NWSL Notebook: Highlights from the 
"World Cup Welcome Back" Weekend
- 6 min read

NWSL Notebook: Highlights from the "World Cup Welcome Back" Weekend

NWSL Notebook: Highlights from the "World Cup Welcome Back" Weekend by Lindsay Eanet

Utah Royals 2-2 Portland Thorns

Pumpkin Spice Latte season must have come early, because there were so many players serving double nutmegs this weekend. Just before the first half of this Mountain West clash ended, Christen Press flicked the ball through the legs of Elizabeth Ball, and then through the legs of Adrianna Franch, and finally in the corner of the net for one of the prettiest goals on the weekend.

And Press wasn't the only World Cup star to have a big night in Sandy. In just the 9th minute of the match, Christine Sinclair did what Christine Sinclair does and effortlessly arced the ball over and behind Nicole Barnhart to open the scoring for the visitors. The score stayed level until the 87th minute, when Lindsey Horan capitalized on a poorly defended set piece to put the Thorns ahead (this goal was also credited as a Becky Sauerbrunn own goal). As regulation ended, it was another set piece that leveled the scoring, as Kelley O'Hara served a soaring through-ball for Rachel Corsie to finish, equalizing for the Royals.

Adrianna Franch was one of only two members of the 23-player squad at the World Cup to see zero minutes of playing time during the tournament, which makes us even more grateful for the NWSL so that we have opportunities beyond the tournament to see her brilliance in action. In the dying minutes of the match, Utah came charging, and Franch fended off Katie Stengel with some incredible saves in stoppage time to preserve a point on the road for the Thorns.

Orlando Pride 1-0 Sky Blue FC

It seemed like the sun was finally shining upon the visage of Sky Blue FC, with necessary personnel changes happening and their first pair of consecutive wins in more than a year. But even with another valiant performance and a couple of powerful saves from Kailen Sheridan, they couldn’t hold on for a third.

The Pride's largest home crowd in more than two years (welcoming back the likes of Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, and Marta) buoyed the home side to a much-needed win after weeks of on-and-off form. Marta and newcomer Claire Emslie linked up well, and Chioma Ubogagu had some solid breakaways and ohhh-so-close looks. But it was Marisa Viggiano, the rookie, who scored a rocket in the 23rd minute for the only goal of the match and three points for the Pride.

Houston Dash 2-1 Washington Spirit

Another sellout crowd for a World Cup welcome back match as 5,500 supporters packed the Maryland SoccerPlex to welcome the Washington Spirit's World Cup players home. A few of the bleachers emptied at halftime due to weather, but those who stayed past the heat and lightning delay were rewarded with some thrilling moments from both sides.

Jordan DiBiasi, working to cement her status as one of the league's top attacking threats, opened the scoring for the Spirit just after halftime with a powerful header off a Dash defensive error. It took just a few minutes for the Dash to respond, with a waltzing interplay from Rachel Daly to Sofia Huerta, Huerta to Kristie Mewis for the well-slotted equalizer. Despite some solid creative work from Andi Sullivan and a good ball from Cheyna Matthews, it was Amber Brooks who go the go-ahead goal for the Dash in the 72nd minute. Houston did what Houston does and conceded a late penalty, but then Jane Campbell did what Jane Campbell does and blocked Mallory Pugh's equalizer, securing the victory for the away team.

Both the Dash and the Spirit have midweek matches, and with a match on Sunday, Houston has a whopping six points on the line this week.

Chicago Red Stars 2-1 North Carolina Courage

We'll talk about the record-shattering attendance numbers at the Geek in a minute (the largest crowd ever for a women's soccer event in Chicago); let’s talk about what happened on the pitch first. The Courage midfield came out swinging with Jessica McDonald and Debinha working to create chances from the start. It was the Brazilian World Cup star who found Lynn Williams in the 30th minute for a goal not even Alyssa Naeher could save. The Red Stars responded seven minutes later as Arin Wright served a beauty for Vanessa DiBernardo.

