The Boston Breakers (6-7-5) and the Chicago Red Stars (6-7-5) are currently sitting in the fifth and sixth place respectively. Both squads have fought tirelessly to make their inaugural NWSL season memorable, but at the moment they're on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in.
Unfortunately, their competition are defiant and headstrong but there is a silver lining one that Chicago and Boston can bend in their favor.
The third place team in the league, Sky Blue FC are hanging on by a thread. Not because they lack vision or talent, but because they are adding players on a weekly basis to their already-long list of injuries. With those injuries understandably hurting performance, Sky Blue are in jeopardy of throwing away all of the good work they've done this season. At one point, the Portland Thorns were treading the same waters as Sky Blue but since receiving some much needed help from Paris Saint-Germain's Tobin Heath in the midfield, the Thorns have pulled away and are charging towards first place.
Meanwhile, Sky Blue are without a slew of key players. Kelley O'Hara, Danesha Adams and Caitlin Foord are out of action following injury and Lisa De Vanna is working around a hamstring strain. If the former first place team cannot keep their third place spot, frozen with 31 points for the remainder of the season, this could provide Chicago or Boston with an way into the playoffs.
The downside is that both Boston and Chicago only have four games remaining in the regular season, so if they suffer a single defeat or draw their hopes of making it into the top four will evaporate. Neither team has much in terms of relief within their future matchups; they're pinned against the top four for a final time before the play-offs.
If either Chicago or Boston has a perfect run-in, they'll end up with 35 points. That means Sky Blue need five more to be safe. The following is what Chicago and Boston should consider doing in order to break into the top four -- but they'll obviously need a lot of help to do it.
What Chicago Need To Do:
Chicago had an unfortunate blow to their back line in week 15 when Taryn Hemmings went down against FC Kansas City. She sustained a torn ACL and MCL, which rules her out for the rest of the season. This set back is one that Chicago has taken on the chin and corrected immediately to produce an effective result against Washington in week 15.
Unfortunately, their defense has failed to produce strong results against Seattle and Portland in week 16. In both matches, the Red Stars conceded more than three goals, losing to Seattle 4-1 and drawing Portland 3-3 with a late 2 goal comeback in the closing minutes of the second half. The spirit the Red Stars demonstrated against Portland was magnificent, but it's not a trait that can be relied upon to pull them out of every sticky situation.
In that same match against Portland, Chicago suffered a blow to their attack. Lori Chalupny exited the field midway through the opening half and has since been sidelined with an ankle injury. With this injury looming over the Red Star, head coach Rory Dames needs to look at his options. Fortunately, there are many.
The first possibility is to use Ella Masar more often in the starting eleven. Whether Chalupny's injury is serious or not, Masar should receive more starts for the team. For some reason this talented forward has only received ten starts this season, and in recent weeks she's has only been used as a second-half substitute. In the month of July, Masar has scored twice off the bench, with one assist.
Masar should not be a bench player; she is a starter and a strong forward. She has proved that she can help her club, and missing her presence and influence on the field for a substantial portion of the game hurts Chicago's chances of finding three points.
Secondly, Boston made a mistake giving up Adriana Leon, but Chicago has benefited greatly from the up-and-coming Canadian national team striker. Leon has gifted the Red Stars with a goal and assist, but her on field talent is more than just scoring goals, it's finding the holes in the oppositions defense. She is strong on the ball, controls well and finds teammates in productive spots on the field. Putting Leon and Masar on the field togetherwill benefit the Red Stars greatly against Seattle -- a team that is stacked with attacking talent.
Red Stars will face Megan Rapinoe and company on Saturday, and in order to prevent the Reign from getting on the scoreboard, the defense will have to be on guard. In the month of July, the Red Stars were weak in defense, conceding ten goals. This cannot continue for a team that is striving to make it into the playoffs.
Chicago might consider rotating their goalkeepers, Erin McLeod has been phenomenal but so has Taylor Vancil. In five appearances for the club she made back in May/June, Vancil faced tough competitors such as Portland, FC Kansas City and Western New York Flash but kept the scoreline down for the opposition, shutting out Portland 2-0 and keeping FCKC at bay 3-1.
Relying on the likes of Alyssa Mautz, Leon or Masar to maintain an upper-hand and score a plethora of goals on Saturday wouldn't be wise because the Reign are an aggressive team. Instead, controlling the midfield and preventing Seattle from building will be the best way to gain three points.
Leslie Osborne needs to continue being a ferocious midfielder and give Seattle a hard time -- especially Jessica Fishlock and Keelin Winters. If Osborne needs helps to move the ball out of the midfield she has numerous options available to her, such as Mautz or Julianne Sitch.
All in all, the Red Stars have come a long way to reach this point in the tournament, and will have to push forward regardless if they will be joined on the field by captain Chalupny or not. This is a make or break it time for the Red Stars and if they defeat Seattle and the Breakers can hold the Flash back, then the Red Stars could have an opportunity at the NWSL title.
What Boston Need To Do:
In order for the Breakers to avoid elimination they must defeat the Flash; there is no other alternative. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task, but the Breakers are a talented group of athletes. They just need to fix the back line.
Boston's defense is a problem, and one that could leave them stuck in fifth or sixth place at the end of the season. In 18 games, the Breakers have conceded 29 goals. That is eight less than Washington, but tied with Seattle, both teams that occupy bottom slots.
The recent addition of Jazmyne Avant for the back line has helped, especially when the Breakers traveled to Oregon to face Portland in a 2-0 victory. Avant was a crucial piece of the starting eleven, alongside Cat Whitehill, Kia McNeill and Julie King. Even so, with Avant in the back four and Rhian Wilkinson moving into the midfield at times, the Breakers still struggled in the month of July, logging a 2-2-2 record. The Breakers nearly broke even, conceding eight and scoring nine goals.
The acquisition of two defenders in the last month hasn't polished their record. Throughout the season, Boston has only recorded three clean sheets. On Saturday, they face a team that is vertically and physically gifted. The Western New York Flash are the goliaths of the NWSL and they will not be gentle with a team that could block their chances at securing a play-off spot, regardless of the fact that Flash currently lead Boston by seven points.
For Boston to defeat the Flash the formula is simple: defend. Better. The problem with the back four is that Boston has acquired so many defenders, but isn't using them properly. A month ago, they traded Adriana Leon for Carmelina Moscato, but instead of shoring up the back line, the Canadian international has received 28 minutes in total on the field over three appearances.
Moscato is talented and the Breakers emphasize consistency in the back four, but are not bringing that to the table. For the defense to perform at its best they need either Moscato or Wilkinson in the back, replacing recently-promoted head coach, Cat Whitehill. Wilkinson in particular needs a spot on the field: she is stubborn on the ball, a challenge to disposses and if she can form a line of communication with Sydney Leroux or Kyah Simon, will be better served on both sides of the ball.
Speaking about the Flash, they have built an impressive reputation this season. They score a lot and concede little, but nobody on the team can match Leroux's speed on the ball, and it's difficult to seem them having an answer to Simon's happy feet either. They'll have to be careful when working around the Boston offense which is padded with agile players such as Leroux, O'Reilly and Sanderson.