A midweek game and four weekend matchups this week saw some thrills from the likes of Marta, Sam Kerr, and the Thorns, but a dark cloud hung above the fireworks.
On Friday, Diana Matheson went studs-up on Midge Purce's right ankle -- the same one she injured back in June in a national team camp -- renewing widespread discourse about officiating in the league when Matheson earned only a caution for the foul. The next day in New Jersey, Sam Kerr scored a hat trick against her former team, only to walk off the field and tell the press she wished she could scoop up all her old teammates and whisk them away to a club with less appalling amenities.
North Carolina Courage vs Chicago Red Stars (4-1 North Carolina)
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
After going up by a goal in the first half, it was a three-minute span midway through the second that put two, then three nails in the coffin as North Carolina issued yet another thrashing to a mid-table team. Chicago is now the fourth team to lose by this scoreline to the Courage, following in the footsteps of Portland, Seattle, and Orlando.
Going into the game, the Red Stars had reasons for optimism. They drew the Courage 1-1 in Cary back in May of this year. They also headed in on a run of good form and having worked players like Casey Short and Vanessa DiBernardo back in after injury.
Alas, it was not to be. Chicago's attempt at matching North Carolina's infamous midfield box with a four-woman midfield of their own (consisting of DiBernardo, Danny Colaprico, Julie Ertz, and Morgan Brian) kind of worked. They put in a legitimately good performance in the first half, holding North Carolina to one goal, a 20th-minute Crystal Dunn effort. But Sam Kerr's finishing troubles on the day (six shots, one on goal) came back to bite the Red Stars by the 67th minute, when Lynn Williams put away a beautiful strike from the top of the 18. Two minutes later, Debinha notched the third. Kristen Hamilton dealt the coup de grâce in the 89th. A Yuki Nagasato penalty in stoppage time was small consolation for a stunned Chicago side.
Portland Thorns vs Utah Royals (4-0 Portland)
The Thorns' 4-0 drubbing of the Royals -- the biggest win by any NWSL team this season -- was overshadowed by the gruesome-looking foul Diana Matheson commited against Midge Purce late in the first half.
The energy at Providence Park was electric in the 44th minute, with the home team minutes away from heading into halftime with a 3-0 lead. Tobin Heath had kicked off the scoring 70 seconds into the match with a chip from the top of the box. Lindsey Horan found the second in the 30th minute off a free kick by Heath, and Swiss international Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic found her first home goal of the season in the 33rd. But when Matheson took Purce down with a cynical late challenge, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the stadium. Purce hobbled to the sideline and stayed there for the rest of the half, the Thorns finishing it out with 10 on the field.
Matheson earned a yellow for her studs-up tackle, less than a week after Meghan Klingenberg earned a yellow for intentionally kicking Allie Long. There hasn't been a single red card -- not one! -- more than halfway through this NWSL season. That's a far more ridiculous stat than Portland's 4-0 win here (Tyler Lussi had the fourth goal, moments after subbing on for Tobin Heath in the 62nd minute). Part of a referee's job is to protect players. If something doesn't change, more will get hurt.
Sky Blue FC vs Chicago Red Stars (3-1 Chicago)
Sam Kerr got her first hat trick of the season in strange fashion against her old club. With the ball, she looked like the Kerr we're accustomed to, capitalizing on the comfortable space her mark gave her to notch her first in the 40th minute, then scoring two in the second half off almost identical balls over the top by Yuki Nagasato. Imani Dorsey got one back for Sky Blue in the 73rd minute, assisted by Savannah McCaskill with a beautiful through-pass.
Something strange was afoot, though. Kerr, typically prone to showboating celebrations, just looked tired after each goal, almost grudgingly accepting congratulations from her teammates. After the game, she told Dan Lauletta what was weighing on her:
"If I'm honest I didn't enjoy it. I wish things were better here and that I could stay. I scored a hat trick, but I wasn't myself today. I feel sad. I feel sick playing against these girls. They're my lifelong friends. It just sucks that that's the way it had to be. I'm just going to say the girls deserve better and I'm just going to leave it at that. These girls are great girls. They give everything of themselves for this club and this league and they just deserve better."
