We're back with the Wednesday games, though it's going to take something special for the Spirit to find a way past the Royals tonight in Utah. Can they overcome a thumping at Seattle to earn something on their road trip? We'll soon see. (Update: Nope.)
With the break now in the rear-view mirror, it's time to start thinking about the post-season. If the Royals want to be there, they've got to keep winning. No excuses.
The Pride can't drop points to teams like Sky Blue if they're hoping to challenge for a top four spot, but that's exactly what they did last weekend. In any case, North Carolina is going to the playoffs. Seattle is probably safely in as well. But there's a lot of room for disaster or triumph for Portland, Orlando, and Chicago. Utah and Houston have some really long odds but never say never. Unless you're Sky Blue or Washington. It's more or less over for them.
What Happened in COG 18?
NC Courage 2-1 Portland Thorns (thereby clinching the 2018 NWSL Shield)
Orlando Pride 2-2 Sky Blue FC (with a Carli Lloyd Red Card in stoppage time that did save a goal despite giving up a PK that Marta couldn't convert = a professional foul from a passionate player who will now miss a week but managed to secure a point for the league's worst team)
Houston Dash 1-2 Utah Royals (Something is brewing in Utah)
Seattle Reign 2-0 Washington Spirit (The Spirit get to play at Audi Field soon, right?!?)
Washington Spirit at Utah Royals FC
Wednesday at 10PM Eastern on NWSL.COM
Utah starts their 20th match with 25 points. Washington has ten. It's possible to blame some of Washington's woes on injuries, but after two years of bleak results it's only fair to look at the leadership of the team. Can this coaching staff stay on for another year? Should they stay through the end of this year? Without some serious improvement immediately, surely they've got to clean house and bring in some new energy.
Utah is full of new energy, though they've had mixed results. Last week's Tymrak-Stengel connection was intriguing, especially since Tymrak has been criminally underused for most of the year. Play the vegans, Harvs. Can they get free with Press running around and attracting all the attention? Just might work.
On a Wednesday night that will feature smoky skies courtesy of California's largest fire in recorded history, the NWSL's newest team will bend but not break. Home field advantage helps, and the Royals win.
Utah Royals 3-2 Washington Spirit
REALITY: Utah 1-0 Washington, which could have been much worse for the visitors, who couldn't manage to sustain much pressure for any extended stretches of play.
North Carolina Courage at Chicago Red Stars
Friday at 8PM Eastern on NWSL.COM or the App, maybe.
With Go90 really most sincerely dead, the NWSL took a stab at streaming the game on Wednesday. They've done this before, but something went wrong, and twitter was bemused.
Hopefully that all gets sorted out tonight, because there's a lot at stake for the Red Stars. With a win, they'd leapfrog into third place on the table and still have a game in hand over Orlando. Chicago has earned wins in four of their last five, and with the Courage able to rest a bit after securing the NWSL shield, there might be an opening to keep the charge alive. There aren't any surprises on the Red Stars injury report, so they won't have any excuses should they not be able to compete with the league's best team.
North Carolina has McCall Zerboni listed as questionable with a sprained ankle, and they really have little incentive to force her into the game—not that she'd willingly sit on the sideline if she wants to play, mind you. Otherwise, there's Lynn Williams up top, quietly having herself a golden boot season tied with Lindsey Horan with 10 goals to date. (Yes, Sam Kerr has nine, so things could get flipped tonight.) The Courage have such good depth at every position, it's hard to see them falling to the Red Stars.
Consider: looking down the top scorers list for the Courage, we've got Williams with 10, then Dunn with seven, McDonald and Debinha with six, and Mathias, Mewis and Zerboni with three each. For Chicago, it's Kerr with nine, then... Nagasato with four and Mautz with three. Who's going to score your goals, tonight?
Chicago keeps it close, and possibly finds a way to pull it out, but I think the Courage continue to roll.
Chicago Red Stars 2-3 NC Courage
Update: A 1-1 draw, with (stop me if you've heard this before) some questionable refereeing decisions in both directions.
Seattle Reign at Utah Royals
Saturday at 3:30PM on LIFETIME! Actual TV!
The Game of the Week returns with some much-needed production value to see if the Royals can stay in the conversation for the playoffs. Technically, a win would take them to 3rd place, but they've played more games than the teams ahead of them. Since Chicago already played this weekend and only earned one point, the Royals can grab and hold a playoff berth only if they win and Orlando and Portland play to a draw later tonight. That would most likely plop them in 4th place, as they'd be even on points and have the same number of games played as Orlando, but would (barring an offensive explosion) most likely trail in goal differential.
