Courage Stifles Spirit
On a brutally hot day – although perhaps not quite as hot as the game against Sky Blue FC – the Courage managed to vanquish the worst team in the NWSL after a sluggish first 45 minutes. This is the second home game that the Courage have played in nearly unbearable heat and the second one in which they really didn’t play up to their potential for the whole game.
The first half of soccer against Washington was most notable for the number of times that Ashley Hatch and Sam Mewis played terrible passes to teammates in good positions and saw the Courage earn zero corner kicks. The defense was largely up to the task, fortunately, with Katelyn Rowland making a few routine saves but otherwise the game was a drag. Both sides looked like they were running through mud and couldn’t find a way to control the ball and generate offense. Against a better team we might have gone down a goal or two with all of the bad turnovers, but this was a Washington side that wasn’t playing Kristie Mewis because they decided that trading more players away would somehow make their team better. The first half ended mercifully without conceding a goal despite the Spirit having the better opportunities.
The second half Courage looked like a completely different team. During intermission the Spirit were forced to make a defensive change because Estelle Johnson was dehydrated, so Kleiner came on in her place. It took less than 40 seconds for Kris Hamilton to drive toward the by-line and cut a cross through the box. Kleiner had a missed clearance and the ball ended up on the left foot of Ashley Hatch who atoned for her poor first half performance by easily slotting the ball past the Washington keeper. Thus, less than 1 minute after the second half had started the Courage were up a goal.
The method of scoring is extremely important here, because the Courage were insistent on pushing the ball into the middle of the field and looking for slip passes throughout the entire first half despite having no success. I’ve mentioned before that the Courage score best when they drive to the end line and cross the ball or earn a corner kick. Perhaps it was the heat deterring the players from wanting to run a little further, but it worked and we scored once Hamilton made the right decision.
The Courage earned a number of great opportunities during the second half and looked like a brand new team when compared with the Spirit who looked exhausted. Despite a lot of near misses and great saves by Stephanie Labbe of the Spirit, the game was winding down with a scoreline of 1-0 until we earned our second corner kick of the game. Abby Dahlkemper whipped the ball into the box, it was headed off the line by a Spirit defender but then hit a different Spirit player in the face and going into the net for an own goal. That second and extremely lucky goal sealed the game, although the Spirit did threaten for the final 10 minutes of the game.
The Playoffs Beckon for the Courage
With the victory over Washington and the loss by Seattle the Courage are now effectively assured a spot in the 2017 playoffs. After barely squeaking through in 2016 before winning the championship, the Courage need to win just 1 game in their next 6 to secure a playoff berth, while winning 2 of the next 6 will guarantee them a home game. The Courage will have an extremely tough travel schedule next week with games on the road in Houston, Washington and Chicago in a 7 day stretch from August 27th to September 3rd. The Courage were the only team in the NWSL to get a set of 3 games in 1 week on the road.
The Courage will need to earn at least 10 points over the next 6 games to ensure that they win the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy that is awarded to the team that wins the regular season. That said, 10 points is only the goal as long as Portland wins all 5 of their remaining games and could decrease if Portland gets ties or losses in any game instead.
As for the rest of the playoffs, Portland is 5 points ahead of the 3rd place Chicago Red Stars, so they need to do a minimal amount of work to ensure that they earn a home playoff game – something that is great for the NWSL because Portland almost always draws over 18,000 fans for their home games. Currently the Red Stars and Orlando Pride are tied with 29 points on the season. Orlando and Chicago do not play each other any more this season, so it will all come down to how they do in their other games. The two teams are moving in opposite directions with Orlando winning their last 3 games while Chicago lost their last 3.
There are 4 teams on the outside of the playoffs with hopes of earning a place:
The Seattle Reign are just 2 points away from earning a spot in the playoffs after they failed to beat Sky Blue FC after leading the game 3-0 after halftime. Currently the Reign are treading water with USWNT star Megan Rapinoe out with a knee injury.
Sky Blue FC was on a 3 game losing streak before Sam Kerr made some magic happen in New Jersey to keep Sky Blue just 3 points out of the playoffs. While you never know when they will lay a defensive egg and give up stupid goals, the rest of the schedule is very favorable for them.
Houston and Kansas City are both 6 points down and it would take a significant meltdown from either Chicago or Orlando for them to make the playoffs. FCKC is on a 3 game winning streak and will have a chance to make up some of that distance when they host Orlando this weekend. As for Houston, they have a brutal schedule with two games against the Courage to go with games against Seattle and Chicago. They will have to earn their way into the playoffs.
An Historic Season in the Making?
While coaches and players don’t like to talk about it, the Courage have a real chance at breaking some season records this year.
First, no team has ever gone through an entire season without a draw. While it’s not a record that really matters, I’ve talked before about how the lack of ties has helped the Courage create such a large cushion in the standings.
On a personal level, Katelyn Rowland currently has the lowest goals allowed average (GAA) in NWSL history for a starting keeper. That is definitely partly a team record, but we shouldn’t forget that the Courage allowed 9 goals in the last 3 games that Sabrina D’Angelo started. We have allowed just 4 goals in the 11 games that Rowland started.
The second group of records would be whole-season records, and they come with a caveat. The NWSL has played a different number of games – between 20 and 24 – depending on the international obligations during the season. I will try to account for that where possible.
The most prestigious record would occur if the Courage win all 6 of their final games (or win 5 and draw 1), as the Courage would overtake the 2014 Seattle Reign for the most points ever scored during a season. That year the Reign earned 54 points in 24 games with a record of 16 wins, 6 draws and just 2 losses.
The Courage would earn the most wins in a single season if they win 4 of their final 6 games – a perfectly reasonable task. This would overtake that same Seattle team.
The Courage have a very good chance at allowing the fewest goals in league history, which is currently set at 19 by the Portland Thorns (lots of teams have allowed 20). The Courage will win the record outright if they allow 4 or fewer goals in their last 6 games, and they will tie with Portland if they allow 5. In the instance that they tie, the tiebreaker goes to the Courage because the 2016 season had just 20 games.