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The Opportunities for Playoff Spots Closing Up

If there were two common themes that were learned during Week 16 of the National Women’s Soccer League, they would go along the lines of that no lead is safe, regardless if that lead is on the field or in the standings, and waiting out a storm could help you in the long run. As the NWSL heads towards a frantic final three weeks of the regular season, playoff positions are still being fought for. For the teams that are on the outside looking in, they aren’t throwing in the towel just yet which will make the next few weeks very exciting. Let’s take a look back at the five games from Week 16 of the regular season:

The Players

Merritt Mathias: The winger for FC Kansas City put together two solid performances this week for the Blues. Late Sunday night at Sky Blue she was pretty effective down the right for Vlatko Andonovski’s team and made her presence felt on the game. But on Wednesday night at home against Boston, if it wasn’t for Lisa De Vanna’s bicycle kick goal early this season, she may have scored a candidate for goal of the season. After causing FCKC’s second goal of the evening where her shot deflected off of a defender in the net, she took a pretty flicked on pass from Lauren Holiday and side foot volleyed it over the Breakers goalkeeper Ashley Phillips from 25 yards out. The goal sent the crowd at Verizon Wireless Field into a frenzy, including members of the MLS Sporting Kansas City team into wild celebration (including one C.J. Sapong into the airplane celebration behind the net where the goal was scored). She has been one of the quieter but steady players for FCKC all season and having her perform like this will be a big bonus for the Blues going into the postseason.

Cat Whitehill: NWSL fans might not see the former USWNT defender play on a weekly basis but Boston Breakers fans will agree that Cat Whitehill’s play in 2013 should qualify her as one of the best center backs in the league. Whitehill has played all but two minutes of the 2013 season and has started every match this season. In fact, she has started every regular season match for the Breakers since she signed with the team for the WPSL-Elite season last year. And if it wasn’t for her duties with NBC doing commentary for the Olympic Games last year, Boston may have gotten to the finals -but that’s a story for another day. She’s been a great leader on the field, still hits that great long ball service from the back (setting up Boston’s second goal of the night on Saturday) and finally got on the end of her first goal of the season, cleaning up a loose rebound in the box in Boston’s 5-2 victory against Washington. A lot of people still think that Whitehill can get back to the USWNT and with the quality of her play this season, hopefully that call will come soon.

Alyssa Mautz: The early substitute for Chicago on Sunday evening was one of the main reasons why the Red Stars eventually leveled the match against Portland. After coming on for an injured Lori Chalupny within the first 20 minutes of the first half and getting into a nasty collision with Portland’s Allie Long before halftime, she saw her Chicago side go down 2-0 early in the second half. But with a great strike that beat Karina LeBlanc from the top of the box and a delicate header off of a Rachel Quon cross after Portland got a third goal, one of the least likely candidates for the Red Stars pulled her side to a 3-2 deficit. And after Julianne Sitch found the net for the equalizer, if it wasn’t for Mautz’s effort on Sunday Chicago may have been eliminated from a potential playoff push.

Mana Shim: With all of the firepower that the Portland Thorns possess, the correct answer to the question of which Thorns player has scored a goal in each of the last three games is not Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair (who did however have two goals in Sunday afternoon’s game against Chicago) or Tobin Heath. The correct answer would be Mana Shim, the little engine in the midfield for Cindy Parlow Cone. Shim was not drafted out of Santa Clara this season but was invited to the Thorns preseason camp and made the squad. Since then she has been a valuable contributor to Portland this season, scoring four goals, assisting on another and featuring in 14 matches. This goal scoring streak she is on has been pretty impressive as well and now with the Thorns continuing to develop chemistry in the attacking portion of the field, having Shim find the net going forward will definitely help.

The Little Things

Keeping themselves in it…for now: Chicago and Boston both had opportunities to gain points on the Western New York Flash, who are in the coveted fourth position in the NWSL table. And while both Chicago and Boston didn’t take full advantage of their road trips, they do have something to show for it and are still in fighting distance of fourth place. A big bonus for the Breakers is that with their 5-2 victory over Washington, they gained back some precious goal difference which could pay dividends in the long run.

Weathering the Storm: It is not fun sitting in a weather delay, especially for a sport that plays in almost all weather circumstances. But in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey, storms were in and around the area of Yurcak Field delaying the game for two hours. For the hearty souls who stayed the entire time and braved the rain in the second half, fans like those are the reason why this league will succeed in the long run. Having that support in whatever situations may come around is always welcomed. And in an announcement by Sky Blue management, they gave those fans who stuck around free entry to Sky Blue’s final home game of the season, a classy move by the organization to thank those fans for their loyalty.

The Upcoming Week Playoff Impact

As what was noted in this column last week, let’s look at the upcoming matches for each team and how that might have an effect on what the standings might look like at the end of the season:

1. FC Kansas City- 35 points, 3 matches left. Plays Portland on Sunday (Away). The Blues had a big week this past week, getting maximum points from their two matches. Now they are in the drivers seat with only three matches left in the season. Their one problem in the schedule is all three of their matches are against either potential playoff opponents or against teams on the outside desperately needing points to get in. And this is the middle leg of their three match road trip. But the good news is they only play one match a week and aren’t looking at any injuries at the moment. Plus this match against Portland will give them motivation as this may very well be a team they could face in the final. With a FCKC win, they could take away that home field playoff advantage away from Portland so expect them to be up for this match on Sunday.

