Welcome back to the 21st collection of games. We'll get started on Tuesday, then move on to Wednesday and Saturday as the week progresses. Well, I suppose we'd do that with or without football, but let's choose WITH!
Tuesday isn't really the best day to be in Seattle. There's wildfire smoke all over the western part of North America, and the National Weather Service has this disturbing map of how it's pretty much zeroing in on Seattle. Sorry Seattle.
Another round of #smoke from the wildfires in north central Washington and British Columbia is expected to impact the area this afternoon. This will keep smoke thick, at least through Wednesday. Smoke conditions at: https://t.co/cgLa9sAQBQ #WAwx pic.twitter.com/cgJHU5SS7u— NWS Seattle (@NWSSeattle) August 21, 2018
Yuck. But, as of 8PM Eastern, the game is still scheduled to be played. Get ready for more water breaks and oxygen tanks on the sidelines. Seattle sent out the following earlier in the day, which is pretty amazing:
We're closely monitoring the air quality index in Seattle in advance of our match against the @HoustonDash on Tuesday night. We will be in communication with the @NWSL throughout the day tomorrow and will keep you posted on any developments. #LetItRain pic.twitter.com/rxvkpVtRHi— Seattle Reign FC (@ReignFC) August 21, 2018
That is now the Fishlock image I'll forever be seeing in my nightmares. Thanks, Reign Social Media team.
The game is actually important, because Houston is on the rise and could land in 4th place on the table with a win, and the Reign want to grab 3 points to secure their own playoff berth. That's just the beginning of the playoff drama we'll see unfold this weekend. So let's take a look (as always, with updates as the week proceeds).
What happened in COG 20?
Seattle Reign 0-0 Chicago Red Stars
Houston Dash 4-0 Washington Spirit (Gabarra's Last Match!)
Sky Blue 2-2 Utah Royals (As demoralizing a finish as a winless team has ever suffered)
Portland Thorns 2-2 Chicago Red Stars (the Red Stars love to draw!)
Sunday (actually both Saturday and Sunday, but completed on Sunday):
North Carolina Courage 3-0 Orlando Pride (May not be many Sermanni games remaining at this rate.)
Houston Dash at Seattle Reign
Tuesday at 10:30PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
A win and they're in for the Reign. Sounds easy enough. But Allie Long is OUT. Bev Yanez is OUT. Megan Rapinoe and Rumi Utsugi are questionable. They really could use a fairly easy win in what will likely be some challenging playing conditions. Smoky! Houston isn't going to give them that easy out. So, it's likely to be a fairly open match with lots of crosses and battles in the midfield.
For the Dash, hopes are sky high. After stomping on the Spirit 4-0 last week, they are confident and will want to take advantage of teams that can't quite seem to put the pieces together in the final few weeks. They may be without Clare Polkinghorne (questionable with a left ankle sprain) but they're otherwise pretty healthy and have been looking dominant.
The smoke will probably give this match a choppy feel, as the sides will likely be given two water breaks per half again this week. That's been a recipe for zero rhythm in the run of play, but it does leave space for one or the other team to try to take advantage of a fast counterattack. Daly and Ohai love those kinds of opportunities. If they can convert, they'll have a shot to prove they belong in the playoff conversation. I think they have a pretty good shot.
Seattle Reign 1-2 Houston Dash
Utah Royals at Washington Spirit
Wednesday at 7:30PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
In case you missed it (or "ICYMI" for all y'all digital natives), the Jim Gabarra era came to a close at the Washington Spirit earlier this week. Gabarra has had an undeniably big impact on the women's game, but his tenure had long run its course in Washington and the Spirit will take the field under the management of Tom Torres for the rest of the season.
Gabarra was gracious in his departure:
Today the Washington Spirit & I have parted ways. Although disappointed, I’m very excited for what my future holds. I’m quite proud of my accomplishments during my tenure with the club and am confident the club is in a better position than when I arrived 3 years ago.— Jim Gabarra (@JimGabarra1) August 21, 2018
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And the team was too:
"Parting ways" is a slick way of not really admitting that one has been fired or done the firing, but that's what happened following the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Houston Dash last Friday night. Now, we'll see if the Spirit can look a bit better over the final couple of weeks. This week, they'll play Wednesday and Saturday (at Audi field!). Their visitors, Utah on Wednesday and Portland on Saturday, aren't likely to let them get a feel-good win for the new head coach, because they're both fighting for their playoff lives. But, one game at a time.
The Royals came very close to losing a match to the winless Sky Blue FC, but a last touch strike from Amy Rodriguez in, well, extra-extra time, brought the game to a close with a draw.
Utah can't afford another close one, and they'll still need lots of other help (read: losing) from other teams to get in, but they'll temporarily be in fourth place tonight with a win. They might be able to deploy Kelley O'Hara, who is returning from injury but is still questionable. Their hosts won't have Banini or Huster, and Ordega is questionable with a left foot contusion.
This feels like a game Utah can run out and win, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a newly energized Spirit look a lot better. If they don't, Saturday is going to be pretty anti-climactic.
