NWSL Snap: Lorneball, and staying "humble"

What's behind Lorne Donaldson's revolution in Chicago? And, just how hard is it to turn the tables on San Diego

NWSL Snap: Lorneball, and staying "humble"
Julia Bianchi celebrates scoring the opening goal for the Chicago Red Stars | Melissa Tamez, USA Today

Note: Welcome to 'NWSL Snap' ā€“ A weekly Monday morning whip-around of the weekend's action, talking points & nonsense from the U.S. league. Expect quick updates, curious notes, and some standout statistics. It is included in the FREE Squad Depth subscription.

NWSL Matchday Two Results:
Orlando 1-1 ACFC || Utah 2-1 NCC || Chicago 2-1 Seattle
Wash. Spirit 2-1 Bay || Houston 0-0 Louisville
San Diego 2-1 KCC || Thorns 0-1 Gotham

Watch NWSL highlights here

The Snapshot

Looking at the league table before the third week of a football season should be illegal. Most years, I would say hide it away at all costs. Bury it.

But the nascent 2024 NWSL table is curious and noteworthy. If only because, for now, it has flipped the league on its head.

As of Monday morning, the clubs that sit first and second, the Chicago Red Stars and the Kanas City Current, are the same duo that finished bottom of the league in 2023.

The two Midwestern clubs are also the only two teams to follow up Week One wins with any points whatsoever in Week Two ā€” a nod to the beautiful and hectic competition that is the NWSL.

Chicago's Lorne Donaldson made it two wins from two to start his NWSL coaching career. And his approach to winning matches is making some noise. Enter "Lorneball".

The former Jamaica national team head coach, and influential Colorado youth soccer director, had a reputation for making his teams hard to beat, absorbent, and structurally sound.

Concede possession. Get the off-the-ball fundamentals spot on. Stay compact. Force them wide. Hold the lines. This is the way.

And, that patented "Lorneball" appears to be very present with the Red Stars almost instantaneously. Especially with a masterstroke of offseason signings at centreback. The partnership of new arrivals, Sam Staab and Natalia Kuikka, in the middle has worked wonders.

"Defensively, we were organized," Donaldson analyzed after the win. "We trust them. We trust the backs, and we trust the way we work, the way we defend.

Whilst last week's three points came against an expansion side, a first-time head coach, Amy Rodriguez, and a young starting XI, the same could not be said on Saturday.

A hard-nosed win over Seattle, and one of the greatest NWSL coaches ever, Laura Harvey, is an impressive feat. Having to defend a lead, and not buckling under pressure is not often a quickly acquired skill.

"Foxhole mentality"

Last week, Chicago needed goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to be at her best as Utah drew a blank from 2.2 xG. The same could not be said this time around. Limiting the Reign to 0.9 xG, with just 0.17 of that xG coming after going up 2-1. That shows just how much Donaldson's team was able to shut down the affair with the points on the line.

The jury's out if Chicago can do this every week. With an average of 35.5% possession and one goal conceded from an xGA of 3.1, there's a chance the pressure becomes too much later on in the season.

But right now, the team believes in the tactics. Chicago is winning their battles, fighting for every ball and each other in a 4-4-2, with wingers helping out the full backs.

"I mentioned to them you know, when you go to war, and you get in a foxhole...we have to defend each other when a person steps up in the foxhole. When we're in trouble, it's like a foxhole mentality. We have to work for each other," Donaldson theorized.

In fact, Seattle required a filthy 'goal of the week' nominee from Ji to get past Naeher on the day. The stunning strike from the South Korean was impossible to save. Sublime technique kept the ball looping up, before then dropping in the top-corner and kissing the post.

"Get the win, leave humble"

After lifting the 2024 Challenge Cup, San Diego threw away an early 1-0 lead to drop all the points in their regular season opener to Kansas City.

Celebration queen Lo Labonta, who scored the winning penalty in the 71st minute, surprised fans when she kept things tame as the Current marched out of California with the win. She told media after the match that head coach Vlatko Andonovski had wanted the team to keep things "humble" on the road.

"One thing, Vlatko kind of said is he wanted us to come in here humble and like come in quiet, you know, get the win, leave humble," Labonta remarked.

"And I think immediately after I scored that PK, I was like, 'oh man, do I do it?' But yeah, you know, it might be safe for the home games. It depends on what the theme is of the day. But yeah, first one of the year and next time for sure."

This will spark a debate about "killing the fun" in the NWSL. Celebrations are a huge part of the game and what makes players and moments, memorable and special. Something I also spoke to Amy Andrews about earlier this year.

But, life is about variety. LaBonta has range. She can be humble one day, brash the next. I don't really have a problem with the midfielder toning it down every now, so long as she then cranks it back up another time. If anything it shows how much she wants to perform in front of those raucous home fans. Never become predictable.

A good weekend for: Rookies

Bay FC couldn't couldn't find the magic twice, being undone in Washington D.C. by two first-ever NWSL goals from rookies Hal Hershfelt and Croix Bethune.

The latter summoned a spell over the ball in a crowded box to finish between the legs of Lysianne Proulx in stoppage time. Something we might get very used to from the attacking midfielder.

On the other hand, Hershfelt, a defensive midfielder in the 'destroyer' mold, curled an unlikely screamer across the goalie on her right foot into the top left-hand corner. Chapeau.

Croix Bethune delivers a special moment in the 95th minute | Courtesy of the Washington Spirit

Explosive last week against Houston, extraordinarily North Carolina centreback Malia Berkeley had two penalty kicks saved in the space of three second-half minutes by Mandy Haught, who was making her club-debut for the Royals.

Rookie Ally Sentnor rocketed her first professional goal in from the left wing after initially picking up the ball in her own half and carrying it 40 yards! (Bloody hell).

The Utah winger's dribbling style is fascinating. The ball first skips at a startling pace, like she is going to take a heavy touch that never comes. Swiftly it transitions to close whispery prods. Bear with me, but she moves the ball like a conversation sounds. Squabbling. Quiet. Stream of consciousness.

More than anything, the angle that she chooses to shoot from, and the skill on the strike, exemplified why she was the first overall pick in the 2024 Draft. A belter.

Random stat to know: Rarely not riding the Wave

"I think you build on the positives and you take the disappointment, it's absolutely normal to lose," San Diego head coach Casey Stoney evaluated after the weekend's defeat. But the style of the defeat wasn't totally "normal."

Only twice before in Wave history (since 2022, all under Stoney) have the club lost a match in which they had the lead.

The first occurrence was during the 2022 NWSL Playoffs at Providence Park, against the Portland Thorns. The Wave went 1-0 up through a Taylor Flint goal before being overtaken by worldies from first Rocky Rodriguez, before halftime, and then Crystal Dunn, in the final seconds of the match.

The second time was a 3-1 defeat to the Orlando Pride at Snapdragon Stadium, in San Diego, on the 30th of April 2023. Jaedyn Shaw scored early, but then it was one-way traffic. The Floridians had a lead by the interval, and Adriana added the killer blow in the second half.

Thus, Saturday's 2-1 defeat to the Current was just the second time the Wave have lost a home game in which they had the lead. Rare.

NWSL Feels XI ā€“ Matchday Two

Sort of like a team of the week ā€“ mostly gut feels, and who brought the vibes