NWSL Preview: Olympic stars will be back. Or will they?

morgan orlando

by TOM SLATER

Week 16 of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is not only all about the stretch run for the four playoff spots — it’s also about who won’t be on the pitch from the United States Women’s National Team.

With the Olympics over and the United States failing to get out of the quarterfinal round, almost all of the American internationals will be back.

Almost all.

While the unofficial word is that all the US players should be back, Carli Lloyd of the Houston Dash has not made it back to camp. She told Dash coach Randy Waldrum she needs an extended break and will return to camp Monday, missing Saturday’s game at Western New York.

And then there’s Hope Solo. The United States goalkeeper has been in the news the last few days, being suspended for six months by US Soccer and having her national team contract terminated for comments made regarding Sweden’s tactics (“we played a bunch of cowards”). She’s eligible to play for Seattle in the NWSL but it’s unlikely she’ll be in action when the Reign plays Portland this weekend.

Unfortunately, neither US Soccer nor the NWSL have official directives for Olympic players returning to their NWSL teams. It’s been said by various coaches it’s between the player and their club coach. Which makes it difficult for the fans as well as their coaches — especially when Ali Kreiger shows up to play a week ago for the Washington Spirit against Houston in a game rescheduled from earlier in the season.

Here’s a look at this week’s fixtures:

Friday, August 27:

Washington Spirit at Orlando Pride:  The Spirit (10-3-2, 32 points) are in first place in NWSL standings. The Pride (6-9-0, 18 points) are in seventh place and seven points out of a playoff spot.

The Spirit are riding high and could clinch their third straight playoff with a win over the Pride, combined with a Sky Blue loss and a loss or tie by Seattle. US international Kreiger already rejoined the team last week and Crystal Dunn is expected to do as well.

Alex Morgan will be back for Orlando as the Pride look to become the first expansion team in NWSL to make the playoffs in their first year.

Washington will welcome home Olympic bronze medalists Stephanie Labbe, Diana Matheson and Shelina Zadorksy in the coming days – but it is unclear if the trio will be available for the match Friday after their involvement in the full slate of games in Brazil. The same goes for Orlando defender Josee Belanger, who also won bronze with Canada.

 Saturday, August 28:

Portland Thorns at Seattle Reign: The Thorns (8-2-3, 29 points) are holding second place behind Washington. The Reign (5-5-5, 20 points) are in sixth place, chasing Chicago and Sky Blue FC for the final playoff spot.

Portland is expected to have its Olympic players back, including Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg and Allie Long available. Christine Sinclair is back after winning bronze in Rio but her availaibity is questionable. The Thorns will also have Nadia Nadim, who leads the team in scoring with five.

The availability of Solo and fellow national team player Megan Rapinoe is unknown. Rapinoe had limited time on the field in Rio after recovering very quickly from a knee injury suffered last December.

Houston Dash at Western New York Flash: The Flash (8-5-2, 26 points) are in the third place in the NWSL and are looking to halt a slide that has seen them winless in their last three matches.

The Dash (3-8-3, 12 points) are in ninth place and are also winless in their last three matches.

The two sides played to a 3-3 draw in the last match before the Olympic break. The Flash came back from a two-goal deficit in that game. Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams, the Flash’s one-two scoring tandem, both scored in the second half to lead the Flash. Williams leads the NWSL in goals with seven while McDonald is right behind with seven.

Western New York will welcome Australia international Alanna Kennedy, New Zealand international Abby Erceg and Canada international Sabrina D’Angelo back into their ranks this week after their time at the 2016 Rio Olympics. D’Angelo may not be available.

Houston played a rescheduled match with Washington last Thursday, dropping a 2-1 decision.

Meanwhile, the Dash are looking forward to seven Olympians returning to their roster but don’t expect them all to be on the field. The Dash get back goalkeeper Lydia Williams, defenders Poliana and Allysha Chapman as well as midfielders  Lloyd, Andressa and Morgan Brian, plus forward Janine Beckie from Olympic duties. But Chapman and Beckie return from the Rio Games as bronze medalists with Canada and they may not be available.

Lloyd won’t be available.

Kealia Ohlai has provided the scoring this year, having scored four goals in the last three games.

Sunday, August 28:

Boston Breakers at FC Kansas City:  The Breakers (2-11-1, 7 points) are in last place in the NWSL. The Blues (4-7-4, 16 points) are in the eight place.

Neither of these two teams will make the playoffs but this match gives one of them a chance to begin the final stretch on a positive note.

FC Kansas City is not technically eliminated but they will need to string together a series of victories if the Blues want to defend their back-to-back championships. Shea Groom has been the offensive catylst with six goals on the year including four in the team’s last four games.

FC Kansas City will see the return of players back from the Rio Olympics with U.S. international and three-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn as well as New Zealand international Katie Bowen expected to be available for the match.

Holding midfielder Desiree Scott – who won the bronze medal with Canada at the 2016 Olympics – is expected to rejoin the team in time for the match, but it is unclear whether she will be available for the match after logging 434 minutes in Brazil – the fourth most at the tournament of any player from the league.

The Breakers – who were eliminated from the 2016 NWSL Playoffs before their last match ahead of the break for the Summer Games – will be looking to play spoiler for the rest of the year.

Boston won their final match before the league’s Olympic layoff as Natasha Dowie scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over the Orlando Pride as the Breakers claimed all three points for just the second time all season.

Coach Matt Beard’s team will now go in search of back-to-back wins for the first time since August 2013 – a span of 67 games.

If the Breakers are to record a second straight victory for the first time in more than three years, Boston will have to do something they have never done – win a game on the road against FC Kansas City.

Boston will also be encouraged by the return of Engen, a U.S. international, and Australia international Kyah Simon – who are expected to be available to Beard on Sunday.