The National Women’s Soccer League is back in full swing and on Friday night, the North Carolina Courage put on a show against the Houston Dash while Reign FC, despite being littered with injuries to key personnel, picked up a 1-0 win over Portland Thorns FC. Those results keep the three teams within a point of each other the top of the table but four teams below them still have to play this weekend.
The way the season has gone so far, we now have seven teams all still within reach of the playoffs, a far cry from previous seasons where usually about four to five teams would be in and around the playoff spots while the top team raced away for most of the season. It’s allowed the season to be set up in such a way that as more of the national team players return from the Women’s World Cup, the tighter the table will become for those seven teams.
What makes the season even more entertaining to watch has been the tactical shifts teams have experienced through either new head coaches, additional players who have come in to cover for those at the World Cup or confounding drops in form by players who could be relied on to be consistent.
Is it the goalkeepers or their backlines?
Not many expected Sky Blue FC to do much this season but their winless record so far is still a surprise. For the Orlando Pride, the Houston Dash and the Chicago Red Stars, the amount of goals they have conceded so far has been surprising.
The Pride have Ashlyn Harris (away with the USWNT at the moment) and Hayley Kopmeyer who are veterans of the league at this point yet between the two of them, the team has conceded 24 goals, the most in the NWSL. Could Harris and Kopmeyer possibly have done better with some of those goals? Possibly but to their credit, their backline has basically disintegrated during games, leaving them to fend for themselves essentially.
The Pride have a new head coach in Mark Skinner but it seems as though his tactics are either not sinking in with his players or the players at his disposal are simply not good enough. I’d argue that both are true. Skinner wants to play a certain way which sees his team play out from the back 9 times out of ten but that style of playing does not translate well in the NWSL purely because most teams in the league press and press well.
So he needs to figure out whether or not to continue with this possession-based style of play or try something different until he has the players in place to make his tactics work.
The Dash also have a new head coach in James Clarkson. I’m not quite sure how Clarkson wants his team to play but the amount of goals they’re leaking (18 conceded to date), cannot be what any Dash fan wants to see. Again, goalkeeper Jane Campbell has been probably one of the best players for Houston this season but her defense has left her out to dry more often than not. Clare Polkinghorne has not had a good season, be it for the Dash or for Australia, and unfortunately for Campbell, Polkinghorne isn’t the only Dash defender not capable of focusing for 90 minutes.
Then we have the curious case of the Chicago Red Stars. Rory Dames is still the head coach as he has been since the inception of the NWSL but his team have become more leaky than I can ever remember them being. Sure, not having Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher and Tierna Davidson for most of the season so far can hurt a defense but even when they were available, the Red Stars were guilty of the occasional gaffe which would led to goals. Dames has been shifting his tactics over the years and this season is no different but it seems as though his methods of madness are finally catching up to him. Sam Kerr’s goals have hidden his tactical flaws but even she can only do so much. Instead, Naeher and now Emily Boyd have had to be at the top of their games to keep Chicago in it.
If you’re looking for goals, you’ve come to the right place
Rarely do games in the NWSL offer high scorelines but this season seems intent on bucking that trend. With defenses faltering for the most part, attackers have found scoring a much easier task in the NWSL than before. For example, while we all took a breather from the Women’s World Cup over the last few days, the NC Courage served up a 5-2 thrashing on the Houston Dash. That was the fourth game that saw five or more goals scored in a single match.
With most national team members set to return, some may look at the drop in quality as the reason why so many defenses are being exposed right now but apart from last night’s result, the previous three high-scoring games all happened before players were called away for the World Cup. There was the absolute demolishing of the Orlando Pride by the Courage on April 17th which saw the likes of Alex Morgan, Marta, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, Alanna Kennedy, Emily Van Egmond, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis, Crystal Dunn, Debinha, etc. all feature in that game.
Then there was the incredibly nuts game at Toyota Park on April 22nd between the Chicago Red Stars and the Portland Thorns which saw eight (EIGHT!) goals scored between the two teams.
Let’s also not forget that the Courage and the Dash met before this season and North Carolina basically took Houston’s lunch money that day too.
So it would be too simplistic to say that the national team players on each team would have made the scorelines less mind-boggling. Instead, coaching and a drop in form of some highly rated players are where we can find answers for what has happened this season.
There’s still plenty of time for teams to become more defensively-minded
There is. With roughly three more months of games left in the NWSL, teams should be able to adjust tactically and stop conceding so many comical goals. Some of the teams may need to change style quickly but for the most part, if more emphasis is put on actually defending and not ball-watching, we may see an end to the number of games with so many goals in them.
As a fan of the game, I like seeing both big scorelines and defensively stout performances (shout out to Reign FC for doing just that last night) but I am not a fan of players being purposefully put in positions to lose or players making simple errors time and time again. There’s only so much coaching one can do to change the mentality of a player and when all is said and done, I would not be surprised to see quite a few of the more well-known players leave their clubs this season. However, we’re still knee-deep in league action right now and the lack of consistency have made the NWSL table a far more interesting read than it has been in a long, long time. If it stays like this until late August/early September, then fans and I should lean back and just enjoy the ride.