It was a tough October for all teams in the NWSL after subscription-based sports website the Athletic published serious allegations against one of the League’s most successful Head Coaches. Shockwaves were felt across the sport – and not just in the US. By the end of the month the league had a new Commissioner, and both FIFA and US Soccer committed to thorough investigations. Week 19 fixtures were postponed, but football resumed a few days later. On the field, despite the fact that they only picked up six points during the month, Portland secured the Regular Season ‘Shield’…
Week 19 – Cancel everything, we need to take stock…
All scheduled matches for the weekend were postponed after an investigative report in the Athletic accusing North Carolina Courage Head Coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion with some of his (former) players. Riley was immediately fired and later NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird – despite declaring that she was “shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations” ‘resigned’ after it came to light that she was aware of these allegations all along.
News agencies all over the world picked the story up, painting an undesirable but entirely necessary portrait of what life could be like for female soccer players trying to make their way in the profession.
Riley became the third Head Coach to be fired in the 2021 season after Richie Burke was released by Washington Spirit for player abuse and Louisville’s Christie Holly was fired for ’cause’ – a vague term that started to raise further questions across the sport. Farid Benstiti had departed from OL Reign earlier in the year, also without detailed explanation, but it had later come to light that his dealings with some players could certainly stretch the boundaries of what could be termed ‘professional behaviour’.
FIFA and US Soccer announced that they would be fully investigating the situation, although quite how deep a dive US Soccer would be willing to make would be something to watch closely – they were in charge of the league when the alleged incidents took place.
Week 19.1 – Back in Action…
There were midweek games scheduled following the scratched weekend. All clubs involved chose to resume with their fixtures, but the sixth minute of each game was earmarked for a show of solidarity and a demand for safety and respect in the women’s game (pictured top of article).
NJ/NY Gotham FC and Washington Spirit played out a goalless draw at Subaru Park, a result which wasn’t particularly helpful for either team.
Gotham dominated proceedings from start to finish but just couldn’t get on the board.
Their frustration started to ramp up in the 21st minute when McCall Zerboni slammed a close range shot into team mate Paige Monaghan. Then Margaret ‘Midge’ Purce failed to punish a turnover in the Spirit penalty area.
Purce continued to misfire in the second half, racing on to Zerboni’s pass through the right channel, cutting inside Sam Staab but firing over the cross bar.
Moments later Allie Long and Carli Lloyd combined to put Ifeoma Onumonu into the left side of the penalty area but the forward struck her angled drive into side netting.
Zerboni continued to boss the midfield, winning a challenge in the 83rd minute and setting Lloyd on her way. The US National team veteran shook off the attentions of a marker but couldn’t then keep her shot down.
Washington offered very little from an attacking perspective. Kelley O’Hara tried her luck from distance in the last minute of regulation time, but Kaileen Sheridan saw it all the way, making a comfortable catch.
A 0-0 draw left both sides out of the play off spots – Gotham were eighth in the standings, while Washington ended the evening in seventh.
After the major controversy of the previous week, Sean Nahas took the reins at North Carolina Courage and watched as his players ended their four-match winless streak with a well-earned victory over Racing Louisville at the WakeMed.
All the goals were scored in the opening half an hour with North Carolina looking somewhere near their best as an attacking force.
The visitors had the first sight of goal, though. In the 6th minute Lauren Milliet put in an inviting cross from the left but Cheyna Matthews miscued her finish.
Instead, the Courage got their noses in front eight minutes later. Debinha’s right-wing delivery was only cleared as far as Angharad James who clipped it back into the penalty box. Amy Rodriguez’s volley was parried by stand-in keeper Katie Lund, but Lynn Williams put away the follow up.
Louisville were their own worst enemy just five minutes later, gifting possession to Jess McDonald who threaded Rodriguez in behind the back line. ‘A-Rod’ sped into the 18-yard area, took a couple of touches to set herself and dinked the ball over Lund.
