Wednesday, Friday and Saturday! It's our new routine (don't get too used to it; things go all wonky next week). Anyway, this week gets started with the Red Stars at the Reign.
I include the picture below to remind us of better times. This was an exciting, winning Sky Blue team getting ready for a match at the Boston Breakers toward the end of last season. There's been a lot of bad press for the league's only team without a win this year as a lot has come out about the conditions faced by the players. But that's not about the players.
The players deserve so much better, but they haven't given less than 100% all year. Even with no showers at their practice facility. Even with questionable housing in which to live. Even last year when they stuffed themselves into vans to drive to Boston for this match. They got out, warmed up, and then the starting XI did this.
These dedicated athletes don't let anything stop them from doing what they love, which is part of what makes the NWSL so compelling.
I'm pulling for Sky Blue for the rest of the year, and so should you.
What happened in COG 19?
Utah Royals 1-0 Washington Spirit (Could have been worse)
Chicago Red Stars 1-1 NC Courage (Chicago is slowly climbing)
Utah Royals 0-1 Seattle Reign (Becca Moros won two academy awards)
Sky Blue 1-2 Houston Dash (So close, Sky Blue)
Orlando Pride 0-2 Portland Thorns (Are the Pride about to melt down?)
Chicago Red Stars at Seattle Reign
Wednesday at 10:30PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
Immediately prior to Becca Moros winning the academy awards for stunt-flopping and live-action in-person 'Pinoe trolling, Megan Rapinoe herself landed on the ground. I'm not claiming that this was the cause of her left hip soreness that leaves her on the Reign's OUT list for Wednesday, but she's OUT nonetheless. She'll have company on the bench, as Rumi Utsugi and Bev Yanez are also injured. Steph Catley is still away from the team on excused (bereavement) leave. There is a lot of talent on the bench, but they've not had a ton of time to play together this season, so it will be interesting to see how Seattle fares against a quietly sneaky and improving team.
The Red Stars list only Steph McCaffrey on their injury report, and she's been out almost all season. They're otherwise healthy and ready to go. With two games in hand on Orlando, they can leapfrog the underperforming Floridian side into a playoff berth with a win at the Reign. If they go goal-crazy (Sam Kerr is playing, so not impossible) and overcome the current goal differential, they have a chance to catch or hop over the Thorns on the table as well (they'd be tied on points). After tonight, they'll face the Thorns and Pride away before hosting Sky Blue ahead of their season-closer at the Utah Royals. The teams they have to beat to make the playoffs are basically at their feet. Will they step up and show what they can do?
I'm not usually one to count out the Reign, but the bench might not have the firepower needed to keep Sam Kerr under wraps. Chicago won their last faceoff, and they drew earlier in the season. I think the Red Stars at full strength grab three points to put serious pressure on the other teams with post-season ambitions.
Seattle Reign 1-3 Chicago Red Stars
UPDATE: A smoky match with minimal momentum due to two water breaks per half delivered exactly zero goals. Lydia Williams was a monster, stopping Sam Kerr several times including once from just feet away. Adriana Leon had a chance to win it at the end, but couldn't shape her first-time attempt enough to find the far post. One point each!
Washington Spirit at Houston Dash
Friday at 8:30PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
The Dash host the Spirit fresh off an away win at Sky Blue last week. They've won three of their last five, adding Orlando and their Friday evening guests to their list of recent victims. Sandwiched between those wins were losses to Portland and Utah, so it hasn't been all good news. Also from the not-good-news department is the Dash injury report: Both Rachel Daly and Kyah Simon are questionable with left knee and ankle sprains respectively. Considering that the Dash play again on Tuesday (in Seattle) and yet again next Saturday back in Houston when Sky Blue come to town, there is a case to be made for resting one or both of the team's best players against the weaker opponents. That means you Washington (and you too, Sky Blue; Reign—you're good.)
But why can't the Spirit get a result? They've been slowly bringing Mal Pugh back into the squad, and Rose Lavelle has looked bright when she's played. Banini and Huster are OUT, but otherwise, there aren't really any reasonable excuses for why the Spirit continue to underperform. They're getting ready for a game at the new Audi field in the District, but they've lost NINE games and drawn twice since they last captured a win—way back on May 23rd—against Sky Blue. Those two draws were impressive though—against Sky Blue—and, oh, wait, this one was reasonably impressive—the Seattle Reign. A sweet draw against a winning team. VICTORY!
