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The Week In Women’s Football: Portland Thorns clinch NWSL shield ahead of Washington Spirit

This week we wrap up the NWSL regular season and review the ten team's highs and lows and set up next week's playoff semi-finals.

We review the teams in order of finish.

NWSL 2016 Regular Season Summary

Portland Thorns (1st)

Record:12-5-3 (W-D-L) for 41 points

We all knew that former Chelsea assistant coach Mark Parsons was a talented coach, taking the Washington Spirit to the playoffs during both of his two full seasons for the Capital City squad (which plays in suburban Maryland), but his work in Portland could put him into future consideration for a national team job. The Thorns clinched the regular season title (NWSL Shield) with a 3-1 road win over Sky Blue in the last game of the season, leap-frogging his former side for first—the Spirit had entered the game with a one standing point advantage. Acquiring Danish international Nadia Nadim at the NWSL college draft form Sky Blue was a brilliant move; the medical school student was an ever-present and contributed 9 goals (4th in the league) and 3 assists. She took the pressure off of Christine Sinclair, occupied with Canada's Bronze Medal Olympic Games run, who still had an impactful season with 6 goals and 2 assists in 11 games. The Thorns midfield is simply loaded; American World Cup winner midfielder Tobin Heath was mesmerizing at times, with only 1 goal but a league-leading 10 assists; U.S. Rio Olympic Games members Allie Long chipped in 6 goals and 2 assists while Lindsey Horan scored 5 times, while Amandine Henry of France oozes class in midfielder, even though it doesn't show on the stats sheet (1 assist in 9 games). Icelandic international Dagny Brynjarsdottir (ex-Florida State and Bayern Munich) had 5 goals and 1 assist in her first season in the league. The Thorns will be expected to win their second league title during the playoffs, repeating their crown won in 2013 in the league's first season. The average attendance of 16,945 (from a league average of 5,558) with one sell-out of 21,144 for their 3-2 win over the Western New York Flash on September 11, continues to position Portland as the best drawing women's club side in the world.

Washington Spirit (2nd)

12-3-5 for 39 points

Replacing Portland-bound head coach Mark Parsons was always going to be a challenge and Jim Gabarra's three years at Sky Blue FC were largely disappointing, with only one semifinal appearance in 2013. Those who wrote off the Spirit failed to remember one thing: Gabarra is the Pied Piper of Women's Football in D.C., earning league titles in WUSA (2003) and W-League (2007). Even more amazing, NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn had only 2 goals and 5 assists in 13 games in 2016, after scoring 15 times last season, though she continued to score consistently with the national team. Midfield stalwarts Joanna Lohman (4 goals, 1 assist), Canadian international Diana Matheson (4 goals) and Christine Nairn (3 goals and 3 assists) were all productive in midfield while Argentinian import Estefania Banini led the front line (5 goals and 1 assist in only 13 matches). Katie Stengel (ex-Wake Forest) returned from a successful spell at Bayern Munich and had a solid season (4 goals and 1 assist). In goal, Canadian Olympic Team starter international Stephanie Labbe (ex-University of Connecticut and played with Pitea and Orebro in Sweden) and American Kelsey Wys (ex-Florida State and WNY Flash) split the duties to good effect, with 0.88 goals-against-average in 8 games and 1.17 goals-against-average in 12 games, respectively.

Chicago Red Stars (3rd)