The reaction from Mario Sanchez’s side was excellent and they were on the board by the 23rd minute. Erin Simon won possession on the left and played the ball in-field to Savannah McCaskill, who let it run across her body before rifling it into the far corner.
Now the Courage needed to respond. Debinha’s 25-yarder, two minutes later, whisked wide.
But the Brazilian didn’t have to wait long to get her name on the scoresheet. Carson Pickett showed that she’s more than just a lefty, swinging in a superb right-footed cross to the far post where McDonald was waiting to head across goal. Defender Brooke Hendrix tried to clear but the ball broke to Debinha and she half-volleyed past Lund.
That concluded the goal fest but Lund denied Debinha (twice) and McDonald with excellent second half saves that prevented the goal differential from looking a lot worse.
A 3-1 victory for the Courage ensured they retained third spot, three points behind OL Reign. Racing Louisville sat ninth, a position that they had occupied since week 10, and looked likely to remain in for the rest of the season…
Houston Dash came out on top in a good old fashioned ‘ding-dong’ with the Portland Thorns at Providence Park.
Dash keeper Jane Campbell made a good save in the 8th minute, dealing with Morgan Weaver’s back post header off Natalie Kuikka’s cross.
The visitors rode further early pressure, but then got their noses in front from the penalty spot in the 18th minute after Becky Sauerbrunn was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball – the defender’s back was turned when the ball was hit at her.
Further discussion between the Portland players and the referee did nothing to change the decision, or phase Rachel Daly, who placed the ball and lashed it into the keeper’s top right-hand corner.
Three minutes later the Dash nearly extended their lead, working the ball from Bri Visalli on the left – through Kristie Mewis, Shea Groom and Daly – to Nichelle Prince on the right. The winger struck her shot well from 20-yards, but Thorns keeper Bella Bixby saw it all the way into her arms.
James Clarkson’s side would only have to toil for another two minutes to get their second goal. Sophie Schmidt’s free-kick from the right was only half-cleared, Haley Hanson cushioned it back into the six-yard box on the volley and Mewis arrived, defly beating Bixby off the outside of her left boot.
The shock of going two-down seemed to galvanise the Thorns and they had engineered a way back into the game by the half-hour mark. Kuikka found Horan on the right, she fizzed in a superb low cross and Christine Sinclair smashed it past Campbell on the half-volley.
So began a wave of attacks that were surely to result in a Portland equaliser. Smith fired wide in the 31st minute before Campbell denied Sinclair in the 33rd. Horan got on to a Weaver cross, cut inside but curled her effort just past the post.
The onslaught continued after the break. Weaver sped inside Hanson from the left but Campbell saved at her near post. Christine Sinclair got another sight of goal in the 51st minute but couldn’t get her shot on frame.
Sophia Smith half-volleyed over the bar from the edge of the penalty box; then Raquel ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez headed Meghan Klingenberg’s right-wing corner wide.
In the 57th minute, Portland finally got their reward. Keeper Bixby went long, Weaver found Horan and she played in Smith at full tilt, who shook off Katie Naughton and nutmegged Campbell from close range.
Perhaps the hosts had expended too much energy getting back on terms, as Houston immediately got on the front foot again. Visalli headed over the cross bar on the hour. Then Daly brought a fine stop out of Bixby before Mewis hammered the rebound off the top of the goal frame.
Houston regained the lead in the 79th minute from another set-piece that Portland failed to fully deal with. The ball broke to Schmidt on the left side of the penalty box, she clipped it back across goal and Daly nodded into the top left-hand corner from 6-yards.
It nearly got worse for Mark Parson’s side two minutes later when Mewis danced through the Thorns’ defence, beat Bixby but Klingenberg cleared off the goal line.
That paved the way for a dramatic late equaliser, but it never came. Smith curled into the side netting from 18-yards but that was the closest they came.
