of the Orlando Pride got good looks early on. Despite their dominance in creating chances, Orlando was unable to finish any of their opportunities, leaving the match scoreless late into the final 30 minutes.

The only goal of the match came in the 79th minute as Ifeoma Onumonu broke away down the right side, sending a pass to the wide-open Paige Monaghan who easily slotted the ball in. 

Despite Harris’ efforts to prevent the goal, her defense left her out to dry with little chance of preventing the inevitable. 

The game ended with few additional chances for either side and Gotham victorious. Orlando fans immediately expressed their frustration with the organization, as the Pride have now gone over 600 days without a win. 

Speculation has also begun to rise regarding the future of Orlando manager Marc Skinner. The NWSL, unlike the equivalent European leagues, does not have a history of sacking managers mid-season. However, after a winless 2020 season, and a poor start to the Challenge Cup, Skinner has to be feeling the pressure to win. 

Ironically, when fans look at the Pride roster, they don’t expect to see issues finishing opportunities and winning games. The team itself is stacked with international superstars such as Marta, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Riley ’10. Despite this talent, and much more, Orlando consistently underperforms, leaving fans with no other option but to call it the “Orlando Curse.” 

Regardless of the downfalls of Orlando, Gotham FC had a fantastic debut night, winning their first match as a rebranded team and reenergizing their fan base. Gotham was able to create consistent build-up plays and find a team goal late in the match, despite not having striker Carli Lloyd.

The following evening, April 15, the Washington Spirit took on Racing Louisville in an incredibly exciting matchup. The Spirit ultimately came away with the late goal and a 1-0 victory over Louisville. 

The majority of the match was played from the middle as both teams duked it out to gain possession. In the end, the Spirit had a stronger attacking presence with Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman linking up for an abundance of opportunities and ultimately a goal in the 93rd minute. Commentators are already proposing that Rodman be named Rookie of the Year after forgoing her college career and entering the NWSL at the age of 18. Rodman has played two matches, tallying up a goal and an assist. 

Their starting lineup even featured a former Cardinal player, Tegan McGrady ’19, another young starter making a huge impact on the field. McGrady is one of five Cardinal on the team, two of which missed the game due to the international break. Even with the absence of Kelly O’Hara ’10 and Andi Sullivan ’18, the Spirit have launched themselves into a successful Challenge Cup, beating Louisville and putting up a strong performance against NC Courage. Luckily for the Spirit, the part of their squad that needs the most work is their defense. O’Hara, Sullivan and Emily Sonnet, all defensive powerhouses for the USWNT, will be returning to Washington for their next match.

Despite lacking a win to start the season, Louisville fans are still excited about the performance and media presence of the new club. No expansion team in the NWSL is expected to immediately win the league, and Louisville is no different. However, holding off Washington until the 93rd minute, a team that just narrowly lost to NC Courage, is a good early sign. 

That same night, the Portland Thorns took on the Chicago Red Stars in what was a narrow 1-0 victory for the Thorns. 

For the first 60 minutes, both teams looked evenly matched. Chicago was able to get the ball into Portland’s box, but posed no major threat. Portland, on the other hand, was slow to start, through strong in the midfield with Meghan Klingenberg. The midfield is a new position for Klingenberg, but she seems to fit nicely into the flow of play, controlling the momentum for a younger Portland side. 

The momentum shifted in the 61st minute as Portland became more fierce on their possessions. Five minutes later, Morgan Weaver drilled in a goal after a poor corner kick by Chicago. The Thorns would win the game 1-0, making them 2-0. 

More important was the players that weren’t present for Portland. Crystal Dunn, Lindsay Horan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Sophia Smith and Christine Sinclair were all missing due to international duty. Still, Portland is at the top of the table, a good sign going into an Olympic season where some, if not all, of these players will be called away. 

Before the match, Chicago players voiced their opinions on racial injustices. For warmups, Chicago wore custom t-shirts honoring the life of Adam Toledo, who was killed by the Chicago police department. This follows the racial profiling of their own teammate, Sarah Gorden, at BBVA Stadium in Houston the week before, a situation that is currently being investigated by the league. The match then began without the playing of the national anthem. 

Questions arose after the match regarding the purpose of the anthem at club level games in the first place. With so many players throughout the league not being American in the first place, fans question the need to play the anthem. Additionally, fans have been vocal about the anthem causing more harm than good for players, as they are constantly ridiculed about their match-by-match decisions to kneel or stand. Fans will have to wait and see if this becomes a policy adopted by more stadiums, and if Chicago will continue to play without it. 

Chicago is also missing many of their star players, including USWNT members Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson ’20. Both are expected to return to the team for the next match.

On Friday, April 16, the OL Reign played their first match of the season against the Houston Dash. The match would be unexciting, ending in another 0-0 draw for the Dash. The Dash, who are still missing their main keeper Jane Campbell ’17, appear to have no issues keeping a clean sheet. Their offense, on the other hand, has suffered greatly during the international window. 

