The playoff picture is starting, maybe, to get a little clearer after this weekend, with Seattle and Portland shutting out Utah and Orlando on the road and Chicago doing well to get a draw against North Carolina. Numerically, the race for the bottom three playoff slots is still wide open, but with just a month to go, some teams are looking more likely than others to land there. Let's review:
Utah Royals vs Washington Spirit (1-0 Utah)
If I'd told you in the 2017-2018 offseason that on a team with Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez up top, the top scorer would be Katie Stengel, you would have rightfully called me an idiot. Yet here we are, with just four games left in the season, and Stengel seems determined to hold onto her place at the top of the Royals' stat sheet. She scored the lone goal in this beatdown against a Washington team that should maybe be considered the worst in the league, at this point -- they haven't gotten a result since June 16, and have one goal in the last ten games.
Stengel's goal in this game was an "I told you so" to the increasingly hapless-looking Jim Gabarra, who waived her from the Spirit roster last season. Taylor Lytle played an all-too-easy pass up the midfield, Diana Matheson gave a cheeky dummy, and Stengel sent home an angled shot from the top of the box.
Chicago Red Stars vs North Carolina Courage (1-1)
Chicago are one of just three teams to get a result against the Courage this season, and this 1-1 draw is their second against the shield-winners.
Despite the home team doing their best to jam up the wings when the Courage went wide, it took just 22 minutes for the Courage to break through on an attack from the right wing. Casey Short got toasted by Crystal Dunn when she cut inside to pressure the midfielder; it was quick work for Jessica McDonald to sprint into the space Short left behind, receive a nice pass from Dunn, and send a cross in to Debinha for the opening goal.
To start the second half, the Courage sat in and absorbed pressure to a greater extent than we typically see, seemingly happy with their one-goal lead. After knocking for the first 20 minutes of the half, Chicago finally answered in the 64th, when Vanessa DiBernardo recycled a corner kick to send a nice ball over the top, which Sam Kerr headed home. North Carolina turned the pressure back on, but with Chicago holding their defensive shape well, the visitors' best look was an 84th-minute effort by Lynn Williams, capitalizing on a miscommunication between Alyssa Naeher and her defense, that found the back of the net but was waved offside.
Utah Royals vs Seattle Reign (1-0 Seattle)
Seattle got their third result of the season in the Andonovski-Harvey derby with a 1-0 shutout against Utah played in apocalyptic conditions.
A grim harbinger of what soccer will increasingly look like on our ever-more-destroyed planet, this game was played with two hydration breaks in each half, in an attempt to help players cope with hundred-degree heat and wildfire smoke that cast a haze across the nearby Wasatch Mountains. Even so, Megan Rapinoe was gasping as she talked about the "steel" the Reign have found this season under their new coach; the winning side had to cope not just with the heat and the smoke, but with an adjustment to the altitude-thinned air of the Great Basin.
Utah looked utterly bamboozled by Rapinoe, who roamed at will between the left wing and a central playmaking role; Jess Fishlock and Allie Long also both had good games dictating terms in the center of the pitch. Christen Press, meanwhile, did lots of pointing and hand-waving as her team looked disorganized and listless going forward. The game's lone goal came in the 47th minute, when Megan Oyster sent a recycled corner kick over the top to the 5'2" Fishlock, who got in on goal unmarked and headed it in.
I hope someone buys Becca Moros several beers, or a nice meal, for doing this:
Sky Blue FC vs Houston Dash (2-1 Houston)
Houston are almost certainly out of the playoffs at this point, but nonetheless handed yet another loss to winless Sky Blue. In the seventh minute, Kealia Ohai blew past Christina Gibbons to send in a cross for Rachel Daly, who only had to stick out her foot to send it to the back of the net.
Daly should have had a second in the 28th minute off a Veronica Latsko cross, as Kailen Sheridan was clearly seen on the replay to catch the ball behind the goal line; perhaps the same far-off future where the NWSL has VAR also holds goal-line technology for places like Yurcak Field (or, better yet, NWSL games won't be played at places like Yurcak Field, there, I said it).
That blown call could have become a point of contention for the Dash when Sky Blue equalized in the 64th -- an unmarked Madison Tiernan tapping in a cross that initially fell to Savannah McCaskill -- but Sky Blue conceded a penalty in the 73rd minute on a Raquel Rodriguez handball, and Daly didn't miss her chance.
Orlando Pride vs Portland Thorns (2-0 Portland)
Psycologically, if not mathematically, the Thorns needed a win after their disappointing loss in North Carolina last weekend, and they put together an end-to-end performance against the Pride that makes that 2-1 loss feel like ancient history.
After an opening ten minutes that saw Orlando pin the Thorns into their own penalty area, the game started to open up, and by midway through the first half, Portland had grabbed control and wasn't letting go. Throwing multiple players at Marta anytime she was on the ball kept the five-time world player of the year quiet; with Portland's wide defenders also doing well against wingbacks Chioma Ubogagu and Kristen Edmonds (who also suffered repeated egregious fouls--Tobin Heath, at least, should have seen yellow for a two-handed shove), Alex Morgan was isolated up top and got off one measly shot all game.
Portland opened the scoring two minutes into the second half, with -- what else -- a Lindsey Horan header from a service by Heath, yet another goal this week that came from a recycled corner. Hayley Raso scored the second, sprinting onto a ball Ana Crnogorčević had headed down at the edge of the Thorns' attacking third. She absolutely wrecked fellow Australian Alanna Kennedy, who for some reason was playing centerback in a back three, and easily slotted her shot past Ashlyn Harris.
AD Franch came up big repeatedly to keep the clean sheet, and Portland moved into third place with a game in hand on fourth-place Orlando.
Chicago has a busy schedule, first heading to Seattle midweek, then down to Portland over the weekend. Both of those games are huge for the Red Stars as the playoff race continues. The rest of the slate, frankly, is predictable; Utah's match against Sky Blue is a must-win for them.
Wednesday, August 15
- Seattle Reign vs Chicago Red Stars (10:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Pacific, NWSLsoccer.com)
Friday, August 17
- Houston Dash vs Washington Spirit (8:30 PM Eastern/5:30 PM Pacific, NWSLsoccer.com)
Saturday, August 18
- Sky Blue FC vs Utah Royals (6:30 PM Eastern/3:30 PM Pacific, NWSLsoccer.com)
- North Carolina Courage vs Orlando Pride (7:00 PM Eastern/4:00 PM Pacific, NWSLsoccer.com)
- Portland Thorns vs Chicago Red Stars (10:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Pacific, ESPNews)
Photo: Cindy Lara