A 3-2 victory for Houston Dash extended their unbeaten streak to four and propelled them up to fourth in the table, with four games remaining! Portland still held top spot with a three-point gap back to OL Reign but had blown their game in hand…
Week 20 – Here comes the Reign again…
By week 20, only four Head Coaches that started the campaign would still be in their role: Mark Parsons (Portland), James Clarkson (Houston), Rory Dames (Chicago) and Huw Williams (Kansas City). While a couple had taken up new appointments, the majority had left under a cloud of inappropriate behaviour. So, the centre circle player gatherings carried on unabated. On the field the Thorns continued to stutter towards the finishing tape, held by rock-bottom Kansas City, while Reign got to within a point of their Cascadia rivals edging a five-goal thriller with the Red Stars…
Despite a very late fightback, Orlando Pride lost back-to-back games for the first time since week ten, as NJ/NY Gotham FC climbed back into playoff contention at Exploria Stadium.
The visitors got started early doors. Inside 3 minutes Gaëtane Thiney drove past Ashlyn Harris from outside the ‘D’ with the help of a deflection.
Courtney Petersen and Sydney combined to present Alex Morgan with a chance to level the scores but keeper Kailen Sheridan parried the ball away from danger.
At the other end Carli Lloyd played Midge Purce in behind the Pride back line but Harris stood up well and made the block.
Thiney added Gotham’s second three minutes after the break, with a direct free-kick from 25-yards that Harris got gloves on but couldn’t keep out.
And before the clock had hit 50 minutes NJ were in dream land, putting together a terrific team goal down the left wing involving Imani Dorsey, Ifeoma Onumonu, Lloyd and Nahomi Kawsumi. Together they wove through the Pride defence and worked the ball to Midge Purce, arriving in the penalty area. Purce finished confidently from ten yards.
Three goals down in front of their own fans, pride was just about all the… er… Pride had to play for. Marta hit a low drive goalward in the 55th minute that Sheridan got down well to save. Five minutes later the Brazilian superstar robbed Kawasumi near her own goal line but fired against the bar. Morgan was well situated at the back post for the rebound but crashed her attempt off the horizontal as well.
Orlando upped their work levels looking to get something on the scoreboard, and Gotham seemed hellbent on helping them. In the 84th minute Sheridan’s poor ball out was intercepted by Leroux who fed Morgan, who in turn located Erika Tymrak on the edge of the ‘D’. Tymrak’s shot was tame but Sheridan’s concentration failed her for a split-second and the ball slipped out of her grasp.
Five minutes later Marta converted a penalty after Morgan was bundled over by Estelle Johnson.
Game on with at least 6 minutes of stoppage time to be played. Gotham substitute Brianna Pinto almost made the game safe in the fourth of these but was denied by Harris low to the keeper’s right.
The Pride keeper went forward for a very late free kick, but it was Toni Pressley that nearly achieved the unthinkable, hitting a well-struck drive, only to see it nick a defender on the way and canon off the upright.
A 3-2 win moved Gotham above Orlando and Chicago into sixth with a game in hand on both. The Pride’s playoff ambitions were still alive but they were running out of games to make it back in.
Washington Spirit kept their post-season aspirations alive at Audi Field, blowing Racing Louisville away to confirm mathematically what the new franchise had known in their hearts for a while – the playoffs would have to stay on ice until at least next season.
The Spirit hadn’t actually lost a competitive match since week 12. Only forfeits to Portland and Reign blighted their record, so this was a team starting to fire on all cylinders at just the right time. On top of that Kris Ward’s squad remained the most exciting team to watch in the league.
Never was this more evident than in the 8th minute of the match. If there is an NWSL award for Assist of the Season (and there seems to be an award for pretty much everything else), then you’ll have to go along way to beat Trinity Rodman’s curling 40-yard pass from the right touchline that whisked in behind the Louisville back line and presented Ashley Hatch with her first goal of the night.