9-6-5 for 33 points

This could be the Red Stars year with 2016 U.S. Olympic team members Christen Press (8 goals in 14 games) leading the frontline while Alyssa Naeher (ex-Penn State and Turbine Potsdam in Germany) had a 1.00 GAA in 13 games and had a huge impact on her defense, which finished tied with F.C. Kansas City for the second-best defense in the league (20 goals) and one behind Portland (19 goals). Naeher came to Chicago in an offseason trade from the Boston Breakers. Mexican-American forward Sofia Huerta again had a strong year (7 goals, 2 assist) but is seemingly always out of the limelight that Press attracts/demands. Vanessa DiBernardo supplied 7 assists and, though she didn't score, she showed dynamic goal scoring prowess with Perth Glory in the Westfield W-League last winter; scoring 6 times after joining Perth in mid-season. DiBernardo should be brought into the national team setup soon—she could also play for Italy and Argentina through FIFA's parentage rule—though she emphasized to this author a few years ago that her priority was to play for the Americans. Head Coach Rory Dames has directed the Red Stars since they entered the NWSL in 2013. The side played their first full season in Toyota Park—the Chicago Fire's (Major League Soccer) dedicated soccer field and actually saw an decrease in attendance over last year of about 1,000 per game (3,005 in 2016 compared with 4,210 in 2015 at suburban Benedictine College Stadium in Lisle, Illinois). That field was artificial turf and the move into a grass field and a professional soccer-dedicated stadium should result in stronger crowds in the future, particularly if they add onto their now two year run into the playoffs. The Red Stars are a good bet to spring a surprise in their road semifinal match in Washington, where they won this past weekend (3-1), on goals by Press, Huerta and Cara Walls.

Western New York Flash (4th)

9-5-6 for 32 points

The Flash was a tremendous scoring force and led the league with 40 goals scored, led by two of the top three scorers in the league in Lynn Williams (11 goals) and Jessica McDonald (10 goals). Paul Riley's unpleasant departure from Portland turned into a triumphant return to the East Coast, where he took the Philadelphia Independence of WPS to two consecutive title games. Recording only one win in their last eight games (but with five ties) derailed their chance of hosting a semifinal--for the top two finishers in the regular season.

Seattle Reign (5th)

8-6-6 for 30 points

Former Arsenal head coach Laura Harvey surely will view this season—missing the playoffs by 2 points--as a disappointment and will re-energize this team in 2017. A slow start and distractions—Hope Solo quitting late after her suspension but still hanging around the team and Megan Rapinoe's national anthem protests—didn't help. The Reign did bring back popular Japanese international Nahomi (known locally as Naho) Kawasumi (3 goals and 2 assists in 10 games) and impressive new import Dutch international Manon Melis from Sweden's Malmo, Linopkings and Goteborg (7 goals and 2 assists in 16 games). Scottish international Kim Little (6 goals 2 assists) and Jess Fishlock (1 goal and 4 assists) had down years by their high standards and one wonders if their title run in Australia's Westfield W-League last winter with Melbourne City sapped some of their energy for the longer NWSL season.

The average game attendance improved from 4,602 from 4,060 last season and has shown substantial improvement over 2,306 fans in 2013—when they shared a suburban stadium with the then W-League Seattle Sounders Women--and 3,666 in 2014 when their play improved on the field and they moved to central Seattle's iconic Memorial Stadium Sounders Women dropped down to WPSL after the W-League folded last season and the considerable confusion to some fans as to which team was in the top league, in part because of the Sounders (MLS) name and that the Sounders Women had been existence for years, seems to have largely disappeared.

FC Kansas City (Eq. 6th)

7-5-8 for 26 points

FC Kansas City will not defend its two consecutive NWSL titles, but Vlatko Andonovski is too savvy of a coach to not quickly rebuild for 2017. This season was always going to be tough after the retirement of Lauren Holiday (a former league MVP and Golden Boot winner in 2013 in midfield). Scoring was the major problem with only 18 goals total—second from bottom ahead of Boston Breakers (14 team goals) but second year forward Shea Groom was outstanding with 8 goals, followed by Yael Averbuch (3 goals) and Tiffany McCarty (2 goal and 4 assists). Former national team goalkeeper U.S. Nicole Barnhart was excellent with a 1.00 GAA and the side surrendered only 20 goals, two behind the leaders Portland, who allowed only 18 all season.

Sky Blue FC (Eq. 6th)

7-5-8 for 26 points

The Central New Jersey franchise fell short of a playoff berth but Irish coach Christy Holly turned a struggling franchise around (last year they finished 8th of 9 sides 5-7-8 W-D-L) and just missed a .500 season for wins and losses. Rookies English national team pool player Leah Galton (3 goals, 4 assists) and Costa Rican international Raquel Rodriguez (1 goal 1 assist) supported Australian international Samantha Kerr, who had 5 goals in 9 games. Sky Blue should have Kerr for most of 2017 with no Matilda's major tournaments on tap and she is galvanizing in attack and just turned 24. World Cup veteran Christie Rampone (41) was ever present this season, with no Olympic Games commitment, and was strong in defense. This team still needs an international caliber forward and midfielder; then they should contest a playoff spot in 2017.

