Five games down, 15 to go in the regular season for each team in this fourth season of the little league that could. The Washington Spirit is unbeaten on the season, and holds a three point advantage over the second place Chicago Red Stars. On the other side of the spectrum, the Boston Breakers sit alone at the bottom of the table.
It's been a frustrating start to the season for the Breakers and their fans, but it's not as though the team has been outclassed by the competition. They surrendered just one goal each to top three sides Washington, Portland, and Chicago. Boston has played every game very hard, and it's mostly been their inability to finish in the final third that has let them down. They've thumped every part of the goal other than the net. They've had sure goals cleared off the line by quick-thinking defenders. But they remain winless, drawless and goalless. Sad panda.
Here's how the table looks, from the NWSL's website.
|National Women's Soccer League 2016|
It's hard to watch the Breakers without wondering if they have somehow angered the soccer gods.
In goal, new coach Matt Beard saw his hand-picked and imported Liverpool Ladies keeper Libby Stout pick up a knock, only to have his hand-picked third round draft choice Abby Smith perform wonderfully in relief. Smith looked strong enough to earn a second start, but she suffered a torn patellar tendon in an early non-contact play and was knocked out for the season. Unlucky.
Across the back four, play has been fairly solid, although team captain and USWNT defender Whitney Engen lost her marker on a set piece that delivered the decisive goal to the Portland Thorns. Then, Kassey Kallman had a ball deflect off of her chest into her own net to give Sky Blue FC their only score last week. Unlucky.
The team acquired a solid midfield pair from Portland in Sinead Farrelly and McCall Zerboni, but Farrelly hasn't been medically cleared to play. Kristie Mewis has thumped the woodwork several times, including on the Breakers' only penalty kick of the season. That penalty, against former Breaker Alyssa Naeher, somehow found just the right angle to deflect towards the keeper and then ricochet off the keeper away from the goal. Mewis could take that PK a hundred times and never get the same deflection. She couldn't get it if she tried. Unlucky.
At forward, Stephanie McCaffrey seemed to be continuing to develop as a rising star with a January call up to USWNT camp. Her striking partner, Australian international Kyah Simon, was a holy terror in the Asian Football Confederation Olympic qualifying tournament, scoring a hat trick in the first half against hapless Vietnam. But neither have found the goal yet this season. Here, unfortunately, the Breakers have some problems that may not be related to luck (allegedly).
One of my new favorite things in the world is the @Soccermetric account of Chad Murphy. He has been working on getting statistical analysis of the NWSL into a format suitable for consumption, and his article this week in Excelle Sports looked at whether or not the Breakers have been merely unlucky in scoring zero goals, or if they've just been poor. He concludes that their chances should have produced 3.48 xG (eXpected Goals) through five games this year. It wouldn't lift them too far out of the basement, but it would be better than zero. So, luck is at least a part of the equation. Read the whole article for plenty more on the early season scoring woes. (Spoiler alert: his computer simulations can almost never match the zero goals attained by the real live team.)
In a new system, it's important to give players time to learn what's expected of them. But strikers Stephanie McCaffrey and Kyah Simon haven't been able to make it work through five games.
McCaffrey has struggled, and frequently ends up being dispossessed by the player she's trying to fool with her step-overs. So far this year, she's been unable to get around the outside of the backs and deliver a quality cross. Worse, she seems to lack confidence that she has the explosive burst of speed necessary for this maneuver and so almost always heads across field towards the top of the box rather than jetting down field toward the end line. Instead of giving herself a one-on-one battle to win for a cross or a possible corner via a defensive deflection, she often loses the ball to a closing down defender. McCaffrey has undeniable talent, and she seems to be a hard worker committed to improvement. But five games without a goal can start to mess with one's head. The Breakers need her to score, but it's likely she needs to score just to remind herself that it's possible. Hopefully she'll be able to find a way to impact games in a positive way going forward.
Kyah Simon has shown good movement and touch, but hasn't been able to put the ball in the net or find anyone else to receive a key pass. She also works hard, but hasn't shown her finishing ability so far this season. Brittany Ratcliffe, one of the rookie forwards, got a spot start against Seattle when midfielder Louise Schillgard nicked herself in warm-ups, and looked a threat in the second half after a nervy opening period. Ratcliffe was quick down the wings, and showed some promising signs that she may be able to contribute soon. Katie Schoepffer has looked energetic and experienced during limited minutes late in games, and perhaps more importantly, she brings a physical presence that many of the women in the side do not. She seems to crave contact, and has provided a bit of a spark when she's come in. Rookie Elise Krieghoff has also seen a few minutes lately, but hasn't had much opportunity to distinguish herself.
Earlier in May, the Breakers waived Morgan Marlborough and signed Bayern Munich striker Eunice Beckmann (say: "YOU-niss BECK-mun"). Beckmann is an interesting player who shared the field with Kristie Mewis earlier this year, and who just finished up a championship season in Germany. She's physical, has good feet, and seems adept at both locating free runners and finishing with quality. But it will remain to be seen if she'll provide the quality that can get the goals flowing. Bundesliga players don't always bed in to the NWSL immediately. She'll need some time to get used to her new team, league, city and country. Naturally, her arrival in Boston has been delayed while her visa status is put in order. Unlucky.