Rodman was involved again in the 36th minute, working an opening with Ashley Sanchez to get Tara McKeown in on goal. Unfortunately for home fans the defender dragged her shot well wide.
The hosts extended their lead seven minutes after the break. Sanchez was caught by Kaleigh Riehl in the penalty area and although the midfielder tried to play on, the referee had seen enough to award the spot kick. Andi Sullivan drilled a flawless PK into the keeper’s bottom left-hand corner.
Louisville are not without some spirit of their own. Ebony Salmon and Cheyna Matthews both had goal attempts that missed the target before Lauren Milliet drew a good save out of Aubrey Bledsoe from a well struck 25-yard free-kick that clipped the defensive wall on its way.
But any hopes the visitors could get back into the game were undone in the 79th when Sinclaire Miramontez sold keeper Michelle Betos horribly short with a back pass and Rodman sped in, squared to Hatch and the striker tapped in for her ninth goal of the campaign.
Louisville’s very-own, homegrown Emina Ekic tested Bledsoe from 20-yards near the end, after which Rodman – a complete nightmare for the visiting defence all night – ran in behind Racing’s back four but couldn’t cap her brilliant display with a goal; Michelle Betos ensuring 3-0 was as good as it was going to get.
This win propelled Washington up to fifth in the standings, but with tricky looking trips to North Carolina and OL Reign on the upcoming fixture calendar. Racing Louisville would leave Audi Field knowing that their outside chance of making the playoffs had officially ended, but they were never expected to fare that well in their inaugural NWSL season…
In a top v bottom clash, league leaders Portland Thorns were held goalless at Legends Field by a stubborn Kansas City FC. Even the metronomically reliable Christine Sinclair couldn’t find a way past keeper Adriana Franch, missing a penalty in the closing minutes.
As the result would suggest the match wasn’t a classic, but both teams did make opportunities to score.
Kansas forward Darian Jenkins forced Bella Bixby into action just before half time with a shot on the turn from 18-yards that the keeper saw all in the way. Later, Kate Bowen’s cross from the right cannoned off the cross bar and Hailie Mace couldn’t convert the rebound.
In between Portland full back Meghan Klingenberg had fired over and ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez hit a 25-yard drive that grazed the left-hand upright.
Kansas keeper Franch, playing her former team mates, made a workaday stop from a Morgan Weaver header in the 75th minute, saving low to her right off Angela Salem’s corner.
But she would have to go 1v1 with Sinclair in the 85th minute after Mace fouled Weaver in the penalty area. The record-busting Canadian forward beat Franch all ends up with her spot kick, but not the goal post which stoically propelled the ball out of harm’s way.
A 0-0 extended Kansas City’s unbeaten home stretch to five matches even though goals remained hard to come by. Portland already had just enough of a lead to retain the NWSL’s top spot, but would have Pacific North West rivals OL Reign breathing down their necks if they could beat Chicago on the same weekend.
And that’s exactly what OL Reign did, coming out on top against the Chicago Red Stars in a really entertaining five-goal thriller in Tacoma.
There’s little respect for a ‘favourite’ in the National Women’s Soccer League which accounts for the unpredictability of results and how close the playoff race is.
Neither side had been beaten since Week 13 and although Rory Dames’ Red Stars began the match three spots below Reign in the table, they were in no mood to roll over here.
To bang that point home the visitors took the lead in the 14th minute. Kealia Watt ran a little kick-and-rush move against Lauren Barnes down the right wing, crossing to Mallory Pugh on the edge of the penalty box. Pugh got the ball out of her feet and hit a low drive inside Sarah Bouhaddi’s right-hand post.
That seemed to spark the Reign into life. Angelina fired wide in the 27th minute after good approach play involving Dzsenifer Marozsán, Jess Fishlock and Quinn.
But the home fans only had to wait another four minutes for the equaliser. Sofia Huerta teed up Jess Fishlock 30-yards from goal and the midfielder hit a pot shot into the keeper’s top left-hand corner.
