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Alex Morgan, Sophia Smith duel for Golden Boot, KC Current make a run and more NWSL chaos

There’s something about August that finally makes it feel like the NWSL playoffs are truly around the corner. Teams outside the top six are a little more desperate for points, and there are more results that could not just shake up the postseason but play a role in if a favorite even makes it or not. Games start to feel like statements. And this week, the Houston Dash and Kansas City Current reminded the league they can’t be overlooked.

We have a new team at the top of the table, an exciting Golden Boot race afoot (that pun was only half intentional but it’s staying), and a handful of teams trying to turn streaks into momentum, and plenty more trying to escape a streak’s inertia before it’s too late.

Somehow, we all made it through another week in the NWSL, so let’s break it down.

But first, an annual NWSL mystery

It was pretty much as close to an open secret as we get in the NWSL: the Championship is set for Audi Field in Washington D.C. We reported it here last month, when we heard from league sources who were not authorized to speak before the official announcement that the bid to host had been approved by the league’s board of governors. That official announcement sounded in the works, though, for the next week or so after the vote.

That announcement, three-plus weeks later, is still MIA. The same sources told Pablo Maurer and Meg that the delay is likely due to a potential conflict with the stadium, but as of right now, we’re fully back in the holding pattern for the location of the NWSL Championship to be announced.

It’s 81 days until Oct. 29, and with each day that passes that’s one less for plans to be made, tickets to be bought, hotels, flights, trains, etc. to be booked. The NWSL has made strides in turning the Championship into an event, but the marquee event on the season calendar still hasn’t gotten the full attention it needs to actually turn into what it should be. Brand sponsors stepped up in 2021, but at the end of the day, you need a lot of fans to make this whole thing work and look like it should on TV or in photos or the stories folks tell their friends that make them want to attend in 2023.

I’ve seen the usual call for the top seed to host the NWSL Championship, and while I haven’t been in favor before, I’m coming around on it. If the league isn’t going to make proactive planning across the entire fanbase as easy as possible, maybe it is worth considering changing the approach on the Championship itself.

Either way, this year, we’re still waiting to find out — definitively — where we’re heading for the final weekend in October.

The Golden Boot race is ON

Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith are head-to-head on goals scored so far this season, racking up 11 apiece for the San Diego Wave and the Portland Thorns, respectively. For Morgan, that’s an astonishing 52.3% of the Wave’s total goals, while Smith has scored 32.4% of the Thorns’ goals. Those percentages generally make sense, with Morgan asked to be a marquee player and focal point of the Wave attack, while Smith has a little bit more support around her at the institutionally older Thorns. Both teams are now on 25 points, with the Thorns technically taking the #1 spot in the standings with their better goal differential and a game in hand on the Wave.

Morgan has scored nine goals with her left foot and two with her right while Smith is the opposite, scoring eight with her right and three with her left (surely a nice bit of diversity in options if you’re a certain national team coach). Morgan is a bit more efficient, scoring her 11 from 18 shots on target (although four of them were penalties) compared to Smith’s 11 out of 28 shots on target (with two penalties). However, Smith is scoring a little more often, scoring at a rate of 79.1 minutes per goal, compared to Morgan’s 89.9 mpg. Both of them being on essentially a goal-per-game rate is incredible and will probably settle down in the back half of the season.

Watching 21-year-old Smith give 33-year-old Morgan a run for her money is fun as hell and a great narrative for NWSL to sell to increase viewership – the stars of tomorrow are already here!  Smith is the kind of player you almost always end up watching at some point with a hand over your mouth thinking “No way is she going to do that – oh my god she did it.” Her abilities to take on and place the ball will only improve as she continues to develop her decision-making through experience, which is an exciting, terrifying prospect.

Streaks on streaks on streaks

Remember at the start of the season, when I (Meg) foolishly asked if the Washington Spirit would ever lose a game again? Their winning streak was one of the main narratives around the team on their championship run in 2021, but there are so many huge streaks going through 2022 — and unfortunately for the Spirit, the 2022 version of their streak is considerably less pleasant.

The Spirit have not won a match since their regular season opener against OL Reign on May 1. Yes, this stat has been brought up a lot, but it is quite possibly the most chaotic stat of the entire season. The defending champions are winless in their last 14 games (playing to nine draws and five losses).