Here's some of Beckmann's quality from 2014.
The starting midfield, with the exception of Kristie Mewis, is all new this season. Angela Salem and McCall Zerboni patrol the middle and rear, while Louise Schillgard and Mewis look to create on attack. Despite giving up size to most opposing center midfielders, Zerboni and Salem have held their own, even in the air. Zerboni is currently in her eighth year as a professional, and the experience shows. Her head is always up looking for outlets, and she uses her body to keep the ball away from one or two defenders with ease. Salem's not quite as attack minded, but will retreat to help the back line find a way forward, and pick a hopeful line of progression.
Schillgard is still getting herself acquainted to the NWSL, but she's shown very promising movement and obvious quality. Too often, she's alone in an attacking move, and neither McCaffrey nor Simon make themselves readily available for combination play. More time for everyone in Beard's system should smooth out these inconsistencies. Kristie Mewis looks eager to strike, but more often tries to find one of the strikers in hopes that they'll do the job. She's hit the post or the bar on numerous occasions, including on the aforementioned penalty. Mewis has looked very frustrated at times, but generally puts in a solid shift. Her game will improve as she learns how to use her size to her advantage to maintain possession, hold off defenders and give an occasional hard foul.
Fun fact: with Farrelly unavailable, 2nd year Breaker Stephanie Verdoia is the only other midfielder on the roster. She hasn't had much playing time, but will probably have to work into the rotation at some point.
Despite surrendering seven goals through four matches, including the one that Kassey Kallman popped into her own net, the back four has been fairly good. With Whitney Engen and Kallman in the middle, the Breakers have two capable and physically imposing centerbacks who command the area. They've not found a lot of luck passing to the forwards from the back line, but do a nice job connecting to the midfield to play out from the back.
Julie King is tenacious both in attack and on defense, and she's had some very near misses charging down the right. Across the pitch, Mollie Pathman never stops running. The former Duke forward seems to have endless energy. Her positioning is generally good, and although she lacks elite speed, she's quick enough to beat defenders on overlaps before delivering crosses into the box. Both have a very high work rate and the Boston home fans appreciate their contributions.
Whitney Engen is on the bubble for the USWNT Olympic roster, but her experience and leadership may give her the edge over Portland Thorn Emily Sonnett. If she's out for any length of time, one of the backup defenders will have to fill in. Christen Westphal, Brooke Elby and Rachel Wood haven't seen much playing time, but there is some interesting potential, especially with Westphal, who holds the Florida record for 19 points as a defender.
Libby Stout seems to have recovered from her earlier injury and has made several key saves, keeping the scorelines close, but not yet posting a clean sheet. Former Breaker Jami Kranich was brought back to the team to resume her back-up role after Abby Smith's season-ending injury.
Looking Ahead: The Next Three Matches
Addition by Subtraction?
In July, international players will be called up to their Rio-bound national teams, leaving the NWSL without some key American, Australian, Brazilian and Canadian talent for two or three weeks before the league takes a break during the Olympic games. When the Orlando Pride comes to Boston on July 31, for example, they will be without Alex Morgan, Josee Belanger, Steph Catley, Laura Alleway and Monica Alves, at a minimum. They may also be missing Ashlyn Harris, depending on whether she or Alyssa Naeher wins the roster spot behind Hope Solo for Rio.
The USWNT has two friendlies in June which will extract a camp cohort for a week at the end of May. Those vacancies could provide a window of opportunity for teams such as the Breakers and FC Kansas City to collect a few wins and make a move up the table.
May 22 Home vs. FC Kansas City
FC Kansas City had more turnover than Boston during the off season, and the two time defending NWSL champs haven't yet found their stride. They've accumulated two points through two draws, but haven't yet won a match. Both teams should be at full strength for this battle to avoid the bottom of the table. With a win, Boston will climb above FC Kansas City. Here's hoping.
May 27 Away vs. Western NY Flash
The Flash will be without Jaelene Hinkle and Samantha Mewis, while the Breakers will be missing Whitney Engen as the players join the USWNT ahead of the June friendlies. Boston and the Flash will face each other four times this year, so it will be important for the Breakers take advantage of a slightly depleted Flash side and come home with a win.
June 10 Home vs. Washington Spirit
The USWNT matches on June 2nd and June 5th will keep Engen away from the team until at least June 6th, but Breakers fans will hope the international call-up will tire Washington Spirit stars Chrystal Dunn and Ali Krieger (not bloody likely, IMO). The Spirit have grown since their narrow home win over the Breakers to open the season, but can be broken down by a patient team.
We'll find out over the coming weeks if the Breakers will be able to turn their resolve into a string of victories. Nobody likes to lose, and nobody on this team has experienced anything like the current run of ineffectiveness in their professional careers. Psychologically, the women on the team need to see that their hard work is being put to use in a winning strategy. Soon. In any case, a few goals will make all the difference.