1. Jasmyne Spencer has been the key to Angel City FC’s defensive success

With all due respect to Angel City center back Vanessa Gilles, who has been amazing, Spencer’s work to limit danger from her flank has been the most important part of Angel City’s defensive success. Spencer, typically a forward, was asked by head coach Freya Coombe to drop back and fill-in at fullback or wingback.

Spencer’s combination of versatility, tenacity and awareness is what makes her a difficult player to beat. As a forward, she has exceptional dribbling skills and can turn the tables on anyone trying to attack her. She can also withstand variations of attack. Players have tried to beat her with pace (she’s quick too), physicality (good luck winning a shoulder to shoulder), long balls in behind (she reads the flight of the ball well and has tremendous recovery ability), and intricate passing (her awareness makes playing multiple passes around her risky). Without Spencer stepping into this role Angel City’s strong defensive performances wouldn’t be possible. 

2. San Diego Wave midfielder Taylor Kornieck’s hybrid role is devastating defenses

When San Diego Wave head coach recruited Kornieck to play in midfield I was worried. Ok fine more than worried, I was skeptical. Possibly immensely. In the Challenge Cup, Stoney played Kornieck in defensive midfield, but with the arrival of Australian midfielder Emily van Egmond, Kornieck and Stoney have found a compromise that’s working splendidly, and allowing Kornieck to use the full range of her unique skill set.

At 6’1, Kornieck is the tallest player in the NWSL. Wisely, Stoney has given her the green light to stay slightly deeper in the box, where her size makes her difficult to dribble around, creating transition opportunities. In exchange, she’s also been given license to dart into the box once possession is regained and delivered to a teammate in space. The threat has already created a bevy of shots at goal for Kornieck, USWNT forward Alex Morgan, and English forward Jodie Taylor. The trio are among the top 12 in total shots taken per 90 minutes, with Kornieck at 3.42, Taylor at 4.23 and Morgan leading the NWSL with 6.83(!!). (stats via FBref) 

3. Kansas City Current can’t score without Elyse Bennett

In Bennett’s first handful of matches as a professional, she led the NWSL Challenge Cup in assists with four across six appearances despite only three starts. But in Kansas City’s first regular season game, a 3-0 loss to Portland, Bennett largely played alongside the Current’s second XI, as head coach Matt Potter rotated heavily to focus on their Challenge Cup semifinal.

Bennett missed her team’s 2-0 loss to Houston Dash due to an injury, and the next game against Orlando Pride, the same goalless pattern unfolded until Bennett stepped on the pitch in the 62nd minute. Sixteen minutes later she scored an equalizer to make it 1-1, and thirteen minutes after that Bennett assisted Kristen Hamilton to give Kansas City their first lead of the season. Orlando won and converted a late penalty to steal a draw, but Bennett’s impact was on full display. Her ability to beat players 1v1, balance to not get knocked off the ball, and vision to pick passes in the final third sharpen an otherwise, so far, lackluster attack. 

4. Rookie midfielder Sam Coffey is the passing engine of the Portland Thorns’s new system

New manager Rhian Wilkinson is trying something different with the Portland Thorns. Instead of the fly-around-and-cause-ruckus team we’re used to, they’re playing a conservative three back system that frequently functions as a back five. To do this successfully, and still pose threats offensively, you need to have exceptional and intelligent attacking talent (which they have in Christine Sinclair and Sophia Smith), and a highly functional midfield. The latter part is where Sam Coffey comes in.

Portland are just two regular season games in, but Coffey has shared deeper midfield duties with Japanese international Hina Sugita in the opener, and Costa Rica midfielder Racquel ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez in their second match. The rookie sports the highest pass success rate among them, at 83.3%. That number wasn’t achieved with back passes either, only 13.2% of passes are behind her (Sugita and Rodriguez are both at 19 or above). Instead, Coffey moves the ball left (28.2%) to right (30.8%), and has a respectable chunk of forwards passes too, at 28.8%. For longtime NWSL-watchers, Portland’s new style will take time to get used to. But with Sam Coffey already displaying a knack for protecting the ball and setting tempo, the Thorns may be closer to finding the balance of measured and dangerous that makes teams difficult to beat.

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