This is nothing new. Sky Blue has lagged at the back of the pack in terms of what they're willing to spend on facilities and living expenses for players for years. It's unfortunate that it took Kerr speaking out about conditions at Sky Blue for the public to remember that conditions are bad there, but at least, the conversation is happening.
Orlando Pride vs Washington Spirit (2-1 Orlando)
Washington went up in the 26th minute thanks to lax marking against Ashley Hatch on a corner kick, but an egregious error by Aubrey Bledsoe let Orlando back into the game. Marta sealed the deal for the Pride with a highlight-reel goal late in the second half.
This was another match marred by a cruel injury, as Francisca Ordega had to sub out after not passing concussion protocol following a collision with Ashlyn Harris 40 seconds into the game.
To be a buzzkill just for a minute, there's a caveat to Marta's 86th-minute golazo: the Pride won the ball thanks to an unforced error by Whitney Church, who thoughtlessly one-timed a lofted ball straight to Sydney Leroux instead of taking the time to settle it.
Nonetheless, watching a defender get absolutely torched one-on-one by Marta, as Church did when she made the recovery run and attempted to defend the Brazilian, will never not be a joy. At age 32, Marta is still the type of player who can grab her team by the scruff of their collective necks and drag them to a win.
Seattle Reign vs Houston Dash (Seattle 3-1)
After a 12th-minute header goal by Amber Brooks on a Sofia Huerta corner kick put Houston up 1-0, the Reign equalized late in the first half and never looked back. Jodie Taylor scored a ridiculous goal in the 37th minute, taking one weird touch on a Megan Rapinoe throw-in to somehow loop a ball over Jane Campbell's head. Allysha Chapman conceded an incredibly stupid penalty with a hack at Elizabeth Addo in the 55th minute, and Rapinoe sent her emphatic kick well out of Campbell's reach in the upper 90. The Rapinoe show continued in the 85th minute, as she did well to set Allie Long up with a ball over the top.
Despite that early goal, Houston spent much of this game looking truly lost. One huge question mark: why is Matildas centerback Clare Polkinghorne playing in the midfield when Janine Van Wyk keeps doing things like politely backing off Rapinoe when she wants to send balls over the top?
A packed week kicks off with three midweek matches. Washington are no doubt steeling themselves for a trip to North Carolina; Orlando will hope to get some dignity back in Houston after losing to the Dash at home a few weeks ago; and Utah continues their west-coast trip in Seattle. That last game, the second installment in the Harvey-Andonovski derby, will definitely be the one to keep an eye on. Last time around Vlatko outsmarted Laura Harvey on her home turf to keep a clean sheet and get the draw. Can Harvey return the favor?
Over the weekend, we get a couple more mid-table matchups with Utah hosting the Pride and Seattle heading to Chicago. This is a week that could have big implications for the playoff race.
Wednesday, July 11
- North Carolina vs Washington (7:00 PM Eastern/4:00 PM Pacific, go90)
- Houston vs Orlando (8:30 PM Eastern ET/5:30 PM Pacific, go90)
- Seattle vs Utah (10:30 PM Eastern ET/7:30 PM Pacific, go90)
Saturday, July 14
- Sky Blue vs North Carolina (7:00 PM Eastern/4:00 PM Pacific, go90)
- Utah vs Orlando (7:00 PM Eastern/4:00 PM Pacific, ESPNews)
- Chicago vs Seattle (8:00 PM Eastern/5:00 PM Pacific, go90)
Sunday, July 15
- Portland Thorns vs Houston Dash (11:00 PM Eastern/7:00 PM Pacific, go90)
Photo credit: Kris Lattimore