After a busy week off the field, between revelations about conditions at Sky Blue and Jaelene Hinkle getting a second chance with the national team, the weekend in the NWSL was almost slow. We got two draws and one game that wasn't streamed due to a last-minute postponement. Sky Blue-Portland was probably the most exciting game of the weekend -- assuming you like bad defending and shots hitting the woodwork.
Utah Royals vs North Carolina Courage (0-0)
With this draw, the Royals finished out their series against the Courage and remain the team with the best record against the certain Shield winners. Utah has matched up well against the Courage, with two draws and a win in three meetings, but North Carolina will want to add an asterisk to this one as their roster was hit the hardest of any team in the league by the early USWNT callups.
With Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, McCall Zerboni, Crystal Dunn, Merritt Mathias, and Jaelene "Personal Reasons" Hinkle all on national team duty, Paul Riley started Kristen Hamilton and Cari Roccaro in the midfield; Meredith Speck, Kaleigh Kurtz, and Heather O'Reilly filled in at left back, center back, and right back, respectively. Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald started as dual strikers. Utah fared much better, missing only Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez, and Becky Sauerbrunn.
Without Mewis and Zerboni dictating play deep in the midfield or Crystal Dunn creating chances out wide or in front of Utah's defense, North Carolina was basically relegated to the old Western New York Flash playbook: force turnovers, feed balls through to Williams and McDonald, and try to beat the Royals on the break. They still managed to post a ridiculous shot total of 21 (including 16 from inside the box), which is well in line with what they usually put up. But this game was nothing if not a painful reminder that neither Williams nor McDonald has been a good finisher this year: of Williams's 10 shots, just two were on frame, while McDonald only found three shots, all off-target.
Utah, meanwhile, lacking both Press and Rodriguez, couldn't string together an attack despite coming away with almost 60% possession. For much of the first half, especially, they controlled the midfield -- but with their best performance in the center of the field coming from deep-lying Desiree Scott, they struggled to find gaps in a well-organized Courage defense. Appropriately, the highlight of the game wasn't an offensive play, but Rachel Corsie's jaw-dropping last-minute block against Lynn Williams in the 88th minute.
Orlando Pride vs Seattle Reign (1-1)
Neither team will be happy with this result, which meant the gaps between the second-through-fifth-place teams got no bigger. Just two points now separate second-place Seattle and fifth-place Chicago.
Orlando lined up in a three-back, with Shelina Zadorsky, Mônica, and Ali Krieger matched up against Seattle's front three of Nahomi Kawasumi, Jodie Taylor, and Jasmyne Spencer, and Kristen Edmonds and Chioma Ubogagu running the wings. Orlando controlled most of the first half, putting together a number of quality chances and breaking through in the 22nd minute when Toni Pressley was left unmarked in the area and a deflection off Theresa Nielsen fell to her.
To start the second half, Seattle picked up some momentum. Although they had the lion's share of possession for the first 20 minutes or so, they still struggled to play out of the back, with their only chances during this period coming on balls over the top. After Tom Sermanni made some substitutions, bringing on Camila for Toni Pressley in the 59th minute, and Emily Van Egmond for Ubogagu in the 67th, and moving to a back four with Zadorsky and Mônica staying at center back and Krieger and Camila on the outside, the Reign broke through. After a clever bit of combination play on the left wing, Steph Catley sent a ball into the area from wide. Taylor brought it down, it fell to Kawasumi, and she looped a nice pass into the six-yard box for a still-unmarked Taylor, who tapped her shot in.
The source of the defensive mistake was a simple numerical issue: with Krieger watching Catley and Camila marking Kawasumi on the Reign's right, Mônica and Zadorsky were outnumbered by Spencer, Jess Fishlock, and Taylor, all making runs up the middle.
The rest of the game passed in frustrating fashion for Orlando. Marta tried to Marta her team out of a draw at one point, but was stymied by the Reign defense. It's a disheartening result for Orlando, whose own mid-game tactical shift was what cost them the win.
Sky Blue FC vs Portland Thorns (2-1 Portland)
Next to North Carolina, Portland was the next hardest-hit, numerically, by the USWNT callups. The Thorns lost A.D. Franch, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, and Tobin Heath -- and despite the result, those absences looked to burn them even worse than North Carolina's did. Sky Blue was missing only Carli Lloyd.
The game went on in a pouring rainstorm; the video stream would periodically cut away to an on-field shot so the crew could wipe the lens down. It was in these conditions that Portland managed to go up in the fourth minute. With Mandy Freeman stepping to Ana-Maria Crnogorčević, Christine Sinclair had a wide lane for a through pass, and she found Hayley Raso, who drove into the area, cut the ball to her right foot to beat Domi Richardson, and fired her shot into the net.
Just two minutes later, Crnogorčević put the Thorns up 2-0. Raso also had a hand in this goal, pressuring Sky Blue keeper Caroline Casey into a clearance that went directly to the Thorns forward, who was wide open and easily put away an angled shot from the top of the 18.
The home side got one back in the 27th minute when Savannah McCaskill found a nice ball in to Imani Dorsey, who completely burned Katherine Reynolds and got one-on-one with Franch's backup, Britt Eckerstrom. Eckerstrom came off her line, but couldn't get to the ball in time, and Dorsey's shot hit her and bounced over and into the net.
If the Thorns mostly controlled the rest of the first half, they were hanging on for dear life in the second. Katherine Reynolds had to sub off following an injury shortly before halftime, and Elizabeth Ball saw her first real minutes of the season in her stead. Ball looked much less mistake-prone than Kelli Hubly, who was the first choice for defensive depth throughout the first half of the season, but McCaskill had the clear speed advantage in that matchup, and Ball's problems containing her led to a number of chances for Sky Blue. The New Jersey side was incredibly unlucky not to equalize, especially late in the half, when they hit the woodwork repeatedly.
Washington Spirit-Houston Dash (1-0 Houston)
Did this game even happen? Supposedly, but after field conditions Saturday night forced a delay until the next morning, it wasn't streamed! Jason Anderson wrote a recap over at Black and Red United. Apparently, despite losing, the Spirit... looked good? Sounds fake, but okay.
With the Tournament of Nations happening, there's just one NWSL game next weekend, Sky Blue at Chicago. 8:00 PM Eastern/5:00 PM Pacific -- and the last-ever game broadcast on go90! Non-televised games will be streamed on the NWSL site going forward as Verizon is shuttering the streaming service.