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The power of two: These are the 4 most effective duos in the NWSL

Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos

Go ahead. Name a more iconic duo. We'll wait.

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Soccer is a team sport. Flashy individual play makes for great highlights, but when winning often means relying on teammates, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.

So it is with these NWSL duos; the individual players are talented in their own right, but paired with a teammate, they can create something irreplaceable.

That’s really the primary criterion for the duos considered for this article: Could another pairing of players on their team do what they do? If you remove one player from the pairing, could they recreate what they do with another player?

They can’t just be individually good for their team; it’s the specific combination of their talents that is producing an outsized benefit.

Here are four of the best duos in NWSL:

Christen Press and Sofia Huerta, Chicago Red Stars

Together, they have 11 goals and seven assists, out of Chicago’s 20 goals and 12 assists, total. They account for 94 out of 167 shots (56.2 percent), and they have 51 out of 84 shots on goal (60.7 percent). But like we said, it’s not just that they’re individually good; it’s that in combination they provide a threat bigger than themselves. This chance against Orlando is an example:

At least five pairs of eyes are on Christen Press as she approaches the 18-yard box, and she can certainly hit a goal from that range. But that means Sofia Huerta can pull a moonwalking bear right into the box behind Ali Krieger, looking for the ball she knows Press will be sending. They didn’t score on this chance, but Press routinely pulls two and three defenders to her every time she’s around the box, opening up space for Huerta to operate.

Could you say this about any threatening attacking duo? Maybe. But Press and Huerta have a good connection that allows them to find each other, like when Press pounced on a bad backpass against Sky Blue FC and they were both lurking in the space left by the high defensive line.

That allowed Press to draw Sky Blue defender Christie Pearce and find Huerta wide open. Or there’s the time, also against Orlando, when Huerta lofted a long ball over for Press, who was lingering by the last defender, waiting for just such a thing.

To a certain extent, you could say Press can operate without Huerta, but Huerta is probably the best attacker on that team to take advantage of the space Press leaves behind. And Huerta definitely doesn’t have the same freedom without Press. The two of them together make for a Chicago attack that is very hard to ignore.

Vlatko Andonovski and Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City

It’s not just players who make for good duos; sometimes a coach and a player can form a partnership that settles in the bedrock of a team’s foundation.

Andonovski rather famously gave a quote in an earlier FourFourTwo interview outlining his philosophy when it comes to building a roster. “In our club, we divide the players into warriors and artists,” he said. “Usually we have one artist, or two artists on the team. Lauren [Holiday] was one of them. We, as warriors, are willing to adapt around the artist. We know the artist will change the game with one idea. We are willing to do whatever it takes to help the artist be at her best.”

Becky Sauerbrunn is also an artist, although her role as center back calls on her to be a warrior, too. But look at Andonovski’s criteria for artists:

  • Player takes responsibility
  • Has ability to make everyone around her better
  • Changes the game with one idea

Sauerbrunn is certainly the first two items on the list. She is a center back’s center back and a captain. But in terms of ideas, it’s harder to quantify these things for a defender because many of the stats fans are most familiar are about attacking. Chances created, assists, shots on goal. For a defender, changing the game with an idea can be much less visible, such as limiting crosses and shots by knowing what space a certain player will occupy, or always being able to keep up with a forward trying to drop off your shoulder.

Sometimes that one idea can be shifting the momentum of the game with a single long ball, or doing a full wild attacking center back with a charge up the middle.

Andonovski clearly trusts Sauerbrunn to pick her moment, as well as to keep her back line well in hand while coordinating with Nicole Barnhart. FCKC might be a little less sturdy this year – Barnhart is aging and Sauerbrunn is making some mistakes - but you only have to look at her string of Defender of the Year awards to understand the kind of consistency and reliability she provides, which in turn gives a team the security to really build from the bottom up.

Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi, Seattle Reign

Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos

Jane Gershovich-ISI Photos

Rapinoe and Kawasumi are nominally players who work opposite sides of the field, but Laura Harvey has given them license to drift inside as needed, and well she should. Both of them are creative and confident on the ball; when one attacks on their side, they have the option to switch out, weight the ball behind for the runner, drive centrally, or any number of options, really. These are two players who both know how to move without the ball and know how to find each other across the width of the field.

There’s a moment around the 74th minute in Seattle’s crazy 5-4 defeat of Sky Blue FC when Rapinoe gets the ball in the midfield and starts loping towards Sky Blue’s goal. It’s not the first time she and Kawasumi have looked for a connection; they’ve both spent much of the game feeding the other, sliding the ball into passing lanes and past entire lines of players to see if the other can work the far post.

But back to the 74’. Even before Rapinoe receives the ball, Kawasumi is moving. The first thing Rapinoe does as soon as she starts moving is to check for Kawasumi, who is continuing her run. Rapinoe attempts to bend a weighted pass behind the line, which doesn’t quite work, but if the weight had been right, Kawasumi would have been in perfect position to slash in and have a clear shot on goal.

Either one of them can make that run, pulling a defender with them and opening a gap in the back line. Either one of them can make that lovely pinpoint cross. Either one can come central to help possess very smoothly through the middle. Either one can very quickly switch the point of attack.

To opposing teams, it must feel like having to constantly ping-pong your attention, never knowing which side is going to pinch you first. For Seattle, which has taken a while to adjust first to the loss of Kim Little, and then again to Jess Fishlock being out on with an injury, it probably just feels a like relief.

Samantha Mewis and McCall Zerboni, North Carolina Courage

Talk about a you-set-em-up, I-knock-em-down duo. This midfield pairing is probably the keystone of North Carolina’s game.

McCall Zerboni has a – how do you say – reputation. She is as hard-nosed as they come, and she usually spends all 90 minutes of any game enforcing her team’s will in the midfield. Zerboni’s work usually gives Samantha Mewis the time and space to carry the ball or hit it from deep, although Mewis can definitely step to the ball and disrupt passing lanes too.

Likewise, Mewis knows Zerboni and is usually an option for her to play off of so they can build out of the midfield. Zerboni is the more free-roaming of the two, while Mewis will stick closer to the back line to help shield them. Still, they have the flexibility and creativity to know when to release one while the other stays at home, or to move up together to put numbers in around the box.

Between the two of them, they can absolutely dominate from box to box. If it’s a good night, other teams will be restricted to pushing from the flanks. If it’s a bad night, then there’s an obvious gaping weakness right in front of the center backs.

But they don’t have a lot of bad nights, which is probably why North Carolina is currently just one point shy of the top of the table.

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