Still, that's a pretty good place to be with the season winding down. You just want to have a chance, right?
The problem with this feel-good story is that the Reign come to town wanting to solidify their own 2nd place standing by making a statement that they're not going to be caught. They've taken ten points from a possible fifteen in their last five matches, which is only one point shy of what the Courage have taken over the same stretch. Utah's last three games have seen two wins and a draw, but those wins came vs Washington and Houston—not exactly the powerhouses of the 2018 NWSL season. Plus, the last time the Royals and the Reign met, Seattle won 1-0 at home.
I like this Royals team, but I think Seattle is able to control play and work around some of the defensive traps that Utah likes to set. Rapinoe will get her chances, and I expect it to be too much for the Royals. One wild card: Bev Yanez is out for Seattle with a foot fracture, which will change their attack. Will it be as cohesive as it has been? If not, Utah has a shot.
Utah Royals 1-2 Seattle Reign
Houston Dash at Sky Blue FC
Saturday at 7PM on NWSL.COM and the App
Another rainy night game in New Jersey will probably give the Dash a good chance to grab three points. Carli Lloyd won't get a chance to participate due to picking up a red card in the waning seconds of last week's draw with Orlando. People have lots of opinions about Carli Lloyd, but you have to admit that the desire to win is strong in Sky Blue's captain. She did whatever was necessary to keep that ball out of the net, and though she got sent off, the ensuing PK did not result in a goal. So—worth it? I'm going with yes. The draw with Orlando secured just the fourth point of a bleak run of 17 games for Sky Blue, and this week probably isn't going to be much better.
In case you missed it, there was a Deadspin piece out last week that took another look at the issues around Sky Blue FC. Erika Ayala and (friend of Her Pitch) RJ Allen got a bit deeper into some of the details of the organizational disfunction in New Jersey. Have a read:
All that seems bad, but at least they get the little things right, right? Surely they are respectful enough of their players to depict them as part of their current team, right?
Um, no. This is from the current Sky Blue FC Team Notes:
So yeah, that's a bummer. Also a bummer: Shea Groom is OUT and in the concussion protocol.
Houston isn't going to be sympathetic to Sky Blue tonight, but they'll be without Kyah Simon. Janine Van Wyk and Kimberly Keever are both questionable. They've got a slick pattern going with Loss-Win-Loss-Win-Loss over their last five games, which means they're due for a win.
BUT HOLD ON NOW! We need a Sky Blue win this season. The players deserve it. They haven't quit and they continue to fight. So let's see if the sloppy conditions and slightly odd personnel can find a way to win.
Sky Blue FC 2-1 Houston Dash
Portland Thorns at Orlando Pride
Saturday at 7:30PM on NWSL.COM and the App
Hey, look! It's the #3 and #4 teams (before the early game) on the table. They're both playing really well and they're surely going to both win. Oh wait.
So Orlando only managed draws against Sky Blue (wut?) and Seattle (respectable) on their two last matches. Portland was in Courage Country most recently, and played well despite being unable to collect any points. Prior to that, they managed to defeat the New Jersey powerhouse, unlike the Pride.
Sydney Leroux is out due to illness again for the home side, and Portland lost Kat Reynolds for the year due to MCL surgery. Otherwise, there is a lot of class on these rosters and they're all gunning for the playoffs.
Orlando absolutely must win this game to start a playoff run. They're away in North Carolina next, with the Red Stars coming to visit the following week before their season-closer at Sky Blue. It would be tempting to say those Sky Blue points are in the bag, but they just dropped points to Sky Blue last week, so nothing is certain for the Pride. Big wins that matter have to start now.
Portland will finish out the season with the Red Stars, Sky Blue and the Reign coming to Providence Park sandwiched around an Audi Field showdown with the Washington Spirit. Yes, that's an easier run-in for the Thorns. But still no room for error.
Unfortunately for Orlando, the inconsistency they sometimes exhibit won't be rewarded by the in-form Thorns. Despite having split their two games in Portland this year, the Thorns are better stacked to hit the post-season healthy and ready to compete. If, that is, their back line can settle in and avoid the types of errors that Marta and Alex Morgan like to force.
That "if" is enough for me to feel like this game ends with nobody happy. Draw!
Orlando Pride 2-2 Portland Thorns