Both sides put on a show in the second half, World Cup hero Crystal Dunn came off the bench for the Courage and helped control the pace of the attack in the final third, but it would not be enough. In the 58th minute, Sam Kerr thoroughly disrespected Abby Erceg and Stephanie Labbé with a truly diabolical double-nutmeg goal that secured three points for the Red Stars.

What We Learned:

  • If You Want the League to Thrive, Trust Your Supporters: A lot will probably be written, and rightfully so, about the attendance at the Red Stars/Courage match on Sunday. There will be many takes, some cautious, some dreamy-eyed, about What This Match Means for The Future of Women's Soccer in America. But I think the smartest thing the front office did was to leverage its existing relationships with Chicago Local 134 and other grassroots supporters, offering season ticket holders complimentary tickets to bring their friends and loved ones, even reaching out to other regional soccer supporter networks, like the Milwaukee chapter of American Outlaws.

    The NWSL (and, to be fair, many MLS clubs past and present) has gotten flack for marketing too heavily to the AYSO crowd, for assuming kids and their pee-wee teams idolizing Mia Hamm would be the butts in seats that would keep things going. But the most loyal supporters are not AYSO kids – they're adults, often millennials or millennial-adjacent. They travel and make tifo (relatedly, read this absolutely necessary piece on how the NWSL needs to do a better job reaching supporters of color). The league needs investment to survive and ensure that athletes and staff are compensated in the universe of what they deserve, but it needs full-throated support to thrive and to sustain the crowds and atmosphere that will keep people coming back.
  • Celebrate All Progress, But Talk Numbers: A sellout for the Red Stars and a sellout for the Spirit are both victories for the women's game in America, and we should celebrate the increases in attendance and interest across the league. Everyone's gotta start from somewhere! But a crowd of 5,500 in a 4,000-seat stadium and a crowd of 17,000 in a 20,000-seat stadium and a crowd of 5,300 in a 22,000-seat stadium all being celebrated as "sellouts" underscores both the progress and inequities within the league.

    How soon we forget that just four seasons ago, the Red Stars were playing at Benedictine University, a 3,000-seat college stadium more than an hour's drive from downtown Chicago in traffic or involving multiple forms of public transit, not dissimilar to the current trek the Spirit faithful might make from downtown DC to Boyds. Accessibility, especially for new fans and for those who may not have access to a car, is an important consideration and one where the league has some imbalances (though this isn't a problem unique to the NWSL).

    The Chicago sellout was particularly hailed for the Stars being an "independent club" without the resources of an MLS partnership/dual ownership, as a number of clubs in the NWSL do, and it often shows in facilities and resources (notably Portland, Utah, Houston and Orlando). There's a gulf between a ground like Rio Tinto or Providence Park and a ground like Yurcak Field, where there are no showers and it's three miles from the nearest transit stop. General Manager Alyse LaHue says Sky Blue will look for a new home for its next season, and it's about time. Prioritizing accessibility, especially with respect to public transit, will help more Sky Blue supporters show up for their squad.

Stray Observations:

  • Is it truly an NWSL weekend if Jane Campbell doesn't save a penalty?
  • Shoutout to Carson Pickett of the Pride, who blessed us with the loveliest, most joyful WoSo moment of the week.
  • Rose Lavelle met another Rose Lavelle; wholesomeness ensued.
  • The more people come to the stadium, the more loudly homophobes get booed. It's just math.
  • Glennon Doyle's devastation over the fact that Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn play on different teams in the NWSL is an entire-ass mood.
  • The Spirit goal celebration GIFs are just the cutest; don't @ me.

Next Matches:

Wednesday, July 24th:

  • Washington Spirit @ Sky Blue FC, 7:30 PM Eastern
  • Houston Dash @ Portland Thorns, 10:30 PM Eastern

Saturday, July 27th:

  • North Carolina Courage @ Utah Royals, 10:00 PM Eastern

Sunday, July 28th:

  • Chicago Red Stars @ Seattle Reign, 4:00 PM Eastern
  • Sky Blue FC @ Houston Dash, 8:30 PM Eastern

(Photo: Chicago Red Stars)