By MIKE McCALL
It’s no secret that players from the U.S. and Canadian national teams serve as the backbone of the National Women’s Soccer League. So what happens when you remove them?
That’s what the NWSL will find out this weekend, when it has a full slate of four games to be played without a slew of stars.
Saturday’s U.S.-South Korea friendly and Wednesday’s Canada-Germany match mean 29 of the league’s best will be out, along with more playing in other international friendlies.
Seven of the NWSL’s top nine goal-scorers will be gone, and without all that talent, the matchups will be wildly unpredictable.
The league faced this scenario earlier this month during the U.S.-Canada match, albeit with only two matches. But that resulted in a major upset and a 5-1 thumping, so with four games on tap this time, there’s no telling how things will end up.
For a closer look, here are the matchups (all times local):
WASHINGTON SPIRIT vs. WESTERN NEW YORK FLASH (Saturday, 7 pm)
The Spirit haven’t taken the field since May 25, and during their absence, they’ve been jumped in the standings by the Red Stars, leaving them further from what was already an improbable bid for a playoff spot.
And beyond the fact that the Spirit will be without top scorer Diana Matheson and defenders Robyn Gayle and Ali Krieger, they’ll have to face a red-hot Flash squad that is unbeaten in its last five.
But the Flash also lose stars in Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, so seemingly anything could happen here — although it’s hard to imagine the Spirit’s struggling attack making much noise without Matheson.
PORTLAND THORNS vs. SEATTLE REIGN (Sunday, 2 pm)
If these squads ever meet at full strength, it will be the most star-studded matchup in NWSL.
Instead, Portland won’t have Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, or Rachel Buehler, and Seattle will be without Hope Solo. Also, European arrivals Tobin Heath (Thorns) and Megan Rapinoe (Reign) will have to wait to make their debuts until after the U.S.-Korea friendlies.
The last time Portland played with a depleted squad, it got shut out by a previously hopeless Chicago squad, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see winless Seattle get on the board — especially after a few promising performances in recent weeks.
FC KANSAS CITY vs. CHICAGO RED STARS (Sunday, 3:10 pm)
By virtue of having the fewest stars, these situations seem to benefit the Red Stars the most. They’re the only team without a U.S. call-up (mostly due to Shannon Boxx’s injury), although they do lose goalkeeper Erin McLeod and defender Carmelina Moscato to Canadian duty.
But given that Chicago managed that Portland upset the last time they faced this scenario, there’s a strong chance they can pick up their third win.
This one will be a quick rematch of FCKC’s 2-0 win on Thursday, which vaulted them into third place, six points off the lead with a game in hand.
BOSTON BREAKERS vs. SKY BLUE FC (Sunday, 6:30 pm)
With two losses and a draw in its last three, Boston needs to start moving forward again. The Breakers have plummeted to fifth, where they’re in danger of falling behind in the playoff race.
And it won’t help to have four players — including Sydney Leroux and Heather O’Reilly — on international duty, nor is it a plus that they’ll face a Sky Blue FC team that pounded them 5-1 the last time they were missing U.S. and Canada players.
SBFC’s absences include top scorer Sophie Schmidt, goalkeeper Jill Loyden and defenders Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara. They’ve shown they have the depth to overcome that, but it’s really anyone’s guess how this one shakes out.
Who are your picks? Which team lost the most? Who is best equipped to deal with the absences? Should the NWSL even be playing this weekend?
Share your thoughts below.