NWSL review: Christen Press’ goalzo, team tiers, COVID-19 issues


This NWSL regular season continues to be a little bit weird. COVID-19 is one reason why, as well as the lingering scheduling effects of the Challenge Cup, which has meant that some teams cram too many games into too short a period. Basically, some teams could use a nap.

And hey — admit it, you definitely didn’t have San Diego and Angel City holding on to the top two spots in the standings in mid-May. But the Wave have played three games, and won all three of them, Angel City picked up wins over both North Carolina and Washington; it’s a pretty good Spring for Southern California women’s soccer fans.

But before we get to the rest of the weekly column, first: we have very important business to discuss.

NWSL teams as bulls

This past Friday’s Portland Thorns vs OL Reign game was supposed to air at 10:30 PM ET on CBS Sports Network. Instead, for 20 minutes, CBSSN continued to air bullriding. As tends to happen, this led to a rabbit hole of new information about bull riding and while you may have known this, we did not: the bulls are ranked as well as the riders. And the bulls have names. From this season’s rankings, we have assigned each NWSL team its own bull name.

Ridin Solo – North Carolina Courage

The Courage are alone at the bottom of the table, but that’s also after the vagaries of scheduling have them with at least one game less than everybody else.

Woopaa – Angel City FC

Because “woopaa” is the sound that Angel City is currently making as they just go for it with things like playing Tyler Lussi at left back.

Pookie Holler – Gotham FC

Ashlyn Harris, noted pookie, does holler. This name perhaps also reflects that Gotham is, at the moment, a little bit more sound than fury.

Moonlight Party – Portland Thorns FC
For that 10:30 PM ET kickoff, which was certainly a perfectly reasonable local time kickoff but was very late for the rest of us.

Cliff Hanger – OL Reign

Are the Reign good? Are they bad? Where are they actually gonna go this season???

High Brow Cat – Washington Spirit

I mean, they have rings, capes, and that Kennedy Center sponsorship.

Juju – Orlando Pride

Because the Pride are very much a vibes team at the moment.

I’m Legit Too – Houston Dash

Somehow they are currently fourth in the standings. Somehow.

Mr. Nasty – San Diego Wave

Nasty – in the good way. First year expansion team at the top of the table with a perfect record (over three games) including a 4-0 whomping of Gotham.

Mr. Excavator – Chicago Red Stars

It just feels like they’re going to have to dig themselves out of a hole to be competitive this year.

Test Drive – Racing Louisville

This also feels appropriate with Racing trying to figure out who they can be when they’re on the front foot and still figuring out all the pieces.

Diddy Wa Diddy – Kansas City Current

I don’t know what this name means and I don’t know what to make of KC. It feels like they can win but they don’t, or actually that they’re not supposed to win but they do.

We are still very much in a pandemic

Gotham FC’s home game against the North Carolina Courage had to be postponed out of caution against COVID-19. Here was the pregame injury report, but only for the players that were listed with “COVID Protocol”

Gotham FC: Caprice Dydasco , Ashlyn Harris , Ali Krieger, Midge Purce

Courage: Tessa Boade , Katie Bowen, Abby Erceg, Carson Pickett, Briana Pinto, Katelyn Rowland, Havana Solaun

As a reminder, “COVID protocol” doesn’t mean the player definitely has COVID-19, but also includes measures like isolation to help prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.

In the end, the league made the right call to postpone the game. Soccer is just a game; health is health, and lives are lives. This might also demonstrate the extent to which the league is simply at the mercies of larger policy choices it has no control over. Teams were traveling frequently but without such widespread precautions like mask mandates on airlines, in addition to a general public that is simply wearing masks far less often inside of stores and restaurants. Yes, that is a correlation and not known causation at this point, but short of every team switching to flying private (which the Spirit have already done for at least one Challenge Cup game), I would expect more games to be similarly disrupted throughout the season.

Results

Portland Thorns FC 0 – 0 OL Reign | Highlights

With these two teams, you always hope for an explosion of bangers, but when it comes to the Cascadia rivalry it’s also just as likely that you get exactly what happened: two teams at loggerheads trying to unlock each other and not quite succeeding. The game was open from the jump and had plenty of exciting moments – Portland strikers Christine Sinclair and Sophia Smith are really starting to click as a partnership – but between good goalkeeping and some luck, that final little nudge was elusive.