Huerta then went close a few minutes later, crashing her effort off the underside of the cross bar after Marozsán and Rose Lavelle had worked the ball from left to right.
In the 35th minute Reign took the lead with a build up that had the Red Stars chasing shadows. Quick interplay between Marozsán, Angelina, Lavelle and Fishlock worked the ball out to Huerta providing an option down the right wing. By the time Huerta’s cross to the far post had arrived Fishlock was there to nod it home.
Six minutes into the second period Rose Lavelle got her first goal for the Reign after weeks of near misses. It was worth the wait. Huerta picked up the ball on the right after an attack had broken down, laid the ball back to Lavelle 20-yards out and the midfielder took a touch before hammering it into the keeper’s top right.
The Red Stars refused to lie down and let the match become a rout. And they got right back in it with twenty minutes left. Rachel Hill seized on a poor back pass, found Vanessa Di Bernardo whose shot was blocked and the ball spun to Tatum Milazzo who thumped a sensational half volley past Bouhaddi from 25-yards.
The teams racked up 36 goal attempts between them with 15 on target. The last of these fell to Reign substitute Ally Watt whose shot crackled off the post, denying the 24-year old a goal on her debut.
The nip-and-tuck nature of this season’s playoff race meant a 3-2 defeat for Chicago dropped them down to seventh. Laura Harvey’s OL Reign, meantime, had got themselves to within a point of Portland and would face their Cascadia rivals in the next round of midweek matches…
A resurgent Houston Dash extended their unbeaten streak to five games and moved into the league’s top three, decimating the North Carolina Courage with a dynamic, high-tempo performance at the BBVA.
Dash attackers Rachel Daly and Shea Groom both had early sighters, but it was Courage that took a 4th minute lead. A functional ball over the top from Kaleigh Kurtz befuddled the Houston backline just long enough for Jess McDonald to race into the penalty area and drill past Jane Campbell.
Bri Visalli equalised for Houston two minutes later curling the ball around Casey Murphy from 15-yards after Kristie Mewis had two attempts blocked.
Debinha nearly restored North Carolina’s lead with a 30-yard drive but Campbell was able to turn it around the post.
Instead the hosts forged ahead in the 23rd minute, starting with a characteristically high press on the Courage defence. Ball won, Visalli found Nichelle Prince on the right, the Canadian international whipped in a cross and Daly volleyed in from 8-yards.
Two minutes later they were three goals to the good, with a strike that was vintage Dash – if such a thing exists. Sophie Schmidt, Kristie Mewis, Bri Visalli and Allysha Chapman were all involved as the ladies in orange worked the ball out to the left. Mewis eventually cut inside her marker and curled in a cross that Shea Groom powered into the far corner.
One-way traffic continued. Prince tested Murphy from twenty yards but the keeper tipped over. After the break the winger conjured up a fine run and cross that Daly was inches from finishing off.
But Daly did get on the score sheet again in the 57th minute, showing her trademark determination to get between Kaleigh Kurtz and Abby Erceg and prod home Visalli’s cross from the by-line.
Murphy was at full stretch, low to her right to deny Prince again in the 74th minute with the Dash showing little desire to let up.
The Courage nearly got a second goal with around ten minutes remaining. McDonald put her effort against the cross bar and Erceg couldn’t force the loose ball in, heading over.
If that was a bad miss, Gabby Seiler trumped it for the Dash missing an open goal on the half volley from a left wing corner.
This 4-1 win plus victory over Portland a few days earlier had rocketed Houston (pun fully intended) up to third in the standings. Another four to six points would probably see them into the playoffs. But could they hold their nerve and keep this sensational form going.
North Carolina, meanwhile, had slipped to fourth, but were still very much in the thick of it with several other teams. Sean Nahas would need to rally his troops quickly, put this result behind them and look to bounce back with a midweek fixture against the Washington Spirit…
The NWSL has to do better to protect its players.