Washington Spirit 2-3 Utah Royals
Sky Blue FC at Portland Thorns
Wednesday at 11PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
Last week was probably the week that Sky Blue could steal a win. It would have been at home, and it would have been deserved. It just wasn't to be. What a way to concede a draw—long after the "minimum" added 3 minutes had elapsed, Christen Press danced and danced and danced some more on the edge of the area. I ran approximately 4,674 simulations (no, of course I didn't), and Press shoots in every one of them. But in a promising development, she raised her head, saw her elder-stateswoman striking partner, and propelled the ball deliberately in her direction. Press passed the ball, and A-Rod converted the draw. Heartbreak for the hosts.
This week, in Portland, it's going to be much more difficult. But I'd expect Providence Park to give them a standing ovation if they can get the job done, because they love soccer (hoping I'm not wrong, and we may not get a chance to learn). Rebekah Stott is out, and Freeman and Meehan are questionable—both nursing right hamstring strains.
Portland is healthy and clicking. Sky Blue has no business getting points in this game, but I made a (ill advised) promise to pick the winless wonders until they win, so here we go again. Against all odds, the 0-14-5 squad plays spoiler to the Thorns plans for easy points (c'mon universe). Sonnett pulls down Lloyd as double-letter-last-named players collide for a late Sky Blue PK that Franch can't save to put the visitors over the top. Sounds so good, I might even believe it.
Portland Thorns 1-2 Sky Blue FC
North Carolina Courage at Seattle Reign
Saturday at 4PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
The battle of #1 at #2 is a tad anti-climactic, as the Courage can't be caught. Still, both sides will want to keep up their good form while keeping everyone healthy ahead of the playoffs.
Seattle won't have Allie Long and Bev Yanez again, but that's been OK of late. They move the ball so well through the wide areas and now that Jodie Taylor has remembered how to convert goals, the Reign are extremely dangerous.
The Courage come to town without the services of Jaelene Hinkle, who (whatever you think of her personal views on life) is undeniably good going forward and defending from her fullback position. That's going to put pressure on the rest of the defense, because the Reign are monsters bombing forward. Darian Jenkins was called in to the USWNT U-23 squad and will also be unavailable on Saturday afternoon.
This game doesn't matter a ton, but both sides will be eager to show that they're the class of the playoff sides. For this match, I think they're about even. Unless Taylor continues to fly. It's possible, and could lead to a rare NC loss.
Seattle Reign 1-1 North Carolina Courage
Chicago Red Stars at Orlando Pride
Saturday at 7:30PM Eastern on NWSL.COM and the App
Chicago currently sits fifth on the table, but they've got a secret advantage over their competition. Prior to their clash with the Pride, they've only played 21 matches. Utah, currently fourth, has only one game remaining and lead the Red Stars by a single point. So while they could collect three more points, Chicago could win out and collect NINE. Orlando sits in sixth place, trailing the Red Stars by one point, but also only having a maximum of six points yet to collect. The Dash are technically still alive just one point behind Orlando with the same six points up for grabs in their final two matches of the regular season.
As a consequence, the Red Stars control their own destiny. Win out and they can't be caught for the final playoff spot. They'll face a tough test against the Pride, who also want to turn some poor form around to get into the four-team post-season tournament.
Leroux is out for Orlando, and Nairn is questionable with a foot contusion. That's not great, because Chicago's midfield has been getting better and better across the second half of the season. The visitors are without infrequent contributor Summer Green due to her call-up to the U-23 squad.
The Pride have been facing important matches for the past month, and have failed to rise to the occasion, losing two in a row after drawing two in a row. Chicago hasn't lost during that stretch, and I think they continue to build towards a playoff berth on Saturday night.
Orlando Pride 1-2 Chicago Red Stars
Portland Thorns at Washington Spirit
Saturday at 8PM Eastern on ESPNEWS (At Audi Field!)
AUDI FIELD! How many people will show up to watch their youthful side take on one of the best teams in the league in the sparkling new stadium? Hopefully a lot. Otherwise, it will be a bad look for the prime time ESPNEWS broadcast.
To be fair, Washington has been terrible. They just keep losing. They fired their coach, but didn't get much of a spark mid-week (although Didi Haracic was exceptional in goal in the loss). They'll again be without Banini & Huster, though they may be able to deploy the questionable Francisca Ordega, but almost nothing the Spirit have tried has worked this season, and they'll be going back to the drawing board as soon as they play out their remaining games.
Portland won't want a let-down on national TV, and it's hard to see how they could fail to dominate this game. They're healthy and cruising, and this match is a showcase for Heath, Horan and Sinclair to remind people just how good the Thorns can be.
Washington Spirit 0-4 Portland Thorns
Sky Blue FC at Houston Dash
Saturday at 8:30PM on NWSL.COM and the App
I really want Sky Blue to win a game this season. On Saturday night in Houston, it just might happen.
The hosts won't have Clare Polkinghorne, but are otherwise in pretty good shape. Sky Blue will sit Stott again, while Freeman, Meehan and Skroski are all questionable.
Everything about this game says Houston win, but I promised, so let's find a way to get Sky Blue a victory. Carli Lloyd gets the winner against her former club and the fans have mixed feelings. Will Dash fans cheer the end of a winless season for Sky Blue when the loss for the home club means they're out of playoff contention? I think they'll find a way.
Houston Dash 1-2 Sky Blue FC