Playing for 2018: What the NWSL's three worst teams need to compete
The Boston Breakers, FC Kansas City, and the Washington Spirit: the top three contenders for the Andi Sullivan Award, also known as last place in league standings. The team that finishes bottom will get the first pick in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, which most assume will be used on Stanford’s already-capped U.S. women’s national team midfielder.
With approximately two months left in the 2017 season, those three teams are all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. For them, the rest of the season is basically a wash, and their new modus operandi should be about looking ahead to next year.
Luckily, all three teams have pieces that could be essential to a 2018 playoff run, and with a little tinkering in the right places, each could be a viable contender next season.
FC Kansas City
Looking at the team’s roster — with Becky Sauerbrunn, Sydney Leroux, and Nicole Barnhart as the core — FCKC has solid players that should be able to get better results. So why aren’t they?
Kansas City is plagued by problems on both sides of the ball, and exhaustion appears to be a theme for the two-time league champions. Kansas City scores most of its goals in the first half and concedes more in the second half.
Defensively, Barnhart leads the league in saves but is second in goals conceded. As a whole, the team’s defense has allowed the NWSL’s second-most shots. Sauerbrunn, the league’s most stalwart of defender in the past, is looking less like herself these days, although that may be out of sheer fatigue. She is the only national team player to play every minute for the U.S. in 2017, and the only game she has missed for Kansas City was because of national team duty.
Offensive production is lacking, too. Kansas City ranks next to last in goals scored and has the worst shooting accuracy in the league. Leroux and Maegan Kelly lead the team with only three goals apiece. While Amy Rodriguez’s return from an ACL tear could be an obvious solution to FCKC’s scoring woes, predicting her form upon return is difficult.
The biggest problem is that FCKC is still experiencing the withdrawals caused by Lauren Holiday’s retirement. What the Blues really need is a playmaker in the midfield, that missing link who can play out of pressure in between the backline and forwards. Unfortunately, players like Holiday are rare; a unicorn, almost.
Head coach Vlatko Andonovoski’s best bet would be to keep an eye on the top collegiate talent, maybe take a look overseas, and have a Holiday-esque midfielder in mind. That, combined with a little (OK, a lot) of R&R for Sauerbrunn could return FCKC to being a contender.
When Rosie White scored a brace against FC Kansas City on August 4, it was the first time a Breaker had a multi-goal game since 2014. Adriana Leon followed that up with a brace of her own a week later. Not bad after a three-year drought. Not great either, considering several players in the league — Megan Rapinoe, Sam Kerr and Christen Press among them — can put multiple balls into the back of the net on any given week.
A closer look at both games also reveals a number of problems: White’s and Leon’s goals were the only Boston tallies scored in each match, and both games ended in draws. It’s also worth noting that, in both of those games, the Breakers conceded a goal first, which is almost an inevitable sign of failure. Boston has never won a game in which it had to overcome a deficit. In comparison, the Breakers have yet to lose a game in which it takes the lead.
As is the case with every team at the bottom of the table, the Breakers’ defense needs to be strengthened, especially in regards to depth. In the latest example of that, attacker Margaret Purce was moved to right back on Saturday against the Spirit, a move that head coach Matt Beard said was predicated by the number of injuries to defenders. Neither Brooke Elby nor Christen Westphal traveled because of injuries, and Allysha Chapman, listed as doubtful ahead of the game, played over an hour.
Secondly, the Breakers are last in the league in goals, with only 14 in 17 games. That may suggest that the cure to the Breakers’ ailment is a goal-scorer, but they actually have three solid goal-scorers on their roster in Leon, Natasha Dowie, and Rose Lavelle.
The bigger problem is finding players who can get the ball to Leon and Dowie. Lavelle’s return will help with that to an extent, but every team in the league will recognize the need to stifle her. A cohesive partner in the midfield for Lavelle could really help open things up.
They say defense wins championships, and right now, that’s proving true. The top three teams in the league — North Carolina Courage, Portland Thorns, and Chicago Red Stars — have an average of just 24 goals scored this season. In comparison, the Washington Spirit have 23. The difference is the top teams are allowing an average of just 16 goals on the season. The Spirit’s 30 goals conceded is second worst in the league.
That makes it even more confounding as to why head coach Jim Gabarra benched his best defender, Shelina Zadorsky, for two games citing a poor showing in training as his reason. Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe was also on the bench for this weekend’s draw against Boston, which the Spirit should have won as the better team. Only time will tell with the Labbe move, but Gabarra would be behooved to play his best players, especially in the back five.
The problem is the Spirit lack both a strong defense and a strong offense. Its goals scored total is the third worst in the league, and there’s a real inability to hold onto the lead.
Washington does have teenage U.S. star Mallory Pugh, a playmaker and goalscorer. She’s also young, relatively inexperienced at such a high level, and that leaves her vulnerable at times, especially when surrounded by a Spirit attack that is also relatively young. Rookies Meggie Dougherty Howard and Arielle Ship have been almost desperately thrust into important roles, with the Spirit working to rehab five players who have suffered ACL tears.
Again, this is where Sullivan, who also has played alongside Pugh at the youth national level, enters the picture. If Gabarra is able to pull off getting both Pugh and Sullivan within a year of one another, it would give the Spirit a foundation for the future.