[dropcap size=small]Y[/dropcap]ou thought the playoff race was getting interesting last week? For this week’s National Women’s Soccer League action, be ready for all the spills and thrills as the final two playoff spots will be decided. The Washington Spirit and Portland Thorns didn’t capitalize on their opportunities this past weekend to clinch playoff positions so let’s delve into which teams have the best chance to clinch the remaining two playoff spots. Then, I start handing out some awards, though not the usual end-of-season awards you might be used to.
Six Matches Left
Since the last round of matches aren’t scheduled to start at the same time, a common practice for top men’s leagues overseas, we could have all of the playoff spots filled before the last matches on Sunday take place. If the Chicago Red Stars win both matches this week and the Washington Spirit win on Saturday, the race for the playoffs will effectively be over at around 10pm ET that night, making the Portland Thorn’s match against the Seattle Reign on Sunday evening for nothing more than pride.
The Chicago Red Stars play both of their matches at home — against the Boston Breakers, a team out of playoff contention, and the Western New York Flash, a team on the fringe of elimination pending the outcome of Wednesday’s game — which gives them a solid chance to take all six points this week. The Washington Spirit will have to be careful in their match against Sky Blue FC because anything less than three points will give the Portland Thorns real optimism on Sunday night. With the Thorns holding both the head-to-head record and season goal-differential advantage against the Spirit, a fall by Washington will only boost the Thorns’ hopes playing against their Cascadia rivals at home.
It will take a real collapse by Chicago and Portland to allow Western New York to sneak into the playoffs; the Flash need to win both of their matches, including the game against the Red Stars on Saturday, plus need to have the Thorns lose to the Seattle Reign and the Red Stars to draw or lose to the Boston Breakers. Sky Blue FC will have to win out, plus have their cancelled game against the Houston Dash reinstated to give them any shot at the playoffs. Western New York and Sky Blue could knock each other out on Wednesday night with a draw, so it’s hard to see either of these teams getting the fourth seed in the playoffs.
Let’s get to the awards. These aren’t standard awards like Rookie of the Year or Most Valuable Player; rather, they’re based on merit and overall performance this season.
What Sophomore Slump Award
Christine Nairn (Washington Spirit) — You knew Christine Nairn was going to be a solid professional once her Penn State career was over. Last year, Nairn had a quality season for the Seattle Reign, scoring three goals and adding five assists, but toward the end of the season her form slumped purely because she had to shoulder a lot of the attack in the early part of the season, which I think eventually wore her down. But this season, with a new team and a new system under Mark Parsons in Washington, Nairn has been a sensation. She gets to work wide when she wants and drift inside when needed, and she hits one of the better dead-ball set pieces in the league. With six goals and two assists heading into the final week of the regular season, she will be a key factor for the Washington Spirit’s potential run into the postseason.
Most Improved Player Award
Stephanie Ochs (Houston Dash) — When you hear about awards for the most improved player, it often goes to those players who matured a lot during the season and perhaps started to crack into the lineup by the end of the season. However, I’m giving this award to Stephanie Ochs, who, prior to her Houston Dash days, had been a forward (and quite a good forward at that, including playing up front with Canberra United in the Westfield W-League and scoring a few goals), but then was asked by Houston Dash Head Coach Randy Waldrum to play left back. Ochs took it in stride and after just a couple of matches, looked like a natural left back. Ochs has phenomenal pace and her ability to get up and down the pitch helps the attack, and she hits a mean in-swinging left-footed corner a la another Houston professional (yes, I’m referring to Houston Dynamo and U.S. Men’s National Team winger Brad Davis). I fully expect Ochs to continue to excel playing the outside back position for years to come.
Comeback Player of the Year Award
Jordan Angeli (Washington Spirit) — These two players share similar stories but differ in their respective roads back to the top level, which was why it was tough to choose between the two. In 2011, Angeli was coming off of a very strong rookie season with the Women’s Professional Soccer-era Boston Breakers when she suffered an ACL injury in her first match that would sideline her for almost three years. After the Washington Spirit selected her in the Supplemental Draft last year, it wasn’t known if she would play again but she made it back to the pitch for open training at the end of last season and was at full fitness for the 2014 season. She has appeared in 10 matches and started twice.
