When the Boston Breakers showed signs of emerging from their years-long whirlpool of suck last season thanks to the tireless efforts of head coach Matt Beard and a slightly hodgepodge roster, a ripple went through the fanbase. A tiny one to be sure - these are fans who are used to losing, often and in a myriad of ways. So a couple of wins at the tail end of 2016 weren’t nearly enough to convince everyone that things were different. But you could sense change on the horizon, change that swept in as Beard gutted a roster he partially inherited from predecessor Tom Durkin and entered a college draft with a firmer grasp on the NCAA. Boston picked up #1 draft pick Rose Lavelle, along with a whole host of promising rookies, brought in some talented internationals, and began working on gelling as a team that can attack smoothly from multiple sources while staying confident in front of a solid back line, all backstopped by a good keeper in Abby Smith, recovered from knee injury.
We’re now halfway through the 2017 season and things haven’t exactly panned out the way Beard wanted them to. It’s taken a bit longer for players to really gain confidence in each other - perhaps to be expected with so many new players from different sources - and the roster has been struck with plenty of injuries and suspensions. Allysha Chapman out for yellow card accumulation here; Megan Oyster with a knee sprain there. And perhaps most prominently, Rose Lavelle knocked out for four to six weeks with a hamstring injury after being exhausted by Jill Ellis in the most recent FIFA window, when the United States traveled to take on Sweden and Norway in early June.
“We’ve obviously had to change the way that we play because Rose is a player that can create something,” said Beard after the Breakers tied Chicago at home on July 7. “And what I mean by that is she can beat someone on the dribble, she can ghost past players; we’ve seen it for the national team and we’ve seen it earlier in the season for us. We’ve had to change Natasha [Dowie]’s role slightly. She’s coming a little bit deeper for us, clearing the space for the wide players to get in beyond or Rosie White. Just trying to find different ways to break team’s presses, and I think defensively the team’s done a good job.”
Boston’s record over the first 12 games of the 2017 season is 3-6-3 with nine goals for and 14 goals against. In 2016, which was a 20-game schedule, at the halfway point Boston was 1-8-1 with two goals for and 22 against. Boston finished 2016 with 14 goals for and 47 against. If they can double goals for and halve goals against, that would be progress, and assuming no more bad injuries strike, it could be possible.
But Boston will definitely need Rose Lavelle back and she’s likely not looking at a return until after the Tournament of Nations at the end of the month. As of the Chicago game, Beard called Lavelle “three or four weeks away,” putting her earliest return at August 4, when Boston takes on FC Kansas City at home. Hopefully neither Lavelle nor Ellis try to push her recovery for the ToN; her spot in the roster seems relatively secure for a new player and the tournament isn’t a significant international event that would require someone to attempt an early comeback.
Meanwhile, the Breakers have also lost Amanda DaCosta and Emilie Haavi to the Euros, which run July 16 through August 6. One or both could return sooner than August 6, depending on how Portugal and Norway perform respectively (knock on wood), but it’s just safer to assume they won’t be back until Boston’s August 12 away game against the Washington Spirit.
“I think we should be in a better position,” said Beard. “I said to the girls at the end today, the positive we can draw on: we’ve kept another clean sheet. That’s three in a row now. That’s another point on the board.”
To be sure, clean sheets are a good sign. The Breakers defense, despite shifting players around from game to game, has let in one goal over the past four games after letting in nine in the four games before that. But they need to put the ball in the back of the net too, and the move for Dowie to adjust for Lavelle’s absence has undoubtedly hurt the offense. On the flipside, Morgan Andrews looks more and more settled in the role with each game and will be carrying on for at least a few games more. If at least one more rookie can step up - probably Midge Purce - and get on the same wavelength, Boston should be good for more goals. Still, that’s a big ask from a rookie, and there should be as much or more pressure on an experienced forward like Adriana Leon to start putting balls away. Without a doubt Leon has had good games on the right for Boston, but her constant one-on-one battling needs to translate into more assists and shots on goal.
Besides goals, the other measure of Boston’s progress will be where they end up in the standings. The league is fairly tight right now, so Boston sitting at ninth is not, at the moment, an indictment of the changes Beard has made. It would take three points for Boston to jump to sixth. Even last-place Washington could make a mad dash for the playoffs with four or five wins in the back half. Boston has 11 games left to play, and Beard pointed out that many of them will be against teams that are “in and around where we are in the standings” as opposed to last year’s playoff teams like North Carolina, Chicago, and Portland, who comprised seven of Boston’s first 13 games.
“Look, we’ve got more points than what we had on the board for the whole last season so that’s a positive for me to take in the right direction,” said Beard. “For me the most important thing is that we keep our head above water, and if we finish mid-table it’ll be a great achievement for the amount of changes we’ve made as a club personnel-wise.” Boston finished 2016 with 11 points in 20 games. They had 15 points in 20 games in 2015.
“It was never going to be easy,” said Beard of his 2017 rebuild. “I said at the start of the season we’re going to have highs and lows, and I think we’ve responded to that tough period and we’ve lost some of our best players in that tough period. We lost Megan Oyster, we lost Allysha Chapman, Rose Lavelle. And we’ve come through that now. Hopefully we’re turning the corner. We can continue to be a team that can pick points up.”
So where does that leave Boston? Perhaps Beard’s metaphor of head above water is a bit depressing as other teams are actually freestyling their way towards a finish line, but considering the team was previously drowning, treading water doesn’t seem too bad. The pressure is still on, though. Boston must finish mid-table, and they need Rose Lavelle healthy through the back end of the season. But at least all that seems within reach, a life preserver close at hand instead of storm-tossed away while the team sinks into the abyss.