For the last two seasons, the Boston Breakers have sat at the bottom of the NWSL table. If early results in 2017 are any indication, this might be the year the Breakers break that pattern. Last week, the New England side played to a 1-0 win against Sky Blue FC, the same team that dominated Seattle Reign FC the opening weekend.
Over the last two seasons, Boston has brought in a new head coach and reorganized its player pool. That includes bringing in Rose Lavelle, the top draft pick from the 2017 NWSL draft and a rising U.S. Women’s National Team star, and Natasha Dowie, a striker from England who rarely misses an opportunity in front of goal.
When Seattle Reign FC kicks off against Boston on Saturday, April 29, this won’t be an easy match for Seattle. As Stephanie Yang from The Bent Musket shares below in Three Questions, Boston has a range of weapons that make them more dangerous this year.
Sounder at Heart: After Sky Blue's midfield destroyed Seattle in Week 1, Boston's midfield got the upper hand on the New Jersey side. What made the Breakers more effective last week?
The Bent Musket: Switching Rose Lavelle inside instead of having her pushed right definitely changed things up. She had fewer overall passes but better accuracy, and was in a better position to affect the play. The Breakers were also able to put in Amanda DaCosta in the second half to keep pressing in the attack, while they have some depth deeper in midfield by being able to sub on Morgan Andrews as a partner for Angela Salem. Honestly they're also just clicking more, getting used to each other. Angela Salem was also instrumental in Boston's midfield; I really can't count how many balls she won and restarted for the team. To help give you an idea, between the game against Kansas City and SBFC, Salem has about 90% passing accuracy. On target.
SaH: Let's talk about Rose Lavelle. How much of a difference has she made in two games?
TBM: Lavelle clearly provides Boston with that essential midfield cog who shifts the whole thing forward. It doesn't feel like she's 100% calibrated yet but that's to be expected after short preseason that was interrupted by a USWNT camp leading directly into her first games as a rookie. Boston hasn't really had that key CAM for a while and you can see Lavelle's impact in calmly picking out Dowie on the goal against SBFC. Dowie does a great job moving into that space (also Sky Blue...what were you doing, friendo?) and Lavelle just puts the ball at her feet. Simple. I think Lavelle will be more instrumental in this way over her flashier moves, although those are extremely nice too.
SaH: Boston still had a few shaky moments on defense in its second match, but also looked much more composed in game 2. How do you feel about the backline going into this weekend?
TBM: If Megan Oyster and Christen Westphal stay steady or even improve their partnership, then I think I rate Boston's chances at a shutout or very low scoreline pretty high. Allysha Chapman and Julie King also need to keep it tight and not get caught with space behind them. Chapman seems to be steadier on this for the moment; King was carrying an injury very late into preseason and overlapping with the start of the regular season. I'm not ready to say this should be the starting back four for every game since it's early days, but having a consecutive home game, giving them the chance to practice and settle on a familiar field, they really do have a lot of things in their favor for staying composed this weekend.
*** REVERSE ***
TBM: Seattle just beat Houston 5-1. What were the particular strengths of Seattle you felt helped them beat Houston?
SaH: Laura Harvey always says, "Goals change games." Seattle put those goals away against Houston, and did so at the right time. In addition, Seattle's midfield was much more dominant against Houston. Having Rumi Utsugi in the midfield allows Jess Fishlock and Christine Nairn to push higher up the field. Fishlock played more of a holding midfield role against Sky Blue, and the attack suffered because of it. Against Houston, Fishlock has seven shots, and five of them were on target. She also had 71 touches and 47 total passes. Fishlock is the key link between the defense and the attack, and it scares me to think what might happen if she misses games this season.
Houston also had so few attacking chances because Laura Harvey's defend-from-the-front style of play was executed really effectively last weekend. Instead of chasing the ball like the team did against Sky Blue, they broke up plays and limited balls into the midfield and up front. If Kealia Ohai or Rachel Daly can't get the ball early and often, they aren't going to have many chances. If Seattle can keep doing that, teams are going to have a really hard time finding the back of the net frequently.
TBM: How much of a game changer for Seattle is it having Rapinoe back at or near 100%?
SaH: It is so huge. Megan Rapinoe, when she is at her best, is the kind of player teams hate to defend. She is so unpredictable, and can whip in a cross or get a shot off when you least expect it. Her goal last week was absolutely ridiculous, and she has started to play with some of the swagger that made her such a threat in the 2015 Women's World Cup. While her touch was rusty in the first match, she found more of her form last week. She also found a nice rhythm with Reign FC left back Carson Pickett, and the two of them could prove to be a nightmare for opponents this year. If Rapinoe manages to stay healthy and mentally strong, she could put in an MVP-worthy season.
TBM: Is Haley Kopmeyer actually going to be the make or break player for Seattle? If not, who do you think is the key Seattle player to watch this weekend?
SaH: My short answer is that I hope she doesn't have to be. My longer answer is that I think Haley Kopmeyer is going to prove to the league how high her ceiling is this season. Week 1 wasn't an anomaly. Kopmeyer worked incredibly hard under Hope Solo, and even harder this offseason, to get prepared for this starting role.
Teams are going to find ways to pressure Reign FC's defense and get shots off, and it is a testament to Kopmeyer that goalkeeper wasn't a position that concerned fans in the offseason, where the squad lost a number of crucial starters. I'm not sure if she'll be a make-or-break player, but she will certainly put in a few more great saves for the highlight reel.
I think Christine Nairn could be a player to watch this weekend. She is still working into her role on this squad, but looked so much more comfortable against Houston. If Boston pays too much attention to Fishlock, Nairn will be waiting to pounce. In addition, her passing and vision should unlock some dangerous runs of players like Bev Yanez and Naho Kawasumi, who are both lethal in front of goal. If the Breakers give the Reign midfield too much time and space with the ball, they are going to get punished.
Seattle Reign kicks off against Boston on Saturday, April 29 at 4 p.m. PT. The game can be watched live on the go90 platform, which is available via the go90 app on iOS and Android phones; on the go90 website via your laptop or desktop; and on your TV via a casting service like Airplay or Chromecast. Here are streaming directions from last week.