Becky Edwards (Houston Dash) — Edwards has been around the professional game for awhile, both in the WPS and overseas in Sweden, but had a breakthrough start to the 2013 NWSL season with the Portland Thorns, where she was the rock in the midfield. But an ACL injury midway through the season cut short her bright campaign and it was unclear for a little while how long the injury would keep her out. The Houston Dash picked her up in the Expansion Draft and she has started every match this season and has been a steadying presence within a young Dash team.
Best Midseason Signing Award
Steph Catley (Portland Thorns FC) — This was another category in which it was tough to pick just one player. The impact these two have had within their respective teams in their short seasons here in the United States makes them both worthy of this award. I’ve been saying it for weeks now that every time Catley steps on the pitch for the Portland Thorns, she has gotten better every week and puts in great service from the flanks. And at 20 years old, she plays with the maturity of a 30-year-old. With her ability to run for days, the Thorns will want to secure her services for years to come.
Nadia Nadim (Sky Blue FC), I’ve had the chance to watch her score a truck load of goals for Fortuna Hjørring over the past couple of seasons and wasn’t surprised that Jim Gabarra signed her on for the back end of this season. All she’s done is score five goals and two assists in five games and drive back lines crazy with her relentless bursts of energy. Plus, her positive attitude during the games is contagious. It’s tough not to think that if she had been available to play the entire season for Sky Blue, they could be right in contention for the playoffs instead of the on the outside looking in.
Editor’s note — Nadim’s personal story is remarkable. She shared it with us in the cover feature story of the June 2013 issue of Our Game Magazine.
The Flying Under the Radar Award
Keelin Winters (Seattle Reign FC) — The Seattle Reign might have the deepest roster top to bottom in the NWSL and it would be easy to get lost in the shuffle of U.S. Women’s National Team and international stars that Head Coach Laura Harvey brought into the side this season. However, one constant has remained throughout the 2014 season: the play of captain Keelin Winters. Game in and game out, Winters has been a workhorse in the center of the pitch, doing a lot of the dirty work in the holding midfield and connecting play between the defenders out of the back up to the wingers and forwards.
The Later-Round Steal of the NWSL Draft Award
Jazmine Reeves (Boston Breakers) — Going into the third round of the NWSL College Draft last January in Philadelphia, there were a couple of names still left on the board that I thought could make a impact in the 2014 season. One of those names was that of Virginia Tech’s Jazmine Reeves, who turned a lot of heads in her senior season as she helped the Hokies to the College Cup in 2013. Despite being relegated to the bench in the early part of the season and playing in reserve team matches, Reeves would make a grand re-entrance to the league on a late Wednesday night against the Portland Thorns. With Breakers Head Coach Tom Durkin making wholesale changes after losing four straight matches, Reeves scored her first professional hat trick and added an assist in a stunning 4-1 win over Portland and since then has been in the starting lineup for Boston. She has scored seven goals this season, which makes her the second highest goal scorer on the team and just outside the top 10 in goals scored in the league. Boston has a lot of rebuilding to do this offseason but they’ve unearthed a diamond in the rough with Reeves.
One of The Players at the Top of the Long List of Who Should Get a Look With the USWNT Because of Her Play in The NWSL This Year Award
Alyssa Naeher (Boston Breakers) — If you don’t agree with this statement, please watch the highlights of Boston’s match against the Portland Thorns this past weekend. Naeher made an NWSL record-tying 10 saves in a clean-sheet win against the Thorns. That’s the form Naeher’s been on this entire year and despite a high goals allowed total, she’s been one of the few bright spots this season for the Breakers. With a thinning pool of top USWNT goalkeepers, it’s time Jill Ellis gave her a look in a match. Naeher can continue her successful club play at the national team level.