Houston at full strength shouldn't sweat the Spirit, but if they try to rest people for the trip to Seattle, they might give the visitors a chance to put together a winning effort. Surely they're long overdue. Pugh and Lavelle find the Andi Sullivan from a year and a half ago and bring her to Houston and together they give us our first glimpse of the dominant USWNT's 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup squad. We hope. They'll face Utah, Portland (at Audi Field on ESPNEWS) and Sky Blue to close out the season in and around their home park(s).
Houston Dash 1-2 Washington Spirit
REALITY: So, I was trying to see the bright side of the Washington Spirit, but there is no bright side. The game planning has been abysmal for nearly two full seasons and complaints about injuries feel pretty hollow. Some of the most sought-after college players have come to the Spirit and not developed at all. Surely the Jim Gabarra era has got to be coming to a close.
Houston stomped the Spirit 4-0.
Utah Royals at Sky Blue FC
Saturday at 6:30PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
7-7-7 would be a pretty solid return from a slot machine, and the Royals have to be pleased with where they are compared to some of the longer-tenured teams in the league. They'll probably win again tonight, giving them the opportunity to vault (at least briefly) into 4th place on the table. Kelley O'Hara has been upgraded to "questionable" for the match against her former club, but I don't expect the Royals to risk aggravating her long-injured hamstring. Otherwise, there are no surprises for the visitors; Utah is getting healthier just in time to make a run. There isn't any room for error, but Sky Blue has been nothing if not a generous host this year.
The home side is beset with injuries on defense, and Shea Groom is still out in the concussion protocol. Erica Skroski is excused, Rebeccah Stott is out with a lower back strain, and Mandy Freeman and Christina Gibbons are questionable with right hamstring strains. It will be interesting to see how well the back line will hold up against a healthy Royals attack. Katie Johnson is back, and you'd think that together with Carli Lloyd, Imani Dorsey and Savannah McCaskill that she should find some opportunities going forward if the scoreline doesn't get ugly too early.
Ultimately, I think Utah wins this, but I'm sticking with the Sky Blue sentimental pick and am hoping that Dorsey and Johnson have a magical moment late to lead the way to their first win of the season.
Sky Blue 2-1 Utah Royals
Orlando Pride at North Carolina Courage
Saturday at 7PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
Oh dear. The Pride are in 4th place, but it's not for lack of trying. Trying to fall out of playoff contention, that is. On the attack, they've been unlucky. Or, like last week, they've just faced incredible goalkeeping. Does anyone thing they wouldn't have scored against a keeper not named Adrianna Franch? So. Many. Great. Saves. But the defending they attempted against the Thorns isn't going to cut it against a multi-faceted attacking side like the Courage. They'll need to be a different team to beat the league's best, and they haven't shown up in these types of challenges all year. It's been months since they've had a signature win upon which to build confidence and start looking like contenders. If they can't beat a Courage squad that has already booked the Shield and a home playoff match, they aren't ready for the playoffs anyway.
North Carolina can probably afford to continue to rest McCall Zerboni, who is again questionable with her sprained right ankle. They're having a season for the record books, but every player is focused on making sure that a Championship victory comes at the end. Every sport has those teams that win everything except the title, and though they got their start in Western New York, the Courage don't want to emulate the Buffalo Bills in failing to win consecutive title games.
Technically, since the Flash did win prior to moving to Cary, that's not really a huge risk. But where other teams have started to coast, the Courage seem to hold everyone equally accountable. There's no coasting, and they only know how to play one way: to win.
I think they win again, even in a game that the Pride really need to win.
NC Courage 2-1 Orlando Pride
Chicago Red Stars at Portland Thorns
Saturday at 10:30PM on ESPNEWS (ESP NEWS!)
Chicago has a lot to gain if they can get a win in Portland. They'd leap the Thorns in the table and land all the way up in 3rd place. They've been playing well lately, but haven't been able to score more goals than their better opponents. Last two matches: draws at Seattle and at home to the Courage. Portland is another test. Much like the Pride, if the Red Stars want to be considered an elite team, they've got to start winning these matches. They're healthy, and the smoky conditions in Portland from earlier in the week have improved, so they won't get a repeat of the smoke bowl after suffering through the two-water-breaks nonsense in Seattle on Wednesday.
For the Thorns, the arrow is pointing up. There are things to fix, but the squad is in good shape and they've been winning the games they need to win to keep climbing the table. Losing to Chicago could drop them out of playoff position depending on what else happens around the league. But last year's champions know this. They've been here before. They know how to win, and they know how to give their home fans a show.
I think the Thorns win this one and stay ahead of the pack of playoff chasers.
Portland Thorns 3-1 Chicago Red Stars