As we approach the midway mark of the NWSL season, no clear winners have yet to rise to the top. No team remains undefeated, and only a single team, Kansas City, has yet to pick up a win. The difference between first and seventh is a mere four points on the table, making this the most competitive season yet.
Competition was not lacking this previous weekend. On July 17, the Houston Dash upset the reigning league champions, the North Carolina Courage, with a tight 2-1 victory. The result left both teams with 16 points on the table.
July 18 provided a triple header starting with the Washington Spirit losing 3-2 to Gotham FC after playing nearly a whole 90 minutes a player down. Soon after, the Chicago Red Stars defeated OL Reign 3-1 due to two more own goals scored in Chicago’s favor. The night closed off with some NWSL After Dark action as the Orlando Pride traveled to Providence Park to take on the Portland Thorns. The Thorns defeated the Pride 2-1, putting the Challenge Cup champions at the top of the table.
Andi Sullivan once again handles chaos with ease
In the seventh minute of the Chicago versus Gotham game, Chicago player Sam Staab picked up a red card after a shirt tug against Midge Purce inside the 18. The call itself confused many as a red card was issued for a foul inside the box, yet no penalty kick was given. Regardless, Staab was sent off the field with 83 minutes left in the match.
Despite the unfortunate call, Washington captain and former Cardinal Andi Sullivan ’18 immediately took over the game, dominating the field as she slotted into a center back-looking role.
Sullivan has been a consistent leader throughout the season, but the chaos of an early red card demonstrated even further her ability to set the tempo and mindset of an entire team. Being down a player for nearly the entire game, the Washington Spirit still finished with two goals in a 3-2 result.
Washington’s ability to avoid playing a bunker defense and continue their attacking mindset was a direct result of Sullivan driving the ball up from the back, refusing to sit back in a complete center back role and managing to juggle the six simultaneously.
The young forwards of Washington such as Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez fed off of Sullivan’s momentum, putting in two goals. Former Cardinal Tegan McGrady ’19 also had an impressive game, keeping the game tight and passing with strong accuracy. The pairing of Sullivan and McGrady demonstrated the developed chemistry within the team.
During the Wednesday following the match, the NWSL disciplinary committee revoked Staab’s red card, deeming her eligible for the following weekend’s match. However, this was little consolation for a team that played 83 minutes down a player. The decision brings back the greater discussion of the quality of reffing and the precedent being set within the league.
Houston holds on without international players
After a 2-1 win of North Carolina, the Houston Dash can pat themselves on the back. As the team with the most international players absent, many assumed the Dash would struggle during the Olympic period. However, an upset against the Courage may be just what the squad needed.
Although Jane Campbell ’17, the starting Dash keeper, was away in Tokyo, the backline only conceded a single goal against a strong, typically high-scoring threat. Without Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis, two of the Courage’s main attacking threats, the team did not look as strong. The loss from North Carolina cleared up the top spot in the table to be taken by either Portland or Orlando the following day.
Orlando backline is a mess without Ali Riley, Sophia Smith sees her opportunity
Many have wondered what the key to sudden success has been this season for the Orlando Pride. The answer is Ali Riley ’10, Ashlyn Harris and Alex Morgan, but mostly Riley. In their first game without Riley, the Orlando Pride defense completely fell apart. The backline was nowhere to be found for the Pride on Sunday evening as they struggled to stop Portland’s momentum and keep the ball out of the box.
Sophia Smith ’22 saw this as her prime opportunity to take control of the game, scoring early in the 26th minute. Taking on three defenders, Smith sped through the box as no Orlando defenders slid to cover. Giving Smith space, she was bound to put one in the back of the net. Smith looked strong throughout the entire game, getting the start over Simone Charley. Charley and Smith have become a like-for-like switch, allowing Portland to keep fresh attacking legs on the field.
The result pushed Portland to the top of the table, a solid place to be heading into the middle of the season. As the season trends, Portland can almost guarantee a spot in the playoffs, particularly since the NWSL expanded the playoff format from four to six teams this season.
Sam Hiatt and Alana Cook have solidified their role in the backline
After getting the start now multiple weeks in a row, it is becoming clear that Sam Hiatt ’20 and Alana Cook ’19 are the preferred starting center backs for OL Reign. However, the defense as a whole had a rough game against Chicago this past weekend.
OL Reign started off the match strong with a goal in the 12th minute, and many took this as a sign that they would easily pull through. Heading into halftime, the Reign maintained the 1-0 lead and pulled Hiatt from the back.
Then, in a shocking turn of events, Chicago forced two own goals, giving them five own goals in a row within their last three games. A final goal by Mallory Pugh put Chicago over the top for a stunning 3-1 win. The Reign went home near the bottom of the table, stunned at their bad fortune.
Marc Skinner is headed to Manchester United
As former Manchester United coach Casey Stoney heads to San Diego, Orlando Pride head coach Marc Skinner has been linked to the open position. Stoney, who left United due to poor playing conditions and work environments, comes to the NWSL in hopes of a more professional club.
Skinner just had his first successful season at Orlando since being brought in, which made the link to Manchester United seemingly unbelievable. However, Manchester United is on the rise in the WSL and gives Skinner the opportunity to manage a club with the potential to play in the Champions League.
While just rumors at first, it was confirmed by the club Friday afternoon that Skinner would be departing, effective immediately.
Thursday morning transfers
Thursday morning marked a huge transfer between the North Carolina Courage and Kansas City FC. Veteran star Amy Rodriguez and $60,000 worth of allocation money were traded to NC for Kristen Hamilton, Hailie Mace and Katelyn Rowland.
The trade comes as a surprise considering North Carolina needs numbers during the Olympic period, and both Hamilton and Mace have been frequent starters. However, with Rodriguez being one of the best finishers in the league and Kansas City needing to expand their roster in the long run, the trade could be valuable for both teams.
This weekend, there are many more NWSL matches on tab with the middle of the season fast approaching. Unlike leagues such as the WSL, the table is extremely close and can shift after a single win or tie. The parity is extreme, and the top six spots are still up for almost any team.
On Friday, the North Carolina Courage took on Kansas City. The Courage managed to keep Kansas City from securing their first win but were unable to pull out a victory themselves as the match ended in a scoreless draw.
On Saturday, the Orlando Pride tries to get back to their winning streak with a match against the OL Reign. Then, the Houston Dash will face the Portland Thorns.
Sunday will round out the weekend with matches between Racing Louisville and the Washington Spirit, as well as Gotham FC and the Chicago Red Stars.