photo: National Women's Soccer League

NWSL Week 1 Review

[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]eek 1 of the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League season was in whole an improvement from Week 1 of 2013. One year ago we saw all eight teams struggle to create any fluidity on the pitch, making games hard to watch at times. This year was fairly entertaining for fans despite the teams not at full roster strength until 24-48 hours before this week’s slate of matches due to international commitments.

We saw the debut of a new team, new stadiums and teams resuming their identities from a year ago or creating new ones through more exciting styles of play. There were plenty of things to take away from this weekend, so let’s get right to it.

Who Shined

The Foreign Internationals
It was fairly hard to separate which players garnered top honors for this week, but it was clear the overseas stars came to play this weekend. Western New York Flash’s Vicky Losada was very impressive in her NWSL debut as she buried two goals over the Washington Spirit and added an assist as well. Both goals could qualify as  early contenders for Goal of the Year, with the first one catching Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris off her line from 30 yards out and the second a deft lob to the far post.

Seattle Reign FC’s Kim Little was the second international who had quite a debut in the league, adding two goals of her own in the Reign’s 3-0 win over the Boston Breakers. Outside of her goals, Little’s work ethic on the day was tremendous as she controlled the center of the midfield, allowing the Reign’s flank players to get wide and create. The Reign’s other international didn’t have a bad night either. Jess Fishlock was the second engine in center midfield and provided the assists on the Reign’s second and third goals of the evening.

In goal, the Portland Thorns’ Nadine Angerer recorded a clean sheet in her first NWSL start. While not tested often, she performed the role of the “Sweeper ‘Keeper” well and was a calming influence for a young Portland back line.

Alyssa Naeher. I was told last year I gave too much love for the goalkeeper in this column. But I am going to disregard that for now and tip my hat to the Breakers’ keeper for keeping her side in the match. While the result read 3-0 to the opposition, you could say that none of the goals were her fault. She made top-notch save after save, including memorably sprawling out to deny a curling effort from Megan Rapinoe in the first half. If it wasn’t for Naeher, the final score would’ve been more lopsided.

Efforts that Won’t Show Up in the Box Score

The Play of Osinachi Ohale and Robyn Gayle
The two international defenders had different tasks throughout their respective contests but both performed admirably. Houston’s young Nigerian center back Ohale made the team as a preseason trialist and for her efforts was given the job to mark some of the league’s best strikers and came through with flying colors. Partnered with another young center back Holly Hein, the two kept the Thorns’ Christine Sinclair quiet and limited the 2013 champions to five efforts on target. Equally as strong was the Spirit’s Gayle, who was given the task of keeping the Flash’s Samantha Kerr quiet. She did that job masterfully, locking down whatever flank Kerr was on and making key challenges when called upon.

The Thing that Stayed the Same

Sky Blue FC’s Defensive Effort
To keep FC Kansas City to a 1-1 draw at home is a job well done. Jim Gabarra’s side got the point they wanted. Did the Blues outplay the visitors for long stretches of the match? Yes. But there was a lot of effort put in by the Jersey-based club to stay compact, limit the opportunities through the middle of the field and pounce on the chance they got. Katy Freels did just that and buried her first goal of the season off of a missed clearance in the Kansas City box and Jill Loyden made eight saves to preserve the point. To think this squad also picked up a point on the road without Christie Rampone, their rock in the center back position, made this performance on Saturday night even more special.

What Needs Work

Houston Dash and Set Pieces
While the Dash may have deserved some sort of result on Saturday night, they didn’t help their case by failing to convert on plenty of set piece opportunities. The Dash had seven corner kicks, a few free kicks in advanced positions and chances coming off long throws but failed to convert. When a team can’t finish off opportunities like the ones the Dash were afforded, they won’t win many matches.

Washington’s Woeful Defense
In the preseason friendlies the Spirit played, the squad allowed one goal in three games against their collegiate opponents. Whatever success the team had in preseason, however, didn’t translate into the regular season. Outside of Robyn Gayle’s performance, the team as a whole was disjointed behind the ball, allowing an Abby Wambach-less Flash side to slice them open. It will be back to the drawing board for Mark Parsons, who will have to figure things out before the possession-oriented FC Kansas City team come to town next week.

Interesting Storyline of the Week

Ella Masar vs. Nadine Angerer
I didn’t expect to see fireworks between these two, but we had some. Thorns fans can circle the date on their calendars for the next round when the Dash visit on Sunday, August 3. Masar put in quite a shift in this match and created a couple of decent chances for herself. But what started out originally as some incidental contact between the two in the first half turned a bit more serious later on. First, on an offside call against the Dash, Angerer put the ball down inside her 18-yard box for a free kick and Masar, who was behind the play, snuck around and kicked the ball into the net, which didn’t please Angerer. Later, a sliding challenge on Angerer saw Masar’s name go into the book (similar challenges against the goalkeeper have seen red cards) and caused Angerer to chase her out of the box. Again, I wasn’t expecting the interaction to happen, but it did prove to have a little energy to it.

Worth a Shout

Kelley O’Hara got in a full 90 minutes for Sky Blue since ankle surgery last season. This is a massive step for Sky Blue as O’Hara excelled in the back and could be a useful option as Caitlin Foord pushes up a little higher on the pitch.

Amy Rodriguez scored on her NWSL debut for FC Kansas City after missing the 2013 season due to pregnancy. One of the big questions marks coming into this season was how long  it would take A-Rod to pick up her scoring stride after missing a year. After her performance on Saturday, she could be well on her way to putting the issue to rest.

Seattle Reign FC picked up it’s first clean sheet in franchise history in its win over the Boston Breakers.

More than 8,000 people saw the Houston Dash play its inaugural match against Portland Thorns. The club had to open up select upper bowl sections for this match after selling out the 7,000-seat lower bowl. Not a bad start in the attendance category for the expansion club.