By MIKE McCALL
More than halfway through the season, showtime has finally arrived for the National Women’s Soccer League.
On Sunday, the NWSL will reach a national TV audience for the first time, as Fox Soccer will broadcast the Seattle-Washington match to kick off its slate of nine live matches — one in each of the season’s final six weeks leading up to three televised playoff games.
A month or so ago, this matchup would have been a nightmarish debut for the league, as the Reign were hapless and the Spirit weren’t faring much better. But heading into this weekend, Seattle is one of the hottest teams in the league and certainly one worth watching — and while that may not be enough for blockbuster ratings alongside a striggling Washington side, it’s at least good to pull in a few eyeballs.
And there’s more than TV ratings at stake this weekend. Here’s a closer look at the matchups.
SKY BLUE FC vs. BOSTON BREAKERS (Saturday, 7 pm)
All eyes should be on Sydney Leroux in this one. The Boston forward has scored five times in three games to take over the league scoring lead and help resurrect the Breakers’ fading playoff hopes, and coupled with her appearance in ESPN the Magazine’s “Body Issue” this week, she continues to raise her profile nationally.
On the other side, Sky Blue FC (9-3-3) is sitting pretty with a four-point cushion atop the table, although they do have just one win in their last four.
Boston (5-5-4) took the last meeting 3-2 behind two Leroux goals, and the Breakers will need more of that to stage a playoff run. They currently sit four points behind Western New York for the final playoff spot, though they do have a game in hand.
PORTLAND THORNS vs. WESTERN NEW YORK FLASH (Sunday, 5 pm)
Take your pick between this and SBFC-Boston for the premier matchup of the weekend. Portland (8-4-2) has been struggling lately, falling a bit off the lead pace and somehow ranking fifth in the league for offense (although the Thorns do boast the league’s top defense).
Meanwhile, the Flash (6-4-5) had been tearing it up on a league-record nine-game unbeaten streak before going 0-2-1 in their last three. With Boston’s resurgence heating up the playoff race again, Western New York can’t afford to keep dropping points.
It should help that Abby Wambach is coming off a two-goal performance, making this an enticing battle with Alex Morgan, Chrstine Sinclair and the Thorns.
CHICAGO RED STARS vs. FC KANSAS CITY (Sunday, 4 pm)
Don’t count Chicago out just yet. The Red Stars (5-6-3) spanked the Spirit 2-0 this week to move within five points of the last playoff spot (with a game in hand over the Flash). With that on the line, there’s a lot for this club to play for.
The same could be said of FC Kansas City (7-4-4), which is just five points off the league lead with a decent chance of catching SBFC, whom they are due to play again before the season ends.
U.S. forward Lauren Cheney — who became Lauren Holiday last weekend by marrying NBA player Jrue Holiday — has been tearing it up for FCKC, ranking second in the league with eight goals in 11 games.
SEATTLE REIGN vs. WASHINGTON SPIRIT (Sunday, 8:30 pm)
For the Spirit (1-9-4), there isn’t much on the line here besides pride. In front of a national audience, Washington has a chance to get its first win under new head coach Mark Parsons, but that doesn’t seem a likely outcome given the recent form of its opponent.
After an absolutely dismal start to the year, the Reign (3-9-3) at least have a chance to play the role of playoff spoiler, even if making a run themselves is a tall order this late in the season.
Seattle is unbeaten in its last five, coming off a 3-2 win over the Flash in which three different players scored — including U.S. star Megan Rapinoe. Between Rapinoe, goalkeeper Hope Solo, forward Renae Cuellar and midfielders Jessica Fishlock and Christine Nairn, there are lots of reasons to pay attention to the Reign.
They might not end up a factor in the playoffs, but it should definitely be fun to watch them try.
Who are your picks? Do the Reign make a statement on TV? Can the Spirit pull an upset? Who shines from the top four this weekend? Share your thoughts below.