Orlando Pride 2 – 2 Kansas City Current | Highlights

This is what I mean by Diddy Wa Diddy. KC started a bit flat but surged into the second half and got undone by a penalty kick right at the end. They have a solid little midfield unit that isn’t going to blow the roof off but is certainly experienced and able to withstand a certain level of onslaught, and their ability to enter the box against Orlando was certainly better. But by that same metric that experience should’ve precluded the clumsy foul that gave away the penalty.

Racing Louisville FC 1 – 1 Houston Dash | Highlights

I simply don’t understand this reluctance to play Ebony Salmon more at Racing. Even if you think she and Jess McDonald overlap too much that playing them both kind of wastes their strengths, in my opinion they’re also both too good to only have one of them on the field at a time. At the very least, Salmon needs more time than she gets as an 82nd-minute sub. When you cross as much as Racing did against Houston yet come away with only one goal, it’s perhaps a sign they don’t quite have the right mix of players in the box yet.

San Diego Wave FC 2 – 1 Chicago Red Stars | Highlights

What oh what is going on with the Chicago Red Stars? They’re hurting a bit for personnel, without many gamechangers who can really help them drag results forward and over the line. The Wave had them beat pretty much on both ends of the field, although yes, the first Wave goal was another penalty. (Note: Will Alex Morgan nab the record for most penalties scored in a season by like, week 5?)

Washington Spirit 0 – 1 Angel City FC | Highlights

First thing is always first: Christen Press banger alert.

Press continues to play with ferocious intensity, which is really saying something for a player like Christen Press whose baseline intensity is normally enough to fuel a four-top gas range for several hours. On the other end, Challenge Cup exhaustion was definitely apparent in the Spirit, which combined with D.C.’s notorious humidity, ended up getting them outworked in the end. Angel City very much needed the addition of new midfielder Clarisse Le Bihan if only to simply take some of the workload.

NWSL tiers

Week three madness, am I right?

Looking locked in

Hello, San Diego, and welcome to the top tier. Nine points, you deserve it. The Thorns can stay up here as well, despite the scoreless draw with the Reign — at least as of right now, it feels like something would have to go very sideways for Portland to not be in playoff contention.

Playoff contenders

Tiers are getting harder as we shift into these regular season results. The Courage are in last place at the moment! OL Reign is in 10th! Does this probably have a lot of weight in terms of actual playoff hope? Probably not, especially since the Courage have only played a single game; the Reign have played two. They’re still in the mix! Washington’s definitely tired right now too, and Chicago found themselves on the wrong side of the Wave. And Angel City gets the promotion up, because listen — even despite all of their missing players — they need credit for wins over the Courage and the Spirit.

Work ahead

No movement for a lot of these teams, though Kansas City is trending in a better direction this week. Gotham maybe got the gift of an extra week to bounce back, too. Houston and Racing still haven’t put together a complete performance, but there’s definitely the sense that they could upend any team on any given day. And Orlando picking up a draw on the road feels like a pretty good follow-up to last week’s win.

We need to talk about…

… that broadcast.

To be fair, what happened on Friday night is not an uncommon thing — stuff runs over. It happens! We’ve seen it happen with national team games before, too. Trying to actually maneuver to where the game was streaming for the first 20 minutes was not an easy process for a lot of people.

But this only felt so offensive because of all the other broadcast issues stacking up week after week. There is a weird sort of camaraderie that happens on a night like this in the NWSL, at least on social media (there’s nothing like popping off your jokes at the same time as Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn getting their jabs in), but we’ll never really know how many casual viewers the league is losing because of mistakes like these.

… soccer in person remains undefeated.

I (Meg here) was at the Spirit game on Sunday along with our coworker Pablo Maurer. It maaaaaybe ended up a bit toastier than many of us would have liked, and those hydration breaks were definitely for the best, but Audi Field is a great place to watch a game. I’m a person who tends to stray from the press box if I can — I really enjoy watching a game from multiple viewpoints, looking for photos to take as well to try and capture the NWSL experience.

Not everyone is in a NWSL market, or even close to one. But if you are, I hope you’re taking in some of these games in person. The live experience is absolutely unmatched to watching a stream at home.

Plus! When you leave the stadium after a surprise DC thunderstorm, you might exit to the perfect view of a double rainbow.

One final thing

A shout out to Khalida Popal, who was on hand for the coin toss before the Spirit vs. Angel City game.

Popal continues to advocate and raise support for the Afghanistan women’s national team, whose players were forced to evacuate in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover last year. The players are now in Australia and have started to return to the pitch.

(Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)





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