Houston Dash (8th)

6-4-10 for 22 points

The MLS-owned Dash is solid off the field with an average attendance of 5,696 for third in the league and was named early in the season as the host of the 2016 NWSL final after the city and stadium hosted CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers in February of this year. Forward Kealia Ohai will receive many votes for Player of the Year after finishing with 11 goals and 4 assists—tied for the league lead in goals with Lynn Williams of the Flash. Ohai seemed at times to be more influential than the 2015 World Cup winners, Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian, though they were limited with Olympic team duties. Ohai won a U-20 World Cup title in Japan in 2012 and scored the only goal in the final against Germany but she has not been capped at the senior level, but she should see time in the future; however, an extended run by her with the nats will hurt the Dash. She was vocal and became a leader this season, keeping the team together despite a run of six consecutive 1-0 losses mid-season that effectively finished them off. English international Rachel Daly (4 goal and 4 assists) and Irish international Denise O'Sullivan (2 goals and 2 assists) were impactful as well. The Dash is strong at goalkeeper with Australian international Lydia Williams starting and Mexican international Bianca Henninger as backup.

What this team needs—flat out—is a coaching change, more so than any other NWSL side, who mostly could stand pat and had a number of first year coaches (i.e. Boston, Sky Blue, Orlando, Washington, Portland, Western New York). Randy Waldrum has coasted on his two national titles from 14 years at Notre Dame and, for the third season, the Dash goes home early. Waldrum has always wanted to coach a national team and his part-time gig for over a year with Trinidad and Tobago split his attention with some dissatisfaction from both T&T and Dash followers. Sunday's disaster of a home final, when they surrendered a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 in the final 30 minutes against Seattle Reign—a team they had never defeated—really sums up the tenure of Waldrum. Players have seemed to tune him out and he overpromises and under-delivers.

Orlando Pride (9th)

6-1-13 for 19 points

The expansion side Pride started brightly and was second in the league in attendance with 8,875 a game, to finish second behind Portland (16,945). Former U.S. and Australian national team coach Tom Sermanni has some talent on the side with World Cup winners Alex Morgan (4 goals and 1 assist in 15 games) up front and Ashlyn Harris (1.33 GAA in 15 games) in goal. Midfielder Kristen Edmonds (6 goals and 2 assists in 19 games) was stellar, highlighted by her phenomenal two late goals in injury time to turn around a home game against Boston (2-1). Australian international Lisa De Vanna was a good late season pickup who should help in 2017. A playoff miss in 2016 for the Pride was acceptable; in 2017 it could be fatal to Tom Sermanni's coaching tenure there—sad as that is—since the team was always entertaining to watch.

The Boston Breakers (10th)

3-2-15 for 11 points

The Beantown franchise finished dead last under former Liverpool head coach Matt Beard. This season was not a reflection of Beard's coaching ability but rather indicates how truly poor the team was that he inherited. The introduction of former Reds American goalkeeper Libby Stout (2.10 GAA in 10 games) and English international forward Natasha Dowie were quality additions. Dowie led the team in scoring with three goals despite joining late and playing in only 7 matches. Defender and U.S. youth international Kassey Kallman (ex-Florida State University) and U.S. international Kristie Mewis (who has played club ball in Australia, Germany and Japan) are strong bases to build upon but Beard really needs to add more international quality players—he has the international contacts to do this--along with key American reserves.

2016 NWSL Semi-finals are set

The semifinals next weekend see the Washington Spirit host Chicago Red Stars on Friday, September 30 and the Portland Thorns entertain the Western New York Flash and their former coach Paul Riley on Sunday October 2, before what should be a packed house in the Rose City.

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribalfootball. His latest book is Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

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