By CAITLIN MURRAY
The National Women’s Soccer League is back – and not only will it be bigger, but its star power will be a little bit brighter.
As the NWSL welcomes the Houston Dash, an expansion team owned by Major League Soccer’s Dynamo, there will also be a fresh batch of U.S. Women’s National Team players debuting in the league. Players like Christen Press, Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg and Yael Averbuch will be making the jump from Sweden’s top league to the U.S. Soccer-operated NWSL.
The increased presence of the USWNT – bolstered by far fewer injuries than opening weekend last year – should only make the level of play even more competitive. Last year, the top three teams ended in a tie, showing the parity and tightness of the league. But while last year, Washington Spirit and Seattle Reign FC offered easy games for top teams, at least for much of the year, an aggressive offseason across the league means every matchup should be tough going into 2014.
On the operations side, in its second year with some growing pains out of the way, the NWSL promises more improvements. This week, the league announced all games will be streamed live via YouTube with high resolution, three-camera setups. Although kits will again be based on Nike stock designs, they will vary from team to team. And playing venues should be a step up for this year, most notably with Seattle Reign FC moving its home field to the city of its namesake and FC Kansas City leaving behind American football lines for a soccer-specific venue. Not to mention, all eight founding clubs and owners are returning for another year, a first for pro women’s soccer in the U.S.
But it all comes down to the nine teams fighting for the league title. Here’s a look at each as they head into the opening weekend, kicking off Saturday:
RECORD LAST YEAR- 11-6-5
HEAD COACH- Paul Riley
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Nadine Angerer, Amber Brooks, Veronica Boquete
OUTLOOK- After winning the league title, the Portland Thorns don’t need to get all that much better, but with Paul Riley taking the reins from Cindy Parlow Cone, who left the club over the offseason, that seems entirely possible. The Thorns were stacked with talent, being allocated Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, two of the best forwards in the world – but the team consistently underperformed and finished the regular season tied with two other teams. There were hints of discord within the squad as they failed to win, but Riley is the kind of coach that should squash that.
The Thorns, however, will be without Morgan – until at least until the end of May, according to Riley – after a rare stress reaction in her ankle. Luckily, they still have Sinclair and plenty of other talent, including Amber Brooks, Veronica Boquete and a stacked midfield. But the biggest offseason move may have been securing Nadine Angerer – who hours after the trade won the FIFA Player of the Year Award for an outstanding performance at last year’s Euro Cup. Although traded goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc was good, Angerer should be even better. If the Thorns can hold on until midfielder Tobin Heath returns from Paris Saint-Germain and Morgan recovers, the Thorns should have no trouble reaching the playoffs.
WESTERN NEW YORK FLASH
HEAD COACH- Aaran Lines
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Lydia Williams, Carli Lloyd, Samantha Kerr
OUTLOOK- The Flash seemed to do everything right up until the championship game last season. After falling to the Portland Thorns in an uncharacteristic home defeat for the league title, revenge has to be on the minds of the Flash. They will see their potent attacking trio of Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Samantha Kerr return to wreak havoc on defenses, with Lloyd coming off a year playing the best club soccer of her career.
But when it comes to their own defense, the Flash have already suffered their first bad break of the season. Adrianna Franch, arguably the best goalkeeper last season, tore her ACL in the club’s first preseason training. The Flash quickly brought in Lydia Williams, goalkeeper for Australia’s national team, but if she can’t be the difference-maker Franch was, it’ll be tough going for a team that lost two of its starting defenders, Estelle Johnson (retirement) and Alex Sahlen (pregnancy), during the offseason.
FC KANSAS CITY
HEAD COACH- Vlatko Andonovski
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Amy Rodriguez, Sarah Hagen
OUTLOOK- It was a clean sweep at last year’s year-end awards for FC Kansas City, with the club earning awards for rookie, goalkeeper, defender and coach of the year, plus the golden boot. But when it came to the biggest prize of all, the Blues fell short, falling in the playoffs semifinal to Portland. The team had put together some of the most attractive possession-style soccer in the league, but failed to finished out games. Clearly, 2014 will be about finishing the job.
League-leading goal-scorer Lauren Holiday returns, along with standout rookie Erika Tymrak, on-the-rise defender Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. But they’ve added U.S. national team forward Amy Rodriguez, who sat out last season to start a family, and Sarah Hagen, a U.S. national team player that spent last year with Bayern Munich. Andonovski hasn’t made radical changes, seeming to expect the quality of last season to mostly carry over. As some other teams have overhauled lines, it remains to be seen if FC Kansas City can keep up.
SKY BLUE FC
RECORD LAST YEAR- 10-6-6
HEAD COACH- Jim Gabarra
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Monica Ocampo, Kelley O’Hara
OUTLOOK- Last year was a season of two halves for New Jersey-based Sky Blue. They held the No. 1 spot and were undefeated for a long stretch – but then things started to fracture. They were decimated by injury, losing key players like Kelley O’Hara, Caitlin Foord and Lisa De Vanna, and had nothing in the tank by the time playoffs rolled around. But for this year, they’ve traded away De Vanna and it’s unclear who their target forward will be.
Monica Ocampo of the Mexican national team had a surprising standout season in 2013, scoring the club’s most goals, but forwards Maya Hayes and Jonelle Filigno are question marks, making their league debuts this year. Sophie Schmidt, one of the club’s top scorers, returns to the midfield, but it was often the speedy and aggressive play of De Vanna that helped create chances. Head coach Jim Gabarra had attempted to return O’Hara to forward, a position she had not played since college, with little to show for it goals-wise. If O’Hara returns to the flanks as an outside back that pushes forward this year, as she does with the U.S. national team, Sky Blue may end up getting more offensive help. Regardless, Gabarra’s strategy last year created a surprise contender without too many big names in the attack. But with the offseason shuffling of other clubs, it remains to be seen if his tactical plan will be enough.