On Friday night, when Racing Louisville FC and the Spirit faced off, the teams both entered with two very long winless streaks (Louisville at least had theirs in the single digits at that point with nine). Why was anyone surprised these two teams played to a 1-1 draw?

There are two teams riding streaks in the other direction though. Portland Thorns are unbeaten in 10, and have finally moved into the top spot on the standings thanks to the other lucky team on this list: the Kansas City Current, unbeaten in their last nine.

Steph just talked about Smith’s role on the Thorns above, but Portland also has a staggering plus-20 goal differential on the season so far — no other team with a positive number is in double digits.

And full credit to the Current here too, which walked into Torero Stadium and were the first team to defeat the San Diego Wave at home with a comprehensive performance. If there’s one team hoping the streak turns into true momentum as summer shifts into fall, it’s absolutely Kansas City. They looked not just like playoff contenders this past weekend, but a team that could go toe to toe with anyone in the league.

More thoughts from this week

A lament for Gotham

Another week, another opportunity for Gotham FC to take a good, hard look at itself. This time Gotham lost 2-0 to the Chicago Red Stars in a game that started off fine and then descended into dreariness for the last 70+ minutes. Gotham had a lot of players out, either on excused absences or in COVID-19 protocol, but the 11 that they fielded looked absolutely fine on paper, theoretically capable of both scoring and defending. This absolutely fine 11 managed a paltry 0.15 xG against Chicago’s 1.74, per the league’s official stats. Gotham managed zero shots on target and just four touches inside the Red Stars’ box. The passing was subpar as well, sitting at 72.6% (Chicago: 84.1%) and in the end Gotham racked up three yellow cards for their troubles.

Does the right player signing fix this, putting responsibility on GM Yael Averbuch? Is head coach Scott Parkinson not getting the strategy right or losing the locker room? Are the players themselves just not finding the rhythm together?

It’s maybe a little bit of all three, although the way the players on the field continue to look out of sync perhaps points mostly at the coach. It’s a tough thing for a team to try and change streams midseason, but with Gotham sitting in 11th place with a league-worst minus-15 goal differential, do they go for what-do-we-have-to-lose in cutting personnel, or do they keep trying to make it work and hope they can parlay that work into next season? One could argue they already tried the “parlay it into next season” approach from last year into this one.

Reign on the run

The Houston Dash’s 2-1 win over OL Reign was not, shall we say, an instant classic. This was a rough ‘n ready game with seven total yellow cards and some grim passing. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that regardless of Houston’s overall performance, Ebony Salmon is playing like she wants to make Louisville regret several choices they made, like one of those fairytales where a fairy disguised as a beggar punishes all the people who were mean to her and rewards the humble woodcutter who gave her more playing time in the right position.

The Reign themselves would be the first to acknowledge how noncommittal they looked in this game. “We should have put the pedal down more in the first half,” Megan Rapinoe said after the game. “There was much more in the game in the first half. The most disappointing part is that it’s just on us.”

“We (had) a really short period of time where we just don’t keep focused and in this league, and with the speed of play, you just can’t do that and it’s absolutely killed us,” said Kim Little, referencing Salmon scoring again two minutes after she scored a penalty. “We’ve lost the three points today, which I think we’ve had completely in our control. There were some harsh words from (head coach) Laura (Harvey) then, which we deserved, because it’s not good enough.”

Harvey said she told the team, “The goals we conceded in the manner that we conceded them is not who we are. It’s not the way that we play. And when you do that, and you do it in quick succession, you make life really difficult for yourself.”

But Harvey also pointed out that this is turning into an ongoing problem, with the Reign conceding five goals in their last three games. They’ve also only won one game in their last five, a terrifically frustrating 3-2 delivered in the 89’ by Tobin Heath, in which they outshot Angel City almost three to one.

As a side note, this was Little’s last game with the Reign, which surely added to the dejected atmosphere as both she and the Reign wanted to send her off with a win before she heads back to Arsenal.

“I’ll be watching and supporting from London,” she said. “Had the best time. The people here are really special. And every time I come, that fills my heart. So yeah, ending on a loss, but heart’s full.”

One more thing

More Avatar/Legend of Korra references, please! KC Current is leading the way for the rest of you.

(Steph: Extremely bold of the Current to claim Katara, easily the scariest of the original gang. Becoming a waterbending master after like, two lessons with Pakku? Bloodbending? The way she took out Azula? It’s a lot of hype to live up to.)

(Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / USA TODAY Sports)

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