Missing six of their usual starting players, the Dash suffered without the likes of Rachel Daly, Sophie Schmidt and Kristie Mewis spear-heading their offense. Although Shea Groom remained with the team through the window, she had few outlets to utilize. Unlike Portland, the Olympic window already poses a huge threat to the Dash who are underperforming without their international superstars. 

The OL Reign, meanwhile, were missing only a few key international players, leaving them in an even worse position as they look to the rest of the season. Sam Hiatt ’20 was ruled out of the match with a head injury. Regardless, both teams need to draw the ball out of the middle third and make explosive offensive plays if they plan to compete for titles. 

The weekend was quiet as teams welcomed back their international stars and began preparing for the second half of the Challenge Cup. 

That difference was seen straight away in the first match back with full rosters. On Tuesday, April 20, NC Courage played Gotham FC to a 4-3 victory for Gotham. The game stunned fans with five goals in the first half. 

The first goal came in the 18th minute from Gotham’s USWNT member — Midge Purce — who beat three defenders to take on the keeper. However Brazilian national Debinha had a response in the 22nd minute, scoring from the middle of the box and drawing the game level. Debinha made it a double less than 90 seconds later with a sliding goal in the 23rd minute, putting the Courage up 2-1. 

Purce had no intention of letting NC off easy as she tapped in another goal in the 26th minute. However it was still early in the game when USWNT star and 300 capper, Carli Lloyd, slotted in a third goal for Gotham in the 32nd minute, once again giving Gotham the lead. 

The game went into halftime with a 3-2 lead for Gotham. 

Coming back from the half, former USWNT member Jessica McDonald collided with the Gotham keeper to ultimately get the header in the 50th minute. McDonald’s goal leveled the match once more at 3-3. 

Finally, in the 92nd, the Canadian international Evelyne Viens slotted in one final goal, pushing Gotham FC to a 4-3 victory over NC Courage. Fans poured onto social media to celebrate the game as Gotham dethrones the Courage and takes lead in the East. 

Despite the exciting game offensively, both managers seemed frustrated with the appearance of their defense. Courage manager Paul Riley even went as far as subbing off his back four in the second half, replacing the entire line in hopes of a better defensive performance. 

Fans grew upset when Purce was moved to right back after two goals for the team. In what has become a common pattern for both club and country, Purce is not being considered as a forward despite her striking talent. 

In other news, more clarification has been provided regarding the fines issues to the Chicago Red Stars and Gotham FC last week. General Manager of Gotham FC, Alyse LaHue was fined after speaking out in support of Chicago Red Stars player Sarah Gorden after a racial profiling incident at BBVA Stadium that involved herself and family. LaHue tweeted out, “I am disappointed in some of the events that took place in the NWSL… Soccer in America has not always been welcoming for black players… Sarah Gorden I am so sorry for what happened to you and your loved ones. We have so much work to do.” 

This tweet came after the league issued an investigation and told staff they were not to comment on the situation. 

Similarly, Chicago Red Stars co-owner Sarah Spain was fined for her comments in support of Gorden. After Gorden came forward to the league with her encounter at BBVA, Red Stars players issued a player statement showing their unconditional support. Spain then retweeted the player statement expressing that the owners also supported Gorden. 

Both club leaders were fined by the league in what was a controversial decision. The league has also not announced if the findings from the investigation will be released to the public. The NWSL has a history of concealing internal investigations from fans as last season the Utah Royals investigation was never released. Fans took to social media accusing the league of trying to silence Black voices and the support for Black players. 

Further west, the OL Reign announced this week that they would be acquiring two new players on loan from their sister club Lyon. Lyon legends Sara Bouhaddi and Dzsenifer will be joining the club for the 2021 season. 

Up next for the NWSL is the rescheduled Kansas City and Chicago Red Stars match. The game was originally scheduled to happen on the 20th, however snow in Chicago pushed the game back to Wednesday the 21st. The game will begin at 6:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+. 

Also Wednesday, the Orlando Pride will take on the Washington Spirit at 7 p.m. ET on Paramount+ and the Portland Thorns will take on OL Reign at 10 p.m. ET on CBSSN. 

The following Monday, April 26, Racing Louisville FC will take on NC Courage at 6 p.m. ET on Paramount+ while Kansas City FC faces the Houston Dash at 8:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+. 

The final games of the following week will take place Tuesday, April 27 when the Washington Spirit take on NJ/NY Gotham FC at 7 p.m. ET on Paramount+ and OL Reign faces the Chicago Red Stars at 10 p.m. ET on Paramount+.

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Jenna Ruzekowicz is a staff writer in the sports section. She is a sophomore from Syracuse, New York majoring in Computer Science. Her teams include: Portland Thorns, Arsenal and Man City. Contact her at jruzekowicz 'at' stanforddaily.com.