Bottom of the Table and Rising
Through the first three games of the 2016 NWSL season, the Boston Breakers have failed to earn a point. They were defeated away at the Washington Spirit 1-0, then came home to fall 3-0 to the Seattle Reign and 1-0 to the Portland Thorns. As a consequence, the Breakers are alone at the bottom of the ten team table, with a -5 goal differential.
This was the scene after the last match.
The facial expressions say a lot.
Breakers Coach Matt Beard was first to the press room after the match. "Look, first and foremost, again, I think the scoreline is harsh on us. We're frustrated because we've lost the game to a set play...Today, I think we've made Portland, in the first half, very, very average. And the frustrating thing for me is, we've got to start turning these into positive results for us. I know it's going to come. I always knew these first three games were tough. We played Washington who've made the playoffs for the past two years. We played Portland Thorns and Seattle Reign; Seattle Reign meant to be the best team in the country. So, these first three games I knew it was going to be tough. But I think as a team, I think our performances are good, but they could be better."
Thorns Coach Mark Parsons seemed to agree with Beard with respect to the Breakers' performance on the day. "Tonight was a very horrible and tough game; we were playing a very good team. I thought Boston could have beat Seattle last week and we knew it was going to be tough with the conditions and being on the east coast for the first time."
Neither Beard nor Parsons were wrong. The first three weeks of the season have delivered the three most challenging opponents, but Boston has been a tough out. Here's the current table, from the NWSL:
|National Women's Soccer League 2016|
So, yes, the three best teams after three weeks were the Breakers' first three opponents. They also happen to be the only three teams with positive goal differentials. Part of the equation is collecting three points at Boston's expense, of course, but the games haven't been as one-sided as the results would suggest. Boston only surrendered one goal to the league leading and undefeated Washington Spirit, who tallied two goals against Sky Blue FC and three against the Western New York Flash. Both SBFC and WNYF sit above the Breakers in the table, but they may ultimately not be as good as this Boston side.
Reasons to Believe in Boston
1. The Management is Not Complacent
After three seasons of relative mediocrity, the Breakers went out and found a proven winner in new coach Matt Beard. With Champions League experience at Liverpool, Beard has successfully managed at a very high level. They were aggressive in the off-season, bolstering a roster that wasn't performing up to their standards. And, after three matches without a goal, made a move on Thursday to sign Bayern Munich forward Eunice Beckmann.
2. The Team is Playing Well
Hear me out.
The US Women's National Team and the Portland Thorns have almost the same roster. Current National Team members Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long, Meghan Klingenberg and Emily Sonnett all start for the Thorns. Then there is Dagný Brynjarsdóttir (say "Dag-nee Brin-yahs-Daughter"), the almost 6-foot tall Iceland international who makes an incredibly large target for Heath's excellent crosses.
Boston has only Whitney Engen, who may be edged out of the 18-spot roster for the Olympics, and Stephanie McCaffrey, whose status in USWNT coach Jill Ellis' eyes seems to be dropping. Kyah Simon features for the Rio-bound Westfield Matildas of Australia, but that's the extent of the Breakers' widely-known internationals at the moment.
You'd expect a fairly wide open game between the two sides, with goals arriving for Portland in the run of play. You'd anticipate a tight passing game through the midfield between Horan, Long and Heath, with Kling bombing down the wings and sending crosses in to dangerous places. But what happened was exactly the opposite. Portland was disjointed and frequently gave away the ball under intense Boston pressing. Boston's midfield of Angela Salem, Louise Schillgard, Kristie Mewis and McCall Zerboni cut off the passing lanes and maintained possession, staying on top of the ball and creating chances for the forwards. The back four of Julie King, Kassey Kallman, Whitney Engen and Mollie Pathman held their own as well. The Thorns scored their only goal on a set piece when Brynjarsdóttir shook off Engen to head an in-swinging Tobin Heath delivery past rookie keeper Abby Smith. Smith had no chance on the play, but she commanded her zone throughout the game, turning away everything else and earning player of the match honors.
3. The Team is Getting Better
The forwards and Kristie Mewis have been thumping the woodwork on a regular basis, but sooner or later one of those strikes is going to find the net. Coach Beard talks about needing to get a bit of luck, and he's right. But he also has been up front about managing expectations for the first month or so as his new players slot in to a new system. That new style is coming along, and improvements are evident each week. The high pressing is effective already, and has shown promise in delivering turnovers. As the team starts to figure out the final third, the overlaps, underneath runs and crosses will start to connect.
Boston's next three games should give a better sense of where their potential lies as the season gets into full swing. The 4th place Chicago Red Stars arrive on Saturday, after which the Breakers travel to New Jersey to take on Sky Blue FC. They then return home to host FC Kansas City. None of these teams should be as difficult to unlock as were the first three, and the Breakers have the tools to take points from each contest, provided they can score the elusive first goal.
4. Stealth Breakers to Watch
Two new Breakers are looking formidable. Stats are all made up anyway,* so we'll rely on the eye test. McCall Zerboni and Louise Schillgard are having a big impact on the 2016 Breakers.
McCall Zerboni is a fixture in the league (as well as the various leagues before the NWSL), and arrived with Sinead Farrelly from Portland last fall. Farrelly is on the 45-day disabled list, but Zerboni has been quietly commanding the midfield. She won numerous aerial challenges against Portland, despite giving up at least four inches to Thorn midfielders Allie Long and Lindsey Horan. I've obtained photographic evidence suggesting Zerboni has learned to fly. So, that will help. It's got to be the ruby slippers.
Though she's only played in two of the three matches thus far, Louise Schillgard is a composed threat. Coach Beard lured the Swedish international to Boston after having coached her at Liverpool in 2013. Nobody in the NWSL knows what to expect from Lollo, but she's just returning to match form and will only get better. She's got very quick feet and a burst to get around timid defenders. No stranger to Beard's preferred style, she pounces on loose balls and looks for one-touch combination passing to unlock a back line. A twisted ankle in warm-ups kept her off the field in the Seattle game, but Boston has looked stronger on attack with her in the lineup.
Goals Coming Soon
The NWSL script writers have penned a winner for this weekend. Former Breaker and Boston native Alyssa Naeher returns with her new team, the Chicago Red Stars. Will she concede against one of her former teammates? Or will one of Boston's new arrivals give her a rocky homecoming? Can rookie keeper Abby Smith repeat her standout performance and upstage Naeher? We'll find out at 7:00PM Eastern on Saturday night.
Our take: BOSTON 3 - 1 CHICAGO
*Stats may not all be made up. Allegedly.