RECORD LAST YEAR- 8-8-6
HEAD COACH- Tom Durkin
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Lisa De Vanna, Kristie Mewis
OUTLOOK- They traded away Sydney Leroux in the offseason – that may be the most important thing to say about the Breakers heading into 2014. They did bring in the super-speedy Lisa De Vanna as a target forward, but Leroux is arguably the best striker in the world right now. The question is, where will all their goals come from?
Joining Boston will be hometown girl Kristie Mewis, who had been mostly an outside back under ousted national team coach Tom Sermanni, but can send long-range rockets from the midfield. Early indications are Boston may use her in the midfield, which is where she will likely have the most impact. The ever-reliable flank midfielder Heather O’Reilly will return, but may need to be used as a striker as Boston looks thin on goal-scorers. With many of the other teams in the league acquiring big pieces and Boston trading away their biggest piece, they don’t look poised – at least not on paper – to improve upon their fifth-place finish last year, just missing the playoffs.
CHICAGO RED STARS
HEAD COACH- Rory Dames
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Christen Press,Vanessa DiBernardo, Julie Johnston
OUTLOOK- After what was mostly a lackluster season, Chicago are hoping some offseason moves (and their snazzy new kits, perhaps) will breathe new life into the club. Christen Press will become a major boost in both attack and marketing possibilities, areas where the Red Stars never seemed to find its footing last year. But Press will arrive late, waiting until her Champion’s League club is knocked out or wins the tournament in Europe, along with the Canadian national team’s Melissa Tancredi, who will be finishing school.
The Red Stars should have the pieces to carry them to the summer, when Press will likely join the team. They’ve drafted Vanessa DiBernardo, the Illinois standout midfielder, and Julie Johnston, who spent part of 2013 training with the U.S. Women’s National Team. Lori Chalupny, arguably one of the best players in the league, and first-round draft pick Zakiya Bywaters will return, anchoring Chicago as it hopes new blood will be enough to push them into the playoffs this year.
SEATTLE REIGN FC
HEAD COACH- Laura Harvey
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Sydney Leroux, Kim Little, Beverly Goebel, Nahomi Kawasumi
OUTLOOK– There isn’t a team that has gone through a more radical transition this offseason than the Reign. With a stroke of bad luck, they started the 2013 season with none of their allocated players from the U.S. Women’s National Team and mostly tried to avoid embarrassment, let alone make the playoffs. But general manager and head coach Laura Harvey had been on a mission ever since the season ended.
In easily the most aggressive wheeling-and-dealing of the league, the mission appears to be a success, at least on paper: Sydney Leroux, Kim Little, Beverly Goebel, Nahomi Kawasumi, plus Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe for the full season and a bunch of other solid players. The Reign are stacked with a deep bench and, so far, seem reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose. The challenge will be bringing the new pieces together and building chemistry. If they can manage that, look for the Reign to make a statement early on and prove that 2014 is going to be a very different season.
HEAD COACH- Mark Parsons
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Crystal Dunn, Renae Cuellar, Veronica Perez, Yael Averbuch
OUTLOOK- The thing about rock bottom is that the only place left to go is up. It’s hard to see the Spirit returning this year without improving on their dismal last-place record last season. But more importantly, they’ve overhauled their roster to add attacking pieces that were desperately missing. U.S. national team midfielder Yael Averbuch joins the league and the Spirit via allocation and two attacking Mexican national team players have been acquired, forward Renae Cuellar and midfielder Veronica Perez.
But there is no way to talk about Washington’s transformation without mentioning Crystal Dunn, the top overall draft pick for 2014. Dunn was brought onto the senior U.S. national team last year and hasn’t looked back. There, she’s been an outside back pushing high and working the flanks while serving as one the squad’s most solid defenders. For UNC, however, she’s played all over the field and proved very adept at a playmaking role in the attack. The question is, where will coach Mark Parsons use her? The answer to that question might be the key to the Spirit’s season.
HEAD COACH- Randy Waldrum
PLAYERS TO WATCH- Kealia Ohai, Brittany Bock, Becky Edwards
OUTLOOK- When the Houston Dash were given the gift of stealing 10 players from the rest of the league in an expansion draft, they opted to take just a single U.S. national team player – no national team players from Canada or Mexico – and the player they took, Meghan Klingenberg, will join late as she finishes a stint in the UEFA Champion’s League. How the team’s inaugural season goes will decide whether that was a mistake or not.
Led by Randy Waldrum, who was pulled away from a 15-year career coaching Notre Dame to join Houston, the Dash do have solid pieces across the field, if not any marquee players. They selected forward Kealia Ohai first in the college draft and are hoping she will be the key to the attack as she looks for a way to impress whoever the next U.S. Women’s National Team coach will be. They’ve also picked up forwards Ella Masar, Stephanie Ochs and Tiffany McCarty, who are all coming from disappointing seasons in the league last year. Waldrum clearly thinks he knows how to better use those players. Brittany Bock and Becky Edwards round out the midfield after both spending last year injured – and if they can stay healthy, they could be big pieces for Houston. But the NWSL is a tough league and it remains to be see if Waldrum built a squad ready to handle the other eight teams.
What are your thoughts going into the 2014 NWSL season? Who do you predict will make the players or which team will fall short of expectations? Which players will you be looking out for?
Share your thoughts below.