2. Sky Blue FC- 31 points, 4 matches left. Plays Portland on Wednesday (Away) and plays Washington on Saturday (Home). Injuries and poor offensive play are starting to haunt Jim Gabarra’s team as Sky Blue has not scored a goal in nearly 290 minutes of play. And now with a trio of key players missing their match on Sunday (Caitlin Foord, Manya Makoski and Kelley O’Hara) and others playing injured, their playoff hopes are starting to linger a little. But after playing Portland on Wednesday, they play Washington twice and Chicago away, so with a generous finishing schedule, they should make the playoffs easily but probably not in a position where they want to finish.

3. Portland Thorns FC- 31 points, 5 matches left. Plays Sky Blue on Wednesday (Home) and plays FC Kansas City on Sunday (Home). This is a great opportunity for Portland to gain ground on their top of the table foes before finishing the season on the road away to Boston, Western New York and Seattle. But getting points hasn’t been too easy for the Thorns of late, winning one and drawing three times in their last six matches. When opportunities like this come around, they need to be taken advantage of. It is a hard schedule to finish out with, especially with finishing with three on the road. So nothing less than four points for the Thorns will be acceptable at this point in the season.

4. Western New York Flash- 27 points, 5 matches left. Plays Washington on Wednesday (Home) and plays Boston on Saturday (Away). The Flash were idle this week but that means they will play five matches in a span of 18 days. That is a tough ask for any team but with they do hold two key wild cards: Playing four of those matches at home and having a fully healthy roster (plus the return of Adriana from EUROs). Plus the Flash face only one opponent during that stretch that is in the top four so expect some movement up the table from them this weekend.

5. Boston Breakers- 23 points, 4 matches left. Plays Western New York on Saturday (Home). Boston has a brutal schedule in their final four matches of the season. They face Western New York twice and Portland and FC Kansas City once in a 14 day stretch. But the one solace they will take is that their next three matches are at home, and it always helps playing in front of your fans and the Breakers have had relative success at Dilboy Stadium this year, going .500 with winning and losing three times and drawing twice. But they have also had great success against the Flash, winning and drawing against them this season and still facing them twice more before the season closes. If they can duplicate that success they had early against the Flash in these last two match ups, they could close that four point gap really quickly.

6. Chicago Red Stars- 23 points, 4 matches left. Plays Seattle on Saturday (Home). Chicago has an easier schedule than their counterparts Boston but doesn’t have an advantage of playing the Flash directly. So this is a must win match for the Red Stars, after getting dominated against Seattle last week. They need to make up goal differential against the Flash as they are even on the first tiebreaker (head to head record, each team winning once and one tie in three meetings) so goals are at a premium for Chicago. But with that great comeback against Portland on Sunday, that might help them in these final two weeks. They also will hope that Lori Chalupny, who got injured on Sunday, can get back on the field because they are a different team without her on the field.

7. Seattle Reign FC- 18 points, 4 matches left. Plays Chicago on Saturday (Away). A great result for the Reign on Thursday night with Megan Rapinoe finding the net twice in a 4-1 romp over Chicago. But they may get eliminated from the playoffs before halftime of their game against Chicago. If Western New York can win both of their matches they will be mathematically eliminated so at this point Laura Harvey’s team is playing for pride and to potentially ruin some other teams playoff dreams.

8. Washington Spirit (mathematically eliminated from playoffs)- 7 points, 5 matches left. Plays Western New York on Wednesday (Away) and Plays Sky Blue on Saturday (Away). It was good to see that the Spirit scored a couple of goals against the run of play and to see Conny Pohlers find the back of the net as well, but its going to be another tough week with the Spirit as they are still dealing with injuries and top-four opponents.

Week 16 Results

FC Kansas City 3-0 Boston Breakers

Seattle Reign FC 4-1 Chicago Red Stars

Washington Spirit 2-5 Boston Breakers

Portland Thorns 3-3 Chicago Red Stars

Sky Blue FC 0-1 FC Kansas City

JJ Duke

JJ Duke graduated from Rider University in New Jersey with a degree in Digital Media Studies. While his playing days may have ended back in high school, he still prides himself of being a decent shot-stopper and an all-around fanatic of the beautiful game (fervent supporter of Manchester United and the founder of a Rider supporters group, the 206 Ultras). He is the Student General Manager at 107.7 The Bronc at Rider and has contributed to various local newspaper and Web sites in the Trenton, NJ area of high school and collegiate sports including The Rider News and Fish4Scores.com. He became involved with Our Game Magazine early in 2012 when upon following OGM on Twitter, he was contacted within minutes (which caught him by surprise) by Tiffany about working with the team. After spending the summer covering the USL W-League and the WPSL-Elite league as an intern, he is looking forward to continue working with the OGM team, especially on games in the US.

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